Crisis sparks chaos in community - Royston gas surge 30 years on

Royston gas crisis 1991

The Royston gas crisis of 1991 was written about by Sylvia P. Beamon in her work - The Day Royston was Nearly Blown Off the Map - Credit: Sylvia. P. Beamon

Thirty years ago today, just as ordinary members of the community were preparing their evening meal or putting the heating on to lessen the evening chill - an enormous surge of high-pressure gas whooshed into Royston homes. 

On March 8, 1991, at around 5.15pm - Royston was rocked by a huge gas surge that caused fires and explosions all over town - here's a look back at how the the Great Gas Crisis unfolded. 

Sylvia P. Beamon documented the event in her work 'The Day Royston was Blown off the Map', published by the town's history society.

Royston's officer for emergency planning in the community had left and the position was vacant - so no one person specifically co-ordinated the efforts of March 8, but Mrs Beamon said: "All local services went into action. They did remarkably well under extreme circumstances and saved the day.

"The town was fortunate to survive intact."

Townsfolk returning from work or settling into their evening routine were alerted to the sound of sirens and klaxons from scores of emergency service vehicles, and a wave of anxiety followed. Something big was happening and as the afternoon light of a dull day started to fade, it was replaced by a sense of impending chaos. 

Human error had led to the network of high pressure gas which carried gas supplies between towns being connected directly to the network supplying Royston houses. This resulted in a massive gas surge, with 15 times more pressure than usual - lasting 20 minutes.

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Police sealed off the town. Traffic was stopped on the outskirts by officers, trains halted - and calls from householders reporting incidents to the emergency services started coming in. 

Mrs Beamon reports that, as what was happening began to take shape, the coroner was called for and the town was put on red alert. 

She said: "Allegedly, hundreds of cardboard coffins were ordered for the large number of expected casualties that were to be laid out on Therfield Heath to accept the bodies."

Neighbours knocked on each other's doors as word spread that houses could explode. Although it was extremely frightening, chaotic and caused damage to property and appliances - miraculously, incidents were of a much smaller scale than predicted. 

Royston Roger Costello gas crisis

Roger Costello, right, was on duty during the gas surge in Royston. He is pictured here with firefighter son Sean who is also now a firefighter. - Credit: Roger Costello

A firefighter on duty on the day has told the Crow of his experience, three decades on. 

Roger Costello was born and bred in Royston. He was the youngest frontline firefighter in Herts when he joined up aged 16 years and three months to serve with Royston and then other crews in the county. 

On March 8, 1991, Roger drove an appliance from Hitchin - where he was then based after winning promotion - back to his hometown when he heard of the crisis unfolding.

He told the Crow: "It was a hell of a day. I'm a born and bred Roystonian and I hadn't encountered anything like it - I headed straight up there. I was thinking 'this is my town, it's where I come from'. I had family in town.

"It being in Royston made it all the more a 'foot down and go for it' situation."

Multiple fire engines from Herts, Cambs and surrounding counties were sent to different areas of Royston.

"I was sent to the Layston Park area," Roger continued.

"We were waiting for a big bang and something terrible to happen. All it needed was that spark in the wrong place and it would have been disastrous."

"We dealt with minor incidents and injuries the time, it was luck that nothing major happened.

"There was a lot of reassuring the public. People were evacuated and were frightened about what was going on. A lot of people were at work, so we were smelling gas through letterboxes."

Accounts of the evening ran in the following week's Crow. Under the headline 'Night of fear' - our report said: "The gas explosions which shook Royston will be remembered for decades. Families returning home found fires in their kitchens, leaking gas, windows blown out and smoke-filled rooms."

The story was also covered in the nationals - including the Daily Mirror, Daily Mail, the Times and Ceefax. 

Gas crisis Royston

The Crow reporting on how the crisis affected a dog in the town. - Credit: Royston Crow archive/Sylvia. P. Beamon

The only person significantly treated for injury suffered smoke inhalation, according to Mrs Beamon's findings. The crisis impacted the emotional health of the town - many suffered shock and several months later children were reported to cry when they heard klaxons. Pets, from dogs to budgies, were also caught up in the chaos. 

How did the town and the authorities respond in the aftermath of the crisis? The Crow will look back at the second part of the story in our March 18 edition.