Probe of California boat fire begins as grim search goes on for bodies

A woman pauses as she looks over a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat near Santa Barbara, California, U.S., September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Omar Younis

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (Reuters) – Federal safety investigators on Tuesday promised an exhaustive probe into the fire that killed 34 people on a dive boat as many of the charred bodies remained trapped in the sunken wreckage off the California coast or missing in the ocean.

After recovering the remains of 20 people from the 75-foot (23-meter) Conception or from the waters where the dive ship sank off Santa Cruz Island, officials said they believed none of the 14 victims initially classified as missing had survived the fast-moving flames.

“There were several other victims that were seen by the divers – between four and six – that are still between the wreckage, but due to the position of the boat they were unable to be recovered before nightfall,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters.

“Today, efforts will be made to stabilize the boat so that divers can safely enter it, search it and recover additional victims,” he said.

The five survivors, including the boat’s captain and four crew members, were above deck when the blaze broke out at about 3:15 a.m. Pacific time and escaped in an inflatable boat. A crew member who perished was apparently sleeping below deck with the passengers at the time.

National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said 16 investigators were already assigned to the probe, including specialists in operations, engineering, survival factors and fire analysis.

The investigators will collect all perishable evidence while on scene for at least a week, she said, but the Conception would remain on the ocean floor, more than 60 feet below the surface, until a site survey had been completed.

A few scant details about the victims, who ranged in age from 17 to 60, began to emerge as emergency workers planned to use DNA analysis to identify the remains of the 20 bodies recovered so far. Most of the victims were from the Santa Cruz and San Jose area, authorities said.

“MAYDAY, MAYDAY, MAYDAY”

A memorial to the victims grew alongside a dock not far from where the ship was usually docked in Santa Barbara as members of the close-knit boating community reeling from the tragedy wove flowers into a wood and wire fence and constructed a makeshift memorial.

“It’s just such a horrific notion to think what the people down in the below decks, the people sleeping down there must have gone through,” said Judy Weisman, 72. “How terrifying.”

An audio recording of a desperate call made to the U.S. Coast Guard as flames engulfed the boat offered a glimpse into that terror as a man could be heard pleading for help.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday!” he said in the garbled recording of the call.

“That’s a distress, this is the Coast Guard Sector Los Angeles on channel 1-6, what is your position … and number of persons on board? Over,” the dispatcher answered.

“Twenty-nine. Twenty-nine POB,” said the man, using the abbreviation for “people on board” a vessel. “I can’t breathe! … Twenty-nine POB.”

The dispatcher requested the GPS location of the vessel at least two more times but the caller apparently failed to respond.

A name is written on a shell as it hangs on a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat near Santa Barbara, California, U.S., September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

A name is written on a shell as it hangs on a makeshift memorial near Truth Aquatics as the search continues for those missing in a pre-dawn fire that sank a commercial diving boat near Santa Barbara, California, U.S., September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Marine biologist Kristy Finstad, 41, was leading the dive trip on the Conception, according to her brother, Brett Harmeling. Finstad co-owned Worldwide Diving Adventures, which had chartered the boat for a three-day excursion to the Channel Islands.

“No final word on my sister Kristy; however it is likely she has transitioned to be with the good lord,” Harmeling said in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

A seashell inscribed with the name “Kristy” was hung on the wooden fence at the dock.

(Reporting by Omar Younis; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg and Maria Caspani in New York, Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware, and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; editing by Grant McCool and Leslie Adler)

Deadly Taliban attack in Afghan capital casts shadow on peace deal

Angry Afghan protesters burn tires and shout slogans at the site of a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

By Sayed Hassib

KABUL (Reuters) – A Taliban attack on a housing complex used by international organizations in the Afghan capital, Kabul, late on Monday killed at least 16 people and angered local residents who demanded the heavily fortified compound be moved.

The blast, which shook buildings several kilometers away, happened just as Zalmay Khalilzad, the special U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, was outlining details of a draft accord with the insurgents in a television interview.

Following major Taliban attacks on two northern cities over the weekend, the bombing of the Green Village compound in a mixed business and residential area added to questions around the peace deal reached between U.S. and Taliban negotiators in the Qatari capital, Doha.

