Deadly Blast Rips N.Y. Oil Facility

A fire boat passes burning fuel from a transfer station in the Arthur Kill Waterway between the Staten Island borough of New York and Woodbridge, N.J., Friday, Feb. 21, 2003. An explosion rocked an oil storage facility at the edge of Staten Island on Friday, sending black smoke and flames hundreds of feet into the air.
A gasoline barge being unloaded at a Staten Island oil depot exploded with a thunderous blast Friday, killing at least one worker 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 about 20 miles from the World Trade Center attacks unnerved New York and New Jersey residents, but authorities said there was no indication terrorists were involved.

One worker was killed, another was unaccounted for, and an employee of Exxon Mobil Corp. — the owner of the depot — was in critical condition with third-degree burns, officials said.

The cause of the blast was under investigation.

"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 just after 10 a.m. "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.

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 blast rattled buildings a few miles away on the island and in New Jersey. 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 temporarily closed the busy Arthur Kill and sent oil prices upward at a time when gasoline prices were already rising.

"We can't be losing this quantity at this time," said Ed Silliere, vice president of risk management at Energy Merchant in New York.