- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 22, 2003

NEW YORK A barge offloading fuel at a Staten Island oil depot caught fire and exploded yesterday, belching thick columns of black smoke across the city and leading many to fear that a terrorist attack was under way.
Fire officials immediately dubbed the explosion an industrial accident, pending further investigation of the blaze that killed two barge workers. An ExxonMobil employee, was hospitalized with second-degree burns and remains in serious condition.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg rushed to the scene where he immediately squelched speculation of terrorist involvement, easing the fear of a nation on high alert for terrorism.
"There is absolutely no evidence or reason to think whatsoever that this is anything other than a very tragic industrial accident," he said at a press briefing.
He added that the new radios issued for the police and fire departments in the wake of the World Trade Center attacks worked "perfectly."
Mr. Bloomberg said many potential hazards are associated with loading and unloading fuel, including the buildup of static electricity, which can trigger an explosion.
The blaze erupted at 10:10 a.m. at the Port Mobil refinery farm near the Outerbridge Crossing bridge to New Jersey, about 16 miles southwest of Manhattan. Barge workers were offloading 4 million gallons of gasoline when the blast occurred about halfway through the process.
A ball of fire followed a thundering explosion that shook homes as far as two miles away. The noise and smoke stunned residents near the Arthur Kill, a waterway that separates Staten Island from New Jersey.
"The house just shook," said Nancy Rosado of Charleston, Staten Island, "I went to lock the door and it opened on its own."
Emergency officials evacuated some homes and told nearby workers to stay indoors and keep their windows closed. They said pollution was not a threat because gasoline burns fast and is not a heavy fuel.
Some motorists reported that their vehicles momentarily left the ground.
"I felt the heat on my face," said Staten Island resident Raymond Yandoli who was at a recreation center a mile from the refinery with his 10-year-old son.
"I thought it was terrorism," he added. "I thought I had to get my son out of here."
About 200 firemen responded to the four-alarm fire, which was contained to the water where the barge was blown apart and sank. Firefighters used foam to keep the blaze, whose flames reached three stories high, from reaching another barge carrying fuel about 300 feet away.
"There was never any danger to land structures," said Fire Commissioner Nicholas Compete.
Officials are hoping to pinpoint the cause of the apparent accident in talks with survivors. About 30 workers were reported in the immediate area of the ExxonMobil refinery, which is a major storage facility. Built in 1975, the barge was operated by the Bouchard Transportation Company Inc. of Hicksville, Long Island.
Don Turk, an ExxonMobil spokesman said the capacity of the barge equaled 100,000 barrels, but that some portion of the cargo had already been offloaded.
"We will not abandon the site. We'll begin repairs as soon as the investigation is over," he said.


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