Two firefighters killed in explosions at fireworks factory

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The Independent Online

One of the two men killed when a fireworks depot exploded was named today. Brian Wembridge, 63, died with a 49-year-old colleague after going to the scene of a fire at Festival Fireworks in Shortgate, near Lewes, East Sussex, yesterday.

Sources said Mr Wembridge, a former firefighter, was employed by East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service as a support officer whose roles included photographing and filming fire scenes.

An investigation was under way today into how the tragedy happened.

Twelve other people - nine fire service staff, two members of the public and a police sergeant - were also injured when the contents of the factory began exploding after the emergency services arrived at the scene.

The brigade's chief fire officer Des Prichard said today the investigation was likely to take "many weeks".

Mr Prichard said a 200-metre exclusion zone was still in place around the scene of the fire today due to fears that acetylene gas canisters may explode.

Speaking at a police cordon, Mr Prichard said an Army bomb disposal unit had been deployed and its remote-controlled vehicle was being driven into the heart of the factory to assess the state of the gas cylinders.

Aerial pictures showed a scene of destruction more reminiscent of a war zone than a quiet part of rural East Sussex.

Gutted shells of buildings could be seen still smouldering alongside wrecked vehicles, while flames were still flickering in parts of the depot.

Most of the buildings had been completely flattened, with debris strewn across the countryside landscape.

Mr Prichard also spoke of the moment he told the families of the two dead men about the tragedy.

He said: "I have been in the service 30 years this month and that was the most difficult task I have ever performed during my time in the service.

"The crews that were involved are clearly very devastated by the news but also the work they had to do helping their colleagues and assisting their colleagues away from the scene."

At East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service headquarters in Eastbourne this morning the fire service flag was flying at half-mast.

Fire Brigades Union (FBU) general secretary Matt Wrack said most of the people who were injured were retained - or part-time - firefighters.

He said: "Death always touches everyone who works in the fire service.

"It may be old-fashioned, but the fire service is like a family and deaths within the fire service are genuinely felt very deeply."

The explosions at the depot were so loud they were heard by people in the town of Uckfield, some 12 miles away.

The blasts shook nearby houses and sent debris flying through the air.

With fireworks still shooting from the blaze several hours later, the emergency services were forced to retreat from the scene, leaving the flames and explosions to wreck the depot and a nearby house.

The drama began shortly before 2pm yesterday on a remote industrial estate.

Members of the family-run company fled after discovering a fire had broken out.

At first, 10 fire engines and crews were dispatched, but more officers were called in as the scale of the blaze became apparent.

The biggest explosion, which residents compared to a bomb going off, was at about 3pm.

Jason Winter, nephew of Festival Fireworks owner Martin Winter, said of his family: "They have literally got the shirt that they're wearing at the moment, that's it.

"They have lost everything."

John Winter, the owner's brother, said the fire could have been caused by an electrical fault.

Festival Fireworks employed up to 50 staff.

As one of the biggest firework importers in the UK it was behind the Millennium display alongside the River Thames and the Lord Mayor's Show in London.