Habib Jan, who was in his house nearby when the blast occurred, said the area has been attacked repeatedly and many residents wanted the compound, used by foreign staff of international groups including aid organizations, moved.

“This isn’t once or twice, it’s the fourth or fifth time, all by the Taliban. A lot of my friends, a lot of my family have been wounded or killed,” he said, as smoke spiraled into the sky from burning tires lit by protesters demanding that the complex be moved.

“Our young people have been killed, our children have been killed, our old men have been killed, our girls have been killed. What can we do?”

Interior ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said the blast was caused by a tractor packed with explosives but armed attackers, who planned to follow up the blast, were killed by security forces.

He said around 400 foreign nationals were evacuated from the heavily protected site, located off a major road in an area of houses and shops.

Like other compounds built to house the thousands of foreign contractors and agency staff who work in Kabul, Green Village is a fortified complex of concrete blast walls and steel gates protected by armed guards.

While such compounds have been attacked repeatedly over the years, the main victims are often Afghan civilians living in the surrounding area.

The timing of the attack, as Khalilzad’s interview was still being broadcast, appeared to be deliberate, with Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declaring the blast had destroyed rooms and offices and caused countless casualties among “invaders”.

“Enemy claims of civilian losses are false as no civilians were allowed close to the site of the attack,” he said in a tweet.

Khalilzad, a veteran Afghan-born diplomat who has been leading U.S. negotiations, said almost 5,000 U.S. troops would be pulled out and five bases closed in exchange for Taliban guarantees that Afghanistan would not be used as a base for militant attacks on the United States and its allies.

But the deal did not include a formal ceasefire and Monday’s attacks, as well as major assaults on the northern cities of Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri, underlined doubts about whether it would lead to an end to violence.

On the other side, officials in the southern province of Helmand, one of the Taliban’s main strongholds, said 15 insurgents, including the commander and deputy commander of a special operations unit, were killed by U.S. air strikes.

(Reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in Kabul; Mohammad Stanekzai in Lashkar Gah; writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Darren Schuettler)

Trump says U.S. not involved in Iran satellite launch failure

FILE PHOTO: A satellite image shows what U.S. officials say is the failed Iranian rocket launch at the Imam Khomeini Space Center in northern Iran August 29, 2019. Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday that the United States was not involved with a failed Iranian rocket launch, and he wished Tehran luck at finding out what went wrong.

“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran,” Trump said on Twitter.

The rocket exploded on its launch pad at a space center in northern Iran on Thursday, an Iranian official said. A U.S. official also said Iran suffered a satellite launch failure.

The United States has warned Iran against rocket launches, fearful the technology used to put satellites into orbit could enable Tehran to develop the ballistic missile capability needed to launch nuclear warheads.

Tehran denies the U.S. accusation that such activity is a cover for ballistic missile development.

The Trump administration has ratcheted up economic pressure on Iran with a series of economic sanctions to try to force it to renegotiate a pact reached with world powers in 2015 limiting its nuclear program.

Trump has offered to hold talks with Iran but Tehran says first it must get relief from U.S. sanctions.

(Reporting by Tim Ahmann; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

Russia to nuclear test ban monitor: Test accident not your business

FILE PHOTO: A radionuclide particulate station of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) is seen on the roof of their headquarters in Vienna, Austria September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

By Andrew Osborn and Maria Kiselyova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia told an agency that verifies a ban on nuclear tests that a military test accident in the country’s north this month was none of its business and that handing it any radiation data was voluntary, Interfax news agency reported on Tuesday.

The Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) said on Monday that two Russian monitoring sites closest to the mysterious explosion went offline days after the blast, soon followed by two more, fuelling suspicions that Russia tampered with them.

The CTBTO said on Tuesday the radioactive-particle sensors of at least one of the four Russian monitoring stations in question were transmitting again.

Russia’s state nuclear agency, Rosatom, has acknowledged that five of its nuclear workers were killed in the Aug. 8 explosion during a rocket engine test near the White Sea in far northern Russia. Two Russian military personnel were also reported to have been killed.

There has been contradictory information about the accident’s consequences. The Defence Ministry initially said background radiation remained normal after the incident, but Russia’s state weather agency said radiation levels in the nearby city of Severodvinsk had risen by up to 16 times.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Tuesday that the accident was not a matter for the CTBTO, which first reported that the radiation monitoring stations went silent, according to Interfax.

