Three hurt as fuel barges explode, catch fire in Alabama

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — Firefighters on Thursday extinguished a huge blaze that erupted hours earlier when two fuel barges exploded

in Mobile, Ala., leaving three people with critical burns and forcing the evacuation of crew from a nearby cruise ship.

The cause of the fire, which started Wednesday night, remained under investigation, but it was believed to be accidental,

Mobile Fire-Rescue spokesman Steve Huffman said in a statement.

The blaze was extinguished early Thursday, U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Carlos Vega.

Firefighters from Mobile and Coast Guard officials responded after 8:30 p.m. CDT Wednesday to a pair of explosions involving

the gas barges in the Mobile River east of downtown. Additional explosions followed over the next few hours.

Authorities say three people were brought to University of South Alabama Medical Center for burn-related injuries. The three

were in critical condition early Thursday, according to hospital nursing administrator Danny Whatley.

Across the river, the Carnival Triumph, the

cruise ship that became disabled in the Gulf of Mexico last February

before it

was towed to Mobile's port, was evacuated, said Alan Waugh, who

lives at the Fort Conde Inn in downtown Mobile, across the

river from the scene of the explosions. Waugh saw the blasts and

said throngs of Carnival employees and others were clustered

on streets leading toward the river as authorities evacuated the

shipyard.

"It literally sounded like bombs going off around. The sky just lit up in orange and red," he said, "We could smell something

in the air, we didn't know if it was gas or smoke." Waugh said he could feel the heat from the explosion and when he came

back inside, his partner noticed he had what appeared to be black soot on his face.

Carnival didn't immediately respond to an emailed request for comment late Wednesday.

Video from WALA-TV (http://bit.ly/15NEYJl) showed flames engulfing a large section of the barge, and a video that a bystander

sent to AL.com (http://bit.ly/13vWz4G) showed the fiery explosions and billowing smoke over the river.

The initial blast took place in a ship channel near the George C. Wallace Tunnel — which carries traffic from Interstate 10

under the Mobile River, Vega said. The river runs south past Mobile and into Mobile Bay, which in turn flows into the Gulf

of Mexico.

The tunnels were still open and operating, Mobile fire officials said in a statement.

As daybreak approached, the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department's fireboat Phoenix was moving toward the barges, checking to make

sure their mooring lines were secured, the fire department said in a statement.

The cause of the explosion was not immediately clear, Huffman and Vega said.

"Once (the fire) is out and safe, a full investigation will take place," Huffman wrote.

Mobile Fire Chief Steve Dean told AL.com he was confident the fire wouldn't spread to nearby industrial properties, including

the shipyard where the Carnival cruise ship is docked.

Huffman said the ship is directly across the river from the incident — about two football fields in length.

The barges are owned by Houston-based Kirby

Inland Marine, company spokesman Greg Beuerman said. He said the barges

were empty

and being cleaned at the Oil Recovery Co. facility when the

incident began. He said the barges had been carrying a liquid

called natural gasoline — which he said is neither liquefied

natural gas or natural gas. He said the company has dispatched

a team to work with investigators to determine what caused the

fire.

The explosion comes two months after the

900-foot-long Carnival Triumph was towed to Mobile after becoming

disabled on the

Gulf during a cruise by an engine room fire, leaving thousands of

passengers to endure cold food, unsanitary conditions and

power outages for several days. The ship is still undergoing

repairs there, with many workers living on board.

Earlier this month, the cruise ship was

dislodged from its mooring by a windstorm that also caused, in a

separate incident,

two shipyard workers to fall into Mobile Bay. While one worker was

rescued, the other's body was pulled from the water more

than a week later.