‘Even though it happened 30 years ago, it’s still raw’

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Tragic event
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It was a tragedy that shocked the country, but 30 years after 16 people died in the Abbeystead explosion, the anniversary will be marked with quiet dignity.

Candles will be lit in the village church and the names of all those who died will be read out before worshippers continue with their normal Sunday 

Barely a household in St Michael’s was left unscathed by the events of May 23, 1984 when a party of 44 people set off for Abbeystead to view the underground pumping station.

They had been invited by North West Water as residents were concerned about flooding.

But methane gas had seeped from deep underground into the empty pipeline and when the pumps were switched on the sudden pressure of water forced the gas into the valve house triggering a catastrophic explosion.

Sixteen people lost their lives – the youngest was 11-year-old Mark Eckersley who was there with his parents Tim and Pauline.

Mr Eckersley spent seven weeks in hospital recovering from his burns and still lives in St Michael’s, but Mrs Eckersley died on the day of her son’s funeral.

The victims are buried in St Michael’s Church where the memorial service will be held on Sunday at 9.15am.

Associate priest Constance Whalley said: “We mark the occasion every year with an act of remembrance.

“This year for the 30th anniversary, we will light a candle for each of the 16 people who died and read out their names and we will be putting a floral arrangement in the side chapel where the memorial is.

“There are still many people in St Michael’s who carry the marks of Abbeystead with them and it is a comfort to them to know that the victims are not forgotten and never will be.

“Even though it happened 30 years ago, it is still raw.

“Some people will attend our service while others will want to remember privately.”

Tony Kirby, 75, of Garstang Road, St Michael’s, suffered 50 per cent burns in the explosion which threw him back outside. He hit the ground as a car which had also been lifted by the blast landed on top of him.

Mr Kirby recalled: “I woke up in hospital three days later and didn’t remember anything.

“But I have plenty of memories of the suffering and pain afterwards.

“One of the greatest tragedies for me is I set off from St Michael’s with my two best friends Frank Coupe and Bill Mason and I was the only one who came home.

“That’s the greatest loss to me - the loss of my friends.

“But I had to carry on with my life and after about 10 months I was working again.”

John Morris, 70, of Rawcliffe Road, St Michael’s, witnessed the aftermath of the blast in which his father Harry suffered injuries. He said: “My dad was 70 at the time and he was the oldest member of the party.

“When he was taken to hospital they didn’t give him any chance of surviving, but he pulled through. He suffered burns to his hands and his head.”

John visited the site the next day.

He said: “I will never forget the scene. The massive concrete beams had been blown off and cars 100 yards away had their bonnets torn off. It was like a war zone.

“I walked into Lancaster Hospital and there were all the people I had known since school, and I didn’t recognise anyone because of their injuries.

“Forty four people went to Abbeystead that night and 16 were killed – that’s a big percentage of a village like St Michael’s.”

Harry Morris died seven years ago, aged 93.

For former Gazette journalist Elizabeth Gomm, Over Wyre was her patch so she knew virtually everyone affected.

She said: “It was just such a concentration of people from one small village to be affected.

“When I got the call telling me what had happened, I drove out to St Michael’s and it was a ghost town because people 
had just left their houses to 
get to hospital.

“The next day it was a beautiful day in neighbouring Great Eccleston, where I lived, but when I reached St Michael’s a mist had come up off the river and it was like a shroud of sadness had come over the village.

“Every one of those people I knew, and every one mattered.

“I went to one funeral after 
another over a period of weeks in St Michael’s Church and it was heartbreaking.”

No cause for the ignition has ever been identified, and after a battle for compensation, out-of-court settlements were accepted from the building’s designers.

But today will be one for thoughtful reflection and remembrance for 16 people who set out on what should have been a routine site inspection - but never came back.