“It’s essential to keep in mind that handing over data from our national stations which are part of the international monitoring system is entirely voluntary for any country,” Interfax cited Ryabkov as saying.

The CTBTO’s mandate only covered the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty or national testing moratoriums, Ryabkov added. The treaty was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1996, but has not yet entered into force due to some countries either not signing or ratifying it.

The Aug. 8 accident “should have no connection” to CTBTO activities, Ryabkov said, adding that the agency’s mandate did not extend to weapons development.

“Exhaustive explanations about what happened and what the consequences were have been given by the relevant structures,” said Ryabkov, and the mysterious accident had posed no risks to the environment or people.

Separately, the Kremlin said there was nothing to worry about and that it was confident that government agencies in charge of the relevant radiation monitoring stations had been doing their job correctly.

President Vladimir Putin said on Monday there was no risk of increased radiation levels, but that all necessary safety measures were being taken.

The Defence Ministry, which oversees the work of the monitoring stations, has not responded to a Reuters request for comment.

(Reporting by Maria Kiseylova in Moscow with additional reporting by Francois Murphy in Vienna; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Mark Heinrich)

Volcano erupts on Italian island of Stromboli, kills one person

Ash rises after a volcano eruption in Stromboli, Italy, July 3, 2019 in this image obtained from social media. Gernot Werner Gruber via REUTERS

By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – A volcano on the Italian island of Stromboli erupted on Wednesday, releasing hot trapped magma in a powerful explosion, killing one person and enveloping the popular tourist destination in ash, witnesses and local officials said.

The person, believed to be a tourist, was killed by falling stones during a walk, a rescue service official said. A second person was injured.

Ash rises after a volcano eruption in Stromboli, Italy, July 3, 2019 in this still image obtained from a social media video. Gernot Werner Gruber via REUTERS

Ash rises after a volcano eruption in Stromboli, Italy, July 3, 2019 in this still image obtained from a social media video. Gernot Werner Gruber via REUTERS

The unexpected eruption started fires on the western side of the small Mediterranean island, which lies north of Sicily, off the toe of Italy. Fire crews were being called in from nearby locations and a Canadair plane was already in action.

“We saw the explosion from the hotel. There was a loud roar,” said Michela Favorito, who works in a hotel near Fico Grande, on the east side of the island.

“We plugged our ears and after this a cloud of ash swept over us. The whole sky is full of ash, a fairly large cloud,” she told Reuters.

Fiona Carter, a British tourist on the island of Panarea, some 27 km (17 miles) from Stromboli, heard the blast.

“We turned around to see a mushroom cloud coming from Stromboli. Everyone was in shock. Then red hot lava started running down the mountain towards the little village of Ginostra,” she told Reuters.

“The cloud got bigger, white and gray. It enveloped Ginostra and now the cloud has covered Stromboli entirely. Several boats set off for Stromboli,” she added.

Stefano Branca, an expert with the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology (INGV), said there had been a “paroxysmal eruption” on the island, when high-pressure magma explodes from a shallow, underground reservoir.

“These are events of great intensity and quite rare,” he told Reuters.

Tourists often climb to the 924-metre (3,000-foot) summit of the volcano and peer into its crater, with small puffs of molten rock regularly blasted into the sky. It was not clear if anyone was on the crater at the time of the blast.

According to the geology.com website, Stromboli is one of the most active volcanoes on the planet and has been erupting almost continuously since 1932.

The island was the setting for a 1950 movie starring Ingrid Bergman and, with other islands in the Aeolian archipelago, has become a favorite location in recent decades for holiday homes for the rich and famous.

(Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Frances Kerry and Peter Graff)

New Mexico blast involving fireworks injures several firefighters

Smoke from an explosion is seen in Roswell, New Mexico, U.S., June 5, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media. Roswell Today/via REUTERS

(Reuters) – Several firefighters were injured on Wednesday, two seriously, in an explosion at a building in Roswell, New Mexico, where fireworks were being stored for the city’s annual July Fourth celebrations, police and city officials said.

The blast occurred shortly after noon at a building on the grounds of the Roswell International Air Center, a commercial airport on the southern outskirts of the town, said Todd Wildermuth, a spokesman for the city.

