ABOUT 22,000 homes were plunged into darkness for up to 12 hours after a massive power cut, causing a night of chaos for emergency services.

Homes in Shoebury, Great Wakering, Thorpe Bay, Southchurch and Shoebury were hut the blackout, believed to have been caused by a contractor installing a speed camera.

Firefighters were called to an explosion at a sheltered housing complex for the elderly, a car smash and a house fire - all caused by the power cut.

Some homeowners were told by operators at EDF Energy that the power failure was caused when an engineer putting up a speed camera in Eastern Avenue, Southend, struck an underground cable.

Dan Pritchard, spokesman for the electricity firm, would only say the blackout was the result of a "third party" hitting an underground cable, which prompted the power failure at just before 6pm on Friday.

EDF Energy worked around the clock to get the power restored to all homes by 6.30am on Saturday morning. Residents will not receive compensation because it is only triggered after 18 hours without power.

Gas explosion in elderly woman's flat

A FRAIL pensioner narrowly escaped with her life after a gas explosion tore through her flat during the power blackout.

The 87-year-old woman was trying to use a portable gas-fired stove. The gas canister was was accidentally pierced and ignited by a candle.

The woman valiantly tried to battle the fire, to stop it spreading to other flats in the Goodmans sheltered housing complex in High Street, Great Wakering.

Seconds after she left the first-floor flat to grab a fire extinguisher from a hallway, the gas canister exploded.The blast lifted the roof off, shattered the flat's windows and moved two walls.

The pensioner escaped unharmed and fire crews raced to the scene on Friday evening, safely evacuating 20 other residents at the complex.

Assistant divisional fire officer Neil Fenwick said: "Because of the electrical blackout in the Shoebury and Great Wakering area, many residents were using other forms of power.

"The elderly woman was using a Calor Gas portable camping light which accidentally got pierced and caught fire.

"She ran out to the communal hallway to get a fire extinguisher and while she was out in the hallway, the gas light exploded in her flat.

"She is extremely lucky to have escaped unhurt."

Firefighters managed to get into the flat to rescue her pet budgies, which were unharmed. The woman is now staying with relatives in Rayleigh."

Other residents were able to return to their flats after the fire.

Rochford District Council contingency planning and health and safety manager Richard Prior visited the scene the day after the blaze.

He said: "We are very pleased and thankful that the resident is alive and well. She is staying with her family and we will sort out her possessions and temporary accommodation while we do the necessary repairs to her flat.

"We have had a full assessment carried out by a structural engineer."

Candles set bath alight, car crashes on unlit road

CANDLES being used by a man taking a bath during the power cut set fire to his home.

They melted the plastic bath and started a blaze which gutted the bathroom at the flat in Plas Newydd, Southend.

Southend fire station sub-officer Lee Burling said: "Because there was no power, this man had lit candles which burnt through the bath, destroying the bathroom.

"Fortunately as soon as the fire was discovered the man called us and closed the bathroom door, which was the best thing he could have done to stop the fire spreading."

Fire crews were also called to North Shoebury Road, Shoebury, where a man had hit the central reservation in his green Ford Focus.

It is believed the crash happened because the blackout had wiped out the street lighting. The man was not injured.