The Great Fire of London

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A plume of acrid smoke is drifting eastward after a huge explosion rocked the Buncefield oil depot in Hemel Hempstead, 20 miles northwest of London, at 6:03 a.m. local time Sunday. The blast was heard more than 50 miles away. Windows and doors were blown out and walls were cracked in nearby houses, whose residents have been evacuated by police. “Keep out of the flume, keep away from the area,” said Frank Whiteley, Chief Constable of Hertfordshire police, in a hastily called press conference. He also warned that some smaller explosions might occur later today as other tanks at the site—there are 20, holding up to 3 million gallons each—succumb to the heat of the blaze. Whiteley said 36 people were injured, 4 seriously, but so far no deaths—a remarkable stroke of luck he attributed to the timing of the explosion early on a Sunday morning.

The terminal stores various grades of petroleum-based fuel for cars and airplanes, and is used by a variety of oil companies. It normally loads about 400 tanker trunks a day, and has pipelines connecting to Heathrow and Gatwick airports. Though the terminal is the country’s fifth largest, no serious disruption to gasoline supplies is expected as emergency plans to draw from other depots kick in. Fire chiefs said they had extinguished a fire at a nearby warehouse caused by the explosion, but were waiting to assemble enough equipment and foam from nearby districts before tackling the main blaze—which may not be controllable until it burns itself out. They do not expect the blaze to spread beyond the depot; the main danger to people in the area comes from the vast amounts of smoke being generated.

John Reid, the British defense secretary, said there was no reason to suspect anything other than an accident. British security sources confirmed to TIME that they had no reason to believe terrorism or sabotage were involved, but planned to keep an open mind as the blast is investigated.