Fireworks and loud bangs

Not just Guy Fawkes

JUST OVER 400 years ago on 5
November 1605 Guy Fawkes and
his crew were planning to blow
sky high King ]ames I, his family
and a good many of the country’s
tofts attending the state opening
of the Houses of Parliament. And it
is thought, although there is some
doubt, that it was all for the sake
of the Catholic religion. Admittedly
the Protestant ]ames had been
giving the Catholics a rough time
but if Guy Fawkes and coconspirators
in the Gunpowder
Plot tried to pull a stunt like that
today, we would call it terrorism.
But of course we don’t celebrate
Fawkes’ exploits but the fact the
king wasn’t blown to pieces and
that tradition goes right back.
According to the excellent website,
plot, ‘Parliament met for the first
time after the plot in January
1606, passing the Thanksgiving
Act. The tradition of marking 5
November with the ringing of
church bells and bonfires started
soon after the plot and fireworks
were also included in some of the
earliest celebrations.’
Guy Fawkes had been a soldier
and was an explosives expert. He
was caught in the vaults beneath
the Houses of Lords along with 36
barrels of gunpowder. But,
although he has become the most
famous, Robert Catesby appears to
have been the plot boss. Fawkes
was imprisoned and tortured
before he and his fellow
conspirators were tried for high
treason and sentenced to deathby
hanging, drawing and
quartering. Their heads and other
body portions were set up at
various places around London as
a reminder not to fool around with
gunpowder or conspiracies.
Today, one of the ceremonies
accompanying the opening of a
new session of Parliament is a
traditional searching of the
basement by the Yeoman of the
Guard, although the original cellar
where the gunpowder was stored
has long gone. As you would
expect, there are more effective up
to date scientific anti-terrorism
measures taken as well.
In 2003, explosives experts from
the University of Wales in
Aberystwyth estimated that
Fawkes’ gunpowder stash would
not only have taken out
parliament and its occupants but
much of the surrounding area too.
They estimated there was 25ookg
of gunpowder packed into the
barrels, and that it would have had
similar destruction capabilities as
an equivalent amount of the
current day explosive, TNT.
That would be enough to destroy the Houses of
Parliament and Westminster
Abbey and damage buildings as
far down Whitehall as the Prime
Minister’s residence at 10
Downing Street several hundred
metres away. Their estimate of the
massive destruction wasn’t based
on guess work. They used data
from damage caused to London
buildings by bombing during
World War II, as well as by IRA
bombs in the 1970s and 198os.
Britain has seen its fair share of
massive explosions and thafs not
even taking into account bombs
dropped during Second World War.
In 1916 at Faversham, Kent, the
centre of Britain’s gunpowder
industry, 109 workers were killed
when 15 tonnes of TNT and 150
tonnes of ammonium nitrate used
in the manufacture of the high
explosive, blew up when some
empty sacks caught fire. The
explosion was so huge that
windows across the Thames
estuary in Southend were
shanered and reports at the time
said the tremor was felt 120 miles
(2ookm) away in Norwich.
Possibly Britain’s biggest bangit
has been called the world’s
largest non-nuclear explosion –
was heard and felt in 1944 and
you can still see the evidence
today. Masses of bombs and
ammunition stored in a disused
mine at RAF Fauld in north
Staffordshire blew up, killing 70
people and leaving a crater 30m
deep and 230m wide, about the
size of 12 football pitches. The
blast damaged buildings in
Burton-on-Trent. five miles away
and was heard in Coventry, about
30 miles distant.
Les Callidine from llkeston
Mines Rescue, described the
scene. ‘The explosion had taken
everything in the vicinity up with it
including a farm and two conages
on the surface – not even a brick
could be found that resembled
coming from a building,’ he said.
‘The only things visible were dead
horses, canle and the odd
mattress. all of which were
covered in falling debris.’
The explosion was caused by
around 3500 tonnes of highexplosive
bombs, some of which
were thought to have had their
detonators in place making them literally ready to blow. At the time
no explanation was given for
explosion. In the official version
released in 1974, it was blamed on
a worker trying to remove a
detonator from a two-tonne bomb
with a brass chisel (rather than the
recommended wooden batten}
and creating a spark.
The rescue operation below
ground was a nightmare. Callidine
described finding one of the
workers in what was left of the
underground store. ‘We placed
him on the stretcher and began
back to the surface although the
journey was not easy as the floor
was strewed with live ammunition
ranging from bullets, land mines,
anti-personnel mines, detonators,
small parachute incendiaries and
even 400olb [18ookg] bombs.’
And it could have been worse.
Much of the huge store of bombs
and ammunition, as well as the
people working underground,
were protected by a concrete wall.
The inquiry blamed slack
procedures and ‘lack of proper
direction from senior authority’.
Yet no one was ever brought to
book over the terrible affair-·
By comparison, the 1974
Flixborough disaster was less
destructive though spectacular.
The explosion in a Lincolnshire
nylon-producing factory killed 28
people and injured 36 more, but
it was fortunate that it blew up on
a Saturday rather than a weekday
when the factory would would
have been busier.
The process of making nylon
required a highly flammable
chemical called cyclohexane to be
pumped through six reactors. One
reactor had been damaged so a
temporary pipe was rigged up to
bypass it until it could be repaired.
Unfortunately this 50cm wide pipe
wasn’t secured properly; it
ruptured under pressure and in a
minute, spewed 40 tonnes of
cyclohexane into the atmosphere.
The result was a colossal, highly
dangerous vapour cloud. which
soon ignited into an explosion that
wrecked most of the plant,
destroyed or badly damaged
around 1oo homes in Flixborough
village and caused extensive
damage to properties within a
five-mile radius. They heard it in
Grimsby, 25 miles away. It was the
largest peacetime explosion in the
UK, estimated the equivalent to :1.5
tonnes of TNT.
The official inquiry pointed the
finger of blame at the failing pipe
although some eminent scientists
feel the real reasons were never
truly brought to light. Since
Flixborough, the government has
tightened regulations covering
hazardous industrial processes.
But 31 years later there was
another whopper.
In the early hours of Sunday, 11
December 2005, there was a series
of explosions and then a massive
fire at the Buncefield oil storage
depot in Hertfordshire. With
a capacity of 273 million
litres- enough to fill the
tanks of five million carsBuncefield
had the
potential to cause
huge damage, but
incredibly no one
was killed
and only 40
were injured.
Over 2000
people were
We can’t rule out some
extremist. or nutter
having another !fD at
parliament. just like in the
film. fl/« Vetttktttl
evacuated and some houses were
damaged, but the resulting fires
burned for several days, destroying
most of the site and sending up
huge plumes of acrid black smoke.
It was caused by staff not
noticing that petrol they were
pumping into a storage tank
overflowed. It formed a fuel-air
vapour cloud that spread rapidly
and then exploded. The fires
spread through 20 large storage
tanks, blowing them up with a
sound and fury that could be
heard in France.
The oil companies Total UK
and Chevron are still banting
it out in the law courts to
find who is ultimately to
blame for the blast.
Of course there will
be more accidents, and
probably on this sort
of scale. But
thankfully they are
rare. And we
can’t rule out
religious or political
extremists. latter day
Fawkes’, having a go
either. Just watch
V for Vendetta if you
are in any doubt … •

