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VIDEO - Abbeystead 30 years on: How the disaster unfolded

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Tragedy hit the peaceful village of Abbeystead 30 years ago this week when 16 people were killed in an explosion at a water treatment plant.

Guardian reporter Gayle Rouncivell looks back at what happened and speaks to some of those who remember that fateful day only too well.

When the Abbeystead water treatment plant was opened by the Queen in 1980 it was hailed as a wonder of modern engineering.

Built on land which formed part of the Duke of Westminster’s estate, the plant was part of a wider multi-million pound scheme was designed to transfer water from the River Lune to the Wyre. But unknown to the designers, builders and operators, it harboured a deadly secret.

Drought conditions in early May 1984 meant the pumping station at Abbeystead had not been active for 17 days.

Methane gas formed at the end of the Wyresdale Tunnel, accumulating in a water pipe.

So when 36 villagers from St Michael’s-on-Wyre visited the station on May 23 for a demonstration of the system by a party of officials from the North West Water Authority (NWWA), the gas was pumped into the underground valve house, where the group was assembled.

When the pumps were switched on no water appeared, so the engineers switched a second set of pumps on.

Somewhere, a spark was emitted and this ignition caused a deadly explosion.

A fireball swiftly erupted through the complex. The buried concrete roof was blown off, and people were subjected to blast injuries, crush injuries and burns.

Some were blown through into water chambers. One man was blown back outside and landed on the ground as a car which had also been lifted by the blast landed on top of him.

The alarm was raised by Cyril Rothwell, 33, who had been watching TV at home half a mile from the plant when the blast rattled his windows.

Two survivors arrived at his door, urging him to call rescue services.

Rescuers arriving first on the scene were hampered by the isolation of the station, built in a forest cliffside.

An 80ft crane was put into position to hold up concrete slabs to allow emergency workers to reach people thought to be trapped. In the chaos that ensued it soon became apparent that eight people had not survived the initial blast.

Ambulances rushed to the scene and the survivors were taken to hospital in Lancaster and Preston.

All who perished were from St Michael’s-on-Wyre, invited on a trip in a bid to allay fears of flooding in the area.

The last victim, Edith Tyson, died 13 weeks after the explosion.

All of the 28 survivors needed hospital treatment, mainly for burns suffered when the fireball ripped through the pumping house.

 

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