A thunderous explosion tore through a BP oil refinery, shooting flames and billowing smoke into the sky and showering the area with ash and chunks of charred metal. At least 14 were believed dead and more than 100 were injured.
The cause of the explosion was not immediately known.
Workers searched through rubble for survivors or bodies into Wednesday night, several hours after the 1:20pm blast. An undetermined number of workers were unaccounted for; most of the injured suffered broken bones, cuts, concussions and other injuries.
Refinery manager Don Parus said BP was waiting on an official death toll confirmation from the medical examiner's office, but added, "it's my deep regret that we believe we have 14 losses of life."
The blast left a gaping hole in the earth, mangled nearby offices, and was so powerful that witnesses said it rattled homes as far as 8km away. Cars and trucks in an employee parking lot were coated with soot and debris.
"It was real scary. Have you ever heard the thunder real loud? It was like 10 times that," said plant worker Charles Gregory, who was with several co-workers inside a trailer tank when the floor started rumbling.
The explosion occurred in a part of the plant used to boost the octane level of gasoline. BP spokeswoman Annie Smith said terrorism "is not a primary focus of our investigation."
The plant in Texas City, about 55km southeast of Houston, sprawls across 480 hectares with 30 refinery units. About 433,000 barrels of crude oil are processed a day, producing 3 percent of the US supply. The plant employs about 1,800 people in Texas City, a city of about 40,000 people.
Gasoline prices could rise slightly because of the explosion because the plant is such a large gas producer. Gasoline futures rose nearly US$0.02 in late trading on news of the explosion.
The explosion caused panic in this oil town, with many residents fearing the worst as they awaited word on their friends and family members who work at the plant.
Within minutes of the explosion, officials ordered a "shelter-in-place," meaning residents had to stay inside until authorities could be certain the air was safe. Children were ordered under their desks until the rumbling subsided.
Valerie Perez was among those standing outside the refinery fence, worried about her 18-year-old husband who works there and hadn't contacted her. Perez, who has a 3-month-old baby, said her husband always takes his cell phone to work. On Wednesday, he left it behind.
"I'm nervous," she said, holding back tears.
Wenceslado de la Cerda, a 50-year-old retired firefighter, said the blast shook the ground, rattled windows and knocked ceiling panels to the floor.
"Basically, it was one big boom," he said. "It's a shame that people have to get killed and hurt trying to make a dollar in these plants, but that's part of reality."
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