A MAN was last night in a serious condition after suffering severe burns in an explosion at a Darlington industrial estate.

The 63-year-old victim was airlifted to hospital with head, arm and hand injuries after the incident at the Cleveland Industrial Estate yesterday lunchtime. Witnesses reported hearing a series of bangs and said the man, who was working on a vehicle at a business that converts petrol cars to gas, was thrown several feet into the air by the force of the blast.

Emergency services were called to Forge Way, on the estate, at about 1pm as a plume of smoke rose into the sky and a large fire spread.

Staff at other industrial units were evacuated and a 200 metre exclusion zone was imposed around the blast site.

The explosion also caused delays on the nearby East Coast Main Line, with trains brought to a standstill.

Ian Matthews, from neighbouring vintage vehicle repair company M-Machine, was among the first on the scene.

He said: “We were having our lunch and suddenly heard an almighty bang, which really hit you in the chest. We ran outside and found the guy and stayed with him until the emergency services arrived.

“I know him well, he is a lovely bloke.”

More than 25 firefighters attended the incident, which was caused when an oxyacetylene gas cylinder exploded.

Senior fire officer John Robson, of Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue, said firefighters had to ensure further gas cylinders did not explode.

It is understood the victim was the only member of staff in the unit at the time, with the owner reportedly away on holiday.

The man, who has not been named, was taken to the Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI), in Newcastle, where he was last night in a serious condition in the burns unit.

Engineer Andy Myers, who also works at M-Machine, said: “There was a massive bang – it lifted the roof off.

“We know the man was outside then he was blown through a small door into the building.

“My colleague saw the man being blown through the building and went to drag him out.

“He was badly injured, his face looked like it had been burnt. He’d lost his glasses and we didn’t recognise him.

“The building where the explosion happened was pitchblack and full of smoke, you couldn’t see anything inside for flames.

“It was a scary experience, so terrifying. I’ve never heard anything like it.”

Four fire appliances attended the incident, along with an aerial ladder platform and an incident support unit.

A helicopter from the Great North Air Ambulance Service took the victim to the RVI, a journey of 14 minutes by air.

The Health and Safety Executive, which investigates accidents in the workplace, said it had been informed of the incident.

An investigation into the cause of the fire is expected to begin in due course.

Fire crews are expected to remain at the scene today to damp down and minimise the