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Dudgeon’s Wharf—the day five firemen were killed in oil tank blast

PUBLISHED: 11:45 24 December 2009 | UPDATED: 15:25 05 October 2010

Tragedy... aftermath of explosion which killed six men

Tragedy... aftermath of explosion which killed six men

FIREFIGHTERS remembered their five comrades who perished more than 40 years ago at the Dudgeon’s Warf disaster on the Isle of Dogs in East London when a commemorative plaque was unveiled on the site of the former Millwall oil storage plant. A service marked that fateful Thursday afternoon in July, 1969, when five firemen and a demolition worker were killed

By Mike Brooke

FIREFIGHTERS remembered their five comrades this Christmas who perished more than 40 years ago at the Dudgeon’s Warf disaster on the Isle of Dogs in East London when a commemorative plaque was unveiled.

London’s fire commissioner Ron Dobson unveiled the plaque at the service on the site of the former Millwall oil storage plant at Compass Point, off Manchester Road.

The service marked that fateful Thursday afternoon in July, 1969, when five firemen and a demolition worker were killed. Five more firemen were serious injured.

A fire had broken out in one of the huge oil storage tanks on the Thames waterfront, big enough to hold a-million gallons, which demolition workers had actually put out.

Fire crews arrived to make sure—but miscalculation led to the horrifying explosion that sent six men to their deaths.

They believed the 60ft storage tank was empty and were standing by ready to cool the inside with hoses while demolition worker Richard Adamas cut open an inspection cover through the thick steel hull.

But air rushing in through the open cover may have mixed with vapour from the residual oil at the bottom of the tank.

A spark from Richard’s oxyacetylene torch ignited the lethal cocktail of oxygen and oil chemical and exploded, sending the crew on the tank roof hurtling 40ft to their deaths.

Police and nearby dockers raced to the scene searching the rubble for the bodies, while the injured were ferried in a fleet of ambulances to Poplar Hospital.

JUST LIKE THE BLITZ’

A neighbour living close by in Manchester Road called the East London Advertiser office at 12.25pm and said: “The explosion rocked our flats—it was just like the blitz all over again.”

Mothers ran to the nearby Cubitt Town Primary school to make sure their children were safe.

The man who raised the alarm was the plant office manager Alf Moon, who later gave a dramatic account of the tragic events to the paper.

“A fire broke out in tank number 97 in the morning during the demolition work and I called the Fire Brigade,” he said. “But before I had even put the telephone down, the men signalled that they themselves had extinguished the fire.

“The Brigade arrived to make sure the tank was safe. That’s when it exploded into a sheet of flames. It was just like a rocket taking off.

“The men who had been on the top were sailing through the air with their arms and legs outstretched and twisted metal flying around them.”

Wreckage from the blast landed 150ft away. One of the demolition workers who helped find the bodies was metal-cutter Roy Measom, whose friend Richard Adamas, known as Reg, was the workman who was killed.

He said: “We had the fire under control, but the firemen arrived and wanted to get inside the tank.

“They told me to cut off bolts holding an inspection cover at the bottom of the tank.

“Reg lit the gun and handed it to Mick Hagarty who gave it to me.

“As soon as I started cutting, there was an explosion and the gun was torn from my hand. Reg landed face down on the jetty. I think he was killed instantly.”

Roy Measom was nearly killed himself, as he later recalled: “I saw the top of the tank flying towards me and dived between two other tanks. It’s a miracle I survived.

“When I looked up, the firemen were flying around like paper dolls. The air was full of helmets and debris.”

One of the firemen killed in the blast was the one he said gave him the order to cut through the bolts.

“There was no need to cut into the tank,” Roy added. “The fire was out. We should have left it to cool, not take the inspection plate off.”

EAST END MOURNS

The East End went into mourning for its tragic loss. Hundreds of firemen from all over Britain arrived the following week for the funeral of their comrades from Millwall, Brunswick Road and Cannon Street fire-stations.

They formed a guard of honour four deep as the coffins draped in Union Jacks were carried into All Saints Church at Stratford.

Crowds lined the street to see the five fire-tenders bearing the coffins arrive, with brass-helmeted trumpeters sounding The Last Post.

Fire Brigade Missionary Jack Woodgate spoke of the six men, including civilian Richard Adamas, as “comrades in death.”

After the service, traffic came to a halt and passengers got off buses to pay respect as the cortege made its way slowly to the City of London Cemetery.

The plaque unveiled on the site of Dudgeons Wharf marking the tragedy of July 17, 1969, commemorates the lost lives of sub-officer Michael Gamble and Alfred Smee, both from Millwall fire-station, John Appleby and Terrence Breen from Poplar’s Brunswick Road fire-station, and Paul Carvosso from Cannon Street fire-station in the City, as well as Richard Adamas who became their comrade in death.’

It was the greatest loss of life in the London Fire Brigade from a single incident since the Second World War three decades before. It was a tragedy the East End would not forget.

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