NCE at 50 | Editors’ key moments: Mike Winney 1993-1998

Mike Winney died in 2007. This is written by his close former colleague Ty Byrd.

Mike Winney

Mike was a highly experienced reporter with many fine stories to his name but the pinnacle of his achievement did not involve words, it was a drawing. A drawing that illustrated much better than any prose why the Abbeystead valve house blew up. It appeared in the 31 May 1984 issue of NCE.

I should say straight away Mike did not produce the final artwork: that was accomplished by a professional illustrator. But the overall concept, the detail, the accuracy: they were all his.

The drawing’s compilation exemplified Mike’s flair, diligence and engineering nous. Not to say his ability to articulate his ideas to an illustrator. The result was veritably a work of genius.

Timely and accurate disaster reporting

As such, it helped confirm NCE’s reputation for timely and accurate description of infrastructure disasters, all the while taking political pressure off the magazine for “irresponsibly pre-empting proper investigation” – see Hugh Ferguson’s revealing article on page 10.

Briefly put, the Abbeystead valve house was the stilling basin and outfall of a scheme to transfer water between the Lune and Wyre rivers. A party of local people and dignitaries was invited to a demonstration of the new works.

The pumps were started, water began to move up the transfer tunnel from the river Lune, pushing an unexpected accumulation of methane as well. The gas ignited in the valve house with fatal results. 

This happened on the evening of 23 May; NCE’s reporting team – Mike included – arrived the next morning to find the shattered semi-underground building littered by its ground level roof beams which had randomly come to rest having been blasted up into the air.

Mike’s diagram ... was widely acclaimed, not to say copied by the Health & Safety executive in its report on the disaster

Everything was damp and muddy. We had no authority to be on site so tried to look “official”, as if investigators come to examine the ruins. Mike was busy sketching and photographing what we could see and then, crucially, getting into conversation with someone who knew the valve house.

He scribbled away, getting line and level, plus approximate dimensions. Such was his enthusiasm and search for answers, others joined in the conversation and he obtained a plan of the facility. Other scraps of paperwork and information materialised. Mike was subsequently charged with creating an illustration for NCE’s report. 

Fundamental design flaw

Working on this helped Mike and the rest of us reveal a fundamental design flaw, which was the venting of tunnel air (plus any gas) into the valve house rather than out of it, directly into free air. This was done, apparently to minimise visual impact on the environment.

There was immense pressure on the consultant to keep the valve house and any associated pipework underground and as much out of sight as possible. The building itself had bars on its windows, rather than glass, to allow air to escape that way. 

This meant that visitors inside the structure effectively stood in air flow between the exit portal of the transfer tunnel and the windows – making them vulnerable to any air-borne mishap. Mike’s diagram illustrated this magnificently and was widely acclaimed, not to say copied by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) in its report on the disaster.

  • Footnote: Our article may not have been accurate in every detail. We thought the methane at Abbeystead had probably been generated by rotting vegetation in the system. HSE thought otherwise, that fissuring of surrounding ground during tunnelling had released the gas. We on NCE had not heard of fracking at the time.

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