Three people were seriously injured when two barges previously loaded with liquid natural gas exploded on the east side of the Mobile River in Alabama on Wednesday evening.
The first barge blew up around 8:30 p.m. CDT. According to AL.com, the blast rattled windows in downtown Mobile and blew open doors in Spanish Fort.
Since then, six additional explosions have been heard.
Alan Waugh, general manager of the Ft. Conde Inn, told WALA-TV that he saw and heard the explosions.
"We were up on a second floor balcony and the sky lit up in orange and yellow, Waugh said. "My partner was on one end of the balcony and I was on the other. And you thought it was the Carnival cruise ship first, but then you realized it was a little further from the ship. It sounded like planes above you dropping bombs when it first went off."
Three workers with Oil Recovery Co. were taken to USA Medical Center with burns. A hospital spokesperson said all three patients are currently in critical condition.
Firefighters from Mobile, Ala., and U.S. Coast Guard crews were dispatched to the scene, The Associated Press reported.
The fire department's Twitter feed reported that the situation was too unstable to engage, and firefighters decided to let the blaze burn overnight.
At this time, the cause of the explosions is unknown.
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MOBILE, Ala. — Firefighters on Thursday extinguished a huge blaze that erupted hours earlier when two fuel barges exploded, leaving three people with critical burns and forcing the evacuation of crew from a nearby cruise ship.
The cause of the explosions remained under investigation, but investigators believe it was likely from a spark caused by a crew cleaning the barges, Coast Guard Lt. Mike Clausen said.
Firefighters from Mobile and Coast Guard officials responded to the pair of Wednesday night explosions involving the gas barges in the Mobile River east of downtown. More explosions followed over the next few hours.
Authorities say three people were brought to the University of South Alabama Medical Center for burn-related injuries. The three remained in critical condition Thursday morning, hospital spokesman Bob Lowry said.
Across the river, workers were evacuated from the Carnival Triumph, the cruise ship that became disabled in the Gulf of Mexico in February before it was towed to Mobile's port for repairs. A cruise spokesman said none of its workers were injured and there was no damage to the ship.
Alan Waugh, who lives at the Fort Conde Inn across the river from the scene, saw the blasts and said throngs of Carnival employees and others were clustered on streets leading toward the river as authorities evacuated the shipyard.
"It literally sounded like bombs going off around. The sky just lit up in orange and red," he said, "We could smell something in the air, we didn't know if it was gas or smoke." Waugh said he could feel the heat from the explosion and when he came back inside, his partner noticed he had what appeared to be black soot on his face.
Trevell Taylor was at work at Delta Bonds when he heard the blast.
"It was so loud, I just about jumped up under this desk," he said.
Trevell said he next heard sirens from emergency vehicles and then a second, louder explosion. He turned on the local news and learned of the barge fire.
"It is a scary thing any time you are talking about gasoline and fuel fires. They are lucky more people weren't hurt."
The initial blast took place in a ship channel near the George C. Wallace Tunnel – which carries traffic from Interstate 10 under the Mobile River. The river runs south past Mobile and into Mobile Bay, which in turn flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The tunnels were still open and operating.
The barges are owned by Houston-based Kirby Inland Marine, company spokesman Greg Beuerman said. They were empty and being cleaned at the Oil Recovery Co. facility.
The barges had been carrying a liquid called natural gasoline, meaning there were no additives in the fuel. By mid-morning Thursday, a hazardous materials team sent to inspect the barges determined that no further hazards exist.
The explosion comes two months after the 900-foot-long Carnival Triumph was towed to Mobile after becoming disabled on the Gulf during a cruise by an engine room fire, leaving thousands of passengers to endure cold food, unsanitary conditions and power outages for several days. The ship is still undergoing repairs, with many workers living on board.
Earlier this month, the cruise ship was dislodged from its mooring by a windstorm that also caused, in a separate incident, two shipyard workers to fall into Mobile Bay. While one worker was rescued, the other's body was pulled from the water more than a week later.
The barge fire did not affect the Triumph's repair schedule, Carnival spokesman Vance Gullisken wrote in an email Thursday. The vessel is still slated to resume service from Galveston, Texas, on June 13.
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