THIRTY years ago, three massive explosions rocked the centre of Poole.

There were flames up to 100ft high as a large cloud of fumes from the BDH chemicals factory drifted towards homes.

That evening, June 21, 1988, would see more than 3,000 people moved out of the town centre in the biggest peacetime evacuation the country had seen.

The emergency began shortly before 6.30pm, with the first blast at the factory site at West Quay Road.

Sue Goodwin, who ran a video shop 90ft from the blaze, said: “The plate glass window just shook violently with the sound of a very, very large explosion.”

Blazing drums full of liquids were sent into the air and rained down on neighbouring streets.

At Exchange & Mart and the RNLI headquarters, windows were smashed and debris scattered.

An elderly couple driving past the factory leapt from their car, which was then burnt out near traffic lights that were melting from the heat.

Builder Frank Simpson, 39, of Wavelle Avenue, was lifted 3ft in the air in his van. “I was just turning into West Street by the pub when I heard this tremendous crash and the van shot into the air,” he said.

“It was absolute mayhem and I’m amazed I was not hurt. There was complete panic with motorists trying to drive away as a series of smaller blasts went off.

“I saw two old people just blown to the ground by the strength of the explosions.”

Carpenter Darrell Snook was cycling past when he was blown off his bike by the force of the blast. Four anglers in a boat three miles offshore were showered with debris.

Jack Carr, 70, of Leyland Court, was drinking at the Pure Drop with his wife Eve. “We heard this tremendous thud and I said straight away it must be the BDH factory. We used to live right next to it and I always knew it would happen one day,” he said.

Celia St Clair told of choking smoke pouring into her New Street home.

At the factory, the dozen workers on site were quickly evacuated. The landlady of the Queen Mary ushered three regulars to safety minutes before the pub was badly damaged by fire.

PC Peter Fricker of Dorset Police marine section’s launch Alarm was on the scene in minutes.

“I saw a big ball of smoke rising up as we got alongside – then the next minute the whole lot went up with flames and smoke 100ft or maybe more,” he said.

Poole Yacht Club worker Barry Stout, of Almer Road, Hamworthy, thought his son Mark was in the blaze and rushed to the scene, to be told the 17-year-old was safe.

More than 100 firefighters tackled the fire, as drums of chemicals exploded.

The evacuation of around one square mile in the town centre began at 7.45pm and continued for hours.

Wilts and Dorset’s Skipper buses were used to ferry people out of the danger zone, while tower blocks from West Quay to Baiter and the Arndale Centre were searched and emptied. A party of 74 schoolchildren on the Quay was put on a bus to safety.

Initially, residents were sent to the bar of Poole Sports Centre and to the Arndale Centre, but then Poole Arts Centre was pressed into service.

By 10.15pm, with 1,000 people in the Arts Centre, some elderly people had been taken to hospital suffering from heat, exhaustion and distress. Other residents were housed at Henry Harbin and Herbert Carter schools.

By 11pm, police had to restrain people who were attempting to return to their homes.

At midnight, the company of the New Vic Theatre gave a free performance of their show Sons of the Musketeers to the evacuees.

It had taken four hours for the 100-plus firefighters to bring the blaze under control. At the factory were cylinders of cyanide, stored behind a 4in concrete wall that could stand up to four hours of a direct blaze.

The all-clear came at 5.30am. The Health and Safety Executive, on the scene that morning, said the devastation would make an investigation of the cause virtually impossible.

Poole MP John Ward, who would later raise the incident in the Commons, said: “We have to find out what really happened. The firm has been there for 40 years and they have a good safety record.”

There were calls for all toxic chemicals to be removed from the site. Former mayor Cllr Edna Adams said: “I think it is a miracle that no one was killed or badly injured. Our police, firemen and ambulance crews and other officials worked wonderfully well in trying circumstances.”

BDH – it stood for British Drug Houses – employed 400 people at the time. Later renamed Merck, it reinvested in the town, but announced in 1997 that it was closing the West Quay Road plant and axing almost half its local workforce.