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Commerce City, Colo. (UPI) -- The night shift was in its final hours at the Continental Oil Co. refinery and Gary Thomas glanced at his watch, noting the time was 6:33 a.m. MDT.
Then the explosion came, louder than anything Thomas ever had heard.
Flames and black smoke billowed into the sky. Two workers at the plant were dead beneath the debris, a third was left dying and another nine were injured.
Thomas reacted with his only purpose to get away from the refinery.
"I started running," Thomas said. "There was one massive explosion."
Flames shot 60 feet above blackened refinery stacks. Gas fumes leaking from newly installed equipment had ignited in a ball of fire, shattering windows in the industrial suburb north of Denver and shaking homes many miles away.
Tuesday's explosion registered 3.5 on the Richter scale at the Regis College seismological observatory in Denver, and 1.5 at the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden.
Three Conoco employees -- STEVE FRENCH, 24, DAVID HOBBS, 32, and RON DeHERRERA -- died in the explosion, said Thomas, the plant personnel manager. Nine other men suffered injuries: six remained at Denver hospitals today in conditions varying from serious to satisfactory.
Hundreds of firefighters from throughout the Denver area, arriving before the 6:56 a.m. sunrise brought the fire under control in three hours.
Police received an anonymous telephone call that the explosion was caused by a bomb, but a search found no device and police discounted the report.
Plant manager Robert Alexander said the explosion occurred in a polymerization unit at the refinery that had been in operation only two weeks. He said the plant was 25 percent destroyed and estimated damage at up to $5 million.
Employees in the unit, which converts petroleum into gasoline, propane and butane, had reported mechanical trouble during the night and had called in a company fire engine as a precaution. Thirteen men were at the plant when the explosion occurred, Alexander said.
"There was a release of hydrocarbon vapor, a propane and butane mixture, in the unit and it ignited," said Alexander. "What ignited the vapor, I don't know."