Sunday, December 11, 2005



HEMEL HEMPSTEAD, England - Explosions at one of Britain's largest oil depots jolted an area north of London early Sunday, hurling multiple balls of fire into the sky, shattering windows and blanketing the area with smoke. Police said the blasts, which injured 36 people, appeared to be accidental.

But the powerful explosions felt throughout a large swath of southeast England including London, 25 miles away, rattled nerves in a country still jittery over terrorism after deadly transit bombings in July killed 52 people and four suicide bombers.

The oil depot is near Luton Airport and some residents reported hearing an aircraft flying low overhead shortly before the first explosion at around 6 a.m. But police said there was nothing to suggest a plane was involved.

"All indications at this stage are that this was an accident," said Frank Whiteley, chief of police in Hertfordshire, the county where the depot is located. "However, clearly we will keep an open mind, as with all investigations, until we can confirm that for certain."

Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups have threatened to target fuel depots.

Police said 36 people were injured, four of them seriously.

"Around 6 a.m. as we were sleeping, there was a mighty explosion — a thunderclap that woke me up," said Neil Spencer, 42, who lives less than a mile from the terminal. "It was fireball after fireball — truly amazing."

Police said many roads and highways had been closed.

"There was a loud boom and the house shook violently," said Duncan Milligan, of Hemel Hempstead, who said the blast woke him up. "I am about three miles from where the explosion took place but I can see flames high in the sky and smoke billowing everywhere. There is clearly a building on fire near the motorway and police and emergency services are everywhere."

Local resident Richard Ayers said a massive column of smoke rose into the air and said the force of explosions had blown the roofs off houses near the oil depot.

"It is like it is doomsday," he told the BBC.