Community recovering from moorland blazes- Chemstar causes ‘night of hell’ in Carrbrook

Correspondent editor Tony Bugby is the only journalist to have covered the two major incidents that have hit Carrbrook, the recent moorland blazes and the massive explosion at the Chemstar chemical plant in 1981.

The huge fires that recently swept local moorland and threatened to engulf Carrbrook were not the only time the village has made national and international news.

Correspondent Editor, Tony Bugby pictured

Back in 1981 – almost 37 years to this day – Carrbrook endured a “night of hell” after a huge explosion ripped through the Chemstar chemical plant, killing one person and seriously injuring a second employee.

It was a blaze involving fuelled by an estimated 150,000 gallons of chemical solvent and rivers of fire ran through the streets as it took 37 fire appliances from throughout Greater Manchester to tackle.

And there were extraordinary tales of heroism from locals.

If residents thought the moorland blazes were bad with 34 homes evacuated, it was nothing compared to Chemstar when the whole village was evacuated.

Residents were soundly asleep at 11.45pm on Sunday, September 6, 1981 when they were awoken by a deafening explosion that rocked their homes as well as houses as far afield as Micklehurst and Stalybridge town centre.

The Stalybridge Reporter covered the event in great detail and their reports relived the terrifying moment the blast struck.

It read: “The scene resembled the climax of a chilling horror movie with 1,000 residents hurriedly picking up their nearest belongings and fleeing down the main road out of the village.

“Some stayed with friends while other temporary homeless evacuees spent the night at St Raphael’s centre, Millbrook, or Millbrook Community Centre.

“Some residents – clad only in nightclothes – staggered around in a daze while hundreds of sightseers from throughout Greater Manchester craned forward to get a better view of the raging fire.”

The report added that 40-gallon drums of chemicals were hurled hundreds of yards into the air, bursting into spectacular fireballs.

Some were even found quarter of a mile away on the fairways at Stamford Golf Club.

It continued to explain that first on the scene was hero Peter Dean, 38, of Crowswood Drive, Carrbrook.

He heard the explosion and drove to the works with Gary Wilson, son of the landlord of the nearby Buckton Vale pub.

As they entered the factory, fire victim Norman Halsall staggered past with his face and hair on fire, screaming that someone else was trapped inside.

But as they opened a door to reach the other man, lorry driver Michael McGrady, 40, of Little Lever, Bolton who was killed, flames shot out.

“It was like having a blowlamp held in front of our faces,” said Mr Davies.

“We tried to get right inside but there was no way. Then place was really going up and we knew there could be other explosions.”

Another man, who had reached the scene, was frantically trying to reverse a lorry loaded with chemicals out of the factory, but he was overcome by fumes.

Mr Dean dragged the almost-unconscious man outside and then, with flames licking at the vehicle, drove it outside.

“At the time we didn’t think about the danger. We just got in there and did what we could.

“As I was driving the lorry out, there was another explosion and the back end of the vehicle was on fire”.

As a series of fireballs illuminated the village, Harry Stanley, of Broadbent Close, said: “It was terrifying, like the last days of Pompei. Rivers of chemicals were running alight down the factory.

“The first explosion sounded like the roar of a volcano. Flames shot hundreds of feet into the air. It was one huge flaming torch lighting up the community.”

Process worker Mr Halsall, who was seriously injured, revealed it was an amazing stroke of luck that saved his life.

Normally he would have been inside the factory at the time of the explosion, but he had nipped out to check a piece of equipment.

Chemstar, a company that employed 17 people, had long been a concern to residents as it was in the heart of the village. They were also mindful of another chemical plant explosion at Flixborough.

Nearby residents expressed their fears less than three months earlier at a planning inquiry when the firm appealed against a Tameside Council order to remove thousands of drums of chemicals stacked alongside the garden at Oak Villas of conservation committee chairman Frank Swallow.

Later the Department of the Environment inspector gave the firm an extra 12 months to move the drums to the back of the factory.

There were suggestions the chemical plant would be rebuilt but Mr Swallow explained this would be met with fierce opposition.

“Feelings are running so high that any suggestion of rebuilding the plant will be met by violence. I can’t be held responsible for anything that happens,” he said.

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