An explosion has killed five people and left another battling for his life with extensive burns at an illegal factory that was manufacturing alcohol.
Police in Boston, Lincolnshire, urged anyone who knew the men, who were believed to be Eastern European, to come forward as officers waited to question the survivor, who was last night having surgery.
The still was behind a stud wall at an industrial unit which was being rented from a local landlord by a Lithuanian who is no longer in the country.
The tragedy comes three months after police, trading-standards and customs officers raided eight premises across the market town recovering 88l of potentially fatal counterfeit vodka. The shops are having their licences revoked, although no arrests were made during the raids.
Yesterday local people said the sale of illicit liquor, repackaged as well-known brands and costing as little as £2 a bottle, was an open secret among the large community of migrant workers and the network of continental stores that has grown to serve them. Trading-standards officers said confiscated drinks contained large quantities of methanol, which could also cause blindness. Police and Mark Simmonds, the local MP, insisted that until the blast on Tuesday night there was no indication that illegal hooch was being brewed in Boston and there was no evidence to link the confiscated alcohol with that being made at the industrial unit. "We must get information into the public domain to make people realise how dangerous it is not just to make it, but to consume illicit alcohol," he said.
Superintendent Keith Owen said searches of the industrial unit at Broadfield Lane appeared to substantiate rumours that had been circulating since the devastating explosion, which could be heard up to five miles away. Photographs of the site revealed dozens of bottles being kept at the unit. "What I can confirm is that we have found chemicals on the premises which tend to indicate either the manufacture or production of alcohol," he said.
Firefighters said the fire spread rapidly through the premises with the intense heat buckling the steel shutters in unit No 8, where the men died. Officers described it as the largest loss of life in a single fire that the force had dealt with in 30 years.
The survivor, who suffered burns to 75 per cent of his body, was doused by people who rushed to the scene. He was taken to a specialist unit in Birmingham for emergency treatment. Those working nearby said men would come and go from the unit at unusual times and the premises had no signs indicating what went on there.
Police said relatives and friends had yet to alert them that any loved ones were missing, but several Portuguese and Latvian people visited the scene.
A recipe for vodka – and potential disaster
* Making vodka is less rocket science than a re-enactment of school chemistry lessons. All that is needed are a few groceries and some basic equipment.
* The most important piece of kit is a still, in which a "mash" of ingredients is boiled up and cooled to condense before being dripped, as vodka, into bottles.
* Ingredients can include wheat, corn barley and potatoes. They are mixed with water, heated and then have yeast added. The mix is left for several days.
* The methanol produced in the process can cause health issues such as blindness.
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