‘The black cloud of gas has lifted, and the scorched meadows to the north look as though a black snowstorm has passed over them.’ – War of the Worlds (Orson Welles script 1938).
As the billows of thick black acrid smoke spiralled into the sky from the burning Buncefield oil depot on the outskirts of Hemel Hempstead last Sunday, they cast a supernatural darkness over London.
It was as if giant spaceships had descended upon the city, blotting out the sun. Men, women and small children stood rooted on the streets, quieted by the awesome spectacle, gazing heavenwards at the long dark cloud that spread its wings like a grim angel across the city skyline.
Thousands turned in desperation to their radios and television sets to hear news of this, the worst fire in England since German bombers firebombed the city in the September of 1940. And as they watched the footage of the blaze from the safety of their own homes, the good people of England heard the story of the carnage at Buncefield unfold with amazement and disbelief.
For those that could remember the Blitz, there was a Humphrey Jennings-like resonance to the whole affair. Many people had been injured, and thousands more evacuated from their homes. Near to the site of the blast itself, the windows of offices and homes had been blown out and boarded up. This environmental catastrophe, this fire that was now raging uncontrollably in this sleepy hollow in England, had taken a heavy toll on the livelihoods, if thankfully not the lives, of the people in the surrounding towns and villages.
As the hours progressed, the enormity of the situation became clear. Firefighters themselves were forced, not once but twice, to retreat from the intensity of the burning plumes of oil – faced with the likelihood that, at any minute, yet another colossal oil tank might rupture and blow, snuffing out their lives and those of their colleagues. But these courageous men battled on into the night, working in shifts to pour gallons of foam and water onto the raging holocaust, which continued to lash out into the dark night skies.
But as a miserable yellow winter sun crawled slowly over the Hertfordshire horizon on Tuesday, it became clear that the war over the inferno was being won. Inch by inch, yard by yard, mile by mile, the brave firefighters had worked their way into the huge oil complex to finally exhaust the last of the smouldering ruins. Incredible as it may have seemed on Sunday, Tuesday night, thankfully looked to be the last time that the black cloud would blot out our view of the stars in the crisp December sky.
Now, as the embers of the fire die down at last, it’s time to quietly reflect on the enormity of the events of the past few days. To consider the steps that must be now taken by the owners of the plant, the environment authorities and the housing associations, to ensure that the calamity that was Buncefield will never be repeated.