He said about a dozen firefighters were in and around the building “doing some preparation work” for the city’s upcoming July Fourth Independence Day fireworks display when the explosion occurred.

He said two firefighters suffered serious injuries and were taken to local hospitals. A number of others who sustained minor injuries were treated on the scene.

The cause of the blast was under investigation, he said. The fireworks storage building, at the far west end of the airport property, is far enough away from the airport itself that flight operations were not affected, Wildermuth said.

Roswell, a city of about 48,000 residents in southeastern New Mexico about 200 miles southeast of the state capital, Albuquerque, is perhaps best known for the reported crash of an unidentified flying object in 1947 near what was then known as the Roswell Army Air Field.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by David Gregorio and James Dalgleish)

Mexico fuel pipeline blast kills 89, witnesses describe horror

Military personnel watch as flames engulf an area after a ruptured fuel pipeline exploded, in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, Hidalgo, Mexico, near the Tula refinery of state oil firm Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), January 18, 2019 in this handout photo provided by the National Defence Secretary (SEDENA). National Defence Secretary/Handout via REUTERS

By Anthony Esposito

TLAHUELILPAN, Mexico (Reuters) – Officials now say that at least 89 people were killed after a pipeline ruptured by suspected fuel thieves exploded in central Mexico, authorities said on Saturday, as President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador defended the army despite its failure to clear the site before the blast.

Forensic experts filled body bags with charred human remains in the field where the explosion occurred on Friday evening by the town of Tlahuelilpan in the state of Hidalgo, in one of the deadliest incidents to hit Mexico’s troubled oil infrastructure in years.

One witness described how an almost festive atmosphere among hundreds of local residents filling containers with spilled fuel turned to horror as the blast scattered the crowd in all directions, incinerating clothing and inflicting severe burns.

Forensic technicians arranges bodies at the site where a fuel pipeline ruptured by suspected oil thieves exploded, in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, state of Hidalgo, Mexico January 19, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Romero

Forensic technicians arranges bodies at the site where a fuel pipeline ruptured by suspected oil thieves exploded, in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, state of Hidalgo, Mexico January 19, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Romero

A number of people at the scene told Reuters that local shortages in gasoline supply since Lopez Obrador launched a drive to stamp out fuel theft had encouraged the rush to the gushing pipeline.

“Everyone came to see if they could get a bit of gasoline for their car, there isn’t any in the gas stations,” said farmer Isaias Garcia, 50. Garcia was at the site with two neighbors but waited in the car some distance away.

“Some people came out burning and screaming,” he added.

To root out the theft, Lopez Obrador in late December ordered pipelines to be closed. But that led to shortages in central Mexico, including Hidalgo, where local media this week said more than half of the gas stations were at times shut.

Hidalgo Governor Omar Fayad said 73 people were killed and 74 people injured in the explosion, which happened as residents scrambled to get buckets and drums to a gush at the pipeline that authorities said rose up to 23 feet (7 meters) high.

Fayad said the condition of many of the injured was deteriorating, and that some had burns on much of their body. Some of the most badly injured minors could be moved for medical attention in Galveston, Texas, he added.

Hidalgo Attorney General Raul Arroyo said 54 bodies were so badly burned that they could take a long time to identify.

The crackdown on fuel theft has become a litmus test of Lopez Obrador’s drive to tackle corruption in Mexico – and to stop illegal taps draining billions of dollars from the heavily-indebted state oil firm Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex).

Video on social media showed people filling buckets from the pipeline during daylight hours in the presence of the armed forces before the blast.

But Lopez Obrador, who vowed to continue the crackdown on theft, defended the army in the face of questions about why soldiers failed to prevent the tragedy.

“We’re not going to fight fire with fire,” the veteran leftist said. “We think that people are good, honest, and if we’ve reached these extremes … it’s because they were abandoned.”

In the aftermath, soldiers and other military personnel guarded the cordoned-off area that was littered with half-burned shoes, clothes and containers.

More than 100 people gathered at a local cultural center on Saturday afternoon, hoping to get information about loved ones who disappeared. Officials posted information about DNA tests for identification and a list of people taken to hospital.

