Page last updated at 09:08 GMT, Wednesday, 1 October 2008 10:08 UK

Life in limbo after Buncefield

By Vanessa Barford
BBC News

The Brazier family
The Brazier family spent a year living in a nearby Holiday Inn
Nearly three years after the Buncefield oil depot explosion, businesses and residents affected by the blast are starting their fight for compensation from the oil industry.

For the first year after the blast, 12-year-old Georgia Hawley was too distressed to sleep on her own.

The family has been through counselling and psychologists.

"The past three years have been incredibly stressful and disruptive," said dad Terry, 46.

The Hawleys, who live a quarter of a mile from the depot in Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire, are just one of the families and small businesses still struggling from the aftermath of the explosion that rocked the town on Sunday, 11 December 2005.

Having received no compensation from the oil companies for repairs, Mr Hawley said "all the budget has been swallowed up".

Life interrupted

For other families, no amount of compensation can make up for the physical and emotional damage they have experienced.

Carl Brazier, 36, has suffered cardiac problems and panic attacks as a result of the upheaval and has been signed off work for nine months to a year.

His family had to live in a hotel for about a year, moving back and forth five times.

Brazier family house after Buncefield explosion
The Braziers' family home needed major restructuring work

They are still waiting for the repairs at their blast-damaged house, just under a mile from the depot, to be completed.

"My eldest daughter did her GCSEs in a hotel. My youngest had his first birthday in a hotel. We have lived, breathed, slept Buncefield in every facet of our lives for three years," said his wife, 36-year-old Heidi Brazier.

"My three-year-old son still wakes at 6am every morning - the time of the blast - crying. How do you compensate that?"

She said her daughter had been traumatised by the disruption and had undergone "quite extensive therapy".

"We have a good family unit but the stress led her to abandon her A-levels. She's moved in with her boyfriend because physically and emotionally, she could not deal with being in this house," she said.

Mrs Brazier said she wants an apology from Hertfordshire Oil Storage Limited (HOSL), the joint venture company operated by Total and Chevron which runs the depot.

"I have complete contempt for HOSL. They have never once said sorry or shown any compassion, they have completely missed the human element and been a stony brick wall of silence," she said.

Seeking compensation

In April 2008, HOSL and Total UK admitted negligence by a duty supervisor at the depot. Total UK has also said some of the damage could have been foreseen.

But the companies said it does not amount to admitting civil liability, and who controlled and employed the duty supervisor remains an issue.

A HOSL spokeswoman said the company had great sympathy for the hardship caused to residents, and despite liability for the incident not having been established, it had agreed to settle on a without prejudice basis over 2,400 of the 3,700 or so claims it had received.

"We have also donated a significant amount of money to numerous community groups including 500,000 to the Dacorum Community Trust to help residents get back on their feet," she added.

Smoke billows from Buncefield
Up to 2,000 people were moved clear of the site in December 2005

Now property owners, businesses and insurers hope a 13-week High Court hearing will finally decide who was liable for the blast, described as the worst explosion in the UK since the end of World War II.

One of their lawyers, Des Collins, said he is representing 272 people, accounting for more than 100 families and six businesses. He calculates the claims total about 700m.

"They are seeking compensation for personal injury, damage to property not covered by insurance, associated expenses and devaluation in house prices," he said.

Scores of homes were damaged and all 630 businesses on the nearby Maylands Industrial Estate were disrupted.

Business hurting

One business still suffering from the devastation is Morrells Sandwich bar in Maylands Industrial Estate.

Helen Morrells said the family business had been "flourishing" before the explosion, but now profits were 40% down.

"People have moved away from the industrial estate, insurance has gone up, I've had to lay employees off," she said.

We need help rebuilding the town; so many buildings are empty, the hospital is closing, the college is closing; Hemel Hempstead is becoming a 'satellite' of Watford
Helen Morrells, shop owner
She said while big businesses like HSBC, Dixons and ASOS were up and running again quite quickly, smaller business have taken a lot longer to recover.

"I am disgusted by the whole thing - the insurance company has only just agreed to replace the front window which was blown in by the explosion.

"We've been told Maylands will be back on its feet by 2020. That's too late for me. I've got a disabled son who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Jack is 14 and his life expectancy is 19. My nest eggs have been destroyed by the oil company," she said.

She thinks the oil companies did not take the incident as seriously as they should have because there were no physical injuries.

And she thinks everyone should be compensated for their suffering, not just those directly affected.

"We need help rebuilding the town; so many buildings are empty, the hospital is closing, the college is closing; Hemel Hempstead is becoming a 'satellite' of Watford," she said.

"I've lived here for 25 years, but I don't want to live here anymore. If I didn't have a business and home and son who needed to be here, I'd have left. But I'm totally stuck."

Terry Hawley said his family had simply not been able to get on with their lives.

"Someone should put their hand up and take responsibility. When you think of the oil industry, how much they make, it's pretty appalling."

He wants the trial to create some kind of closure: "We just want to put Buncefield behind us."

Buncefield blast worker negligent
23 May 08 |  Beds/Bucks/Herts
Oil blast claims to be negotiated
30 Oct 06 |  Beds/Bucks/Herts
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19 Feb 06 |  Beds/Bucks/Herts


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