It was described by officials as the "biggest fire ever in peacetime Europe". The inferno at the Buncefield oil depot in Hemel Hempstead, the fifth largest in the UK, had been burning for more than 48 hours before it was finally extinguished on Tuesday afternoon.
The fact that the oil tanks exploded and caught fire on a Sunday morning (a non-working day) was a heaven-sent blessing for the 20,000 people that worked at the depot, which is just north of London. Nevertheless, the businesses residing in the surrounding area were not so fortunate. The offices of OP companies based in the area, such as Dixons, Epson and ISA Retail, were all forced to close – some for an unforeseeable time – and they are just starting to count the cost.
"We still haven’t got access to our buildings," Hamish Thompson, a spokesman for Dixons told OPI+ on Tuesday afternoon. "But we hope to be just 24-36 hours away from assessing the damage and making decisions."
"The Epson offices at Hemel Hempstead are out of action and currently off limits until further notice," Epson said in a statement. "Our first thoughts are for those were injured in the blast and for the emergency services personnel. No Epson staff were injured and security staff who were on duty are safe and accounted for."
According to mainstream media, forty-three people were treated in hospital as a result of the blasts and the fire, but only two were seriously injured.
Bruce Robinson, CEO of ISA Retail, which has a warehouse and offices just half a mile away from the blasts, told OPI+ he was able to carry out a high degree of inspection of his facilities by remote CCTV over the internet. "There looks like there is considerable damage to the fabric of the building of the warehouse, but the offices are in reasonably good shape," he said. "The contents of the warehouse are not likely to be salvageable. We have to assume the worst – that every product cannot be used."
Robinson himself lives just six miles away from the blasts. He heard the explosion just after 6am and then saw the flame. "It was like something out of Armageddon," he said.
But all three businesses told OPI+ that their disaster recovery plans had been successful and that for their customers at least, it was more or less business as usual.
"We are making contingency plans at present and are confident we can get through this unscathed," said Dixon’s Thompson. "Everything was backed up by servers located at our distribution hub in Stevenage, where we house our IT systems, tills, transactions and the back bone of our system."
He added that Dixons has been efficient in finding alternative IT access for the 1,500 staff members that were housed at the company’s Hemel Hempstead headquarters. Office space has been made available for the company’s business to business operations at offices in and around the area. Many workers are also working remotely. "That’s the benefits of a tech company, we are proficient in mobile working," he added. "And because of the Christmas period, there is a lot of movement with our staff going out to the stores."
Epson said that the Sunday allowed the company to secure temporary offices in nearby town Uxbridge, which were ready for Monday morning. "We have a contract with the National Disaster Recovery unit who find us a facility, guarantee us 150 seats, and organise IT equipment and telephones," Epson spokesperson Jane Barnard told OPI+.
She added that by 10.30 Monday morning, 90 users were already up and running; 140 by Wednesday. "We have a citrix environment so we are able to access our office and SAP applications from our servers in Holland. Local data from our Hemel Hempstead office was copied over to our servers in Holland during Sunday."
Epson claimed that any disruption experienced by customers would be temporary. "All customer services and technical support services are unaffected and will operate as normal. Our sales administration team will be in direct contact with their customers to ensure smooth running of our logistics commitments."
ISA Retail was also able to quickly transfer the functions from its Hemel Hempstead operations – with the help of 40 managers and 60 members of staff working through Sunday. By Monday morning, IT systems and email access was up and running at locations that are housing the Hemel Hempstead staff: Chiswick for sales staff; Bradford for operations staff. By Tuesday, the warehouse activities had been transferred to another company facility in Wakefield, Yorkshire.
"We have a sophisticated disaster recovery platform," Robinson said. "Although the servers are local, they are backed up by systems that sit within the company’s two disaster recovery facilities in Nottingham and Sheffield. Managed by IT services provider Digica, these facilities are a mirror image of each other…From a logistics point of view, we should be fully functional to serve what we are able to do from Hemel by the end of the week. And we expect a split recovery, with the staff back in the office block after Christmas and the warehouse water proof and weather proof by the end of January – subject to the damage assessment of course."
When it comes to cost for the business, Robinson breaks this down into three categories: the stock, the physical cost of repairing the building and the accrued business disruption. He said: "The loss of stock will be what it will be, but we expect the loss of products to be in the millions rather than the thousands; the building restructure is likely to cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, although we are obviously insured; and while we are doing everything we can to minimise disruption, this disaster will take a chunk out of our daily business."