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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 December 2005, 02:48 GMT
'I don't feel safe here any more'
By Paula Dear
BBC News in Hemel Hempstead

The enormous arc of smoke that hung over Hemel Hempstead on Monday was a stark reminder that the fuel depot disaster was far from over.

As the fires raged, for some residents the long haul of assessing and clearing up the damage the blasts left in their wake was beginning.

Becky Vernon and Chris Micklewright's room
Becky and Chris were sleeping when the depot exploded

Becky Vernon and Chris Micklewright's bed is still covered in shards of glass.

They are worried small slivers may be embedded in the mattress, but the insurance company has told them not to clear up until someone has been to assess the damage.

The couple's two-year-old daughter, Ellis-Rose, was in bed with them on Sunday morning when they were woken with one of their patio doors flying inwards and shattering all over the bed.

Another pane fell out of its frame whole, and the blast left the frame twisted and hanging into the room.

'Such a shock'

The rush of air blasted right through the flat, part of an L-shaped block near the fuel depot, and buckled the front window.

"It was so frightening, such a shock. I don't remember how we got out of bed without cutting our feet," says Becky.

Luckily Ellis-Rose was covered up, when most times she would have kicked the duvet off and been lying unprotected, says her 25-year-old mother.

What is more, the toddler slept through the whole thing.

I was lying awake last night thinking 'I don't want to live here any more'
Becky Vernon
Local resident

This young family is not alone in suffering such damage. A raft of flats and houses on the Woodhall Farm estate are now sporting boarded-up windows and doors.

Their position on a small hill, just north west of Buncefield, exposed it to the full impact of the blast, say residents.

Becky, Chris and Ellis-Rose spent the night with neighbours Jane Ash, her husband Jimmy and their little boy Alfie. Jane's patio doors came off their hinges, but the glass survived.

"It was an absolute miracle no one was killed in all of this," says Jane.

The couple are waiting to hear back from the insurance company, having called them about damage done to the walls and roof.

"I think the force of the explosion blew the roofs upwards," she says, pointing out several long cracks between the walls and ceiling on the inside and outside of their house.

"They said they wouldn't be able to get anyone out straight away because of the road closures."

Financial impact

Making their home habitable again is even more pressing for Becky and Chris, 30, who rent the flat from Becky's parents.

"I'm just glad we don't own it, quite frankly. It's going to be a nightmare, house prices will drop I'm sure.

"I was lying awake last night thinking 'I don't want to live here any more'. I feel scared and vulnerable, it's not safe."

She thinks it will be at least a week before they can move back in again. Meanwhile she and her partner have been losing money because they are not paid by work during time off.

"It's such a mess," adds Becky.

Flats at the Woodhall Farm estate
The blast blew out many windows

Down the road, a whole stretch of low-lying houses that are closer to the depot than Woodhall Farm have escaped much damage.

But the street, with a clear view of Buncefield across open land, has turned into a makeshift viewing gallery for people to watch the fire.

It is reminiscent of a firework display, with much ooh-ing and aah-ing and taking of photos.

The police cordon has been ripped away and people are clambering up a muddy bank to get a better view.

"It sounds strange but there was a lovely atmosphere here last night, there were loads of people out here watching it.

"If people had been killed it would be different. It's amazing no one was," says Sue Preece, 54, who has come over with her children to look.

"I've lived here 29 years and never heard of any problems at the depot, not even a spillage."

Smell of fumes

But Sheila Chauhan, 31, who lives in the Leverstock Green estate on the other side of the industrial estate, says she is very worried about the environmental implications.

"There should be more coverage about the effect on the environment. You can still smell the fumes on my furniture at home and I'm worried about the short-term and long-term effects.

"When there's an oil leak in the sea we hear enough about it from the environmental groups, but this is catastrophic too, it's airborne pollution that must be doing damage."

Sheila Chauhan
Sheila Chauhan is worried about the environmental impact

Julia Beddall, her son and daughter Nick and Stacie, and Nick's girlfriend Dawn are more immediately concerned with getting home for a bath.

They spent Sunday night at Julia's sister's house in Surrey, after fleeing their home on the Adeyfield estate immediately after the explosions.

"Mum drove round in her pyjamas until about 9am, before we went back to the house to collect some things," says Stacie, 18.

She works in the Next warehouse on the site alongside Dawn. The pair have been told they will not be going back to work until at least Wednesday.

"We were worried there would be more explosions," says Julia. "Then we were worrying about looters. But we have just driven past the house and it looks fine."

Insurance business

Another group of suited spectators in the "viewing gallery" are there for more business-like reasons.

Sam Powell and Richard Young are insurance assessors, based in London, who have come to try to get near the site and get some extra work.

They already have connections with some of the firms on the industrial estate, they say, but are keen to make contact with more.

"We're the good guys! It's the loss adjustors who work for the insurance companies, while we work for the clients who are making the claim," says Sam.

Scale of damage

"We'll stay around here for the next week or so, and keep calling in to see if we can get closer, and talk to someone in there," he adds, the smoke cloud billowing behind him.

"It's the worst I've seen," adds Richard. "The 1987 storms come to mind in terms of the scale of damage."

Sam adds: "The unknown quantity at the moment is just how much else has been damaged by this."

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