The reports into these things are always terse and impersonal. They lack poignancy, any semblance of a human touch. They never dwell on the trauma of the community. The photographs are sparse and black and white, and so are the lists of names. It's maybe just as well.
No claim is made for the veracity of these notes. They represent half-remembered, apocryphal experiences, garnered through conversations long after the event but also long ago. Their only purpose is a testament to a sad and shocking time, because the sadness and the shock, if nothing else, were real and true.
Anyone who has memories of the disaster and its aftermath is invited to contribute them. A piece like this is never finished.
Once upon a time, close to this spot, there were huge silver fingers pointing to the sky. They marked somebody else's enterprise, and meant little to most of us. We didn't fear them then, not really, but some events are too enormous to be lightly forgotten. We shudder at their memory now .
It was a place known as Ridge Walk, a tree-lined valley on West Common hill. It will surely have been built over in the intervening years, but on that day it must have provided a remarkable vantage-point.
The time was a few minutes to five on a Saturday afternoon in early summer. John would turn eleven the following weekend, but now he sat motionless in the fork of a tree, fascinated by the distant flicker of fire. His brother David straddled the branch above, legs swinging idly, his gaze fixed on the same spot.
Down there on the Trent bank something dramatic was happening, that much was clear. Neither boy could have named the place they were watching. Its infamy would come tomorrow. It was all four miles distant on the floodplain below : so far away one moment, so terrifyingly close the next.
They saw the flash and they saw the shockwave bloom. They saw the perfect expanding circle, an improbable shadow racing across land and water alike. They cowered and clung to the tree as the fearsome grey column hurtled upwards, spreading, billowing, echoing the unearthly geometry of the circle below. There should have been noise, but instead there was silence and then there was sensation; the rushing of wind, the reverberating crunch, the smarting of their eyes as the dust-cloud hurried up the dry valley.
It was instinct that chased them home, tearful and to a frantic mother. The familiarity of the house brought a sense of scale. The mushroom cloud had swallowed half the sky, and was climbing and blackening still.
Conditions at point of rupture : 8 bar pressure, 150 degrees Celsius. Some 40 tonnes of cyclohexane escaped in about one minute. There had been a state of alert for nearly an hour, since the detection of the fire on the 8" main, but the second and catastrophic failure proceeded rapidly. Detonation appears to have taken place before any alarm was raised.
People will always call it the Flixborough Disaster. The name appeared in the address of the plant, but the village proper stood some way off, partly screened by trees. Amcotts, on the opposite bank of the river, suffered more widespread damage, but it was to Flixborough that the press came. The isolated file of houses on Ferry Road, right opposite the seat of the blast, provided the images of devastation they sought.
The Nypro plant operated by Royal Dutch Shell at Flixborough, near Scunthorpe, produced caprolactam, a chemical raw material further synthesised in the manufacture of nylon. The feedstuff for the process was a highly combustible cyclic hydrocarbon, some four hundred tonnes of which will fuel a fire for around ten days, sustaining temperatures in excess of a thousand degrees.
This fact has been empirically proved.
It was the day of the annual Appleby Frodingham steelworks Children's Gala, with the fortuitous outcome that villagers living local to the plant were mostly in the town, collecting commemorative mugs bearing a date that they would never forget.
There was this guy that the wife knew, who taught at a school in the town. He'd been away on a day-trip, and didn't return till that evening. His car overheated in the tailback on the A18, and he got scalded while topping up the radiator. Slow and painful progress homeward was accompanied by gradual realisation that a real catastrophe had taken place. At the edge of Amcotts and with night already fallen, he confronted the last and complete police road-block. In the darkness beyond, his house was uninhabitable, with windows shattered to powder and roof torn away.
Steve and his mates had drifted away from the fairground a couple of hours before, and now prepared to listen to his newly-purchased LP. The first bars of Hendrix's "Rainy Day, Dream Away" were interrupted by a gut-churning concussion, and the needle screeched clean across Side One. WHSmith would later refuse to replace the record.
A contract builder lived across the street from us. He'd worked on and off at Nypro for years, and he said that the place unsettled him, particularly in recent times. It seemed increasingly run down, with overpowering smells of chemical vapour. He had to use a plastic-edged trowel, because a spark might cause a fire. They must have known there was a risk of a massive explosion, someone suggested afterwards. But this guy wasn't sure. He was of the opinion that no-one on the plant had given that much thought to it.
