Firefighters have spoken of the moment they were almost “obliterated” by a massive gas explosion.

Four firefighters from Farnworth fire station’s White Watch were working just yards from a concealed acetylene cylinder when it blew up, causing a blast that rocked houses up to a mile away.

Now the crew members have spoken about their terrifying experience in a bid to warn people of the dangers of leaving cylinders in the open and setting fire to rubbish not knowing what is hidden beneath it.

The warning comes after another fire crew dealt with a second blaze at the weekend involving an acetylene gas cylinder — which could also have exploded.

In the first incident, White Watch was called to a blaze in Cross Street, Farnworth, where someone had set fire to a pile of rubbish next to a derelict factory.

Watch commander Ben Cartwright and firefighter Mark Gillard climbed ladders to look over a seven foot wall and were discussing a plan of action.

They had just climbed down to put on more protective clothing when they were hit by a blast that was “like a bomb going off”, leaving the four men closest to it deaf for about 45 minutes.

Mr Gillard and Mr Cartwright, aged 49, said the first thing they did was check if they still had their own arms and legs.

Mr Cartwright, who has 27 years’ experience in the fire service, said: “I have never experienced anything like that — it was so close.

“Although it was night time, the scene lit up like daylight and Tony said it started raining fire, with bits of tyres, mattresses and debris coming down.

“My legs went and I lost my balance because of the shock and I slid down the wall. Mark thought I was dead.

“We are just thanking our lucky stars that we are still here and that no-one was seriously hurt.

“It was surreal, like being in a film or something.”

Firefighter Jason Snowden was nearest to the cylinder during the incident just after 1am last Saturday. He was about five metres away, while crew commander Tony Loftus was sat on top of a wall above the yard.

Mr Snowden, aged 41, who has been a firefighter for 16 years, said: “We see gory stuff and things that are hard to get out of your mind, but nothing has shaken me up as much as this.

“If it had have blown in my direction, I would have been obliterated.

“We saw what it did to the wall — and it is amazing that no-one was injured by the debris either.”

The solid double-layered wall, which had been built just six months ago, was pushed out six inches by the blast.

The other four crew members, who were a bit further away, feared the worst for their colleagues.

Adam Freer, aged 30, frantically smashed through a gate to get to his colleagues, while Daz Green, who was a bit further away, said: “When it went off, I thought there is no way they would have survived that.

“We had to go in not knowing what we would run into, and we were expecting the worst.”

The fire service is now warning people not to leave gas cylinders in the open and not to start fires at derelict sites or on wasteland.

Mr Cartwright added: “The consequences of these actions could have been so much worse — it could almost certainly have resulted in deaths.”