Our village could have blown up . . .

It's a quiet, unassuming place where people are happy that nothing too dramatic ever seems to happen. But all this changed for villagers living in the north Suffolk village of Henstead when they were evacuated as a highly explosive gas canister burned just yards from their homes.

It's a quiet, unassuming place where people are happy that nothing too dramatic ever seems to happen.

But all this changed for villagers living in the north Suffolk village of Henstead when they were evacuated as a highly explosive gas canister burned just yards from their homes.

Fearing the overheated acetylene cylinder would explode with the force of a wartime bomb, firefighters and police set up a 200m exclusion zone and told 10 unsuspecting families to leave their homes in the dead of night.

Villagers hurriedly rung round friends and local hotels in a bid to find alternative accommodation and then fled from the village, unsure how long they would be away and what kind of scene they would eventually return to.

But yesterday afternoon, a crisis was averted after firefighters managed to skilfully and painstakingly cool down the five foot cylinder, ensuring grateful residents could return to their homes in the village with a population of about 100.

The drama started just before 9pm on Tuesday when a fire broke out at a garage run by former top motorbike racer Andy Bond, in Church Road.

Most Read

Firefighters arriving at the scene found flames licking from a pile of tyres and general rubbish, but then realised the seriousness of the situation when they discovered the acetylene cylinder just feet away.

Following strict guidelines, the fire crews were evacuated from the site and an action plan quickly put in place to safeguard villagers living nearby. Henstead Old School, situated closed to the garage, was also closed yesterday.

Assistant divisional fire officer Mark Labdon explained that firefighters had previously been killed by exploding acetylene cylinders, leaving no room for taking risks.

“For us it's about as serious as it gets and we have to treat it like an unexploded bomb,” he added. “It's got a huge flammable range and is the most explosive gas used in industry and commerce.”

Villager Matthew Arthur, 29, was one of those told to leave the scene and managed to book a room for himself and his mother Jacky Arthur, 60, at the Five Bells pub in nearby Wrentham.

Returning to his home yesterday afternoon, the air conditioning engineer, who also evacuated his dog Ollie, said: “I work with gas bottles so I know how serious it can be when they blow up. When they go up, they are like Second World War bombs.

“I'm so relieved it didn't explode. I didn't sleep a wink last night because I was so concerned. I know what damage could have been done and I'm just glad that nobody has lost their life and nothing serious has happened.”

Neighbours George and Ngaio Malcolm were returning to the village when they saw flames coming from the garage site. They were prevented from getting to their house in Benacre Road and were helped by Mr Arthur, who drove across nearby fields to ensure they were able to retrieve some essential belongings.

Mrs Malcolm, who is clerk to Henstead with Hulver Street parish council, said: “It's a very quiet place and it's not often you get anything like this happening.”

Firefighters remained at the site, near Kessingland, for most of yesterday and said the cylinder could only be removed by specialist contractors a minimum of 24 hours after the fire.

It was not initially clear whether the canister was full with gas, but a fire service spokeswoman explained it could never be entirely empty and that even a small amount of the substance could be highly dangerous.

Garage owner Mr Bond refused to comment, but business colleague Al Blowers, who part owns the site, said: “It's a bit of a mystery how the fire started because tyres shouldn't self-ignite. There isn't any damage to the rest of the site.”

Mother-of-three Debbie Fall, 39, told how she had been frightened by Tuesday night's drama even though her home fell just outside the exclusion zone.

“It was just a nightmare as we were one of the only ones left in the village. It was so scary and frightening because we didn't know what was going to happen. Apparently they go off just like a bomb.”

Paul Carter, 35, who also lives just outside the exclusion zone with his partner Lesley Laird, 39, and their children Tina Laird, 16, and Shane Carter, six, said they were not evacuated, but were effectively stranded in their home because of the road closures.

“I was concerned what would happen to the surrounding area,” he added.