An industrial unit where five men died in an explosion and another was seriously injured last night appears to have been used for illegally brewing alcohol, police said today.

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Counterfeit vodka found in Wisbech and Norwich

Counterfeit spirits have been seized in raids across East Anglia - often containing cleaning fluids and other harmful chemicals.

Last month 50 cases of vodka were seized during a day of action in Wisbech.

In January 2009, trading standards officers warned counterfeit vodka was on sale in Norfolk.

It came after officers raided a shop in Norwich and seized bottles of spirit, which were later found to contain potentially harmful levels of methanol.

Similar operations resulted in spirits being seized in Peterborough.

In October 2009, 10,000 bottles of vodka were found on a farm in Leicestershire.

Today one trading standards officer said: “It’s a growing industry.”

Firefighters found the men inside the unit after the blast at the Broadfield Lane industrial estate in Boston, Lincolnshire, last night.

Today Supt Keith Owen, of Lincolnshire police, said searches after the explosion revealed evidence that supports rumours that the victims may have been illegally producing spirits.

“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.

Teams of emergency workers were scrambled to the 30ft by 15ft unit just before 7.30pm after several 999 calls from members of the public reporting a loud explosion.

Firefighters had to cut their way into the unit because its doors had been welded together by the intense heat.

Mr Owen said the sixth man, who was taken to hospital in Boston then transferred to the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham, was due to undergo surgery today and officers hoped to speak to him later.

He said he had suffered “quite extensive” injuries and is understood to have 75pc burns.

Earlier this year, raids by HM Revenue and Customs, police, and Lincolnshire Trading Standards, seized goods, including fake vodka, from six international stores in the town.

HMRC said forensic testing of the counterfeit alcohol, seized in March, showed it was found to contain chemicals often unsafe for public consumption.

Since then, at least one store has had its alcohol licence revoked by the local council, and another has had it suspended.

Mr Owen said the industrial unit appeared to have housed a “small-scale operation” but he could not speculate on the details of it.

“It has been a problem in the past. We have obviously run an operation recently with HMRC and trading standards and that was a joint operation.

“Those people are still involved in this operation to help us to try and piece together what happened last night.

“All I can tell you at the moment is in that room there are what appear to be the component parts of the manufacturer of an alcoholic drink.”

Earlier, Ian Nuttall, 42, who lives 200 yards from the scene, said he noticed a commotion and smoke coming from the “lock-up” at about 7.30pm.

He said he did not know anyone who used it, or the other units, or what they used it for.

But he added: “There was a rumour going round that it was some Polish nationals who have been brewing their own vodka which is a bit of a problem around here at the moment.”

Earlier this year officers from HM Revenue and Customs, police and Lincolnshire trading standards seized goods including fake vodka from six international stores in the town.

HMRC said forensic testing of the counterfeit spirit, seized in March, showed it contained cleaning fluids and was unsafe for public consumption.

Police and fire investigators are still searching the unit where the explosion happened today.

Steve Moore, area manager from Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue Service, said the incident was one of the worst he had seen in his 28-year career.

“It was a really hot, intense fire,” he said.

The officer said the fierce flames set alight a car outside the unit and also buckled its roller shutters, meaning crews were forced to use hydraulic equipment to cut their way into the block.

Mr Moore said six firefighters wearing breathing apparatus searched the unit and found five more casualties.

“As far as the crews I have spoken to, its the single greatest loss of life in fire in their experience,” he said.

Local councillor Peter Bedford said he was shocked by the news.

“I don’t know the cause or even which unit it was in but this is a real shock. We don’t expect that kind of thing to happen in Boston. It’s a small market town, predominantly agricultural.

“There is heavy industry in that industrial estate, there’s a scrapyard, there’s joinery works, it’s a real mix.”

Fellow Boston councillor Mike Gilbert added: “I’m very anxious to find out exactly what’s happened. It’s a lot of people dead and a great tragedy.”

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