A resident reacts at the site where a fuel pipeline ruptured by suspected oil thieves exploded, in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, state of Hidalgo, Mexico January 19, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Romero

A resident reacts at the site where a fuel pipeline ruptured by suspected oil thieves exploded, in the municipality of Tlahuelilpan, state of Hidalgo, Mexico January 19, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Romero

‘LIKE A PARTY’

Lopez Obrador said the army had been right to avoid a confrontation due to the large number of people seeking to make off with a trove of free fuel – a few liters of which are worth more than the daily minimum wage in Mexico.

Blaming previous governments for neglecting the population, he said the priority was to eradicate the social problems and lack of opportunities that had made people risk their lives. He rejected suggestions the incident was linked to his policy.

Still, Lopez Obrador had vowed to tighten security in sensitive sections of the oil infrastructure, and the ruptured pipeline was only a few miles away from a major oil refinery.

Pemex’s Chief Executive Octavio Romero told reporters that there had been 10 illegal fuel taps in the same municipality in the last three months alone. Neither he nor the president said exactly when the valves to the pipeline were closed.

Relatives of victims stood huddled together, some of them crying, after the massive blast. Much of the rush to siphon off fuel and the chaos of the explosion was captured on mobile phones and began quickly circulating on social media.

Mexican media published graphic pictures of victims from the blast site covered in burns and shorn of their clothes.

Local journalist Veronica Jimenez, 46, arrived at the scene before the explosion where she said there were more than 300 people with containers to collect fuel.

“I saw families: mother, father, children,” she told Reuters. “It was like a party…for a moment you could even hear how happy people were.”

When the blast hit, people ran in different directions, pleading for help, some burned and without clothing, she said.

“Some people’s skin came off…it was very ugly, horrible, people screamed and cried,” she said. “They shouted the names of their husbands, brothers, their family members.”

Grief-stricken family members blocked access to the field for over half an hour, saying they would not let funeral service vehicles pass until they were told where the dead were being taken.

Lopez Obrador has said his decision to close pipelines has greatly reduced fuel theft, but the death toll has raised questions about potentially unintended consequences.

“There was a gasoline shortage, people one way or another wanted to be able to move around,” said local farmer Ernesto Sierra, 44. “Some even came with their bean pots.”

(Reporting by Anthony Esposito and Miguel Angel Gutierrez; Writing by Dave Graham and Christine Murray; Editing by Alexander Smith and Marguerita Choy)

Houthi drones kill several at Yemeni military parade

Soldiers inspect the scene of a Houthi drone attack at Yemeni government military parade in al-Anad air base, Lahaj province, Yemen January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

ADEN (Reuters) – Drones belonging to the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement on Thursday attacked a Yemeni government military parade in the southern province of Lahaj, killing several people, Saudi and Houthi media reported.

The attack comes as the United Nations tries to get peace talks going between the Houthis who control northern Yemen and the Saudi-backed government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi by overseeing a limited ceasefire in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah.

The parade was taking place inside a military base in al-Anad district when an explosion rocked the area, eyewitnesses said. They said high-ranking officers including Yemen’s deputy chief of staff had been wounded.

Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV said five people had been killed and several injured. Houthi Al-Masirah TV said the attack had been aimed at “the leadership of the invaders”.

A military source said the focus of the attack had been the podium where senior officers were sitting.

It was unclear if officers were present from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, leaders of a Sunni Muslim Arab coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 to try to restore Hadi’s government, which had been ousted from the capital Sanaa in 2014.

The Houthis said in November they were halting drone and missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their Yemeni allies, but tensions have risen recently over how to implement the U.N.-sponsored deal in Hodeidah.

The Houthis and the Saudi-backed government agreed to stop fighting and withdraw forces at peace talks in Sweden in December following months of diplomacy and Western pressure.

The ceasefire only applies to Hodeidah province but the British ambassador to Yemen, Michael Aron, tweeted on Thursday that an escalation anywhere in Yemen “goes against the spirit of the Stockholm agreement”.

Implementation of the deal, the first breakthrough in peace efforts in five years, has stalled as the sides disagree on who will control the city of Hodeidah after the withdrawal.

Yemen descended into war after pro-democracy unrest forced late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Hadi was elected to head a transitional government but after the Houthis took Sanaa he went into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis deny getting any help from Iran and say they are waging a revolution against corruption.

