A blaze at an industrial plant sent huge fireballs shooting into the sky Friday afternoon, casting a towering cloud of black smoke over the area as traffic backed up and nearby residents evacuated their homes.
There were no injuries, St. Louis Police Chief Sherman George said. There also was no word on the cause of the rapid-fire series of spectacular explosions at Praxair Distribution, which processes propane and other gases for industrial use.
Company spokeswoman Susan Szita Gore said she wasn't certain how many of the plant's 70 employees were there at the time of the explosions, but all were evacuated safely.
The explosions appeared to come from tanks outside the plant and from the plant itself. Cars and trucks parked nearby caught fire.
Firefighters held back at first before trying to battle the blaze as the blasts sent flames more than 150 feet in the air. The fire and smoke could be seen for several miles.
Occasional plumes of white smoke also towered up from the roaring fire, which appeared large but concentrated. It flared with bursts of energy every few seconds, suggesting chemicals — such as propane, which the Fortune 500 company Praxair packages — fueling the blaze.
"At the height of the event, it was just fireball after fireball rising into the air," said Chris Casey, an employee of Saint Louis University several blocks away. "It looked like movie pyrotechnics. I've never seen anything like it before."
Homes and businesses were being evacuated in the mostly residential area south of downtown, and major traffic backups caused by the fire delayed the start of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball game by a half-hour.
Police Chief Joe Mokwa said Interstate 64 was shut down near the site for fear that additional cylinders might explode. But by late afternoon, officials said they believed the materials had stabilized.
During the most intense period of the fire, Mokwa said, cylinders were "shooting 100 feet into the air."
The company is part of Praxair Inc. of Danbury, Conn. A spokesman had no immediate information on the fire.
The company's primary products are atmospheric gases such as oxygen, nitrogen, argon and rare gases, along with process and specialty gases like carbon dioxide, helium, hydrogen, semiconductor process gases and acetylene.
Leland Darrow, assistant area director of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration office in St. Louis, said he was not aware of any safety violations at the plant.
Mayor Francis Slay said the city was monitoring air at the site to make sure no hazardous materials were being released. "So far we have not detected any," he said.