Detective Chief Superintendent Barry Stewart, head of Northumbria CID, said it was too early to say if the explosion was caused by terrorists but confirmed that Anti-Terrorist Branch officers from Scotland Yard were travelling from London to assist the inquiry. The incident bore similarities to the IRA attack on a gas plant in Warrington in February.
Six hundred gallons of crude oil which escaped from the tank after the blast were caught in a channel designed to stop leakages.
Army bomb disposal experts from Catterick, North Yorkshire, joined police officers and dog handlers searching the oil storage plant. A second device was found near by, although police chiefs refused to give details of its type.
Assistant Divisional Fire Officer Ken Horn said a major disaster could have occurred. 'The fire damage was minimal because of the material involved. Crude oil does not ignite easily. If it had been on a petrol tanker it would have been a major fire,' he said. About 50 employees from the terminal and nearby Velva Liquids were sent home.
Police said no warning messages were received before the blast.
People living near the terminal were woken by the noise of the blast at 3.40am yesterday. Jean Wiseman, 50, who lives a quarter of a mile away, said: 'We were woken by a huge bang. We thought it must have been an explosion but we couldn't see much in the dark.'
Lisa Brooks, 20, who lives in nearby Brook Crescent, said: 'I thought I was dreaming. The whole house shook and then I heard sirens going. I thought it was a car crash or something like that.'
The IRA claimed responsibility for 11 incendiary devices which ignited in stores at the Gateshead Metro Shopping Centre last May, causing the centre to be evacuated.