Anniversary of Hickson’s blast

Hickson and Welch blast, September 1992.
Hickson and Welch blast, September 1992.

TOMORROW marks the 20th anniversary of the devastating explosion at Castleford’s former Hickson and Welch plant which killed five people and injured hundreds more.

On the afternoon of September 21, 1992, a fireball ripped through the chemical plant’s control room killing two men instantly.

Hickson and Welch blast, September 1992.

Hickson and Welch blast, September 1992.

The flames continued their fatal path through the car park, destroying dozens of parked cars and decimating a four-storey office block.

Darryl Stanley, a former supervisor, rushed to the Wheldon Road site just after the tragedy occurred at 1.30pm.

Mr Stanley, of Leatham Crescent, Featherstone, said: “It was devastating, it was just bedlam. There was a lot of panic and emotion because people knew there were others in the fire and they wanted to get them out.

“It affected everyone. But I think it bought the company closer together – even though we lost five people in the fire, it was one of the best companies I worked for.

Hickson and Welch blast, September 1992.

Hickson and Welch blast, September 1992.

“This was an appalling, tragic accident.”

The disaster occurred when operators in the chemical plant’s control room cleaned a distillation tank known as ‘60 Still Base’ for the first time in 30 years.

Employees used metal rakes to clean sludge from the base of the container which contained nitrotoluene – a distant cousin of TNT – and were instructed not to allow its contents to heat above 90 degrees.

A report conducted by the Health and Safety Executive afterwards found the temperature probe did not reach the sludge and its reading was simply that of the atmosphere.

Hickson and Welch blast, September 1992.

Hickson and Welch blast, September 1992.

When the sludge became thermally unstable, it self-ignited, causing an “incandescent conical jet” to erupt from the vessel.

Father-of-three, George Potter, 54, and father-of-two David Wilby, 38, were killed instantly in the fire.

The other victims – John Hopson, Neil Gafney, 29, and 18-year-old Sara Atkinson – later died from their injuries.

Gordon Waddington, a former team leader for the company, assisted in taking a head count at the scene of the blast.

Hickson and Welch blast, September 1992.

Hickson and Welch blast, September 1992.

Mr Waddington, of Redhill Avenue, Castleford, said: “We were a close knit group at Hickson’s so there was a lot of anxiety and upset, especially as the numbers came in.

“The offices facing the still base were totally obliterated. I said to my friend, ‘has anyone seen George?’ and he said ‘don’t ask’.

“He knew George had been in the office. He knew what had happened. I don’t think it ever got back to normal after that.”

It took more than 100 firefighters and 22 appliances to battle the blaze which injured more than 200 people.

Hickson and Welch was fined £250,000 in 1993 for the deaths of its five workers, in what was described as a “major disaster – one of the most serious to have occurred in this country”.

Hickson and Welch blast, September 1992.

Hickson and Welch blast, September 1992.