Now, we all know the story about Guy Fawkes and his plan to blow sky high King ]ames I, his family and a good many of the country’s tofts attending the state opening of the Houses of Parliament.


Guy Fawkes had been a soldier and was an explosives expert. He was caught in the vaults beneath the Houses of Lords along with 36 barrels of gunpowder. But, although he has become the most famous, Robert Catesby appears to have been the plot boss. Fawkes was imprisoned and tortured before he and his fellow conspirators were tried for high treason and sentenced to death by  hanging, drawing and quartering. Their heads and other body portions were set up at various places around London as a reminder not to fool around with gunpowder or conspiracies.

Today, one of the ceremonies accompanying the opening of a new session of Parliament is a traditional searching of the basement by the Yeoman of the Guard, although the original cellar  where the gunpowder was stored has long gone. As you would expect, there are more effective up to date scientific anti-terrorism measures taken as well.

In 2003, explosives experts from the University of Wales estimated that Fawkes’ gunpowder stash would not only have taken out parliament and its occupants but much of the surrounding area too.  They estimated there was 25oo kg of gunpowder packed into the barrels, and that it would have had similar destruction capabilities as an equivalent amount of the current day explosive, TNT.  That would be enough to destroy the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey and damage buildings as far down Whitehall as the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street several hundred metres away. Their estimate of the massive destruction wasn’t based on guess work. They used data from damage caused to London buildings by bombing during World War II, as well as by IRA bombs in the 1970s and 198os.

Britain has seen its fair share of massive explosions and thats not even taking into account bombs dropped during Second World War.

In 1916 at Faversham, Kent, the centre of Britain’s gunpowder industry, 109 workers were killed when 15 tonnes of TNT and 150 tonnes of ammonium nitrate used in the manufacture of the high explosive, blew up when some empty sacks caught fire. The explosion was so huge that windows across the Thames estuary in Southend were shattered and reports at the time said the tremor was felt 120 miles away in Norwich.

Possibly Britain’s biggest bang – it has been called the world’s largest non-nuclear explosion – was heard and felt in 1944 and you can still see the evidence today. Masses of bombs and ammunition stored in a disused mine at RAF Fauld in north Staffordshire blew up, killing 70 people and leaving a crater 30m deep and 230m wide, about the size of 12 football pitches. The blast damaged buildings in Burton-on-Trent. five miles away and was heard in Coventry, about 30 miles distant.  The explosion was caused by around 3,500 tonnes of high explosive bombs, some of which were thought to have had their detonators in place making them literally ready to blow.

In the early hours of Sunday, 11 December 2005, there was a series of explosions and then a massive fire at the Buncefield oil storage depot in Hertfordshire. With a capacity of 273 million litres- enough to fill the tanks of five million carsBuncefield had the potential to cause huge damage, but incredibly no one was killed and only 40 were injured. Some houses were damaged, but the resulting fires burned for several days, destroying most of the site and sending up huge plumes of acrid black smoke. It was caused by staff not noticing that petrol they were  pumping into a storage tank overflowed. It formed a fuel-air vapour cloud that spread rapidly and then exploded. The fires spread through 20 large storage tanks, blowing them up with a sound and fury that could be heard in France.

Story courtesy from IET’s Flipside

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