The massive blast was heard more than 300km away and measured 2.4 on the Richter Scale. It devastated the surrounding industrial estate, including the total or partial collapse of numerous commercial buildings but, miraculously, nobody was killed and only two people were seriously injured.

Today is the 16th anniversary of the explosion at the Buncefield oil depot and, with the help and kind permission of Hertfordshire Fire Museum in Watford, we are looking back to what has been described as the largest incident of its kind in peacetime Europe.

Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service’s control centre in Stevenage received the first of more than 60 calls at 6.02am on Sunday, December 11, 2005 to an incident at the depot near the M1 in Hemel Hempstead. Another 150 calls were received at surrounding control centres.

At 6.10am, the officer in charge of the initial attendance from Hemel Hempstead, Sub Officer Jon Batchelor, declared a ‘major incident’.

Read more: Buncefield: The timeline of the biggest fire in peacetime Europe

As Blue Watch commander, Mr Batchelor was making the decisions as two fire engines quickly doubled to four as more reports came in as they sped to the industrial estate. But the only information available was ‘explosion Maylands Avenue, rear of Masons Road’.

“We didn’t know what we were going to and didn’t have an exact location,” Mr Batchelor said. “All these thoughts go through your head about what’s up there.

“I approached it by Boundary Way. It was a scene of absolute devastation. We were having to steer around window frames and debris in the road. It was like a war zone.

“I only knew it was Buncefield when I saw the tanks against the flames. I radioed up and declared a major incident. Once I called that I knew the cavalry would be coming soon.”

Watford Observer:

The smoke from the blast viewed from the M1. Picture: Robert Staniforth via Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 3.0

The crew drove to the main entrance where they learned that six people were missing, as some of the walking wounded were being helped into cars.

“The whole horizon was red,” Mr Batchelor said. “Flames were going 100ft into the air. There was false daylight from the fire and tanks were still exploding.

“The scenario we had planned for was one tank fire. We couldn’t believe the scale of it.

“There were 15 to 20 tanks alight. All the bunds were full of burning petrol. It was far bigger than anything else I had ever seen.”

Having decided there was no way they could fight the fire, Mr Batchelor and colleague Andy Walker went to try and turn on the depot’s firefighting system, only to find that had also been destroyed.

He said: “We couldn’t open doors because the walls were damaged. We smashed our way into rooms. Ceilings were down and there was rubble everywhere.

“There were chairs on the floor with reflective jackets on the back. We were looking through the rubble expecting to find dead or injured people.

“Another tank went off – it blew us off our feet.

“We searched all the other buildings. Everything looked as though people had been working there. It was eerie because no one was there.”

With reinforcements now arriving, plans were drawn up to fight the fire.

The disaster resulted in the first national mobilisation of fire and rescue services as Hertfordshire was supported by 31 other services from as far afield as North Yorkshire and West Wales.

A total of 53 million litres of water were put on the fire and 786,000 litres of foam concentrate were used to smother the flames.

The first foam attacks took place on December 13 and the tanks were extinguished two days later, although flare ups continued until the following weekend. The foam blanket was maintained until January 5.

Watford Observer:

A scene of devastation pictured in the days after the explosion. Picture: Simon Jacobs

“The smoke was like liquid tar,” Mr Batchelor reflected afterwards. “It was rolling up into the crystal air. It defiled the morning.

“I didn’t sleep for three days because the adrenalin was coursing through our veins.

“It was a superb logistic operation. Probably the biggest by the fire service in this country and it worked.

“For all of us it was the biggest job we have ever had and it will probably be the biggest one we will ever have.

“To say we were the first people at the biggest fire in Europe for 60 years is quite a big thing.”

The explosion left 80 companies, employing 4,000 people, without premises, while 200 other companies were disrupted.

The cost of fighting the fire was £6.75 million and it resulted in 30 million litres of fuel, worth £27 million, being lost.

Keep an eye on our website later today as we continue our look back at the anniversary with a timeline of the biggest fire in peacetime Europe.