THURSDAY of this week will mark the 50th anniversary of the Clarkston Disaster in which 22 people died as the result of a catastrophic gas explosion at a shopping centre in the Glasgow suburb.

It was 2.52pm on Thursday, October 21, 1971, that the Clarkston Toll row of shops with a rooftop car park at Busby Road in Clarkston to the south of Glasgow was blown apart by a massive gas explosion.

Staff in the shops and customers had complained of the strong smell of gas around the small shopping centre and Scottish Gas Board officials had visited the site the previous day but could not identify the source of the gas.

The explosion was devastating. Ten shops were destroyed almost instantly and five more were very seriously damaged. The rooftop car park split apart, sending cars tumbling into the wrecked centre. Huge concrete blocks cascaded into the street, and chunks of masonry and glass flew up to 100 yards from the scene.

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Amongst all the wreckage, people lay dead or dying, while dozens more were injured, some very seriously. A bus had stopped at a nearby halt, and two women who had emerged from it were among those killed instantly – one of them was Scottish badminton champion Margaret Hume.

Rushing to the scene came the emergency services, who did their usual brilliant job. It emerged many years later, however, that there had been communication difficulties, not least because lessons had not been learned from the Ibrox Disaster as the Wheatley Inquiry was still ongoing. It also emerged that senior officials were cautious because they thought it could have been a bomb connected to Northern Ireland’s Troubles.

What did happen was quite extraordinary. Ordinary men and women, including workmen from nearby sites and young women from offices and shops, rushed to Clarkston Toll and began to help survivors get clear, before searching among the rubble for people who had been trapped under collapsing masonry and even cars.

They ignored the dangers to themselves in order to assist their fellow human beings, but there was nothing that could be done for the dead, many of whom had suffered terrible injuries and whose bodies now lay in the street with even hardened emergency workers appalled at the scenes of carnage.

Doctors and nurses from local practices and medical staff from nearby hospitals went to the scene while ambulances ferried the injured to hospitals all around Glasgow. The fire service and police took charge of the hand-by-hand rescue operation – there were no specialist rescue teams in those days – which continued through the night under hastily erected floodlights.

It was not too many hours before it was realised that there would be no miraculous survivals. It would be many months before some of the injured people would be able to leave hospital.

The contribution of the selfless men and women who went to the scene was quickly acknowledged. Hector Monro, then the under-secretary of state at

the Scottish Office, told the House of Commons about the explosion the following day, adding: “I would also like to say what tremendous help was provided by the general public, who acted with great speed and courage throughout this dreadful event.”

There were immediate calls for an inquiry and the Secretary of State for Scotland, Gordon Campbell, who had visited the scene on the night of the disaster, and Lord Advocate Norman Wylie, later the judge Lord Wylie, reacted swiftly, setting up a fatal accident inquiry to be convened less than three months after the explosion.

The public fatal accident inquiry began in January, 1972, in the Town Hall in Paisley.

Evidence included harrowing testimony from survivors, and forensic evidence from investigators, leaving no doubt that the gas had built up to the point where just a small spark ignited it, setting off an explosion that had the force of a bomb weighing between 300 and 600lbs according to one expert.

After 19 days of evidence, the verdict of the inquiry jury was that “the accident was caused as a result of gas escaping through a fracture in the four-inch gas main laid beneath the pavements in front of the shops in Clarkston Toll shopping centre into the unventilated void below the shopping centre, which gas subsequently became ignited and exploded, and there was no evidence laid before us from which we are able to hold it proved what the cause of the ignition was.”

Simple corrosion appeared to have happened, and with that verdict, no blame could be apportioned to any individual or organisation, including the Scottish Gas Board. That absolution still rankles with the families of the victims, many of whom will attend commemorative events on Thursday.

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East Renfrewshire Council has said: “We will be marking the day with a special service at the memorial tree in Clarkston Hall’s car park for the families of victims and survivors.

“There will also be a minute’s silence held across East Renfrewshire at 2.50pm on the anniversary, the time the explosion happened.”

Many have referred to the Clarkston explosion as the forgotten disaster so please read these words of East Renfrewshire Council’s Deputy Provost, Councillor Betty Cunningham, who said: “Many lives were lost and countless more were changed forever, so it is extremely important that the day is marked and we remember those who were lost.”

I don’t think it would be asking too much if the whole of Scotland paused for a minute at 2.52pm on Thursday afternoon to remember the Clarkston Disaster and the deaths, injuries and long-term damage to families that it caused.