The IRA had succeeded in detonating three bombs at the gasworks site on the other side of the dual carriageway - one of which led to a gasometer exploding like the mushroom cloud of an atomic fireball. But no one realised until dawn that one of the bombs had failed to affect its target and a fourth nearby had not detonated.
The target of the two other bombs had been the 10, 80ft-long, high-pressure gas tanks - known as bullets - which lie in two ranks at the other end of the 20-acre site, close to the main road. They house natural gas under pressure of 350lbs per square inch.
If the end of one of these had been fractured, it could, one fireman said, 'have taken off along the ground like Saturn Five and ploughed straight into the houses on the other side of the road'. It would probably have resulted in the largest number of casualties from an IRA attack.
Nothing would have stood between the tanks and the houses and flats 50 yards away. 'It would have been like Amsterdam when the 747 crashed. We are talking about a potentially very big disaster with the possible loss of many, many lives. It is difficult to underestimate the potential for damage. This morning was as close as you could get to a major disaster, certainly as close as I ever want to get in 27 years as a fireman,' Simon Snape, senior divisional officer of Cheshire fire brigade, said. 'The people who did this were either total idiots or completely degenerate.'
The site is designated a potential major disaster area by Cheshire fire brigade which implemented an emergency evacuation plan, moving residents living near by from their homes. A further wave followed when the unexploded device was discovered by the high-pressure tanks.
'We do not know why the tanks did not explode. It was either a question of the bomb not being as effective as the other two or the tanks being strong enough to withstand the blast,' Mr Snape said.
It is possible the high-tensile steel casing of the tanks was strong enough to defeat the blast.
Firemen arriving at the scene from the station, just a few yards down the road towards the centre of Warrington, saw the middle one of the three gasometers burning rapidly and began to turn their hoses on the blaze.
Station officer John Garner was among the first to arrive. He said: 'The tanks on either side were being engulfed with the flames. There was no warning. The middle one was just burning like a big torch and it decided it was going to blow up. The whole lot went straight up like a fireball, like a mushroom from an atom bomb.' The flames leapt 250ft into the air.
Firemen said that if the gasometer, containing millions of cubic feet of gas, had exploded outwards instead of upwards, many of their number could have died, along with nearby residents. Another gasometer, which may have had the bomb placed half way up its side, was slightly damaged and a fire caught hold of a small gas leak; that fire was put out later in the day. The third gasometer was relatively unscatched.
The Rev Steve Parrish, the local vicar, who was helping care for the families evacuated to a nearby school and community centre, said: 'The first explosion was quite big and then there was a second explosion with a fireball. People said they felt the heat of that from several hundred yards from the site of the explosion.'
Bob Porter, a local resident, said the gas explosion was so bright that he thought it was daylight. 'I thought I was dreaming. I woke up with a big bang. Everything was very bright.'
Alec Thomas, 55, woken by the blast, and his disabled wife Brenda, 51, were taken fron their home by police officers shortly afterwards. He said: 'The size of the explosion woke me with a start. I screamed 'the gasworks are on fire' and then there was another huge bang. Gas was clearly leaking into the air. It caught fire and lit up the whole sky, giving off terrific heat.'
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