Van fire causes A14 traffic chaos
SUFFOLK'S busiest road was shut yesterday after a van blew up near two petrol stations - sparking a military operation to avert a possible disaster.The A14 near Newmarket was turned to gridlock by the explosion in the vehicle, which was carrying a potentially-lethal gas cylinder, as fire-fighters faced a race against time to evacuate the filling stations and throw a 200m exclusion zone thrown around the area.
SUFFOLK'S busiest road was shut yesterday after a van blew up near two petrol stations - sparking a military operation to avert a possible disaster.
The A14 near Newmarket was turned to gridlock by the explosion in the vehicle, which was carrying a potentially-lethal gas cylinder, as fire-fighters faced a race against time to evacuate the filling stations and throw a 200m exclusion zone thrown around the area.
Traffic swiftly choked roads for miles around as diversions kicked in and motorists were last night warned to expect similar problems this morning as firefighters said they would continue to pump cooling water on the dangerously unstable canister until 1.30pm today at the earliest.
Thousands of families, business people and lorry drivers were forced to endure the traffic nightmare gridlock in sweltering temperatures after the van went up in flames close to the Rowley Mile services at Exning.
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Firefighters - who themselves braved considerable danger -said their first priority was to ensure the evacuation of the petrol stations and a nearby restaurant to ensure public safety.
Both sides of the A14 were sealed off - with tailbacks stretching to Bury St Edmunds on the west bound stretch and through to Cambridge on the other side of the road.
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Fire chiefs said the road would be closed well into today and appealed for motorists to remain patient.
Specialist bomb disposal machines took photos inside the smouldering van for fire crews to establish whether the cylinder had been ruptured and thermal imaging equipment was used to check for hot spots.
The driver of the van involved managed to flee his burning vehicle before it was wrecked by the “minor” blast and was said to be “shocked but unhurt” by his ordeal.
Assistant Divisional Officer Ali Moseley, who led the operation - one of the biggest on Suffolk's roads in recent years - said: “When this type of canister becomes unstable, it is like a bomb waiting to explode.
“The whole situation was unsafe for our personnel, if we had disrupted the cylinder it could have blown up in our faces.
“The petrol station was also in the radius of the safety blast and there was potential of a big explosion. It is definitely one of the most dangerous incidents we could attend and it could have been a very explosive incident.”
Motorists last night criticised the traffic diversions put in place along the A14 and surrounding villages.
But ADO Moseley said: “We appealed to motorists to be patient. I know there was a lot of frustration but we would not have closed the A14 unless there was a significant risk to public safety.
“It could have been someone's child who was driving past and if the canister exploded, then there would have been problems.”
Firecrews from Newmarket and Cambridge were called to the fire at 8am and were soon alerted to the explosive potential of the incident.
ADO Moseley said: “We adopted a defensive firefighters' position and installed a 200 metre explosion zone. We isolated and made safe petrol pumps at both service stations
“The police helicopter was used with thermal imaging equipment informing us of possible hot spots (around the van) while we also called for the bomb disposal unit and their specialised robot was able to get up close and get us some pictures.
“We had to ascertain whether the cylinder was still intact or ruptured. We had limited access and there was a small explosion but (from the pictures) we could tell the cylinder was still intact.
“We are now conducting a typical 24-hour cooling protocol and the likely scenario is that we would have to keep the A14 closed until this is carried out.”
n Motorists planning to use the A14 around the Newmarket area to travel to today's Lowestoft Air Show are advised to find an alternative route as the road will still be closed this morning in both directions.