The news was just breaking and Colin's dad went back to his armchair, refusing to be flustered. The fire would soon be out he said, because there'd be a crater half a mile wide with the Trent flooding into it. There'd be hundreds dead, and surrounding villages razed. There was nothing anyone could do about it though, so he tuned to ITV and went hunting for his Aussie pools coupon.
By daybreak on the Sunday, the pall had crossed the Humber and evacuations were being considered in North Cave nearly thirty miles downwind. Grey plumes of denser material were streaming down out of the now-black cloud, and a race was on to identify the stuff. It turned out to be ammonium sulphate...
...and presumably greened up lawns nicely.
Tim's family lives in one of the best houses in town. They bought it a few months afterwards, from a guy who'd had enough.
The previous resident had come home to it that last Friday in May, and he must have expected to be back at work on the Monday as normal. Only there was nothing normal about his office when he next saw it, briefly and weeks later.
He reclaimed the photo of his family and touched nothing else. He signed off some final pay-cheques, got the loss adjusters started and placed the demolition contract. But everything was tainted with soot and corrosion and raw memory. He had become a pariah; only the vultures would look him in the eye. When his daughter cried on Christmas Day, he knew he had nothing more to give.
I couldn't have known it then, but my future father-in-law was hard at work that first night with his maps, french curves and viscosity tables, all provided by the Home Office. Civil Defence volunteers are important people in such circumstances. They're trained to work out evacuation zones under fallout conditions. At least this cloud wasn't radioactive.
Schoolchildren in the town were granted special dispensation in their GCE exams because of collective trauma. Many sat their first papers with the sky blotted by smoke, and with its odour still pervading the air.
There was this guy who got the first bulletins on his car radio, and we all crowded round on his drive. Nobody there had even heard of the place they were talking about. What the hell did they make there, to have gone up like that?
Russ was on two-to-ten at the No.1 Rod Mill, and recalls the scene in the works office. The shift foreman was glued to his transistor. There was the squelch of the pulpit tannoy, and a shaken-sounding operator asked if he'd heard the news.
"Yes", said the gaffer, turning down the volume with obvious frustration.
"Can we go home, then?"
"No", said the gaffer, and wound the knob back up.
The enquiry, conducted by the newly-formed Health and Safety Executive, lead to restrictions on the volumes of certain chemicals which could henceforth be stored on industrial sites. Some of these chemicals were also used in rendering, and these came to be replaced by variants that entailed processing at lower temperatures. There are grounds for speculating that the BSE crisis would never have happened if hadn't been for the explosion at Flixborough.
Everyone in Scunthorpe knows exactly what they were doing when Nypro went up.
It was a lot more personal than JFK.
Plaster fell on Margaret's head as she sat on the toilet.
Julie swore that the explosion sent the family's cat mad.
Charlie's greenhouse just folded up with a crash; his tomatoes had looked promising till then.
In those first ten minutes everyone went out in the street and just stared upwards. There was silence except for the distant sirens, and there was total disbelief. Someone thought it was a nuclear strike and that the world was ending. Someone else said don't be stupid, there was no flash. The most likely explanation seemed to be the Normanby Park meltshop, in the right general direction but miles away. It couldn't be that far off, surely? In the event, it turned out to be even further.
He was on his knees in the doorway of the back bedroom, paintbrush in hand. The windows were open. He felt the shock. The venetian blinds started to flutter, and the noise built to a sound like the rattle of a machine gun. His immediate fear was an explosion at his own workplace, the Appleby Frodingham steelworks. The window faced east, and he looked to the sky in that direction. There was a feeling of relief; no sign of any problem there. The west-facing windows, unobserved, would already have revealed a different scene.
It was more than an hour later that his son came home, and told his parents that Nypro had gone. The full extent of the tragedy began to unfold in one more among a thousand households.
She was so ashamed of her Dad. It just wasn't right to jump in the car and drive out there like he did. He admitted years afterwards that an ambulance driver had screamed abuse at the stream of rubbernecks, jamming up the traffic. The guy was in floods of tears behind the wheel.
There was this kid called Chris at school, who lived in one of those houses on Ferry Road. Just a few minutes before the blast, he was watching the fire out of the living room window. His mother got frightened, and moved the kids into the back of the house. If she hadn't done, her son would have been cut to ribbons. As it was, most of the house fell down, and he was off school for a month. When he came back, he was stitched and bruised all over, and he'd lost a lot of his hair. He looked like some kind of rag doll.
