Abbeystead 30 years on: The view from the press

Former Visitor chief reporter Anne Rothwell.
Former Visitor chief reporter Anne Rothwell.

For one local journalist the disaster represented more than just a significant professional assignment.

It was a poignant personal landmark – memories of which still have a strong emotional impact.

Anne Rothwell was chief reporter of our sister paper The Visitor in Morecambe at the time.

Now a press officer at Lancaster University, Anne steps back in time to that fateful spring evening when she was one of the first journalists at the scene.

She explained: “It was one of those times that people locally will always know where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

“It was a beautiful, calm spring evening and I was at home in Garstang when I received the ‘tip-off’ phone call just minutes after the disaster had happened.

“There had been a huge explosion at a water plant up in the hills near Abbeystead and people had been killed.

“As the newly-promoted chief reporter on The Morecambe Visitor I can’t deny it, the adrenalin started to pump.

“As a journalist it’s one of those moments you prepare for from the word ‘go’. I immediately called close family friend Geoff Seed, who worked for North West Water, to see if he had heard the news and to get directions to the plant.

“His son, Michael, informed me his father was out at a meeting.

“Little did I know then that Geoff had just died at that very same plant. That haunts me even now.

“Nigel Slater was the duty photographer that night and, after a quick phone call to alert him and ascertain the location, we arranged to meet and travel to the plant together. By that time the emergency services had mounted a major rescue operation and we had to stay at the end of the track down to the plant. Det Ch Insp Roy Hutchings (head of the area’s CID at that time) was press liaison officer.

“He provided bulletins every quarter of an hour for the fast-growing pack of reporters, which as the night wore on included national media and TV crews.

“As the darkness crept in, an eerie silence fell upon the area. The road across the fells towards Lancaster was a dramatic mass of blue flashing lights. I remember vividly seeing emergency vehicles leaving the plant, ashen-faced police and fire officers staring out – shocked to the core by what they had seen. No major details were released that night.

“The desperately sad story only emerged in the early hours of the following morning when I learned that Geoff Seed and our neighbour Alan Lacey, who also worked for North West Water, had died.

“And then came what appeared to be an endless list of familiar names – the good people from St Michaels-on-Wyre – dead or brutally injured by the blast. It was simply unbelievable and a night I shall never forget.”