On this day in history : 23rd May 1984 – An explosion at a water pumping station in Abbeystead, near Lancashire, kills 16 people…. For a considerable time afterwards the cause remains a mystery….

The Abbeystead Valve House was built as part of a water supply project to help meet the needs of an anticipated increase in demand for water across South Lancashire during the 1980s…. It was built underground as it is situated in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and was considered an incredible feat of engineering…. It was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in 1980….

The operation involved transferring water from the River Lune, approximately 8 miles north west of Abbeystead, to the River Wyre…. Some 280 million litres of water were moved on a daily basis…. In early 1984 the village of St. Michael’s-on-Wye experienced persistent severe flooding and local residents blamed the pumping operation at Abbeystead…. Hoping to address their concerns the North West Water Authority organised a tour of the Valve House for the villagers…. At 7.20 on the evening of the 23rd of May 36 residents arrived for the demonstration and were met by 8 representatives of the NWWA…. The pumping station had not been used for the previous 17 days as Lancashire had been experiencing drought conditions….

The system was switched on – but there was no water in the pipes…. They waited but still nothing happened…. It was then decided to turn on a set of reserve valves – which proved to be a fatal mistake…. A massive explosion ripped through the underground building causing the 30 concrete roof beams, weighing 2.5 tons each, to be blown skywards, tearing through the earth above them…. They then crashed back down into the chamber – at the same time a huge fireball engulfed those trapped inside…. Emergency services received the first call at 7.37pm…. 9 people were killed instantly, 28 were seriously injured – 7 died of their injuries later…. 2 of the dead were children…. Not one person present in the Valve House at the time escaped unharmed….

Plaque commemorating those who died – Image credit : Mr T CC BY-SA 2.0

Immediate tests carried out at the scene revealed no trace of gas – indeed there were no gas installations at the pumping station itself…. Later investigations by the Health and Safety executive discovered the site is situated close to coal seams, making build ups of methane gas possible…. As the Valve House had not been used in recent weeks a build up of gas had accumulated in the water pipes…. As the plant was switched on the methane had been pumped into the chamber…. What caused the initial spark to ignite it remains unanswered – but it has to be remembered smoking laws were far more relaxed back then….

The pumping station was later refurbished following the accident….

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