'I thought a plane had crashed': Flixborough villagers remember the Nypro disaster 50 years on

This weekend marks 50 years since disaster struck Flixborough at about 4.53pm on June 1, 1974 in a devastating tragedy which saw 28 men sadly lose their lives at the Nypro plant close to the village.

The explosion virtually demolished the site and fires burned for several days afterwards. The blast could be heard over 35 miles away and around 2,000 properties were damaged. Although the disaster happened before I was born, I grew up in Flixborough hearing of the traumatic events and the impact it had on my neighbours.

I knew my family home had lost its roof and heard stories of the tragedies and how many houses were affected, some even having to be demolished because the damage was so severe. With such a significant anniversary upon us, I wanted to revisit and speak to some friends and villagers about that fateful day. The chemical explosion at Nypro and the events of that day are still embedded into many people's thoughts and memories, especially those who lost loved ones and those who were so close to the disaster scene.


Entering the village, I was filled with a sense of nostalgia - a warm place filled with many happy cherished memories. I lived in the village from 1981 until going off to study photojournalism in 1999 and have fond childhood memories of how beautiful and friendly it is, as well as having such a caring community spirit - something that was evident during my whole time there and well documented back when villagers pulled together after disaster struck.

I pulled into the former pub car park, looked across and saw a lady gardening at the former Post Office. It was who I'd hoped, the postmistress from my childhood. Although she didn't recognise me initially - it had been over two decades since I left the village - after explaining who I was, she remembered me, and reminded me of when I photographed her more than 25 years ago. After a lovely chat and catch up, she knew exactly where to point me towards first and who had been around when Nypro blew. She mentioned her neighbour had been 10 and it was the day before his 11th birthday when disaster struck.

Donna Clifford returns to Flixborough for the 50th anniversary of Nypro disaster
Donna Clifford returns to Flixborough for the 50th anniversary of Nypro disaster -Credit:Donna Clifford/GrimsbyLive

'I could stand in my bedroom and look up and see sky'

Heading next door, Andrew Bray spoke of that tragic day half a century ago. He said: "We'd just come home from Scunthorpe on the bus and got in about 4.45pm. My mum was making tea in the kitchen, I was in the back room and there was a little rumble. My mum said 'what's that?' and dad replied 'probably thunder'. Then there was another one and I saw the lady next door but one running down her garden and looking across at Nypro, which you could see from our homes at that time.

"I went outside and could see Nypro chimney and there were things floating around it. I remember stood there looking and couldn't figure out what it was and then the blast wave hit me - it laid me out in the garden and, as I looked up, there were tiles coming off the roof.

"I ran back inside and everything came off the walls, the ceiling came in, roof came in and the fire blew out the wall. All the windows blew out except the back lobby window. It was quite traumatic for a ten year old.

"Our full roof had come off, I could stand in my bedroom and look up and see sky. Every house in the village was affected, people were worried about further explosions. Everyone got evacuated, fire engines and ambulances were coming into the village. My neighbour had a cut across her face and people were covered in glass.

The Evening Telegraph after the Flixborough disaster in 1974
The Evening Telegraph after the Flixborough disaster in 1974 -Credit:Donna Clifford/GrimsbyLive

"A few of us kids got put into cars and taken out the village. I ended up at a friend of a friend's house - mum was frantic because she didn't see me for 6 or 7 hours, but everyone in Scunthorpe opened their doors to help. It was unbelievable, you can't imagine it now.

"When we did get back, mobile homes were on a farmyard while our homes were getting fixed because there was so much damage. There weren't enough builders and roofers in Scunthorpe to do them all so we were in a mobile home for about six months while ours got fixed."

'We will always remember it'

I decided to take a walk to where I could get an overview of how the site looks now and take a few pictures along the way of the village too. Diane Laynes was arriving home. Conversation soon led to discovering her father was the former pub landlord Frank Boot and he had been there at the time of the disaster.

"My dad was landlord of the Flixborough Inn," Diane said. "I remember the TV recording him saying 'we will be open no matter what'. A few windows had been broken on the pub, but it stood up pretty well compared to many houses. He was only closed two or three days and reopened as quickly as possible so people could get together, help one another and be supportive.

"He was in the pub at the time and the blast threw him up high, up to the ceiling. He was a kind man and gave a lovely speech to say a lot of people had paid the ultimate price and lost lives. He was devastated but did his best to help the villagers who stuck together and came together.

"I was in my 20s at the time, lived in Scunthorpe and heading to the train station, but I remember the blast. The earth shook under my feet. It shook the whole area, I was stuck on the train when I realised it was Nypro. I thought my dad lives at Flixborough but I couldn't do anything at that moment, I was so worried. Many more lives would have been lost if it happened during the week but it was terrible, very memorable and we will always remember it, and remember those who didn't make it."

