Echo Newspaper July 1970
Children were banned from Canvey beaches and holidaymakers warned not to smoke after a cargo liner sliced through a refinery jetty and sparked of a huge blaze drama today. Police toured caravan camps on the island warning thousands of holidaymakers not to smoke near the beach because of inflammable vapour given off by oil which gushed into the Estuary when the liner cut fuel pipelines. But the wrecked jetty proved to be an unexpected tourist attraction and carloads of trippers arrived to stare at the damage from Hole Haven
Extra police patrols were keeping an oil watch along Southend seafront. They had orders to slap on a strict no-smoking ban if oil was washed ashore. A Port of London Authority spokesman said: “The danger of ignition would be very great with this particular type of oil. We are taking no chances.” Helicopters from the United States Air Force were called in by the PLA to sweep the Estuary for oil threatening resort beaches. A spokesman said: “The helicopters will be in constant radio contact with our water-borne oil clearing teams.
Pilots of aircraft using Southend airport were helping in the oil search and Southend coastguards asked all estuary shipping to look out for slicks. Southend’s anti-oil pollution team was on full alert with 2,000 gallons of detergent and up to 800 men in reserve as the sickly stench of the crude oil hung over the town. But as high tide came and ebbed, the oil was confined to the sea wall at Hole Haven. None had reached beaches further down the estuary and experts believe oil which has not already reached Canvey’s beaches may stay in the main shipping channel and miss the holiday beaches.
The drama began at midnight when the 10,123-ton Spanish-owned Monte Ulia, inward bound for Tilbury with 163 passengers, 86 crew and a pilot aboard, veered off course and hit the £ I million 800-yard Mobil jetty with such force that the impact could be heard a mile away.
The ship swung away and grounded on a sandbank about 300 yards off Canvey but the impact sparked off a terrifying chain reaction. Four hundred tons of pipeline crude oil gushed into the estuary and burst into flames. As the oil snaked out into a two-mile long loop round Canvey, fire tugs battled to stop the flames spreading the length of the slick. Then two blazing barges, moored at the Mobil jetty, broke loose and were swept on the ebb tide a quarter of a mile towards a jetty at Canvey where two tankers were unloading hundreds of tons of fuel.
The tankers hastily put to sea as tugs grappled with one of the blazing barges and stopped it. The other barge slipped through and three part-time firemen leapt into a rowing boat, stopping it only six feet from the jetty’s pipelines. Nearby are acres of oil and gas storage tanks.
Shipping was warned of the danger and told to anchor at Southend until the all-clear was given. Fire tugs, supported by Southend lifeboat and a police launch and more than 100 firemen ashore, battled for 90 minutes to bring the blazes under control. A PLA spokesman said: “We’ve been very lucky. There’s been nothing like it since the war. It went off like a bomb. There was a terrible risk involved with so much fuel around.”
The jetty hit by the liner carries 30-inch wide fuel pipes and was put into use only a year ago to handle tankers up to 200,000 tons. This was the second ship in five weeks to hit it — last time it was a docking tanker. A Mobil spokesman said: “Damage is pretty extensive. There will be a company inquiry and one by the Board of Trade.”
The Monte Ulia was refloated on the incoming tide at 4.30 a.m., and went on to dock at Tilbury with slight damage to her bows.
Families in fear of disaster
Once again Canvey’s sprawling oil refineries flirt with disaster. Today’s drama comes only a few weeks after 250 firemen fought a £100,000 blaze at the Shellhaven refinery flanking the Mobil plant. And now families living in the shadow of the giant storage tanks are asking: “Will the third time bring a holocaust?”
After pressure from the Evening Echo and Mr. Bernard Braine, MP for South-East Essex, the Commons heard only last Monday that a full report on the cause of and risk of last month’s fire would be given to all authorities concerned.
But already plans are afoot for extensions to the vast fuel ‘farm’ spreading at Canvey. First reaction to Canvey’s close shave was a big sigh of relief. Mr. Ken Griffin, secretary of Canvey Oil Refinery objectors’ Association, said: “This has been on the cards for some time. The possibility of another oil installation is positively frightening. The plans for the American refinery show a jetty going well out into the creek — if it had been there last night it would have gone up in flames.”
Crisis – As Even the Thames Caught Fire
The Monte Ulia was nosing smoothly up the Thames on the last few miles of her uneventful journey from Bilbao in Spain. On deck the lookout crew were grateful for the clear night with a calm sea and south-westerly wind.
Below holiday makers enjoyed a last night dancing after their sun drenched holiday. The children were sleeping peacefully. They knew nothing about the mystery incident that caused the 10,123-ton cargo liner to turn sudden turn to starboard … on a direct course for Mobil s new £1M supertanker jetty.
Then the crash and the calm night air exploded into a shattering din of alarm bells and the roaring flames.
Here is the Echo’s minute-by-minute reconstruction of events as they happened.
11.33: The Monte Ulia slices through Mobil’s oil jetty, smashing the 30-inch fuel pipes and leaving a gap 100 yards long.
