1 June is the 40th anniversary of the Flixborough disaster, an explosion at a chemical plant sited on the banks of the River Trent in Lincolnshire. It was the biggest explosion to ever occur in Britain (during peacetime), until the fire at the Hertfordshire oil storage terminal (Buncefield) in December 2005. At Flixborough, 28 workers were killed and 36 others onsite suffered injuries. Outside the works, injuries and damage occurred on a widespread scale but there were no fatalities. It was recognised that the number of casualties would have been even higher had the incident occurred on a weekday.
The explosion was estimated to be equivalent to 16 tonnes of TNT and the subsequent fires raged for ten days. A considerable amount of property was destroyed in Flixborough and the surrounding villages, and the explosion was heard over 30 miles away in Grimsby. The Atomic Weapons and Research Establishment at Aldermaston produced a report on the infrasonic and seismic waves which resulted.
The plant, owned by Nypro UK, produced caprolactum, a chemical used in the manufacture of nylon. Some two months before the disaster, a crack was found in one of the reactors. A pipe was installed to bypass the leaking reactor so that the plant could continue production. During the late afternoon on 1 June 1974 the temporary bypass pipe ruptured, and a huge quantity of cyclohexane leaked from the pipe, forming a vapour cloud which then found a source of ignition. The massive explosion destroyed the plant. Eighteen fatalities occurred in the Control Room as a result of the windows shattering and the roof collapsing.
The official report into the accident (published in 1975) found that the bypass pipe had failed because of unanticipated stresses in the pipe during a pressure surge – the pipe had been inadequately supported, and the modification had been made without a full assessment of all the potential factors. Following the disaster there was a huge public debate about the safety of industrial plants and regulations regarding industrial processes were made considerably more rigorous – the newly formed Heath and Safety Commission took a close interest in these developments.
New theories about the causes of the disaster have been advanced since 1975, notably by engineer Ralph King and Dr John Cox. Ralph King suggested that a reaction between water (which had settled in one of the reactors) and the hot cyclohexane above it caused a massive rise in pressure that blew apart the piping. The causes of the disaster were complex (it is impossible to do justice to all the technical explanations here) and the debate continues.
The National Archives holds a great deal of documentation about the disaster and its aftermath, including numerous plans, drawings, photographs and witness statements as well as the Report of the Court of Inquiry. Witness statements include vivid accounts by onsite workers – powerful testimony describing the sudden descent into hellish conditions, and nightmarish experiences, such as this extract from a statement: ‘I felt the blast from a terrific explosion which had occurred somewhere behind me. The blast was such that it threw me full length across the road. Debris then began to fall all around me and I was covered with oil which fell out of the sky’ (LAB 104/387).
Evidence such as this conveys the horrific nature of that cataclysmic explosion 40 years ago – a terrible tragedy that had a major impact on health and safety practices in the UK.
[…] Flixborough, 1 June 1974 May 31, 2014 Filed In Journals & Publications 1 June is the 40th anniversary of the Flixborough disaster, an explosion at a chemical plant sited on the banks of the River Trent in Lincolnshire. It was the biggest… Go to Source « […]
I was stationed in RAF Scampton when the disaster occurred, and I certainly heard the explosion. Soon after, during an evening dance at RAF Scampton, the duty SNCO stopped the dance and called for volunteers to help with the disaster. Many of those Royal Air Force personal at the dance went to help and the local nurses that were there returned to their posts at Lincoln Hospital to help deal with the emergency.
My grandfather in Grimsby heard the explosion and thought it was very strange thunder. My other grandfather in Scunthorpe said it blew the front door open. I was a young child at the time and remember the veil of tragedy that fell over that part of Lincolnshire. One of the teachers at my school lost a relative in the explosion.
