Five dead in huge fireball during 'illegal vodka brewing operation'
Published 14/07/2011 | 08:43
Five men have been killed and another seriously injured in a huge explosion at a British industrial estate amid claims it was sparked by an illegal vodka making operation.
The men, who have not been named, died instantly after the fireball ripped through the Broadfield Lane industrial estate in Boston, Linolnshire.
Witnesses up to five miles away reported hearing the massive blast, which they said sounded like “the world was coming to an end”.
Residents claimed the group, understood to be migrant workers, had been involved in the illegal alcohol brewing operation.
One of the men was seen fleeing on fire from the unit, measuring about 30ft by 15ft, less than 600 feet from neighbouring allotments and a block of flats.
Authorities were amazed that no more residents were killed during the "rapid explosion".
Fire officials said the ferocity of the fire was "so intense" that steel shutters on the unit wharped, roller shutters buckled and a car outside was set alight.
Police sources told The Daily Telegraph that an investigation would centre on whether the men were working in the illegal distillery.
Council officials, meanwhile, confirmed that several shops had been raised in recent weeks amid suggestions the practice was “widespread”.
Earlier this year, dangerous counterfeit vodka with the potential to blind those who drink it was discovered in Boston during a the first ever operation to crackdown on the illicit tobacco and alcohol trade.
Dozens of police, 30 firefighters in six appliances and ambulance crews were scrambled to the scene just after 7pm as thick, black smoke was seen billowing from the premises.
Police said five men were killed after the explosion while a sixth man was rushed to Boston Pilgrim Hospital before he was transferred to the Queen’s Medical Centre, Nottingham. He remained in a serious condition last night.
The area remained cordoned off as investigators searched for forensic officials search for clues.
Residents of different nationalities flocked to the scene amid fears their relatives were caught in the blast.
Many claimed that a building within the industrial estate had been used for an illegal operation to brew vodka.
“The blast was from an illegal still producing Vodka, which has been supplying local people and shops, all people involved are believed to be eastern European,” said one resident, who did not want to be named.
“Police have found the vodka in several shops in Boston over the last few weeks and have issued warnings to them but not closed them down.”
Another resident said: “I heard a huge bang just after 7pm, it sounded like the world was coming to an end.
“It all went crazy, there were fireman and ambulances everywhere.
“There have been rumours that some of the migrant workers were using the industrial estate to brew their own vodka.”
Another eye witness, Paul Featherstone, said “There was thick black smoke coming out of the unit. If the explosion hadn’t killed them the smoke would have.
“There was one person who got out. All his arms were ablaze.”
Lincolnshire Police sources confirmed that investigations would look into the brewing claims.
A spokeswoman added that investigators were keeping an "open mind and following up all relevant lines of inquiry".
“Inquiries are ongoing and will be ongoing throughout the night to establish the cause of this explosion," she said.
“The circumstances at the moment are still unclear, there will be a full forensic examination of the unit.
“I understand it to have been an instant explosion that caused their deaths.”
Steve Moore, Boston area manager for Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue, said it was a "major incident" with six appliances and 30 firefighters deployed.
Mr Moore described the incident as one of the most serious he had seen in his 28-year career.
"As far as the crews I have spoken to, it's the single greatest loss of life in fire in their experience," he said.
"The ferocity of the fire was so intense that steel shutters on the unit were warping. The intensity... (also) buckled the roller shutters and set alight to a car outside.
"The crews had to use hydraulic equipment to cut their way into the block. Fire officers with breathing apparatus entered the unit and sadly discovered five other casualties inside. "
In March, coordinated raids, the first of their kind in Britain, were carried out by officers from Customs who seized 88 litres of illegal alcohol from six stores after carrying out busts across the town.
Elliott Fountain, a local councillor from Boston council, said the problem of illegal vodka in the city was “widespread”.
“Everyone knows that there is illegal vodka being sold in Eastern European shops but we didn’t know how close to home it was being made. It’ not even foreign bootlegging,” he said.
“A number of shops have been raided by police, the council and Customs and Excise in the last three or four months.
“The stuff they’re making is barely even vodka, it’s chemicals. A scientist who looked at it said it could make you blind.”
Gary Seymour, assistant head of Lincolnshire Trading Standards, said: “It’s a growing industry, which we are getting more and more intelligence about, and the real problem is you don’t know what’s in it.
“Some of the illegally-made vodka has been found to contain high levels of methanol, which is used to make antifreeze and some fuels.
“Drinking it can be incredibly dangerous and could cause dizziness, breathing difficulties and even blindness.”
Boston has one of the country’s largest populations of migrant workers with up to a quarter of the town’s 30,000 population believed to be from Russia, Eastern Europe and Portugal.
The vicar of Boston Canon Robin Whitehead offered his prayers and condolences to the families of victims after visiting the scene.
“We will be praying for them and if there is anything we can do to help them or their families we will be happy to do so.
“This is a terrible thing to happen. I have received phone calls from the Bishop of Grantham and the Archdeacon of Lincoln who are passing on their condolences. This goes to show that everybody is thinking of the people involved.”