Some of the damage caused by the Flixborough disaster
Some of the damage caused by the Flixborough disaster -Credit:Andrew Green

'I thought a plane had crashed or a petrol tanker had blown up'

Moving on and heading down Stather Road, I passed my former home and caught up with Uncle Brian and Auntie Helen, reminiscing and updating on our families. Flixborough had been like an extended family to me and, although not blood relatives, I had extra aunts and uncles who still live in the village.

They reminded me and sent me in the direction of the farm where Derek and Marion Green had lived. They had been in the village at the time of the disaster and had collected a huge archive which has now been handed down and added to by their son Andrew Green.

Andrew recalled: "It was a beautiful summer's day, I'd been out in the garden. At the end of the afternoon, I came into the house and went upstairs to get changed. I was in the only room in the house where the window didn't blow in.

Andrew Green in Flixborough, 50 years on from the Nypro disaster
Andrew Green in Flixborough, 50 years on from the Nypro disaster -Credit:Donna Clifford/GrimsbyLive

"That end of the house had a big plain glass window facing towards Nypro and the glass was stuck in furniture and the walls. I'd only just gone through there to get to my room so I was personally very lucky.

"It was a two-stage explosion, everything blew up in the air, all the tiles crashing to the ground. I ran downstairs, the front door had blown off, and as I went out the front door I saw metal flying into the air and the black cloud going up overhead.

"There were two blasts - a smaller one followed by the big one. I thought a plane had crashed or a petrol tanker had blown up or something like that but, when I went outside, I knew what it was. I checked on my neighbour who had been hit by flying debris and remember someone running down the street."

'The front door was three quarters of the way upstairs'

Walking through the village, I passed the village hall filled with memories of birthday parties, Christmas events and the millennium gathering which I'd come home for when the villagers celebrated the arrival of the year 2000 together. I went into the church grounds which I'd visited countless times, remembering nativity performances as a small child, family christenings and numerous services I'd attended over my early years. After paying my own respects at the memorial, I decided to try Gordon Atkinson whose mum Effie Atkinson had lived a couple of doors from my family home.

Gordon Atkinson, 50 years on from the Flixborough disaster
Gordon Atkinson, 50 years on from the Flixborough disaster -Credit:Donna Clifford/GrimsbyLive

"My mum was in watching snooker when or happened," said Gordon. "She was in her seventies at the time and sat in front of the fire. All the soot came out at her, but thankfully she went and got a shovel full of sand and put it on the fire.

"I was at Brandy Wharf at the time, out in the fields. We felt the earth shake, and saw smoke and, at that time, we thought it was the steel works. It was before mobile phones so it was about 7 or 8pm when I got the message it was Nypro. I heard Flixborough was empty so rang around to see where my mum had got to.

"One of my cousins had been and collected her so I knew she was safe. It took months and months for her to get her house sorted in the aftermath. There was a steel framed window and that was laid out on the lawn, the front door was three quarters of the way upstairs. Luckily nothing hit mum, it had just kind of sucked everything up then dropped it all back down.

"I went into Flixborough on the Sunday morning, I worked on the farm and went to see if I could help Derek Green. We went round to feed the pigs - they were running up passages so we ended up dropping food here, there and everywhere. There was still a big black cloud over the village and the wind was blowing the curtains out of the windows. The village that day was like a ghost town, like something from a film."

The Greens' farm after Flixborough disaster in 1974
The Greens' farm after Flixborough disaster in 1974 -Credit:Andrew Green

'The villagers all got together as a community'

My dad had mentioned a biker friend of his who had featured in previous anniversary remembrances and, although he'd recently left the village, I met up with him at the Flixborough 1974 exhibition launch. David Charlesworth talked me through his memories of being in the village at the time. He said: "I'd just been watching sports on television and there was this terrific noise. I worked on boilers at the steel works so I knew what release of pressure sounded like.

"I went outside and strolled down to our rockery, I stood on a fence there and could see the top part of Nypro, then a massive explosion, really massive - not ground level, hundreds of feet. I turned round as the trees started to bend over towards me with the shock wave.

The memorial in Flixborough paying tribute to the 28 people who lost their lives in the 1974 disaster
The memorial in Flixborough paying tribute to the 28 people who lost their lives in the 1974 disaster -Credit:Donna Clifford/GrimsbyLive

"Next thing I did a forward roll down the rockery onto my drive. I picked myself up went to the house. The back door was up the stairs, it was double locked at the top and bottom and it had been ripped out completely. In our front room, there was a foot deep of soot from the huge chimney we had. The front window had gone through the back window. The police used our house as a base and, in the aftermath, the vicar came to the village daily and the villagers all got together as a community and tried to work together."

Having spent the first 18 years of my life in Flixborough, I knew how friendly and compassionate the village was. I was welcomed back by all I met and left learning even more about that horrific day which changed many lives.

I know how much the village tried to help those in pain and suffering, how much they all rallied round and supported each other and anyone that had needed it. It's a time many will never forget and etched into the memories of those still with us. Not only those who experienced it, but continuing in the memorial and through sharing experiences of that day when 28 loved ones were lost, and countless more were emotionally and physically affected. But, after 50 years, it has not and will not be forgotten.