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DALLAS — At least three people were injured when a series of large explosions at a gas facility showered nearby highways and buildings with flaming debris near downtown Wednesday.
A half-mile area surrounding the blasts was evacuated. Dallas Fire-Rescue spokesman Lt. Joel Lavender said the explosion appears to have been an accident.
He said two employees at Southwest Industrial Gases in the 500 block of Industrial Blvd. were filling canisters with acetylene using a series of connecting tubes in what is known as “pig-tailing.”
A connection malfunctioned at around 9:30 a.m., which apparently created enough pressure for one of the canisters to ignite.
The employees immediately began using a hose to spray down the other tanks—not to extinguish the fire, but to cool the tanks, Lt. Lavender said. But the canisters exploded in a chain reaction, burning the two men on their upper bodies.
Randal Bibb, 50, and Daniel McMurry, 56, were taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital. McMurry, the plant's co-owner and manager, was reported in fair condition late Wednesday afternoon. Bibb was said to be in serious condition.
The third injured person was a truck driver, who hurt his back as he jumped out of his cab. Lt. Lavender said all three men managed to talk to authorities about what happened.
The fire was considered under control but not extinguished as of Wednesday afternoon. Highways and streets in the immediate vicinity were expected to be closed until around 7 p.m.—after what's sure to be a chaotic rush hour.
Officials said there was no indication that the explosions had any link to terrorism. "It's so premature at this point; we don't know," said Dallas police Deputy Chief Vincent Golbeck. "We do have federal agents at the scene to help us with that evaluation."
A one-half mile area surrounding the blast site remained off-limits at noon, and emergency officials were wary about moving in too close to the source of the explosion.
"Until we think it's safe, we will not send our firefighters into the building," said Dallas Fire-Rescue Chief Eddie Burns. "We're in a defensive operation.
Around seven workers were believed to be on duty at the time of the blast.
Waco Mayor Virginia Dupuy, who is part-owner of Southwest Industrial Gases, said she had been told by another partner in the facility that all employees were able to evacuate safely. "Something like this just shakes you to your roots," Dupuy said in a telephone interview, her voice trembling.
WFAA-TV reporter Chris Heinbaugh was hit on the head by a projectile. "Pebble-sized ash is falling all around," he said. Debris can be seen more than 200 yards from the site of the blast.
"I was going south on I-35. The first thing I saw was a huge fire ball," said witness Kathy Williams. "I saw flames as high as the train overpass. It seemed as if the flames were as high as Reunion Tower."
Janiquta Bell was headed home after taking her husband at work. "All of a sudden the building started blowing up," she said.
"I had to just leave the car and run; grab the baby and run," said Bell, who is six months pregnant. "I made it out okay."
Now it's a waiting game. "My car is still on the freeway," Bell said. "They don't know when I'm going to be able to get my car off the freeway."
Video footage showed charred, smoldering metal wreckage at the site. There were numerous small fires burning in the area caused by flaming debris, including about a dozen cars in a nearby parking lot and some grassy areas of a highway median.
"I thought it was artillery. It was just coming just boom, boom, boom," said witness Tony Love, a former Army soldier.
Dallas police Sgt. Gil Cerda said officers were controlling traffic around the area.
Traffic was closed at one of the state's busiest highway intersections, Interstates 30 and 35, and was being rerouted through city streets, a Texas Department of Transportation spokesman said.
DART rail service was shut down in the area, and the transit agency also rerouted buses that normally travel near the blast site.
Vanessa O'Brien said she was standing in a parking lot a few blocks away when she felt at least 20 vibrations from the explosion.
"We felt the whole building move and the windows rattle," she said.
Despite hazy skies, a black column of smoke was visible from at least 10 miles.
The Environmental Protection Agency's emergency responders were on the way to the scene, said Dave Bary, a spokesman for the agency's regional office. He said they will assist in monitoring the air, but had no information yet.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals closed one of its offices a few blocks away. Staffers and animals were moved to another side of the building and animals recovering from surgery were taken to another facility, the group said in statement.
Dallas County's main jail and criminal courts building were at the edge of the evacuation zone but continued to operate, said Deputy Michael Ortiz of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department.
Ortiz said that sheriff's officers were first on the scene to evacuate the area. Otherwise, he said the only effect the explosions at the county justice complex was the rush to the windows to view the spectacle.
"We are prepared to go into any emergency mode that's needed, but we feel pretty secure here in the jail," Ortiz said.
Because of network congestion, Sprint asked customers to avoid using their wireless phones unless there is an emergency. Sprint suggested using text messaging to relay routine messages, since that technique is a much more efficient use of the cellular spectrum.
The explosions caused a mini-stir among bailiffs at the Holy Foundation terror financing trial. Although the explosions were not audible inside the windowless 15th floor courtroom at the Earle Cabell federal building, U.S . marshals swapped information on the blasts via walkie talkies at a break in the proceedings just after 10 a.m.
Their basic message to each other was that the explosions were not connectged to the trial, which has building security personnel already on edge because of the nature of the subect matter.
Cars parked across the street were dusted with ash and small pieces of debris.
Seventy-five firefighters with 20 pieces of equipment were attempting to bring the situation under control.
A Love Field spokesperson said the explosions had no impact on flights to the Dallas airport.
Tuesday morning’s fire is the second major industrial blaze in as many months immediately south of Interstate 30 along Dallas’ Trinity River corridor. Dallas City Council member Steve Salazar said he wants the council to review safety in that area at an upcoming meeting.
"Certainly, this is something we should look at," Salazar said. "Given the fact that there haven’t been any fatalities, it seems like our fire department and emergency responders did a great job. But we need to let the fire department look at why this is occurring there in that area.”
WFAA-TV, DallasNews.com and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
4:22 p.m. Due to this morning's explosion, the Dallas Emergency Operations Center estimates some downtown freeways and roads will remain closed until approximately 7 p.m. this evening while clean-up and investigation continues. The City of Dallas is working with the Texas Department of Transportation to determine when the area around the roadways is safe to open up for vehicular traffic.
Major Highway Closures:
I-35 Southbound at Woodall Rogers
I-35 Northbound at 8th Street
I-30 Eastbound at Loop 12/Walton Walker in Irving
Westbound I-30 at RL Thornton (forced to go South)
Westbound I-30 at Hampton
Southbound Stemmons before Woodall Rogers
Westbound Woodall Rogers at Southbound I-35
Reunion Blvd at I-35
Eastbound I-30 at Sylvan
Continental at Stemmons
Industrial at Continental