MOBILE, Ala. – A series of fiery explosions rocked the Mobile area Wednesday night after two barges laden with natural gas caught fire in the Mobile River, injuring three people.
U.S. Coast Guard crews and firefighters from the Mobile fire department responded to the scene after two explosions were seen and heard throughout the area. A third explosion occurred as crews were making their way to the barges, and a fourth blast erupted just before 10 p.m. Two more explosions were subsequently reported.
Various news outlets reported there were no fatalities, but three people, identified as employees of Oil Recovery Co., were taken to University of South Alabama Medical Center with severe burn injuries. A nursing administrator there told the press that all three were in critical condition.
The ships were so engulfed in flames that responders decided the best course of action would be to allow the vessels to burn throughout the night.
The explosions broke out as the barges were traveling in a part of the river just east of downtown Mobile near the George C. Wallace Tunnel, an underground highway that sends traffic under the Mobile River to Interstate 10. It isn’t known if the tunnel sustained any damage from the blasts, which the Mobile Press-Register said blew in windows and doors in the Spanish Fort Area.
Aftershocks were also felt in downtown Mobile, Bay Minette, and Fort Morgan.
According to CBS News, the Mobile-based Coast Guard unit that responded to the blasts said one of the ships was being cleaned when it caught fire somehow.
Mobile Fire Chief Steve Dean told Al.com the barges were carrying fuel that was like gas at a service station pump. There is no report yet of how much fuel may have emptied into the river and the potential for environmental harm.
Oil spills and other fossil fuel disasters have become a way of life in the South. Three years ago, BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and released more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf. Much of that oil made its way to the waters and wetlands around Mobile Bay.
In late March, an ExxonMobil pipeline carrying diluted tar sands fuel to Texas ruptured and flooded the town of Mayflower, Arkansas, and the surrounding forests and wetlands with highly toxic, dense oil. Numerous other terrestrial and offshore spills have occurred in recent months throughout the southern states.