By ARIAN CAMPO-FLORES and ALISON SIDER
A series of explosions on two fuel barges in the Mobile
River in Alabama set off a giant inferno Wednesday night that
left three people hospitalized in critical condition and raised
questions about safety procedures at the terminal where the
vessels were being cleaned.
Early indications were that a spark ignited residual
gasoline vapors while a crew was cleaning the barges, said Lt.
Mike Clausen of the US Coast Guard, which was still conducting
an investigation late Thursday. "That's where the investigation
is currently leading," he said.
Kirby Inland Marine in Houston, which owned the barges, said
the empty, unmanned vessels "had been turned over to the
shipyard and were in its custody when the incident occurred."
The owner of the facility, Oil Recovery Co. in Mobile, Ala.,
declined to comment.
In a statement, Kirby said the two tank barges -- which had
been carrying gasoline without any additives -- caught fire and
exploded at around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Explosions continued through the night, with the seventh and
final blast at around 2 a.m. Thursday, said Steve Huffman,
spokesman for the Mobile Fire and Rescue Department. The blaze
was finally extinguished Thursday morning, allowing
investigators and salvage crews to move in.
Three workers taken to the University of South Alabama
Medical Center were in critical condition with burn-related
injuries, the hospital said Thursday.
Incidents of tank barges exploding are "incredibly
uncommon," said Jonathan Chappell, a managing director at
Evercore Partners who follows the marine transportation
industry. Past episodes have involved barges striking a bridge
or breaking away from a convoy and running aground, he said.
Kirby, the industry leader in US inland barge transportation,
is "highly regarded for safety," he added.
Mr. Clausen of the Coast Guard said his review of records
showed that Kirby and Oil Recovery don't have a history of
similar barge explosions.
The blasts occurred about a half-mile from a terminal where
the Carnival Triumph, the disabled cruise ship that had to be
towed to Mobile in February, is undergoing repairs.
"Contractors and crew on the ship were evacuated at the
request of local authorities in an abundance of caution,"
Carnival Cruise Lines said. "There were no injuries to anyone
aboard Carnival Triumph and no damage to the vessel."
Dow Jones Newswires