“I am immensely proud of all firefighting staff and other agencies that cooperated magnificently to ensure an excellent resolution to this incident. There is now doubt that the local site pre-planning, tactical firefighting planning and the availability of regional and national assets contributed to what I consider to be a superb outcome to one of the most demanding incidents in living memory.”

Those were the words of Chief Fire Officer Roy Wilsher after the conclusion of a near three-week operation following the huge explosion at the Buncefield oil depot 16 years ago today.

The disaster was attended by 180 firefighters at its peak, with more than 80 per cent of Hertfordshire’s firefighters involved at the scene during the initial three days.

With the kind permission of the Hertfordshire Fire Museum in Watford, this is the timeline for the incident – from the explosion to the moment when it was officially declared close.

It is a long read but the detail underlines the enormity, complexity and danger of tackling what is thought to have been the biggest incident of its kind in peacetime Europe.

Read more: Buncefield 16 years on: A firefighter's story 

Sunday, December 11, 2005

06.02 – The first explosion occurs and the crews at Hemel Hempstead fire station hearing the blast, mobilise at the same time as the Hertfordshire Fire & Rescue Service (HFRS) Control began receiving emergency calls.

06.06 – The two crews from Hemel Hempstead approaching the scene see the smoke plume and exploding fireballs and make “pumps eight”.

06.11 – As they got nearer and able to assess the level of devastation, the extent of the fire and the associated smoke plume, the first attendance passes the assistance message: “This is declared a major incident.”

06.18 – Informative message: Major fire in tank farm of oil terminal approx. Six people missing, numerous casualties reported. Efforts being made to contact site management. Redeployment of firefighting service, access for oncoming appliances via M1 motorway, Breakspear Way, Buncefield Lane. Tactical Mode Delta.

06.24 – Rendezvous point set up directly outside the main gate of the site.

06.43 – Rendezvous point moved back to roundabout junction of Green Lane with Boundary Way.

06.45 – Rendezvous point moved back to the vicinity of Breakspear Park and Breakspear Way. HFRS Control Unit sited at the police motorway post close to M1 Junction 8.

06.46 – Metropolitan Police helicopter in attendance.

06.47 – Informative message: Minimum of six tanks well alight – at least two more damaged by explosion – Tactical Mode Delta – at least six persons unaccounted for.

06.58 – A half mile radius evacuation zone instituted. The M1 motorway is closed from the M25 junction to Junction 9. It reopens on Sunday evening, although Junction 8, the Hemel Hempstead turn off, remains closed until Friday, December 16.

07.06 – Following liaison with HFRS, Buckinghamshire Control contacts the main foam suppliers, Angus Fire, to alert them of the incident.

07.19 – HFRS Control Unit re-positioned at the roundabout of Green Lane and Breakspear Way.

07.20 – Site representatives have first liaison meeting with forward control.

07.21 – HFRS contacted by Angus Fire asking if they knew what foam was needed.

07.22 – First bulk foam supplies mobilised from Buckinghamshire FRS.

07.26 – Environment Agency informed.

07.33 – Two appliances and an aerial ladder platform ordered to the Northgate building. Informative message: Two pumps and LFf and ALP at factory fire – Flexi Officer required. A co-ordinated north to south search of the buildings between Boundary Way and Buncefield Lane commences.

07.47 – Deputy Chief Fire Officer (Mark Yates) takes command of the incident.

07.50 – The assistance of West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Authority requested by HMFSI Duty Officer, to establish the Fire and Rescue Service’s National Co-ordination centre (FRSNCC).

08.02 – Informative message: Approx 20 tanks believed involved in the fire – blast damage over a large area – search in progress of areas and buildings – no firefighting action, Tactical Mode Delta.

Watford Observer:

Picture: Simon Jacobs

08.05 – 189 – Media liaison required at scene.

08.10 – WRVS paged for refreshments.

09.20 – Informative message: As previous informative – numerous fires and blast damage – in surrounding areas of Boundary Lane and Maylands Avenue – further searches in progress – no firefighting action – Tactical Mode Delta.

11.07 – First covering sprays and cooling jets run out, but not charged, to cover the tanker loading gantry area and HOSL bunds D and E. Charged shortly after midday. Followed by the application of cooling jets to the BPA bund, specifically Tanks 4 and 7, and the HOSL east bund.

11.12 – Informative message: As previous, steady progress in searching area surrounding Boundary Way, Maylands Avenue and Three Cherry Trees Lane – fires under control in these areas – cooling jets being laid out around perimeter of tank farm – calculations for foam attack in progress – Tactical Mode Delta.

