Tribute paid to blast victims

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

A TRAUMATISED employee haunted by the explosion at Castleford’s Hickson and Welch chemical site two decades ago has paid tribute to his colleagues who died in the blast.

George Thomas, 62, was the supervisor overseeing the cleaning operation of Still Base 60 on September 21 1992 when a fireball erupted from the tank – killing five members of staff.

George Thomas was a supervisor in the control room the day a still base exploded and killed five people in 1992.

George Thomas was a supervisor in the control room the day a still base exploded and killed five people in 1992.

Mr Thomas, of West Park Homes, Darrington, said the memory of seeing his friends burnt beyond recognition from the control room disaster has tortured him ever since.

He said: “The noise was like a jet engine at the side of your ear. I remember running and I saw this column of flame go up. It was unbelievable.

“I went into auto pilot. I was checking the clock cards to see who had gone and who hadn’t. I went down to the medical centre and they bought Neil Gafney in.

“He was semi-conscious, he was burnt all over. He had glass embedded in his head. I went in the other room and there was a guy laid on a bed.

“I couldn’t recognise him, so I bent over him and picked a name. I said ‘John’ and his eyes opened. He was in so much pain.”

Mr Thomas said he spoke to each of the four men just minutes before the blast and had only just left the room himself when the tragedy occurred.

Father-of-three George Potter, 54, and father-of-two Dave Wilby, 38, were killed instantly in the blast, which occurred after employees raked out nitrotoluene – a distant cousin of TNT – from the base of the cylinder, which over-heated and self-ignited.

The other victims – John Hopson, Neil Gafney, 29, and 18-year-old Sara Atkinson – died from their injuries after flames ravaged the control room and decimated a nearby office block.

Mr Thomas said: “I went across to the base to see what work had been done. John came up and said ‘Remember 66’ which was a reference to a still base which blew up in the 80s.

“John asked why we were using metal rakes because he didn’t like it – I said the managers were on dinner so I couldn’t raise his point and then left.

“Not long after, it blew.”

Mr Thomas – who has attempted suicide and endured eleven years of therapy to treat crippling post traumatic stress and depression – said he felt for years he was to blame for the explosion and still replays the events of the day “like a video” in his head.

He said: “When I saw that explosion, something left me and it’s never returned, even to this day.

“I felt I was to blame at the time. I was like a sergeant in the army and they had been soldiers and I had failed them that day.

“I want to say that I remember those people, that day, their families and all the devastating affect it had on them, and I want to wish them all the best.

“I know it was 20 years ago, but that was my life, and the people I knew have gone. I’ve never forgotten them, I will never forget them. They were like family.”