S.E. Fireworks, a company that stores fireworks articles, is located in the middle of the working class housing estate of Mekkelholt in the northern Dutch city of Enschede. On 13 May 2000, two explosions in a fireworks warehouse detonated on estimated 100 tonnes of explosives. The blast was felt up to 30 kilometers away. Within minutes the surrounding residential quarter was devasted. Some 400 apartments were reduced to cinders, another 1000 were damaged. The resulting fires are also said to have caused the release of hazardous asbestos. After the explosion 22 people (4 firefighters) were found dead, 947 were injured, many of them seriously.
According to media reports, the directors of the factory are suspected of producing highly hazardous fireworks without the necessary authorisation and illegally storing material on the premises. The operating permit related only to the storage and assembly, not to the production of fireworks articles.
The question was a simple one, but the Dutch Prime Minister, Wim Kok, had no answer. When Liz Tiben, a 68-year-old survivor of Saturday's devastating explosion in Enschede was presented to the shaken-looking premier yesterday, she was polite but blunt: "I said to Mr Kok, 'How is it permitted to have such a fireworks warehouse near such a lot of houses?' He nodded, and simply said it was terrible."
Twenty-four hours after the explosion at a fireworks warehouse in a residential district, intense heat kept the fire burning in the heart of a Dutch border town reduced to rubble reminiscent of a war zone. A giant, smoking crater was all that remained of the warehouse's storage bunkers. Homes were reduced to blackened ruins and surrounded by the burnt-out hulks of cars and mangled bicycle frames.
A 40 hectare area around the warehouse was destroyed by the blast. Around 400 houses were destroyed, 15 streets incinerated and a total of 1,500 homes were damaged, leaving 1,250 people homeless - essentially obliterating the neighbourhood of Roombeek. Ten thousand residents were evacuated. The damage bill eventually exceeded € 450 million.
It appeared that the fire began in the work area of the central building where some 900 kg of fireworks were stored. This fire then extended to two full containers that had been stored illegally outside of the building. A reaction of explosions eventually led to the ignition.The fireworks bunker ignition caused the explosion of 177 tons of fireworks, virtually destroying the area. Dutch telephone voting in the Eurovision Song Contest 2000 was suspended to free up capacity for the emergency services communications, as a mark of respect to the casualties and due to Dutch Television ending transmission of the Contest during its running, to show breaking news coverage.
One theory for the scale of the disaster was that workers had accidentally left open internal doors which might have contained the fire and subsequent blast. Theoretically such an explosion was highly unlikely because the fireworks were stored in bunkers specifically designed to minimize the risk.
The week prior to the explosion, SE had been audited and met all official safety regulations, and the fireworks had been legally imported and inspected as safe by Dutch authorities. Many residents from affected Roombeek—a poor, working class neighbourhood—complained of governmental neglect and deliberate non-interest and inaction, arguing the whole disaster was an accident waiting to happen. .