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Flixborough 1974 Memories – Dave Butler

I was born and brought up in Burton upon Stather, just a matter of four miles from the Flixborough disaster.

On the day, we were taking my wife’s parents to Cleethorpes to stay at the Fitties in Cleethorpes. And we heard what we thought was thunder. So we left them there and we came back into Scunthorpe and noticed that a lot of the shop windows were out and people were scurrying about. I stopped at a fish shop on Frodingham Road and said, “what’s been happening?”, as I was thinking about Scunthorpe United playing Grimsby that day. He said, “well, haven’t you heard that Nypro’s blown up?” So, then your head’s a bit of a shed.

We tried to get back home to Burton, but we got stopped by the army at Normanby Park gates. And I said, “look, Burton’s under martial law”. A cloud of residue and lagging was blowing over that way.

Then I realised that my brother-in-law was on shift. It was C shift that was on. So, we went to his wife’s house, which was quite traumatic. Then we went to find my parents, who had been relocated to North Lindsey College, because they lived in Burton.

On Saturday night I got a call from one of my plant managers. He said, “would you come in, please? We’re going to the police station because we want to go through the tax office records.” The tax office was taking their records to the police station and we were going through the records to find out who was on shift. Because if it had happened at any other time, there would have been a lot more people involved. But the contractors had gone home on Saturday at 4 o’clock. I remember it was the Appleby Frodingham Gala as well at that time.

I went to the police station and we went through the records and found out who was on shift. And then I think we spent the night at my wife’s parents. Then the next morning, my father-in-law wanted to go and see what was happening, but you could only go as far as Flixborough, as the plant and a load of rubbish was still burning, and the emergency services were still there, so nobody could get on to the plant at all.

On the Monday our plant manager said, “we’re going to have to put portacabins on the car park.” Whatever shift you were on, you were going to carry on your shift rota. They’d called in the mines rescue people, because obviously with the impact of it and the oxygen being sucked out, it just collapsed. Everything collapsed like a pack of cards. In fact, the office block, which was two storey concrete, you could take a step and stand on top of it. The only thing that was standing up out of it was the safe. So, it hadn’t opened the safe, the blast. But I realised that obviously my brother-in-law had been killed in the incident.

Inspecting the twisted wreckage of the factory.

Nevertheless, we had to go and help the mines rescue people, because things needed shoring up before we could get to anywhere where there were any bodies. The police were involved with their rescue of bodies for the mortuary people. But we couldn’t go on to site. It was very eerie. Because it was flooded with a mixture of chemicals. So, until those were drained off, nobody could go on site. But we just kept going and doing our regular shift.

And then, when we could, we went on site to help these mines rescue people to find our friends who had lost their lives. Well, it never leaves you and the smell of it never leaves you as well. You can understand people who have gone through these traumatic times, like in the trenches, in the wars and things like that. It was a horrible sensation.

There was no counselling afterwards; nobody got counselling in those days, you just had to grin and bear it and get on. And that’s what we did. But the firm was very good with us. They looked after the families of the lost loved ones and anyone who was injured.

And there are still one or two about who were actually on the plant when it blew up. One man, he had to run. And everywhere he ran there was a tank probably ruptured or blew up in front of him. So, that I’ll never leave him, but he did escape with his life.

The thing that kicked it all off was there was a row of five pressure vessels on the plant. And one of the pressure vessels had got a crack in it. So, to save stopping the plant running, they rigged up a stainless steel dog leg, with bellows in between, because the gas that was in there obviously was highly dangerous. And I think it was the bellows that cracked. And then all it had to do was find a heat source. Well, the laboratory wasn’t far away, and Bunsens were going in there. And the lads in the laboratory saw this cloud coming and they legged it up to the railway line at the back of the site before it blew up.

Then we had to clear the site. Once we’d found all the bodies, everybody was employed in clearing the site. I was a civil engineer before, so, I got involved in the civil side of sorting it out.

Then they rebuilt it, but they didn’t rebuild it with that particular plant. Because I’d gone over to the civil side, they said to me, “we’d like you to go back, or would you go to Atlanta in America to learn on that plant?” I said, “no, no way.” Because I’d lost my brother and I lost a lot of friends. I just didn’t fancy it anymore. I’d worked my way up from being a plant operator up to assistant superintendent, which is second to the top, on shift. I’d done quite well out of the thing, but you never think that these things can happen to you or this is going to happen and it’s a pure accident.

On the Sunday I went with two friends the back way to my house in Burton. And it was like a film set, a ghost town. All the windows, anybody who hadn’t got any windows open, they hadn’t got windows. And curtains were blowing out the windows. It was very eerie. So, then it was a matter of insurance and all that sort of stuff.

I used to cycle to work along the wood top when I was on shift. And there used to be a row of houses as you went up into Flixborough. All gone. And there were two houses near Flixborough Stather – gone.

I worked at Nypro till it closed down. Our plant was owned by the Dutch State Mines and the National Coal Board. They kept us on for a year to find out what they were going to do with it. They did pay for people to be retrained. Lots of people went to technical college and then they would give us jobs to do around the plant. And they did keep going for a bit. But there was a glut of caprolactam, so then the plant wasn’t needed. Then we all had to find other employment.

I stayed local. I went self-employed, back to my trade: building. I managed that for about a year and then I had a bit of fortune. I had an old friend that used to teach me at college, he said, “we’re looking for people with experience like you. Do you fancy a job?” So, I applied. And I was on holiday in Cornwall at the time, so I had to take a train back. I got the job. And then I started, and I was teaching construction for many years.

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