Five men killed in an explosion at an industrial estate may have been illegally distilling vodka using potatoes sourced from local farms.
Large glass bottles could yesterday be seen on racks in the charred lock-up unit where the men, thought to be Eastern Europeans, died.
Others lay smashed on the floor which was littered with red bottle caps, while empty boxes stood nearby
The 30ft by 15ft room also contained a warped metal storage unit and a pressurised container lying on its side.
The five bodies were brought out yesterday afternoon.
A sixth man had escaped after the blast on Wednesday evening, running out of the unit with his clothes burned off, his arms ablaze and his feet apparently ‘melting’.
He was unconscious and ‘very poorly’ in a specialist burns unit last night.
None of the men had been identified, but sources said they were thought to come from Latvia and Lithuania, although a Lithuanian who works close to the scene of the blast said he believed one was English.
The explosion happened at Boston, Lincolnshire, where a quarter of the 30,000 population are immigrants from Eastern Europe, Portugal and India
Yesterday police confirmed that chemicals consistent with the ‘manufacture or production of alcohol’ were found at the illegal distillery.
Some workers on the industrial estate, bordered by homes on one side and fields on another, said it was ‘no secret’ what was going on at the unmarked lock-up although a polythene sheet behind the door prevented callers from seeing inside.
They added that there was a smell of chemicals from the property in the week before the blast.
A large box van was seen arriving daily at the unit and would later be driven away after apparently being loaded with bottles.
The tragedy shines a spotlight on a little-reported cottage industry in moonshine which accounts for a proportion of the £600million revenue lost each year to alcohol fraud. In March, 88litres of fake vodka were seized from eight stores and storage facilities in Boston by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and trading standards officers. The spirit contained Isopropyl alcohol, which is widely used as a solvent and cleaning fluid and is unsafe for human consumption.
Local residents suggested that nearby potato farms were being targeted by gangs involved in the illegal brewing operations.
Vodka can be made from potatoes as well as cereal grains.
John Neal, 17, whose family owns a potato farm near Boston, said: ‘The illegal distilling of alcohol from potatoes is common in this area.
'All these Latvians have been coming around to the farm asking for 30 or 40 bags of potatoes.’
His father, also called John, said the potatoes were sold to an English shopkeeper who was sourcing them on behalf of Latvians.
Superintendent Keith Owen, of Lincolnshire Police, said the force was trying to establish the scale of the illegal brewing operation.
Steve Moore, area manager from Lincolnshire Fire and Rescue Service, described the incident as one of the worst he had seen in his 28-year career.
'It was a really hot, intense fire,' he said.
The officer said the fierce flames set alight a car outside the unit and also buckled its roller shutters, meaning crews were forced to use hydraulic
equipment to cut their way into the block.
'At this stage we cannot say what caused such intense heat or fire spread,' he said.
'Certainly, such an intense fire heat, a rapid spread, usually means there is very likely some form of accelerant of some description yet to be determined.'
Boston Central councillor Peter Bedford said he was shocked by the news.
'I don't know the cause or even which unit it was in but this is a real shock.
'We don't expect that kind of thing to happen in Boston. It's a small market town, predominantly agricultural.
'There is heavy industry in that industrial estate, there's a scrapyard, there's joinery works, it's a real mix.'
Boston East councillor Mike Gilbert added: 'I'm very anxious to find out exactly what's happened. It's a lot of people dead and a great tragedy.'
Andy Dolan and Andrew Levy
Daily Mail 15th July 2011