A UNIVERSITY has paid tribute to Paul Wilmott, the man who is believed to have died when a house was destroyed by an explosion near York.
The Vice Chancellor at Leeds Beckett University, Professor Peter Slee, said this afternoon: “Paul was a committed colleague with 33 years’ service at our university, most recently in our video production team.
"We are very saddened to hear of his death and our thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues at this difficult time.”
His comments came as a big clean-up operation got underway today in Springwood, a cul-de-sac in Haxby where a 63-year-old man was killed when a detached house was flattened by a huge blast yesterday morning.
Householders have been sweeping away glass from their homes' shattered windows, which have now been boarded up.
Insurance experts have joined police and other emergency workers in the street to begin assessing damage to about a dozen properties affected by the explosion.
A priest revealed this morning how he narrowly escaped being showered in shattered glass when his kitchen window blew in.
Father Kevin Trehy, parish priest at St Margaret Clitherow RC Church in Haxby, told today how he had only just left the kitchen at his home in Holly Tree Lane when the window was blown in by the blast, showering the room with glass.
"I had gone up to the bathroom only seconds before it happened," he said. "A guardian angel was looking after me yesterday."
He said the stained glass window in the church had been pushed in and slightly cracked by the blast, but the damage was reparable.
He added that prayers would be said during services for those affected by the blast and in the church's prayer book, someone has written the message: "Please pray for those people affected by the explosion in Springfield and for the family of the man who has died. May he rest in peace. Amen."
Meanwhile, Paul Rhodes, site manager at Headlands Primary School, has told how he was walking through the school yard when he heard a 'massive boom.'
He said: "I felt the force hit my body. Cars were rocking and the alarms were set off. I saw a huge ball of brown smoke in the air and paper fluttering down.
"I thought a propane tank must have exploded or something. It was amazing."
He added that a glass vase had been flung through the air and landed and smashed on the school property.
A householder in Springwood has also told how he saw roof tiles raining down from the sky in the seconds after the explosion.
Steve Clifford said it was very fortunate it was half-term yesterday, because children were normally walking along Springwood on their way to school at the time of the explosion, and could have been hit by flying debris.
He said his property had suffered some damage, including to a bay window and a garage door, but he had got off relatively lightly compared to other householders in the street.
He felt one positive thing was that the explosion had brought the community together, with neighbours helping each other out.
Another local resident, Ann Pearson, told how the bang and shockwave hitting her home made her think it had been hit by a truck.
"It was horrendous," she said. "I thought a truck had hit it or a plane had crashed. I was shocked."
Northern Gas Networks (NGN) said last night that the cause of the explosion was still not known, and its engineers were continuing to work alongside the emergency services.
However, it also said that anyone who smelled gas should call the National Gas Emergency Service on 0800 111 999, which was in operation 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.
The victim's identity has not yet been officially confirmed, but The Press understands it was Paul Wilmott, who was a member of the Video Production Team at Leeds Beckett University.
Police have confirmed the man was in the house and killed by the explosion. Inspector Steve Breen said no one else was believed to be in the property at the time, although searches continued.
The explosion was reported to North Yorkshire Police at 7.30am yesterday.
Dave Meers lives in nearby Briargate and said he first thought the explosion was a sonic boom.
He said: "I was in the shower when I heard this loud bang and thought it was a sonic boom. My wife thought the chimney had fallen down.
"My worst fears were something like this happening. It's devastating, mind blowing. Unbelievable in such a peaceful area as this. We had hoped everyone in the house was on holiday, that's what we'd heard. It's tragic."
Stephen Spain, who lives in nearby Appleby Glade,said: "The bang was louder than anything I've ever heard.
"I looked out the window and saw people outside running down the road to see what's going on. We have friends opposite and their boys are in our house now. They're all safe."
Roly Burnett and his wife live three doors away from the destroyed house, and were in bed when the explosion happened.
Mr Burnett said: "My immediate thought was that it was a gas explosion in our house it felt that close. We saw bits and pieces strewn about the street and realised it wasn't.
"The fire was just beginning to burn and we were concerned about the wellbeing of ourselves and our neighbours."
Mr Burnett, who is a police investigator, said he believed three people lived at the house, a couple and a younger man believed to be in his twenties.
The picture below, taken by North Yorkshire Fire Service, shows the extent of the destruction.
Tom Holland, 28, described how he felt a shockwave in the area.
He said: "I live under a mile away from where it happened.
"Somewhere between 7.25am and 7.30am I felt a shockwave. It was like an earthquake.
