Oil blast: 'We're scared. People know we are not at home and they may break in'

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Jason and Rachel Backhouse are desperate to return to their home, from which they were evacuated two days ago as burning debris showered their roof. They live 600 yards from the Buncefield oil depot near Hemel Hempstead and ran out screaming with their seven-month-old child, Ellie, when they heard the first of the terrifying explosions at 6am on Sunday.

Since then they have feared that their home is vulnerable to looters, as police attempt to control the situation within the cordoned area.

As one family among 2,000 residents who live within a half-mile radius of the depot, they are facing their third night in temporary accommodation after being evacuated. Mr Backhouse, 23, a self-employed floor layer, described his anxiety over reports of looters running amok within the evacuation zone and said he had tried to return home but had not been permitted to do so.

"We are worried. We've got bank cards, cash, credit cards and all our possessions sitting at home. People know we are not there and might break in," he said.

Mrs Backhouse, 19, described the terrifying moment when she was woken as debris rained down on their house. "We could feel the burning debris falling on our roof. Our daughter sleeps below the loft and we were terrified for her. We ran out screaming with only two plastic bags with Ellie's milk and bottles. That's all we've got,'' she said. The couple, who were seeking hotel accommodation, were among families who drifted in and out of the makeshift rest centre at Hemel Hempstead sports centre. Some expressed a sense of helpless frustration at not having a definite date of return to their homes. As the fire raged on last night, the families were told they could not return until the last of the flames were extinguished, which could take days.

Jane Raymond also fled her home in Leverstock Green half a mile from the depot with her three children. She was reluctant to spend a second night in makeshift accommodation but felt it was too dangerous for her children.

"They have said the decision to return is ours to make because we are no longer in the exclusion zone. But it's confusing. I'm happy to return when the smoke has gone from Hemel. Only then are my children safe from the health dangers,'' she said.

Many of the 200-strong Irish travellers' community that had lived for years in the caravan park half a mile away from the depot said they felt a sense of abandonment in the rescue operation. A mother described how the families fled in their cars leaving all their possessions behind. She said: "We felt really frightened. No police officers came to us on the scene and the news is filled with people whose homes are three or four miles away. There is nothing about what we have lost. We have left every single thing behind - our clothes, our children's toys, all our possessions.''

A spokeswoman from Dacorum council said that all residents evacuated from the exclusion zone had found shelter with friends or family or in hotels.