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Saturday, 13 April, 2002, 05:50 GMT 06:50 UK
Chemical blaze inquiry launched
Flames and smoke from Distillex
Plumes of thick smoke could be seen for miles
An investigation has been launched into how a fire badly damaged a chemical factory in Tyneside.

Fire crews worked throughout the night to extinguish the blaze at the Distillex factory in North Shields.

It sent highly toxic smoke and fumes across the area, forcing 500 people to evacuate their homes for a time.

At its height, the flames were about three times higher than the building

Bruce Walker, eyewitness

While most were eventually allowed to return, some 100 spent the night at the town's leisure centre after North Tyneside Council arranged accommodation.

A half-mile exclusion zone round the plant has been reduced to reduced to a quarter-mile, but people downwind of the blaze are still being warned to keep doors and windows tightly closed.

Nobody was injured in the blaze, which is believed to have started after a fire in a skip containing general waste spread to a compound containing drums of flammable solvents.

After the initial explosions, containers and drums were thrown into the air and thick billowing smoke could be seen more than 20 miles away.

Skin irritation

Eyewitness Bruce Walker, who works one mile from the scene, told BBC News Online: "At its height, the flames were about three times higher than the building."

Northumbria Police deputy chief constable Michael Craik said: "It was declared a major incident right from the off.

"We have to work on the assumption the chemicals are toxic until we determine otherwise.""

All aircraft were diverted away from the area.

The fire stopped Metro trains running between Tynemouth and North Shields, and the Tyne Tunnel road link under the river was closed.

More than 150 police officers were deployed to counter the traffic chaos and patrol the exclusion zones where hundreds of houses were empty.

The factory employs 12 people and is thought to contain between 40 and 50 different types of chemicals.

Lancashire-based Distillex takes toxic solvents used in cleaning formulations, printing and industrial manufacture and separates re-usable products from waste and supplies them back to the industry as raw materials.

An Environment Agency spokeswoman said solvents such as xylene could cause short-term symptoms such as skin, eye, nose and throat irritations, headaches and dizziness after exposure to large doses.


The fire started in a skip and spread to a compound where drums of flammable solvents are stored.

Distillex managing director Adrian Jones told BBC News Online: "I believe that as they were making a transfer to the skip a spark was created as a natural result of metal contact.

"That caused the ignition of a material that was in the skip. That could be a rag with oil or solvent on it.

"The operator tried to dampen it with a fire extinguisher but was unable to and as a result the fire spread.

"No staff have been injured and we have not heard of any other injuries. I have no idea of the damage," he said.

The solvent recycling plant was at the centre of a similar alert in January when a cloud of toxic vapour Methylene Chloride was released after chemicals overheated.

The BBC's Samantha Simmonds
"Businesses, schools and homes were evacuated"
John Allison, Tyne and Wear fire brigade
"The size of an incident like this does demand many resources"

Click here to go to Tyne
See also:

30 Jan 02 | England
Tyneside chemical alert over
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