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Originally published Wednesday, May 5, 2010 at 10:56 AM

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Fuel-laden 18-wheeler explodes at Texas refinery

An 18-wheeler being loaded with fuel at a San Antonio refinery exploded Wednesday, setting off a chain reaction of smaller explosions and sending a towering plume of thick black smoke over the city's southeast side. One man was critically burned, and other employees received minor injuries.

Associated Press Writer

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SAN ANTONIO —

An 18-wheeler being loaded with fuel at a San Antonio refinery exploded Wednesday, setting off a chain reaction of smaller explosions and sending a towering plume of thick black smoke over the city's southeast side. One man was critically burned, and other employees received minor injuries.

A truck driver believed to be missing for hours after the blast was found after a dense funnel of smoke dissipated as the fire burned itself out, San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said. Firefighters focused on shutting off valves and cooling down tanks - the larger of which contained jet fuel - to prevent any more explosions.

"This could've been a tragic fire if we had explosions in those larger tanks, but we were able to cool it off," Hood said.

Three tanker trucks were at the AGE Refining Inc. fueling station when the explosion occurred, Hood said. The burned man was the driver of one of the trucks, but Hood said it was unclear which one. The man was taken in critical condition to Brooke Army Medical Center, which said it also was treating one other patient from the fire.

Several plant employees were treated at the scene. Hood said investigators do not yet know what caused the explosion.

"It looks like a burned-up gas station," Hood said of the fueling station.

Residents within a half-mile radius of the refinery were evacuated. Vanessa Valdez, 23, said she heard something like "gunfire" from her apartment about a mile from the refinery before a swarm of fire trucks and ambulances raced by.

Police went through nearby apartment complexes with sirens, blasting an evacuation notice over the loud speaker and banging on doors and windows.

AGE marketing director Jeff Dorrow confirmed a truck exploded at the refinery that handles about 14,000 barrels per day, but had no other details. Hood said he did not know how long the refinery would be closed.

AGE, which runs only the San Antonio facility, is a small refinery and filed for bankruptcy in February.

David Horowitz of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which investigates major accidents, said the board was gathering information on the fire and would decide whether to launch an investigation.

The National Response System, which gathers information on oil and chemical spills, had two incident reports about an overfilled or overflowing tank at the AGE site, but both occurred more than a decade ago. Nothing has been reported since 1998.

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Associated Press Writer Michelle Roberts contributed to this report.

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