12.44 – Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service – welfare unit mobile to rendezvous point at Green Lane.

13.06 – FRSNCC, tasked with surveying all FRSs of availability and appropriately sized bulk foam supplies and lighting.

13.07 – Thames Water Sewage contacted re run off – Silver control informed, no fire fighting of consequence at present, will endeavour to inform when we begin – from DO Drakes.

13.30 – The New Dimension High Volume Pump tactical advisor arrives at silver command to brief HFRS officers on the capabilities of High Volume Pumps.

13.48 – Partial withdrawal, possible tank collapse in Sector 2 – after consultation with industry experts.

14.13 – Informative: Checks on adjacent buildings and police liaisons have identified ten persons unaccounted for. Several buildings are in a dangerous condition – police requesting keyholders.

14.19 – Thames Water Silver control informed we are using water to cool surrounding tanks. It is clean and being allowed to run to drains. Environment Agency are in attendance.

15.00 – Partial withdrawal, possible tank collapse in Sector 2 – after consultation with industry experts.

16.04 – Informative. As previous informative – 22 tanks believed fully involved – major cooling on a further seven tanks – steady progress being made – crews evacuated from site – progress being made in preparation for foam attack – gas supply isolated – Tactical Mode Tango.

16.12 – Multiple repeat 999 emergency calls received by the police traced to the 3 Com building, after investigation they are thought to be caused by a technical fault.

16.34 – London Fire Brigade sending third foam appliance.

Watford Observer:

The depot was behind the Nortgate building on the right. Picture: Cyberesque via Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 2.0

17.00 – First foam attack on BPA Tank 8 to prevent or at least delay the tank becoming involved and possibly affecting the next tank farm.

17.30 – FRSNCC requested to contact FRSs and the Fire Service College to request the mobilisation of 14 High Volume Pumps and support crews.

17.32 – Informative Message: As previous informative, foam equipment being laid out to tackle peripheral areas of tank and bund fires. Major water supply located ready for High Volume Pumps, Silver Command informed. Bulk foam supply increased to 170,000 litres. Cooling jets still in place. First stage foam attack planned for 19.00. Tactical Mode Tango.

17.40 – Initial plan created for attack on two fronts. A 60 minute attack would be sufficient.

18.29 – FRSNCC inform HFRS Control of national availability of foam stocks.

20.35 – Staffordshire FRS pumps and Staffordshire FRS HVP in attendance.

20.54 – Informative message: As previous informative, steady progress being made with cooling, cooling jets re-positioned. One tank rim seal foamed, still awaiting full foam arrival. Main water supply being established using High Volume Pumps. Major lighting being positioned. Tactical foam attack plan being organised. Environment Agency and Thames Water advised on possible foam run-off. Tactical More Tango.

21.07 – Second foam attack commences on HOSL tank 909, and successful.

22.00 – High Volume Pumps etc in attendance.

23.00 – Majority of form arrived at firegeround.

Monday, December 12

01.00 – “Need to resolve issues like clearing out the water from the site or do we ask the owners to take part”, discussed at Gold command.

02.00 – Significant work undertaken to gain access to Breakspear Way Balancing Tank from the north.

03.00 – Crane employed to move the High Volume Tanks into position at Balancing Tank.

04.00 – 07.00 – Supply systems for foam and water close to the fireground established.

04.12 – Chemet information requested regarding smoke plume travel and likely fall out area once water is applied to the fire.

05.37 – WVRS attend incident – Initially providing refreshments for 60 but aware that refreshments are required in excess of 100 for the next 12 hours – burger van crew are returning for 06.45 – WRVS will try to get to incident for 06.45.

06.00 – All High Volume Pumps in position.

06.03 – Informative message: As previous informative – all High Volume Pumps in position – hose lines being laid in preparation for foam attack – reservoir drained to receive potential run off – BA dump set up – foam concentrate and equipment being positioned – Tactical Mode Oscar.

07.00 – Hose laying from Balancing Tank to firegound in place.

08.30 – Main foam attack commences. Informative: Will advise of time for relief crews – 150 day crew needed to relieve 150 night crew as close to 0900hrs as possible.

Watford Observer:

The fire as seen from Dunsmore, Buckinghamsire, two hours after the explosion. Picture: Peter Dean via Wikimedia Commons

08.33 – Informative – As previous informative – finished foam now being applied to fire – Tactical Mode Oscar.

10.03 – Thames Water aware we have started using foam.

11.56 – Nine tanks extinguished.

13.18 – A running fuel fire, caused by HOSL West bund slightly overfilling and ‘slopping over’. ‘Make Pumps 25’ message sent to HFRS Control.