Among the 163 British passengers returning from holidays in the Canary Islands were Mr. Arthur Ellis and his wife, Nora, of Bolton, Lanes. They were in their cabin with daughter Beverley aged 11, and Phillip aged 2, when the first hint of trouble came.
Mr. Ellis says: “There was just this bump and then all the alarms and whistles started going and we were ordered to our assembly points with our lifejackets on. There was no panic at all.”
Mrs. Peggy Lacey, of Camberley, described the episode as “rather frightening.” Her husband Col. Bill Lacey, said: “There was just this heavy bump and a jerk and when I looked out the flames were about 100 feet in the air. It was just lucky that the wind didn’t blow them on to our ship.
“All the alarms were going and as far as I could see there was nobody panicking.”
The alarm bells were the first warning for Mr. James Shepherd and his wife, Ireen, of Forest Hill, London.
Mrs. Shepherd says: “I looked out and the whole of the water was alight. It was quite a frightening experience.”
11.36: Fire brigade and fire-fighting tugs are alerted as the jetty and surrounding sea erupt into flames.
Crude oil — 400 tons of it — gushing from the ruptured pipeline was shaking out into a slick two miles long. The blaze threatened to spread the entire length of the slick as it neared three other jetties and thousands of tons of stored oil and North Sea gas.
Two blazing barges break loose from the Mobil jetty and are swept by that steady sou-westerly towards a Canvey jetty where two tankers are unloading hundreds of tins of fuel.
11.36: Two fire-fighting tugs are speeding from Gravesend. Only two were on standby because of the docks strike.
Meanwhile, the Monte Ulia drifts perilously close to the flames. Aboard, there is no panic. The dancers have got into their life jackets. Frightened children are soothed.
Essex firemen, including part-timers from Canvey and Corringham set out to tackle the blaze.
11.45: The two Gravesend tugs get to grips with the raging fire. Then they spot the fire-barges floating towards the Canvey jetty of London and Coastal Oil Wharves.
Fire appliances on the beach set their hoses on the sea.
11.50: One blazing barge is stopped by the two tugs less than halfway to the jetty. But the other slips past them . . . bearing down on the jetty where two ships are unloading their cargoes: The nearest contains instantly-ignitable benzine, the other crude oil. One spark could set off a chain reaction of untold disaster.
The sea-inferno licks downriver, setting fire to three other vessels — two floating cranes and a manned lighter which crashes into a different jetty. The crew, miraculously, is unhurt.
Aboard the Monte Ulia all remains calm as she is deliberately beached north of Coryton and 300 yards off Canvey.
12 MIDNIGHT — CRISIS POINT: The beached liner is in danger of drifting back towards the flames as the tide continues to ebb; the fire creeps ever closer to Canvey; and worst of all the escaped fire-barge is heading for a direct hit on the Canvey oil jetty.
The two tankers unloading benzine and oil put to sea. Four more tugs arrive from Gravesend. Part-lime Canvey firemen on the London and Coastal jetty plan a last, desperate attempt to stave off the blazing barge.
12.10: Three of the firemen in a tiny dinghy stop it only six feet from the jetty and douse the flames. One of them is Geoff Barsby, insurance agent and father of two, of North Avenue, Canvey.
“The sea all around us was alight and the barge was sweeping closer to the jetty every minute,” he says. “The three of us jumped into a rowing boat and pulled for the barge.
“Both the wooden structure and its diesel engine were on fire. The two tankers unloading fuel just got out of the way in time.
“We got alongside the barge and I climbed aboard. I used special extinguishers and got the fire out.
“There’s no doubt, it was a potential disaster.”
12.15: The fire itself still rages and by now 14 fire engines are on the scene and 100 firemen battling
from the tugs, the jetties and the beaches. Four of the Gravesend tugs attach lines to the drifting Monte Ulia.
1.10: Immediate crisis over. The flames die on the shattered jetty and the sea.
1.15: Police alert local councils to risks from oil slick descending on beaches.
2.0: Police issue “keep back” warning to sightseers and warn against naked lights.
2.30: Messages flashed to regional centres where chemicals to disperse the oil are stored.
4.45: Monte Ulia refloated on the incoming tide.
5.45: Monte Ulia docked at passenger terminal, Tilbury, after going upriver under her own steam.
6.30: Fleet of Leigh fishing boats set out for disaster area to tackle oil slick with detergents.
8.0: R.A.F. helicopter scrambled to collect pollution experts and direct mopping-up operations.
Now, while the filthy results of the accident lap on Canvey’s shores and the fire risk lingers on, the Canvey backlash begins.
The first question: Why did the Monte Ulia go off course?
A PLA spokesman said today: “We have heard reports that the Spanish vessel took action to avoid another craft. But this is the sort of thing which will not be confirmed until there is a full inquiry.
“The pilot who was on board will be making a report to Trinity House.”
And Canvey people are tonight demanding to know exactly what that report and any others contain.
They think they’re entitled to that . . . after the midnight crisis that could have altered the Island map.
Rod Bishop’s personal memories of the event can be read here