It started a little before 16:00. I was working away at some code that is meant to generate PDF files, trying to persuade an underlying component of the virtues of CMYK, when beyond my monitor, I saw something flying up into the air, trailing coloured smoke. Since this is an industrial estate, on the north edge of a small town, my brain contradicted my immediate first reaction, which was that someone had just fired a smoke grenade.
Yes, I know there have been rioters in some parts of England, but for Royston, mid afternoon, to be the first place that British police started deploying such countermeasures? No way. It must have been an odd reflection on the inside of the window.
But I looked again, and could see a yellowy-brown smudge drifting leftwards behind the Hotel Chocolat offices.
OK, something really there, and it was just our side of a building that is on the main road of which our office's side road is.
Well, someone had had a mishap.
Presumably whichever company it was would sort it out pretty sharpish. I was fairly sure it was a company that did printed circuit boards.
And so for five or ten minutes, we watched from a distance, and our disquiet mounted, since there was now quite a strong plume of ochre smoke coming from behind that hedge. After a bit, I wandered out through our car park, across the car park beyond (the one shared by us, Hotel Chocolat and the sorting office as an overflow), and got close up to the fence. From there, I could see into the back yard of the company in question. There didn't seem to be anyone around.
Not too good.
There was a large tank - about a metre high, a metre in diameter - which had a now-open opening on its top, maybe 20 cm across. Out of that opening was coming a solid pillar of the fumes which dissipated pretty quickly in the air.
I then went back to our reception, and we used Google Maps to zoom in to find the name of the company in question - Tru-lon Printed Circuits. Our receptionist Yelsel called their number, which was answered fairly quickly. Somewhat to our surprise, it turned out to be someone in Stevenage, which is a different town halfway down the county from us. It looks like the reason that nobody at Tru-lon was doing anything was that there was nobody there - the premises had been closed a while back. The person in Stevenage guessed from our description that the fumes were nitric acid, and said they'd send a chemist up to deal with it.
All well and good, but about 20 minutes after the initial pop, it was still smoking, even if nothing like as badly as it had been:
So, we called the Fire Brigade.
About half an hour later, they were taking it quite seriously. We had a visitor telling us to stay indoors. At lkeast, that's what we think he said — it can be a tad difficult to understand someone speaking through a respirator:
And then, just before 18:00, the police arrived in force to evacuate us.
That's an impressive array of vehicles there.
It appears that both roads into the industrial estate were closed off, and that even the route into town from the A505 was closed off.
So, this is my apology. If we'd not done anything, that tank would probably have continued fuming at a low level, without anyone being put out, until it finally evaporated. Instead, there was near gridlock in town. I can only think they react this strongly because they're prepared for problems at Johnson Matthey