13.39 – Partial withdrawal, possible tank collapse and crews surrounded by fire in Sector 2 – after consultation with industry experts.

13.56 – Informative: Tank No. 5 heavily involved in fire – affecting Tank No. 7 – foam attack on No. 5 – six ground monitors cooling Tank 7 – all crews being withdrawn to safe distance – all running fuel fires contained in bund – spot fire in other bunds being attacked with foam – Tactical Mode Oscar.

14.00 – Significant withdrawal – Tank 7 liable to rupture, being affected by fire in Tank 5.

14.05 – Informative: Tank 7 advised may rupture, all crews evacuated, six monitors left in use – Tactical Mode Delta.

17.15 – Downloaded images from Chiltern Air Support Unit helicopter used for risk assessment and operational planning.

17.16 – Informative: Following reviewed risk assessment from police helicopter downlink regarding 5 and 7 – two crews re-introduced to maintain cooling jets and run off – Tactical Mode Oscar.

18.00 – 143,000 litres of foam concentrate have been delivered by Angus Fire.

18.29 – Informative: Limited firefighting operations in progress – cooling of unaffected tanks via three group monitors – Tactical Mode Oscar.

20.49 – Informative: Three sectors in operation – cooling of all unaffected tanks in progress using three ground monitors and two Titan monitors – water from bunded areas being redistributed – nine High Volume Pumps in relay for fire fighting removing excess water from treatment complex to avoid contamination of water courses – further assessment of water supplies in progress – Tactical Mode Oscar.

22.00 – Local electricity company (EDF) inform Silver Command that substation could be affected by rising water levels.

22.06 – Total withdrawal, possible tank collapse – after consultation with industry experts.

Tuesday, December 13

00.01 – Partial withdrawal, possible tank collapse Sector 1 – after consultation with industry experts.

00.04 – Informative: Cooling being carried out on Tank 7 – water spray in aviation area – diverting water from loading area for manifold next to Tank 4 – Tank 4 ruptured efforts being made to protect Tank 7 plus surrounding area – Tactical Mode Oscar.

01.00 – EDF attend and isolate the substation.

02.44 – Informative: Further cooling jets established – run off control being enhanced – water containment plan being devised – Tactical Mode Oscar.

04.08 – Informative: As previous – cooling continuing – developing next phase of foam attack – electricity confirmed isolated – Gold informed – Tactical Mode Oscar.

04.21 – An overflow of water from the treatment works occurs.

05.25 – Good progress cooling – commence run off to contained area – Tactical Mode Oscar.

09.30 – Foam attack on Tanks 901, 912 and 12 and the bottom loading pump raft commences.

11.00 – Firefighters withdrawn from Sector 1 for 20 minutes due to the severity of the fire in HOSL West bund A.

13.36 – Informative: Firefighting commenced on two of the three remaining tanks – Patriot monitor in use and various other foam equipment – water supply provided by High Volume Pumps – water run off being monitored. Tactical Mode Oscar.

Watford Observer:

Rusting tanks pictured 13 months after the explosion. Picture: Rob Emms via Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 2.0

14.03 – From Divisional Officer of West Midlands, we have two personnel from West Midlands delivering foam. To his knowledge they have been with us for 30 hours. Advise him asap whether they are due to be released (considering reliefs).

15.36 – Control Unit reminded to release and ensure that relieved crews are dispatched from fireground asap following arrival of fresh personnel.

16.39 – Informative: Last tank fire extinguished – action being taken to extinguish rim fire – bund fire reignition, efforts being made to reinstate foam blanket – various foam branches in use – Tactical Mode Oscar.

19.16 – Informative: Charged fireground radio batteries required from Control.

Wednesday, December 14

00.37 – Informative: Fire within Tank 912 plus flange remaining alight and controlled – wind conditions increasing affecting foam branches in bunds – bund for Tank 12 reignited efforts being made to extinguish – various foam equipment in use – Tactical Mode Oscar.

05.25 – Tank 912 showing signs of collapse, the tank collapsed before 07.00.

12.27 – Local schools expressing concern over foam being blown into school grounds. Advice being put onto ‘Herts Direct’. Silver command advised.

14.23 – Informative: Crews redeployed from firefighting to deal with site run off – run off contained – action being taken to reduce potential of site run off through deployment of High Volume Pumps – all main fires now extinguished – maintaining foam blanket via hand held branches – assessment being made for future foam requirement to maintain foam blanket. Tactical Mode Oscar.

16.55 – Information from Silver re personnel from Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Hampshire. All personnel fit and well. Welfare matters being taken care of. Information passed to home brigades.

