|Annals of Burns and Fire Disasters - vol. X - n. 3 - September 1997
ABBEYSTEAD EXPLOSION DISASTER
Jaffe W., Lockyer R., Howcroft A.
Department of Plastic Surgery, Department of
Clinical Psychology, Royal Preston Hospital, Fulwood, Preston, Great Britain
In 1984, 44 people were involved in an underground explosion in which 16 people eventually
died. We report on the history of the disaster and the preliminary results of the
morbidity as noted after ten years.
A disaster is defined
in a number of ways - such as "a sudden or great calamity". Medical emergency
plans may specify a disaster as a number of serious casualties. Many United Kingdom
hospitals have major accident plans which state twenty serious casualties as their
In the last ten years the United Kingdom has witnessed a number of disasters involving its
people. Many will remember the harrowing television pictures from the Bradford Fire
Disaster and the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster. The Abbeystead Explosion occurred before
all these, but despite extensive national media coverage at the time it has been swamped
by subsequent events and is barely remembered in the United Kingdom.
In 1980 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11 officially opened the Abbeystead water pumping
station, on the Duke of Westminster's estate in the Lancashire countryside. The purpose
was to pump water from the River Lune to the River Wyre, from where it could then be
pumped out for domestic usage. The underground waterpumping station lies on a hillside
between the two rivers.
The villagers of St Michael's on Wyre, a small picturesque village of 500 inhabitants in
the Wyre valley, were concerned that the pumping station could have been responsible for
the flooding that had occurred in recent years in their village. The local parish council
were invited to visit the underground water station in May 1984. A group of thirty-six
villagers, including a 12-year-old boy, and eight Water Board officials attended the visit
on May 23. Unusually for the area there had been a drought and the pumps had not been
switched on for the preceding seventeen days. Unknown to the forty-four people in the
underground complex there had been a slow build-up of natural methane gas from the earth
and this had collected in the passages and tunnels. The group was assembled inside the
underground valve house, which was dug into the hillside. When the pumps were switched on
nothing happened - no water was pumped. The engineers then switched a second set of pumps
on. Something somewhere emitted a spark and this ignition caused an explosion. A fireball
swiftly erupted through the complex. The buried concrete roof was blown off, and people
were subjected to blast injuries, crush injuries, and burns. Some were blown through into
water chambers. One man was blown back outside and landed on the ground as a car which had
also been lifted by the blast landed on top of him.
All forty-four people present that evening were injured (Table I). Eight, including
the young boy, died at the scene from blast and crush injuries. That left thirty-six
casualties to be treated. The nearest hospital was Lancaster Royal Infirmary, eight miles
away to the north. This is a typical District General Hospital. The Royal Preston
Hospital, eighteen miles away to the south, has plastic surgery and neurosurgery on site.
The ambulance service operated a scoop-and-go policy and the majority of patients were
taken to the nearer hospital at Lancaster. These were mostly the burns patients, with an
average total body surface area burn of 25%. The other patients were evacuated to the
Royal Preston Hospital. The plastic surgeon on call from Preston was alerted by Preston.
There were seven patients arriving at Preston as he did, and word got through that
Lancaster Royal Infirmary had a further twenty-eight, mostly burn patients. He then
travelled up to Lancaster. In Lancaster, as the casualties were brought in, the Doctors
|Number persons present
|Killed at scene of accident
|Cause of death
||Severe multiple trauma
|Cause of death
||Severe multiple trauma, myocardial
infarction, burns sepsis
|Survivors with burns
|% burn TBSA of survivors
|Survivors with fractures
- Synopsis of injuries
Mess had organized a
social event and junior medical and nursing staff were just about to board the coach. This
meant there were many extra hands available as the casualties arrived.
Following an assessment of the injuries a decision on the further management of these
patients was taken. The decision was that the burns patients required evacuation to burns
units. Nearly all were shock cases. The choice was whether to admit all patients to one
unit and import medical staff, as was to happen in Bradford, or to share the workload
between the three nearest units. The decision was to spread the workload between Preston,
Liverpool and Manchester. This was because of the close proximity of the three units - it
was felt the logistics of so many shock cases in Preston would have swamped the hospital.
In hindsight, some errors in transferring patients were made. Some husbands and wives were
split up, and some were sent to the unit not nearest their home or relatives.
