A14 reopened thanks to Army robot

A REMOTE controlled robot became an unlikely hero for thousands of motorists after a blocked stretch of the A14 was reopened nine hours earlier than expected.

A REMOTE controlled robot became an unlikely hero for thousands of motorists after a blocked stretch of the A14 was reopened nine hours earlier than expected.

Suffolk's busiest road was back to normal yesterday morning - 20 hours after a van carrying lethal chemicals caught fire and partially exploded, closing a six-mile stretch of the road and bringing an estimated 80,000 vehicles to a virtual standstill.

Fire and military chiefs praised the intervention of the army's bomb disposal machine - known as the wheelbarrow - which was able to get inside the van and spray water directly on to the acetylene canister they feared might explode.

Firefighters had placed a 200m “explosion zone” around the site, at the Rowley Mile services in Newmarket, and evacuated the two petrol stations - on either side of the road - after the van caught fire at 8am on Wednesday.

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But the early reopening - ensuring thousands of motorists had a smooth passage along the A14 and easing fears about the closure hitting the Lowestoft Air Festival - was only made possible thanks to the specialist bomb disposal machine.

An Army spokesman said: “The wheelbarrow was used to get close enough to the van and assess the situation and damage. The bomb disposal team then used the robot to get into the vehicle and hose the cylinder inside.

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“It made the incident go a lot quicker and I am sure drivers who use the A14 are very happy the wheelbarrow worked.”

Suffolk's assistant chief fire officer Gary Phillips said: “We must praise the bomb disposal machine which allowed us to apply jets direct to the cylinder thanks to a specially-adapted hose. It was certainly a firefighting innovation which we didn't know was there and we will look at it in future incidents involving chemicals.”

Mr Phillips added: “It was a big decision to close the A14 but the safety of people was paramount. If we hadn't made that decision, it could have been a catastrophe. From a fire service perspective, I would like to praise crews who did a first class assessment of the situation, followed procedure to the letter and did an excellent job.”

Police Supt Mike Shields, who was in charge of the operation, said: “A closure of a road such as the A14 is a huge logistical challenge for all agencies. One of our main priorities was to keep traffic moving and clear the initial backlog adjacent to the incident.

“Diverting vehicles onto more minor roads at peak periods created slow moving traffic, motorists were incredibly patient when tensions were running high on a very hot day.”

A spokesman for the Highways Agency, which notified drivers as far as Birmingham of the accident, said: “I have not known a situation where the A14 could be shut for almost 24 hours.”

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