(Reporting By Mohammed Ghobari and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Fireball near Bologna airport after road crash explosion

A general view of the motorway after an accident caused a large explosion and fire at Borgo Panigale, on the outskirts of Bologna, Italy, August 6, 2018. Italian Firefighters Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

ROME (Reuters) – Two trucks collided on a motorway near Bologna airport in northern Italy on Monday, sending a huge ball of fire and billows of black smoke soaring into the sky.

At least one person was killed and around 55 were injured, 14 seriously, according to local media.

Police said they had closed off the road where the crash took place as well as the surrounding area in Borgo Panigale, on the outskirts of Bologna.

Firefighters work on the motorway after an accident caused a large explosion and fire at Borgo Panigale, on the outskirts of Bologna, Italy, August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

Firefighters work on the motorway after an accident caused a large explosion and fire at Borgo Panigale, on the outskirts of Bologna, Italy, August 6, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

Italian media said a truck carrying cars collided on a bridge with another tanker truck containing inflammable materials.

Part of the bridge collapsed and the resulting explosion and fire spread to a carpark below the bridge, where several other vehicles caught fire and exploded.

Firefighters and ambulances headed to the scene.

A video shot from a parked car at the moment of the explosion appeared to show someone being engulfed by flames when the tanker exploded.

(Reporting By Gavin Jones; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Texas pipeline blaze put out after seven hospitalized; explosions probed

A pipeline explosion erupts in this image captured from video by a field worker in Midland County, the home to the Permian Basin and the largest U.S. oilfield, in Texas, U.S., August 1, 2018. Courtesy Marty Baeza/Handout via REUTERS

By Gary McWilliams

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Authorities on Thursday were investigating what caused a fire and a series of natural gas pipeline explosions in Midland County, Texas, which sent seven people to the hospital on Wednesday and shut down five lines before being extinguished late in the evening.

Workers and firefighters were responding to a leak when the blast occurred, Midland County Fire Marshal Dale Little said on Thursday. The cause of the original explosions has not been determined, he said.

Five workers with critical injuries were airlifted to University Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas, and were being treated at the center’s burn unit.

One man remained in critical condition and three others were upgraded to serious condition, all with burn injuries, medical center spokesman Eric Finley said on Thursday.

The fifth pipeline worker, a Kinder Morgan Inc employee, was listed in stable condition at the hospital, a company spokeswoman said.

Two firefighters responding to the blaze also were taken to hospital on Wednesday for treatment of burn injuries, said Elana Ladd, public information officer for the city of Midland.

Ladd said the pipeline explosions occurred just outside the city of Midland on a rural road, FM 1379, about five miles (8 km) south of Highway 158.

Marty Baeza, a Fort Stockton, Texas oilfield worker who was working at a site about a half mile (0.8 km) from the explosion, said the blast shook the water-treatment unit where he was working.

“It felt like someone had bumped us,” said Baeza. He went outside and saw a large fireball that lit the sky for about five minutes. Firefighters arrived quickly, he said.

Kinder Morgan’s El Paso Natural Gas (EPNG) line was damaged by the blaze, but service impacts are expected to be minimal, spokeswoman Sara Hughes said in an email. The company believes the problem started with a nearby pipeline.

“There was a third-party pipeline involved that also experienced a failure, and preliminary indications are that the third-party line failure occurred before the EPNG line failure,” Hughes said.

Authorities on Thursday morning said they were not able to identify the operators of the other pipelines affected by the blast.

Oil and gas pipelines crisscross Midland County, which is located in the Permian Basin, the largest U.S. oilfield. The explosions affected five pipelines which share a transit channel and which were all shut in by operators, a Midland city official said on Wednesday.

Gas prices at the Waha hub, in the Permian basin, increased by 13 cents, or about 6 percent, on Wednesday to $2.23 per million British thermal units, although much of the trade that day would have occurred before the fire, which started at around 11:14 a.m. CDT (1614 GMT).

Thomson Reuters data showed that as of Thursday, the explosions had not affected overall flows of natural gas in Midland County, including on Kinder Morgan’s EPNG pipeline.

(Reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston and Scott DiSavino in New York; Editing by David Gregorio and Jonathan Oatis)