I remember that day very well,I was breaking a young pony at Barrow Haven near the bank of the Humber, a very loud explosion followed by a plume of smoke. There was a lot of discussion after as the chemical past though the local villages in tankers
I was News Editor of The Sunday Times when the explosion happened. We were between editions and cleared as much space as we could to cover it. We hired an aircraft from Biggin Hill for aerial photos and hit the phones. Fortunately, I had a technical report about Flixborough in a personal file I kept in the event of such crises. It contained graphic information about the plant which gave us an invaluable insight into its construction. It was so informative, we had an argument about whether to focus on the disaster itself or the possible causes of it. I won that skirmish with a more senior editor, a rare event, and look back on that tragic night satisfied that we did everything we could to beat the clock and the opposition.
Flixborough brings back memories of when I was Chartering Manager at British Steel Corporation and, until the new iron ore berth was completed at Immingham, in the early 70s we were forced to tranship iron ore at Rotterdam and bring it to Flixborough to feed the steel works at Scunthorpe.
We had a contract with a Hamburg firm and, if my aged memory serves me correctly, we were bringing in 30,000 tonnes a week in small coasters. We used to have one ship alongside and one or two waiting in the Humber to come up the Trent on the tide. Flixborough did us proud – a remarkable little port.
[…] National Archives: The Flixborough Disaster includes links to the official report on the tragedy, which you can also find […]
I was a serving police constable in Humberside Police and at the time of the incident
I was shopping in Baxtergate Doncaster with my family when we heard the explosion.
On returning home to Goole I was called in for duty and with other officers carried out
anti looting patrols through the night.
I was having tea at my Grandparents on that day,I was 12 and the pre-fab on the Nunsthorpe shook,we thought the oil refinery had exploded,when we found out it was Flixborough we were very worried because my Uncle Paul Norvock worked there,he was due to go in on the next shift so survived thankfully,still remember the twisted steel when we drove past weeks later
I was 9 years old and was on a merchant ship that was berthed by a pub on that late Saturday afternoon. I remember the blast rocked the ship and blew out car windscreens parked in the pub lit.
I was in the Flixborough explosion, I worked in the Sulphate of Ammonia plant.
Myself and a fellow worker Colin Shipley, made our way over to Flixborough wharf from where we were ferried up to Scunthorpe General Hospital.
Instead of receiving treatment, a senior police officer seeing us in white overalls decided we should go on traffic duty at the hospital entrance. Colin and I never got inside the hospital that day instead we spent two to three hours in shock at the front of the hospital. Years later and even now I feel a certain animosity towards that police officer.
I have published on my blog the last ever copy of the company magazine ‘Nypress’.
Also at the bottom of that page is a lament I composed for the 40th anniversary.
I’m reproducing that here for posterity.
Every June the 1st is always a reflective day for me.
Lament for the 28 souls of Flixborough.
we went to work and said hello,
recorded data high and low,
did litmus tests and cleaned out sumps,
turned on the ethanol transfer pumps,
as C.P.O’s we did our tasks and when required
wore safety masks
on our breaks we talked a lot
of football, films and vodka shots
a routine day was going well
then came the catalyst straight from hell
this was no genie with wishes three
this was Satan on a killing spree
a day to remember for ever more
was the first day of June in 74
it took no more than the blink of an eye
for twenty eight souls to fade and die
the carnage was cleared, goodbyes were said
we grieved and mourned and buried the dead
it’s forty years later, a time to reflect
when we the survivors should show our respect.
Further to my last comment, I also published on my blog the statement I gave to the police as well as my own feelings regarding the disaster.
There are also pictures from local and national newspapers on that same post.
I was involved in the construction of the plant working on the installation of the control instrumentation.
The use of nylon multitube for control was something different to most Petro Chem plants I had worked on, copper tubing was the most common method of supplying Instrument air to control valves etc.
In the case of the fire these nylon tubes would have failed rapidly thus losing control of some instrumentation and valves
Also, the position of the Control room was in the centre of the unit with large glass windows overlooking the plant (as I recall) which was not the correct location for a plant of this type, in my opinion