Thirty years ago today, sixteen people were killed in an horrific explosion at a water pumping station. Chief reporter BRIAN ELLIS recalls his experiences of covering the Abbeystead disaster and a night a village will never forget.
Abbeystead. Thirty years on the name still sends a shiver down the spine.
I have covered some chilling news events in my time in papers. Hillsborough, Bradford, Lockerbie, Summerland, the Yorkshire Ripper and the Handless Corpse have all left scars.
But Abbeystead, where 16 people died and 28 others were badly burned in a huge underground explosion, cut even deeper - because I knew some of the victims personally.
One was the husband of a friend and colleague Pat Seed, freelance journalist turned cancer campaigner from Garstang. Others I had interviewed many times about persistent flooding in their picturesque village of St Michael’s on Wyre.
They suspected the water pumping station at Abbeystead, further up river, was the cause. The official visit by the Parish Council that Wednesday evening was meant to put those fears to rest. Instead it ripped the heart out of a warm rural community.
The day, May 23, 1984 had begun like any other news day at the Evening Post’s old offices in Fishergate. It continued for me into the evening with my other job, working the graveyard shift at The Sun in Manchester.
It was there that I got the call about Abbeystead and raced off to cover the story for both papers.
The media were kept at a respectful distance from the scene of the blast by a police roadblock on the lane leading down to the plant. Reporters were drip-fed information by senior officers in a series of briefings.
A picture began to emerge of a party of 36 villagers from St Michael’s being shown round what was part of an £80m state of the art water transfer system, built by the North West Water Authority to pump excess volume from the River Lune into the Wyre to lessen the risk of flooding in the Lancaster area.
But devastating floods in St Michael’s meant Abbeystead was under suspicion. And eight NWWA officers, including engineer Geoffrey Seed, had been showing the party around underground when they opened valves to demonstrate how it worked and a massive build-up of methane gas in the underground chambers somehow ignited, sending a fireball through the complex of tunnels.
The explosion was so ferocious that it lifted the heavy concrete roof and sent it crashing down on the visitors below. Some were blown into an adjacent field by the force of the blast. One, villager Pat Kaylor, ended up sitting on a wall outside.
“My clothes were practically all burned off and my skin was just in tatters,” she said later.
Another poor soul was hurled into the car park and crushed by a vehicle which had been thrown into the air and landed on him.
Eight were pronounced dead at the scene, one of them 12-year-old Mark Eckersley who had been on the trip with his mother Pauline, who also died. The remaining 36 were conveyed in a fleet of ambulances, most to the Lancaster Royal Infirmary eight miles away, while others were taken to a specialist burns unit in Preston.
Eight of those were to die of their injuries, including husband and wife Bert and Edna Tomlinson, who had been due to go on holiday on the day of the blast but postponed it because they were so concerned about flooding in their village.
Some of the growing army of media headed off to Lancaster late into the night in the hope of interviewing some of the less badly injured. What we found there was the hospital’s disaster plan in full swing.
Distraught relatives called to the A&E unit were milling around, many in tears. A Preston priest emerged later to confirm to me Pat Seed’s husband was amongst those who hadn’t made it.
It was well into the following day before we were allowed near enough to the blast scene to get the first photographs of the devastation for that night’s LEP.
In the weeks that followed I covered many of the funerals in St Michael’s. Day after day the grief-stricken villagers turned out in force as their friends and neighbours were laid to rest.
Then 16th and final victim Edith Tyson died 13 weeks after the explosion. But it was five and a half years before the families of the dead gained closure when liability was finally settled by the High Court.
Today, 30 years on, the villagers of St Michael’s will spend a quiet moment remembering those who were lost at Abbeystead. Those of us who were there on the night will, I’m sure, do the same.