Storey Brothers Chimney Explosion

White Cross Chimney Explosion
The site of this notable event is close to where I now live, so I’ve followed up an event that deserves to be better known. Storey Bros in Lancaster were a major employer founded in 1849 on the banks of the river Lune in Lancaster, making oil cloth. Over the years they handled many coating processes onto textile and other substrates. At their White Cross site stood a 250ft tall octagonal brick chimney, quite a landmark in the town; a few pictures of this can be seen here . On the 28th Feb 1966, an explosion caused it to come crashing down. It fell almost vertically, and the debris range was probably reduced for this reason. Just 2 employees were killed, but the reports from the inquest provide as much information as is still available.

The main expert evidence reported came from Dr Jack Burgoyne, who was in his early career as a consulting engineer dealing with explosions and similar topics. The flue system was complex, with concentric flues, an incinerator, and waste streams from multiple processes. These streams produced soot, high boiling liquids, some solvent vapour , charred paper and solid deposits. The investigation concluded that an unusual combination of factors caused solid residues to soften, and flow back into the outlet of the incinerator. Clearly the overpressures came from a vapour air explosion in a relatively warm location. Dr Burgoyne concluded that the cause of the explosion was a ‘combination of circumstances which it would have been extremely difficult to foresee’. The inquest in May 1996 recorded accidental death.

I wonder if we would agree with this today. A HAZOP study might have picked up the potential risks, and suggested it was unwise to combine the multiple waste streams, just to get rid of the fumes up the convenient chimney. It is notable however, that there is no mention of input to the inquest from the factory inspectorate. This predates the formation of HSE, and the extent of inhouse expertise within FI was very limited.