Hunter Valley wine trade 'icon' dies in explosion

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The Independent Online

The Australian wine industry is mourning a leading vigneron, Trevor Drayton, who was killed with one of his workers in an explosion at his family's winery yesterday. The Draytons have been making wine in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales since the 1850s.

The blast blew the roof off the main processing shed and demolished a wall. A third man, William Rickard-Bell, 27, an assistant wine-maker, is in a critical condition in hospital with 80 per cent burns.

Witnesses said the explosion, believed to have been caused by a spark from a welding torch igniting ethanol fumes, propelled Mr Rickard-Bell about 60ft. With his clothes and hair on fire, he jumped into a nearby farm dam. A neighbour, Damien Griffith, said that he "had skin melting off him... he was in intense pain".

There are dozens of vineyards in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, a principal wine-growing region. The accident, just after 8.30am and before the cellar door opened for visitors, sent shockwaves through the valley's tight-knit wine-growing community.

Keith Tulloch, a fellow Hunter Valley vigneron and family friend, described Mr Drayton as "one of the icons of the industry". His family were pioneers of wine-making in the area, planting some of the first vines.

The local MP, Joel Fitzgibbon, told Sky News: "It's a terrible day. We've lost Trevor Drayton. He's a champion of the wine industry. He's an expert in his field, a real driving force." Rescue workers said welding was done near the shed, where wine was being distilled. Ethanol vapours inside a large metal tank ignited and exploded.

The blast, heard and felt up to three miles away, ripped through the processing shed, engulfing it in a fireball that also damaged the adjacent cellar door area. Police, paramedics and three rescue helicopters were sent to the scene, in the town of Pokolbin, and dozens of firefighters worked to contain the blaze.

The identity of the second dead man has not yet been established, with reports variously identifying him as Mr Drayton's cousin or a visiting tradesman. The two bodies had still not been recovered last night; rescue workers deemed the shed too dangerous to enter because of potentia-lly hazardous chemicals.

Mr Griffith, who lives about half a mile away, drove to Drayton's Family Wines after hearing a loud bang and seeing a fireball. "There was a fire as high as the trees," he said. "It looked like a gas pipe had erupted."

He said he had spoken to Mr Rickard-Bell, who was airlifted to hospital. "He'd run down on fire and jumped in that dam," Mr Griffith said. "He was in a pretty bad way. He had a burnt face, and skin coming off his arms." Mr Drayton's father, Max, and uncle, Reg, were well-respected figures in the wine-making industry. His cousin, Steven, runs the neighbouring Ivanhoe Wines. Reg Drayton and his wife, Pam, were killed in a light plane crash in 1993, en route to Lord Howe Island.

Another leading Hunter Valley winemaker, Brian McGuigan, said: "I've known Trevor all my life, and we sort of all grew up together. There's a great affinity between all those people who have been here for such a long time."