Firefighters extinguished a massive fire in Alabama Thursday after explosions went off aboard two fuel barges overnight, critically injuring three people. The cause of the explosion is not immediately clear, but it appears to be accidental, fire officials said.
Vapors from unrefined gasoline had built up in the fuel barges, which were empty at the time of the explosion, US Coast Guard Lt. Mike Clausen told WALA Fox10 in Mobile, Ala., Thursday morning. A spark entered one of the barges, igniting the vapors and creating the first explosion. The force of the explosion caused the second boat to catch on fire, he said.
Mobile Fire-Rescue officials and the Coast Guard are waiting for the wreckage to cool before inspecting the barges to pinpoint where the spark originated.
The initial explosion occurred at about 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, but firefighters allowed the fire to burn overnight after six other explosions went off during the night, Mobile Fire-Rescue spokesman Steve Huffman said in a statement, according to the Associated Press.
The barges, owned by Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine, were being cleaned at an Oil Recovery Co. facility on the Mobile River, said Kirby spokesman Greg Beuerman. The three injured individuals are workers at Oil Recovery, according to authorities.
The port is just east of downtown Mobile, where residents felt the heat from the explosions.
"It literally sounded like bombs going off around. The sky just lit up in orange and red," Alan Waugh, manager of the Ft. Conde Inn, told the Associated Press. "We could smell something in the air; we didn't know if it was gas or smoke."
He saw the explosion from his second-floor balcony and found black soot on his face when he went inside.
"We thought it was an earthquake or something," Amanda Hobbs told AL.com, as she and a friend watched the barges burn from across the river. "I have never felt anything like that."
Nearly 500 employees living onboard the Carnival Triumph were evacuated because the cruise ship is docked across the river from the explosion, Mr. Huffman of Mobile Fire-Rescue said. It is undergoing repairs after an engine fire caused the ship to break down two months ago in the Gulf of Mexico, stranding passengers for several days.
Mobile Fire Chief Steve Dean told AL.com that the fire would not spread to nearby industrial properties, and residents were warned to stay away from the riverfront. The Coast Guard created a one-mile perimeter around the explosion, shutting sections of the shipping channel Thursday.
US Coast Guard spokesman Carlos Vega said the explosions occurred in a ship channel near the George C. Wallace Tunnel, which carries interstate traffic under the Mobile River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The tunnels are still open and operating.
– Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.