Out of the thirty-six survivors, thirty-five required inpatient treatment. One survivor
suffered minor flash burns to the face and was discharged direct from the casualty
department. The remaining thirty-five were all placed in the regional burns units except
for one patient with significant leg and back injuries who stayed at Lancaster until
discharge. Eight patients subsequently died of their injuries. The last death occurred at
13 weeks, from sepsis. The majority of late deaths were due to sepsis and affected the
patients who were blown into the underground water chambers, suffering contamination of
their burns. The twenty-eight survivors were eventually discharged from hospital and then
The official report into the disaster blamed a design fault which did not allow the
methane gas absorbed into the tunnels to be vented. There then followed protracted legal
discussions on liability. This was complicated because there were three parties denying
negligence - the owners of the site, the builders, and the architects who were
subsequently deemed liable. It took a high court ruling preventing any further appeal that
allowed settlement to be finally made in November 1989, 5.5 years after the incident. Both
the Manchester Airport and the Bradford tragedies, which occurred in 1985, had already
With the help of local
media coverage we traced twenty-seven out of the twenty-eight survivors. Two declined to
partake, and one who had moved to Scotland corTesponded by post. We were unable to trace
one survivor but he had recently been heard of by other survivors. The study involved a
plastic surgery out-patient visit where a detailed examination was performed, and a series
of psychological questionnaires were given to the patients to complete. Ethical approval
was obtained from the Medical Ethical Committee (Table II).
|Age range (yr)
|Average age (yr)
Every patient was was asked to record
his/her ongoing disabilities (Table III). Further history and examination were
performed by two plastic surgeons including the senior author, who had treated many of the
patients ten years previously.
- Survivors' on-going problems
At the follow-up of the twenty-four survivors who
attended, twenty-three had required hospital admission, staying an average of 5.5 weeks.
All the survivors suffered burns, with four suffering fractures as well. Fifteen out of
the twenty-four survivors required surgery, the majority for burn shave and graft. Eight
of these required secondary surgery. These secondary procedures were carried out between
three and sixty months after the explosion. The majority were for web contracture releases
of the fingers. All were assessed for hand function problems. The results of the hand
therapist's assessment of hand function showed that ten patients had no problem with
either hand and that ten had some minor problems that did not concern them. Four patients
had functional hand problems for which they did not want any further intervention. It is
worth noting that in this predominantly outdoor working group of patients, those who had
their hands grafted have had more durability.
One patient suffered retinal damage and requires sunglasses in all but low lighting
conditions. One patient has suffered hearing loss since the blast.
Two out of the twenty-four patients had already retired from work, while the remaining
twenty-two were mostly farmers and outdoor workers. Twenty of these returned to some work
after an average of eight months following the accident, fifteen of them requiring light
duties initially. Four of these patients never achieved their normal preinjury duties. Two
were eventually retired on medical grounds.
Pressure garments were worn by seventeen patients for an average of 16.5 months.
At the ten-year year follow-up the majority had no, or just superficial, scars. Cold
intolerance affecting the hands and sunlight avoidance in previously burned skin were
other problems frequently cited. We noted that the group of patients who suffered smaller
area burns were wearing natural fibre clothes that did not catch fire.
No formal counselling was given to these patients by trained counsellors. However, the
nursing and medical staff in attendance offered support, as also the hospital clerics.
Furthermore - and in these circumstances probably more importantly - the patients
counselled themselves as they lay next to each other recovering from their burns.
It is also important to appreciate that the diagnosis "post-traumatic stress
disorder" was accepted only in 1980 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for
Psychiatric Disorders, DSM-III). Formal counselling was not the highprofile therapy it is
today after a disaster. There are no long-term data, and there is no accepted methodology
for the late assessment of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The psychological assessment initially involved a number of questionnaires being given to
the patients to fill in. Preliminary data from these suggested the need for further
detailed assessment. This has involved a lengthy structured interview and further
clinician- administered questionnaires. The results and detailed statistical analysis are
to be published separately.
Disasters come in all shapes and sizes. Plans must exist for the
treatment of patients in such circumstances. All hospitals and regions in the United
Kingdom have major accident plans though thankfully few have ever needed to utilize them.
Once the disaster is over and the survivors are integrated in the routine health service
follow-up, it must be remembered that their period of readjustment will just be starting,
and may never entirely finish. We have presented a quite unique group of patients,
achieving a positive response at ten years from 92% of the patients we were able to
contact. This is not too surprising as the reason they were at Abbeystead in the first
place reflects their concern for the welfare of their community, and most are still an
integral part of that community. This community spirit is a further area of psychological
study. There are still physical problems but, having been through so much already, they
all prefer to get on with their lives. They attended though in the hope of helping others
gain from their experiences.
RESUME. En 1984, quarante-quatre personnes ont
subi les effets d'une explosion souterraine qui en fin de compte a causé la mort de seize
victimes. Les Auteurs décrivent les circonstances de l'accident et présentent les
résultats préliminaires de la morbidité vérifiée après une période de dix ans.
Acknowledgements. We wish to thank the consultant
surgeons who treated these patients at the Royal Preston Hospital (RPH), the University
Hospital of South Manchester, and Whiston Hospital, Liverpool. We also thank the nurses
and allied health professionals involved in their care. Special thanks go to the
Department of Medical Illustration at RPH, the Physiotherapy Department at RPH, and Alison
Preston for her secretarial support.
|This paper was presented at the Third International
Conference on Burns and Fire Disasters,
held in Palermo, Italy in June 1995.
Address correspondence to: Mr
Department of Plastic Surgery
Royal Preston Hospital, Sharoe Green Lane
Fulwood, Preston, Great Britain PR2 4HT.