Kev wasn't yet seventeen then, but he was already set on a career in photojournalism. He took pictures of the still-raging fires from outside the police barriers on both the Tuesday and the Wednesday, but wasn't satisfied with the outcome. In the small hours of Friday morning, he slipped through the tapes and hid beside a hut in the staff car-park. He'd had the foresight to bring a water bottle, but now he was forced to use its contents soaking his handkerchief and bathing his stinging eyes. As day broke, he moved up among the twisted wrecks of cars that had been engulfed in the blazing flood of the first hours. He fired off most of a reel before being apprehended. This time, the pictures of contorted towers wreathed in flame were stunning. He sold them for two hundred quid, and made national front pages, but the nausea and headaches lasted all weekend.
There was a story that might or might not have been true. At the heart of the site, there was supposed to have been a disused chimney that was due for demolition because of concerns that it could collapse. Once the fires were out, it was the tallest structure left standing.
It would have been about 1980, and Pete and I were walking to the Miners' at Guinness. He nodded towards the cricket field and said he was actually playing in a match on there when the plant blew. It took them all about two seconds to decide the game was over. They were still watching the cloud in disbelief, when along came this piece of sheeting about six feet long, just drifting through the air like a leaf in the breeze. It landed in a hedge, and then fine black gritty stuff began to drizzle down. Baz jumped in his Capri, still wearing his pads, and frantically started trying to drive somewhere to get it under cover. He wasn't going anywhere. There was total gridlock in all directions within five minutes. He was going berserk. It was funny afterwards, but a long time afterwards.
On 27 March 1974, a crack in reactor No.5 had been discovered, leading to a plant shutdown and investigation. A decision was taken to remove this reactor and to install a 20" by-pass main connecting reactors No.4 and 6 so that the plant could continue production.
Only limited calculations were undertaken on the integrity of the by-pass line. No calculations were attempted for the critically-stressed dog-leg section or for the bellows. No drawing of the proposed modification was produced. No pressure-testing was carried out on the installed pipework. In the original design of the plant, there was insufficient consideration of the potential for a major disaster happening instantaneously, leading to an exposed location and insufficient blast protection for the control room. There was insufficient availability of nitrogen in the local area for inerting. There was insufficient provision for the venting of off-gas as a method of pressure control/reduction....
...It could have been better engineered.
Twenty-eight people perished as a result of the disaster, all adult males and all but one of them working at the centre of the plant at the time of the explosion. There were no fatalities or permanently-disabling injuries among the public, a highly fortunate outcome. The exceptional casualty was a delivery driver who died of heart failure in his cab. At least eighteen fatalities occurred in the control room. The windows blew in and the roof collapsed; nobody escaped from this area. The remaining nine staff remained unaccounted for. About seventy others were within the boundary of the site when the blast occurred. All of these survived, though almost all required hospital treatment. Thirty-six were detained and ten needed surgery.
The plant was cleared of all personnel within about forty minutes, but soon afterwards fire spread to such an extent that close approach became impossible. It took three days for the intensity of the blaze to decrease sufficiently for systematic containment to begin. The seat of the fire in the control room area burned for a total of eight days. The last fires on the site were put out after ten days, and the plant was declared safe on the thirteenth day after the explosion.
Andy was among the first firemen to enter the remains of the control room on the morning of June 10th. By this time, he was already a veteran of Britain's most destructive industrial accident. His firetender still languished in the mud of the Trent foreshore, literally backed into the river in a losing battle against the inferno on the first night. He had faced the flames on seven of the nine days since the blast, and spent much of the remaining time in sleepless agitation.
He always refused to describe the scene there at the end, except to say that there was really nothing left except a mound of ash and fused metal. Within eighteen months, he would be called out to the ruin of the Queen Vic casthouse, as lightning struck a second time for Scunthorpe's industrial community.
The attempt to re-establish the plant, using a modified process, was a business failure. It lasted for a couple of years before final closure, and the locals breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
They put a sculpture there to commemorate the disaster. It was a skein of ducks or geese or something, beating away from the water's surface. It was touching and, yes, it had a sort of beauty. But it had little apparent relevance.
It just seemed like what it was, an awkward apology from some faraway firm who'd never really tried to relate to the community. It was a gesture, sure, but by then it was all too late.
It takes a lot to totally destroy a £200 million asset in a split second.
It takes a lot to leave the professionals of the emergency services powerless to do anything but gaze in awe.
It takes a lot to insinuate fear in the stout and straightforward heart of Village England.
...Nypro took the lot...