18.36 – Hose cleaning required for all High Volume Pumps – crew required at 0900 and further required at 1100 – Rendezvous point at the base reservoir – top reservoir on Breakspear Way – 189 will be calling back to confirm if HFRS need to organise.

19.36 – Informative: STOP for Buncefield, Maylands Avenue and Boundary Way area, Hemel Hempstead. An oil storage depot comprising of 41 oil storage tanks storing approximately 100 million litres of oil products, and a residential and commercial area comprising numerous buildings of one, two, three and four storeys. 22 storage tanks severely damaged and four storage tanks moderately damaged by fire. All buildings in storage depot and commercial area severely damaged by blast. Various levels of damage to residential areas. Multiple foam making equipment, jets, High Volume and Fire Service pumps and associated equipment used.

Thursday, December 15

05.28 – Informative: As per previous – amendment to sector commanders – Sector 1Stn O McDonald – Sector 2 and 4 Stn O Stratford – Sector 3 ADO Priest (Bucks) – egress now available for all undamaged petrol tankers to be collected by operators – Tactical Mode Oscar.

10.41 – Informative: Same address, foam blankets maintained. Recovery of equipment in progress. Efforts being made to release resources provided by other services. Various items of equipment in use. Tactical Mode Oscar.

11.20 – Five pumps deployed to deal with flooding at Hogg End Lane, caused by fire-water run odd from failure of bund round Tank 12.

12.30 – ‘Fire All Out’ declared.

15.23 – Informative: As previous informative – plan for management of water run off being implemented in agreement with Environment Agency and Thames Water – Tactical Mode Oscar.

20.22 – Informative: As per previous – following meeting with all external agencies on site – an agreement was reached on limited removal of run off from incident – further meeting to take place 2100hrs to discuss further action to be taken by site owners for removal of all contaminated run off – Tactical Mode Oscar.

21.30 – Oncoming reliefs to feed before leaving station and bring food with them.

22.11 – Informative: 189 – following site meeting at 21.00hrs a target time of 12.20hrs on Friday, December 16 has been agreed for commencement of removal of contaminated run off from incident – Tactical Mode Oscar.

Friday, December 16

17.23 – Informative: Foam application continuing to the foam tanks, suppression foam being supplied to bunds, pumps providing foam, four pumps providing water, explosive limits between 0 and 0.2. Tactical Mode Oscar.

20.00 – Boundary Way reopened to traffic. HFRS Control Unit relocated to inside the depot, close to the HOSL West loading gantry. Many nationally mobilised resources and adjacent FRSs personnel released and returned home.

20.03 – Informative: From F1 at same address – forward control point now disbanded. Oscar control relocated to tanker filling point in main depot yard.

Saturday, December 17

10.41 – Informative: After a site meeting with appropriate representatives we have agreed to stop applying foam to bunds and establish a product sampling and air monitoring system. Tactical Mode Delta.

11.52 – West Drayton contacted ref aircraft – this is known by West Drayton and permission has been given to fly overs site for aerial survey between the times of 1130 and 1230, the safe height given is 15000m.

12.41 – Informative: Fire in bund, ten inch fuel line extinguished using foam. Foam and jets left in situ but not working. Monitoring of situation. Tactical Mode Delta.

14.10 – First removal of products from site commences.

14.11 – Informative: Following aerial survey of site, foam blankets being applied to four tanks in bund E. High volume Pumps being reinstated to control run off. Gas monitoring being maintained. Tactical Mode Oscar.

20.12 – Concerns raised that bund wall of Tank 12 might loose its integrity.

Sunday, December 18

22.02 – Informative: Previous water run off now contained using sandbags – area continually being monitored – Tactical Mode Oscar.

Tuesday, December 20

04.20 – Informative: Increase in run off in Cherry Trees Lane high proportion of fuel content, efforts being made to dam and divert. Environment Agency in attendance, BPA en-route. Tactical Mode transitional.

Saturday, December 24

16.00 – All contractors left site.

Sunday, December 25

13.01 – Catering wagon will be open and available 24/7.

Wednesday, December 28

18.21 – Informative – 189 – Stn O now OiC – Informative – continuing explosimeter readings and maintaining watching brief.

Friday, December 30

23.48 – Maintaining air readings on a half hour basis – maintaining foam blanket on Tank 901 – at 16.00 tomorrow crews will leave site and periodic inspections from Hemel and St Albans will commence.

Saturday, December 31

15.35 – Permanent Fire Service site presence ceases.

Thursday, January 5

16.10 – HFRS pass responsibility of on site risk assessment to the site operators and the incident was closed.