Explosions at one of Britain's largest oil depots jolted an area north of London early yesterday, hurling balls of fire skyward, shattering windows and blanketing nearby houses with smoke.
The blasts appeared to be accidental. Thirty-six people were injured, four seriously, police said.
Explosions were expected to continue for several hours at the depot, which stores 16 million liters of fuel, police said.
"It's big and it's going to burn for some time," said Frank Whiteley, chief constable of Hertfordshire Police. "But it is under control."
There was nothing to indicate the blasts were acts of terrorism, police said, although the al-Qaeda terror network and other terrorist groups have threatened to target fuel deposits. Britain has been on edge since the July 7 London transit bombings, which killed 56 people including four suicide bombers, and a failed attack on July 21.
Some residents reported hearing an aircraft flying low overhead shortly before the first explosion at around 6am but police said there was no evidence of a plane crash. Nearby Luton Airport remained open and flights were operating normally.
"All indications at this stage are that this was an accident," Whiteley said. "However, clearly we will keep an open mind, as with all investigations, until we can confirm that for certain."
Firefighters planned to use foam to stop the blaze spreading across the 450m by 850m depot and adjacent industrial park. The 20 blazing tanks were being allowed to burn themselves out while about 100 firefighters and 100 police officers stood watch at the site.
"It's a controlled burn," said Jane Vine, a spokeswoman for the local county council.
Emergency workers wearing masks cordoned off the area around the Buncefield Oil Terminal, near the town of Hemel Hempstead. Authorities evacuated residents as the plume moved slowly eastward.
Whiteley cautioned that the cloud contained irritants that could cause coughs and nausea. People in the path of the smoke should stay indoors, he said.
Residents in Hemel Hempstead reported a loud boom and some felt their houses shake. The blast was so large it was felt throughout a large part of southeast England including London, 40km away.
"Around 6am, as we were sleeping, there was a mighty explosion -- a thunderclap that woke me up," said Neil Spencer, 42, who lives about 1 1/2km from the terminal. "It was fireball after fireball -- truly amazing."
The area around the fuel depot was being evacuated. Police said many roads and highways had been closed.
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