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Explosion at IMI, Witton late 1960;s

bear & ragged staff

Brummie babby
My dad, Jack Keirl, worked at Kyoch, ICI and IMI at Witton all of his working life retiring in 1979. He started in 'Lightning Fastener' and moved on to IMI working on the titanium furnaces. These furnaces were housed in an odd shaped purposely built building. A problem occurred one day in the mid to late sixties when the coolant to one of the furnaces ceased to flow, resulting in a serious explosion. My recollection is that the explosion found a weak point in the building and split it in half, the blast escaped through the split and removed roof tiles and blew windows in on houses hundreds of yards away. My dad and his colleague, Wilf Winter, were lucky not to be seriously injured if not worse. The building was repaired by rejoining the two halves of the building with a metal band.
I no longer live in Birmingham and try to relate this story to others and I think they believe I am pulling their leg. Can anybody point me in the right direction to find details or better still a picture of the above. Many Thanks.
 

Radiorails

master brummie
A very informative thread exists:
 

ChrisM

Super Moderator
Staff member
The official history of IMI seems to contain no mention of this incident as far as I can tell (the book lacks a detailed index which makes finding anything rather a pain). But possibly not surprising if it didn't involve loss of life or serious injury, unlike the 1973 explosion in the ammunition area which is well documented. I have a note of a new vacuum furnace being commissioned in 1968 but whether this was the result of an earlier disaster, whether it was this new equipment which was the problem or whether it was all something separate, I don't know.

I would have thought that a major incident like this would have merited a report in the local press. Do please let us know if you learn anything more.

Chris
 

Big Gee

master brummie
We lived not far from IMI Witton, and I do remember that titanium-plant explosion as well as the later ammunition one. My late father was employed as an installation and maintenance electrician for Birlec Furnaces Ltd, and I know he did some work on furnaces in the IMI titanium plant. He liked working at IMI as he could walk home for lunch! Whether he was actually involved in the original installation of the furnaces, or sent in to assist in the post-explosion repair, I can't remember. I have a vague memory of the whole thing being kept a bit quiet at the time. Much later, and not long before the titanium plant closed, I worked for a company that supplied production material for the plant. My contact there was called Alan Bratt, if I recall.

G
 

mikejee

Super Moderator
Staff member
An online search of Birmingham papers for the period using search term s IMI, Witton and explosion gave no relevant results
 

Lusher

Brummie babby
Hi there, I created this account because I was talking to my mom (Susan Lusher) about this blast that happened in 1973 and well, she was in it, thankfully as one of the survivors. My mom had only been working at IMI since the start of 73 and she worked in Sporting loading. Her office was the 2nd office from the machine shop based in the packing department, literally next door to the hopper that went off.

She described when the blast went off (the clock above the opening that went into the machine shop stopped at 11:27), she felt a blast of warm air and can remember bricks, plaster, concrete and dust on her desk when she looked up. She didn't hear the blast at all. She remembers looking up where the roof should be only to see sky, not to mention the pallets, boxes, debris and anything else falling from the sky in slow motion. She also remembers trying a work colleague was sitting at her desk still on the phone (probably in shock) and had told her to get out. She couldn't open the door because another colleague (Queenie, possibly a nickname?) was on the floor in front of the door blocking it. She'd just left the office as the blast went off. Eventually my mom managed to get out with minor cuts and bruises. She was one of the lucky ones.

From what I can gather, the contractor who was working on the machine wasn't working upstairs (I've read elsewhere this was probably the case) but was working on the ground floor same as my mom, just in the machine shop. Where he was working, there would have been residue of gunpowder which he should have cleared but didn't. She mentioned there were two machines that had pipes that led up to the hopper on the floor above. The sparks from the drill would have set off a chain reaction igniting the gunpowder around the first machine that went up the pipe to the hopper and the blast went down the second tube to the second machine which sent that through the floor to the basement. Unfortunately the operator on that second machine was Patricia Harris. She was killed instantly.

I've attached an still from a video that shows the office my mom was working in at the time.
 

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Lusher

Brummie babby
Found an old satellite image from 1999, a few years before the whole place got flattened to make way for new units. You can clearly see the whole machine shop was demolished and never built upon.
 

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Lusher

Brummie babby
Lusher - have a look at the 1961 site images I posted here: https://birminghamhistory.co.uk/forum/index.php?threads/kynoch-works-witton-1961-images.41872/

Are the buildings you are talking about visible on these?

Chris
Image 4. Far right middle, just above the bunch of foliage and trees. Long row of buildings. That's the only picture that faces that general direction from where the photos were taken from.

After much deliberation, I'm convinced it was Sporting loading. There are no other buildings in that area behind trees and bushes that face that direction and it lines up with the roads behind that are on the other side of the tracks.
 

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Genmac

proper brummie kid
My dad, Jack Keirl, worked at Kyoch, ICI and IMI at Witton all of his working life retiring in 1979. He started in 'Lightning Fastener' and moved on to IMI working on the titanium furnaces. These furnaces were housed in an odd shaped purposely built building. A problem occurred one day in the mid to late sixties when the coolant to one of the furnaces ceased to flow, resulting in a serious explosion. My recollection is that the explosion found a weak point in the building and split it in half, the blast escaped through the split and removed roof tiles and blew windows in on houses hundreds of yards away. My dad and his colleague, Wilf Winter, were lucky not to be seriously injured if not worse. The building was repaired by rejoining the two halves of the building with a metal band.
I no longer live in Birmingham and try to relate this story to others and I think they believe I am pulling their leg. Can anybody point me in the right direction to find details or better still a picture of the above. Many Thanks.
Between 1963 to 1969 I worked as an IMI member of staff in the New Metals Research which included work on Melting and Casting Titanium Alloys by either Vacuum Arc Melting or Vacuum Electron Beam Melting in a purpose built building at Kynoch in Witton. The casting was done under a 'high vacuum' to stop the air embrittling the metal at high temperatures around 1500 degree Centigrade into Water Cooled Copper Crucible. Because of the rare danger of a stray arc piercing the copper crucible which might cause at worst an explosion from water ingress the building was designed with a thin weak back panel which would cause any explosion to be safely directed outwards through the thin panel which sounds as though what happened. After that the Furnace Supplier changed the furnace design for a safer cooling system other than water
 

Big Gee

master brummie
Hi Genmac,

my father Eddie Bryant worked for Birlec in those days, and did a good deal of furnace installation and serving at IMI. Much later I was sales manager for a small company supplying high-temperature materials, and we did some business at IMI, my contact being Alan Bratt. Do these names ring any bells with you?

G
 

Genmac

proper brummie kid
Sorry I don't know the 2 names you mentioned. The titanium vacuum melting furnaces were made by Heraeus not Birlec. In the research I was responsible for the Reactive and Refractory Metals which we then made electrodes for vacuum melting
 

Big Gee

master brummie
My old man never said a lot about his work, but I do recall him saying he was spending time doing some kind of maintenance in the Titanium Division. I know he spent a lot of time at IMI on a general basis, and he liked it as he could walk there and back home for lunch!

G
 
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