Would-be thief could have caused ‘catastrophic’ gas explosion in Knapton, near North Walsham

Knapton Methodist Chapel. Picture: SUBMITTED Knapton Methodist Chapel. Picture: SUBMITTED

Thursday, September 26, 2013
7:00 AM

A would-be thief trying to steal just one metre of copper piping could have caused widescale death and devastation in a north Norfolk village, according to a church minister.

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Rev Sharon Willimott, Methodist minister for north Norfolk. Picture: ANTONY KELLYRev Sharon Willimott, Methodist minister for north Norfolk. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

The vandal’s botched overnight bid to get at the metal ruptured a pipe, completely filling Knapton Methodist Chapel and its surrounding area with gas.

The potential disaster was not discovered until yesterday morning when a quick-thinking neighbour switched off the supply and raised the alarm.

Methodist minister the Rev Sharon Willimott said that when a National Grid engineer had arrived to make the area safe, he had told her the consequences could have been “completely catastrophic” as the building is sited in the middle of the small village, near North Walsham.

She added: “If it had gone up, it would have destroyed the chapel, the cottage next door, the home behind, the bungalows, and it would probably have also damaged the parish church - the loss of life could have been terrible.”

Chapel chiefs believe someone tried to rip the piping off between 8pm on Tuesday and 7.30am yesterday when dog walker Alan Leedham passed the chapel, smelled gas and rushed to his home in the village to get his own gas meter cupboard key.

Mr Leedham had come across another resident, Fred Winter, en route and Mr Winter had given him his key which he used to open the meter cupboard on the external chapel wall and turn the lever, cutting the gas supply.

Mrs Willimott said the chapel was used by the community and if a group had been going to use it yesterday, the automatic heating system could have activated. “It just doesn’t bear thinking about,” she said.

“I had wondered whether a car had accidentally knocked the pipe in passing but it’s recessed. Someone has deliberately done this. These people can’t really comprehend what they are doing. They are very selfish and greedy but I can’t believe they have got such a complete disregard for life.”

Now the chapel, with an average congregation of 20, faced the prospect of a mammoth gas bill, possibly running into hundreds of pounds, she added.

“We don’t know how long the gas was escaping. We will be talking to our suppliers to see what can be done. I think the community will rally round.”

A National Grid spokesperson said: “Damaging gas pipes is very dangerous. It can result in a gas escape and even a fire or explosion. If anyone sees someone damaging gas pipes, or smells gas, they are urged to immediately contact the National Gas Emergency Service on 0800 111 999 and the police.”

■ Anyone with information on the incident should contact PC Emma Hill at North Walsham Police Station on 010 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

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