FIFTY years ago this month a lorry full of chemicals and iron bars exploded in Friar Park, West Bromwich, with such force that it destroyed several houses and put several locals in hospital. Miraculously, no one was killed, as Ken Ford, whose house was wrecked by the blast, explained in our feature of two editions ago.
The photographs with which we illustrated that article were provided by retired firefighter John Bowen of Tipton, but they were only the tip of the iceberg. Not only does John have a wonderful collection of images from the aftermath of the explosion, he also has the report made by the brigade of that event. Thankfully, he saved both document and pictures from being thrown away several years ago, and he's kindly allowed us to share them with you here.
The gravity of the situation is demonstrated by the number of vehicles in attendance, and the distances they'd been summoned from. There were three Pump Escapes, one each from West Bromwich, Walsall and Wednesbury; five Major Pumps, one from West Bromwich and two each from Smethwick and Birmingham; an Emergency Tender from Smethwick and a Water Tender from Walsall.
The cause of the explosion is recorded in the report as unknown; clearly the chemicals on board had come into contact and all hell had broken loose, but how that happened was impossible to tell from what scraps were left of the lorry. Aboard the Albion Chieftain flatbed were 71 rectangular metal containers of methyl ethyl ketone, each one polythene-lined and holding five gallons; twelve glass bottles of hydrogen peroxide, each holding ten gallons and packed in steel crates with woodwool packing; ten onehundredweight paper bags of sodium meta-sylicate powder; sixteen wooden pallets, roughly two hundredweight of paper string, and 35 hundredweight of flat steel bars.
The load had come from Laporte Chemicals in Warrington, Cheshire, suppliers of hydrogen peroxide and related products, and was being carried by Jacks Motors of Blackburn. The driver was 30 year old John Walker, also of Blackburn, who, according to the report, was driving along Walsall Road towards West Bromwich when he noticed smoke coming from under the sheeting on the back of his lorry. Being well aware of what could happen if his load caught fire, he pulled over onto waste ground as soon as he could and ran across to the nearby Navigation Inn, where he asked the landlord to call the Fire Brigade. He was on his way back to the lorry when the whole thing exploded.
According to the Fire Brigade report: 'Very little of this vehicle was left at the site of the explosion, parts of the vehicle and load being subsequently recovered from a very wide area — approximately 500 yards in diameter."
Thirteen other vehicles are listed as being damaged, with a Bedford van 'possibly a write-off'. The damage to buildings varied, but a map drawn up of the area gives a clear idea of how the blast carried, with those houses damaged beyond repair being marked in red. Three blocks of semi-detached houses had to be demolished, with several others having their roofs stipped of slates, their roof timbers damaged and doors and windows blown in. John Bowen was yet to join the Fire Service at this point in time, sitting as he was in a classroom at Hill Top Secondary Modern four or five miles away. But he remembers that he and his classmates heard their windows rattled by the blast.
"Although undoubtedly serious in the situation in which it occurred," reads the report, "one cannot help wondering what would have been the casualty list if this explosion had occurred in a busy town centre. The lorry had in fact, just left Walsall and was to proceed via West Bromwich to Oldbury."
As it was, it was the residents of Walsall Road, Roberts Road and the adjacent streets who, though lucky not to have been badly injured, bore the brunt of the blast. There is a comprehensive list of names, addresses and injuries attached to the report, which reveals that the most common afflictions were cuts and lacerations from flying debris, and inevitably shock. Ken Ford's mother Mary of the ill-fated 290 Walsall Road is noted amongst the casualties, having sustained a scratched right leg and shock. But only five residents were still in hospital two days after the blast, with head injuries, multiple lacerations, shock and one broken leg between them.
But for the quick-thinking lorry driver and a bit of luck, it could have been so much worse.