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