DALLAS — Fire crews were mopping up Wednesday evening after a chain of explosions at a welding gas plant sent flaming debris raining onto highways and buildings, snarling traffic in America’s ninth-biggest city. At least three people were injured, hospital officials said.
Authorities told NBC News that the fire started when a small acetylene gas tank exploded on a truck at the Southwest Industrial Gases Inc. facility south of downtown, which sells gas cylinders used in the welding industry. The fire spread to dozens of other tanks, which began exploding in sequence.
Witnesses reported hearing as many as 40 explosions.
“It started real small at first. There was a couple of big booms, and once that started, you know, flames started going everywhere — debris was going all over the freeway with fire attached to it,” Trystan Bright, a witness, told NBC affiliate KXAS-TV.
“It was kind of scary,” Bright said. “Everybody started trying to put their cars in reverse. A couple of wrecks almost occurred.”
Debris rains over hundreds of yards
The three-alarm fire sent flames shooting 100 feet into the air, leading authorities to set up a one-mile evacuation zone around the facility.
At least one canister struck Reunion Arena, former home of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, more than a quarter-mile away. Another struck the Hyatt Regency Hotel a half-mile north.
Two of the area’s busiest highways, Interstates 30 and 35, were closed in all directions, as was Industrial Boulevard, a major commercial throughway. By late afternoon, police were still checking bridges for damage and cleaning debris from the closed roadways.
City officials said it remained undetermined when the roads would be reopened, and commuters were being rerouted as far as 30 miles out of their way.
The electric utility Oncor cut off power to Union Station, the hub for the city’s rail service, for most of the morning. The region’s DART commuter rail service resumed partial service shortly before noon, but a major line through the area remained closed Wednesday evening, and bus service was being rerouted with significant delays downtown.
Federal investigators were on the scene, but there was no sign that terrorism was involved, Dallas Fire Chief Eddie Burns said, adding that “pigtail” connectors apparently malfunctioned and caused cylinders to heat up and catch fire.
“It’s an accident, and that’s all it is,” he said.
Environmental officials said Southwest Industrial Gases was not known to have been disciplined for any code violations since it opened in 1990. But Environmental Protection Agency records reviewed by MSNBC.com showed that the company was fined $27,500 for undisclosed violations of the federal Clean Water Act on April 5.
Two men seriously burned
Two men were taken to Parkland Hospital with serious burns to their faces, chests and arms, the hospital told KXAS. The men, identified as Daniel McMurry, 56, the shop’s co-owner and floor manager, and Randal Bibb, 50, were alert and talking to doctors.
The driver of a delivery truck injured his back when he jumped out of his truck and was taken to Methodist Dallas Medical Center. He was treated and released.
No one else was believed to be missing.
Fire officials had little choice but to let the fire burn most of itself out before moving in because of the danger from flames and debris. Burns said the area was littered with canisters of medical gases, acetylene, propane and hydrogen.
“It’s very dangerous,” he said.
Dallas County’s jail and criminal courts building is at the edge of the evacuation zone, but operations continued uninterrupted, Deputy Police Chief Vince Golbeck said. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Texas is also near the scene; animals were moved to a safer location in the building, an SPCA spokeswoman told KXAS.
NBC’s Charles Hadlock reported from Dallas. MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson contributed to this report.