Guest post: Neil Chapman on the Buncefield explosion in UK

December 17, 2008

Here is another guest post from Neil Chapman from London. Critical issue addressed: the dangers of speculating on cause.

Sometimes the obvious takes time to sink in.

It’s just past the third anniversary of the Buncefield explosion in the UK. It’s also the length of time it has taken government-appointed investigators to pull together their final incident report. I was reading their conclusions and recommendations, searching out lessons for crisis communicators.

Background to the event is that around 6am on Sunday December 11, 2005 a series of explosions led to a large fire that destroyed much of the Buncefield Oil Storage and Transfer Depot located about 18 miles north east of London and close to Heathrow Airport (one of the world’s busiest international airports). The airport received half its fuel from Buncefield. On that crisp-sky day a huge pall of black smoke, visible by satellites, hung in the air. The explosions were heard in Holland and France.

For you, Gerald, what I’ve described will be reminiscent of the terrible events in your hometown of Bellingham when the Olympic pipeline exploded killing three young people. However, while the Buncefield incident caused billions of dollars in damage and 40 plus people were injured, thankfully no-one was killed –  a fact the investigators attribute to the time the explosions happened.

The report says the event was caused by the overfilling of a large petrol storage tank, but admits it remains a mystery why the subsequent explosions were so violent that the fires engulfed more than 20 large storage tanks on the site.

“ The main explosion at Buncefield was unusual because it generated much
higher overpressures than would usually have been expected from a vapour cloud
explosion.” Over pressure is the pressure over and above normal atmospheric pressure caused by an explosion, which is itself a rapid release of energy.

I was astonished. Then the lesson for crisis communications hit me. The mantra for spokespeople is: “never speculate on the cause of an event.” I confess that saying: “We don’t know” is sometimes hard to repeat over and over again in the face of a lot of stakeholder pressure. But it would have been the only answer at Buncefield even three years after the event.

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