"The whole room shook for a second. I've seen on social media that it has been felt in other parts of York too.
"I went down to the scene to have a look at. The stench down there is unbelievable and there is loads of smoke.
"The house that exploded is completely gone. It is just pile of rubbish.
"It has shattered windows from a number of houses each side of it and I saw at least one car that had its windows blown out.
"The cul-de-sac is closed and everyone who has been evacuated from their houses is standing outside.
"There was around four or five ambulances outside and people were being treated for shock. I also saw three or four fire engines and a number of police cars."
The scene this morning. Photo: Dan Bean
Speaking earlier this morning, Rob Varley, 30, who lives on the next street to where the explosion happened said: "All that I knew was that there was a massive bang at around 7.30am.
"I had woken up just five minutes before it happened but I was still half asleep when it went off.
"It was like a mix of a bomb, a plane crash and a bus crashing into the house. Our house shook and it felt like a bus had driven into the house.
"I looked out the window and saw smoke coming from the houses.
"I ran outside to see if anyone was hurt and saw the house in pieces.
"There was so much devastation and it had started to set on fire again and so we backed away.
"Both sides next door have been hit very badly by it.
"There was an air of distress when it happened. You just don't know what happened. You just hope that no one was inside.
"Talking to people in the street they said the people that lived there weren't there during the week and there wasn't a car there so hopefully they were still away when it happened."
Emergency services at the scene Picture: Frank Dwyer
Cllr Tony Richardson who is on Haxby Town Council and City of York Council said: "At the moment everything's under control. About five homes have been evacuated to the Memorial Hall as a safety precaution. The damage is quite extensive to the house so gas engineers are at the scene.
"We don't know whether anyone was in the house at the time. I'm waiting to speak to the police inspector to find out more and we don't know who the residents are at the moment.
"It's a tragic situation to happen. We have just been discussing the emergency plan in Haxby and then this happens. We are hoping nobody's been injured, but it may be a couple of hours before we know."
Cllr Richardson said he lives in York Road about a quarter of a mile away and it felt like his windows were going to come through.
There are currently dozens of residents in the street assisting the emergency services where possible.
There is a strong smell of smoke in the air, but not much in the way of smoke to see.
Debris is all over the road and neighbouring rooftops. The windows of two houses either side of the damaged house have been smashed through and the upstairs windows of two homes facing the site have also been blown out.
Police have just moved the cordon at the scene back by 50 metres.
Haxby Group set up an urgent drop in centre at its Haxby surgery for anyone affected by today's explosion.
The house at the centre of the blast was completely destroyed Picture: Frank Dwyer
Steve Stewart, Chief Executive of City of York Council, said: “Our thoughts are with those affected by today’s explosion. We are providing as much support and advice as possible to residents in Haxby.
"Our housing options team is providing housing assistance and our building control team is also working closely with emergency services to carry out an initial assessment to damaged adjacent properties.
"The building control team can provide advice relating to the structural condition of damaged properties but householders are advised to contact their insurers as a matter of urgency.
“A rest centre is open at Haxby Memorial Hall and will remain open for as long as required.
"Our Major Incident Response Team is also providing emotional support. If anyone would like further advice or support they can contact the council on 01904 551550."
A spokeswoman for Northern Gas Networks said their engineers were at the scene and working with police and the fire service.
She said: “Emergency engineers from Northern Gas Networks (NGN) have attended the scene of a major incident in Haxby this morning.
“We are working alongside the police and fire service.
“The cause of the incident is not yet known.
“Anyone that smells gas or suspects Carbon Monoxide should call the National Gas Emergency Service on 0800 111 999. This line is in operation 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.”
Inspector Steve Breen, holding a press conference about the explosion. Picture: Frank Dwyer
Insp Steve Breen said police considered the explosion an accident most likely caused by gas and that the investigation will continue and praised the efforts of the fire service and the ambulance service.
He said: "We believe this is an isolated incident, an accident with no suspicious circumstances and no threat to anyone else. The cordons will soon be lifted and we will allow residents to get back to some sort of normality. For some of those houses which have been dreadfully badly damaged, that will take some time."
Emergency services estimate 12 or more properties have been damaged in the blast with rubble and glass blown several hundred yards by the force of the explosion.
A home was completely destroyed and neigbouring properties severely damanged in the Haxby blast. Picture: Frank Dwyer
Debris from the blast damaged neighbouring properties. Picture: Frank Dwyer
If you witnessed the explosion or have any information, please call York Press newsdesk on 01904 567131.
More to follow.