Christmas blackout

16th December 2005 at 00:00
Teachers and pupils join exodus as schools remain closed after oil depot blast, reports Adi Bloom.

Christmas has been postponed at Leverstock Green.

The Hertfordshire primary is only a short distance from the Buncefield oil depot, near Hemel Hempstead, where 20 fuel storage tanks were set ablaze after an explosion in the early hours of Sunday morning.

The resulting damage to the school means that it will not reopen until January. Alan Phair, headteacher, said: "We're going to have our Christmas party when we come back. We need to be careful how we follow this up. There are a lot of personal tragedies. Some families have had their homes ripped apart, roofs blown off their houses."

Despite the thick lingering black cloud of soot, evacuated families returned to their homes on Wednesday to assess the damage after firefighters and police ended their 59-hour battle against the inferno.

"We have to give children a chance to draw pictures and talk about the blaze. And in assembly we'll talk about the work of firemen and police,"

said Mr Phair.

Seventy-seven plates of glass at Leverstock Green were blown out by the blast. Three doors were also torn off their hinges.

"Most houses nearby were fine, so the destruction was a real shock," said Mr Phair.

Michael Kent, 11, sees the situation slightly differently. "It's pretty cool to be off school," he said. "I'm glad I'm not there with that glass."

Leverstock Green is one of five schools to remain closed following the fire. On Monday, Hertfordshire county council shut 200 schools within a 10-mile radius of the blast. By Tuesday, a further 73 had been added. All but five - two primaries, two special schools and one secondary - reopened on Wednesday.

A major clean-up operation will now follow. A council spokesman said: "The health department said there were soot particulates in the air, which is risky to children. We now have to wipe schools down completely to get rid of this."

Water was given the all-clear after tests on the nearby rivers Ver and Red showed that contaminants had not seeped into the water table.

Astley Cooper, the secondary school closest to the blast, reopened with only minor damage. Form tutors discussed the event with children, giving them the opportunity to tell their stories.

Anne Smithers, headteacher, said: "It's important that school is somewhere stable. It was a difficult couple of days. I think pupils are glad to have some normality."

Other schools were not damaged, but had to close as traffic congestion prevented teachers from getting to work. Boxmoor primary was among them.

Jan Wright, headteacher, said: "I thought there would be worried faces when we came back. But the pupils were excited. We have a few wheezy children, which may be due to the pollution."


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