Explosion, fire rock Staten Island oil storage facility

Saturday, February 22, 2003

NEW YORK -- A gasoline barge exploded with a thunderous blast while it was being unloaded Friday, killing two workers and sending up a fiery column of black smoke so high it could be seen more than 30 miles away.

With the nation on high alert for terrorism, the explosion and raging fire at a Staten Island oil depot, about 20 miles from the World Trade Center attacks unnerved New York and New Jersey residents. Authorities, however, said there was no indication terrorists were involved.

One worker's body was pulled from the water in the early afternoon, and the second was recovered a few hours later, said police spokesman Lt. Elias Nikas.

An employee of Exxon Mobil Corp. -- the owner of the depot -- was in critical condition with third-degree burns, officials said. The 48-year-old Middletown, N.J., man had burns over 15 percent of his body, hospital officials said.

Police said the investigation remained in its preliminary stages but officials were examining whether a malfunction in a pump might have caused the explosion.

"I looked up at the sky, and I saw pieces of metal flying all over," said worker Jaime Villa, who was repairing a pump when the barge blew up.

"I ran as fast as I could go. I was so scared that I lost my breath and I fell to the ground."

The barge, which contained about 4 million gallons of unleaded gasoline, was being unloaded at the 200-acre petroleum storage facility when the explosion occurred, said Prem Nair, an Exxon Mobil spokeswoman. About half of the cargo had been unloaded.

The barge eventually sank in the Arthur Kill, a waterway between Staten Island and New Jersey. The fire took about three hours to contain.

The company would not speculate on a cause of the explosion. It said no part of the storage terminal was destroyed.

"We are greatly saddened by the injuries and loss of life, and extend our deepest sympathy to the families," said Hank Muller, terminal manager for Exxon Mobil.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said many potential hazards are associated with loading and unloading fuel, including the buildup of static electricity, which can trigger an explosion.

"There is absolutely no evidence and no reason this think at this moment that this is anything other than a tragic accident," he said.

The barge was owned by Bouchard Transportation Co. which said it retained several companies to contain any spill and limit environmental damage.

The Coast Guard, which is investigating the explosion, recorded about six seconds of the blast with camera equipment used to monitor the harbor, Petty Officer Matthew Belson said. The blast rattled buildings a few miles away on the island and in New Jersey, and smoke could be seen 35 miles away in Trenton, N.J.

"I could feel the debris hitting the top of my car," said Ernie Camerlingo, a Staten Island electrical contractor driving in the area. "It was like hail coming down."

The explosion closed the busy Arthur Kill for several hours. Exxon Mobil said the accident would not cause significant interruptions in gas supply.

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