A GAS tanker burst into flames on the M56 yesterday amid dramatic scenes.

Emergency services closed the motorway in both directions between junctions 12 and 15, set up a 1,600 metre cordon and evacuated motorists from their vehicles.

Residents in nearby villages of Helsby, Hapsford and Elton were also warned to stay indoors and to keep windows closed as thick, black smoke snaked up into the sky.

Trains were stopped on both the Manchester to Chester and Ellesmere Port to Helsby lines, and air traffic control was advised of the incident to ensure aircraft did not fly over the area.

Four fire crews attended the scene, close to the Stanlow oil refinery, at 2.45pm to tackle the blaze.

Bystanders captured images of the flames rocketing into the air, and some even played football on the closed carriageway. No one was reported injured in the fire.

A fire service spokesman said yesterday: “Firefighters are tackling a blaze involving a lorry on the hard shoulder of the M56 westbound close to Stanlow.

“The incident involves a propane tanker that is on fire. A cordon of 1,500 metres has been set up and motorists are being evacuated from their vehicles and being moved to a safe distance.

“Trains have been stopped on both the Manchester to Chester and Ellesmere Port to Helsby lines. 

“Air traffic control have been advised of the incident to make sure that air traffic is stopped over the area.”

A spokesman for Cheshire Police added: “The fire involves a HGV tanker which is believed to be carrying propane gas.

“Officers have set up a 1600m cordon around the incident as a precautionary, and residents in the Helsby, Hapsford and Elton are advised to stay indoors with their windows and doors closed.

“In addition to the M56 the Liverpool to Runcorn train line is also closed.”

Arriva Trains Wales said “severe disruption” was expected until 7pm last night, adding that customers may be entitled to compensation.

In a customer announcement, the company said tickets would be valid for other routes.

The two carriageways were reopened to motorists at 12.15am with partial access allowed through the central reservation to divert drivers away from the scene just before 7pm.