Explosion rocks Florida chemical plant

MIAMI Wed Dec 19, 2007 3:57pm EST

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MIAMI (Reuters) - A massive explosion at a chemical plant shook an industrial district in Jacksonville, Florida on Wednesday, forcing evacuations and knocking out generators at a nearby electric utility, officials said.

Fire and hazardous materials crews rushed to the scene of the explosion at the T2 Labs plant as the resulting fire sent a mushroom cloud of thick, black smoke across the city, located on the Atlantic coast of Florida near the Georgia border.

Jacksonville Fire and Rescue spokesman Tom Francis described the scene as a "hellish inferno" and said rescuers were still looking for three missing people.

He said he could not confirm local media reports that two people had died.

T2 Labs makes gasoline additives, solvents and other products that it says are designed to replace conventional toxic industrial chemicals with low-environmental-impact versions, according to the company's Web site.

Local media quoted witnesses as saying the blast was felt miles away.

"Those shock waves came straight up through these hills," Derek Pratt, who was flying a remote control airplane in a field about a mile away, told the Florida Times-Union newspaper. "It was like a great ball of fire in the air. Pink insulation from the building was flying on us. Clouds of it."

The blast was so powerful it knocked out two of the three generating units at a JEA electric utility plant across the street, a company spokeswoman said.

"It is not our facility. It's across the street," JEA spokeswoman Jane Upton said. "Two of three units were knocked off but we're having a low demand day so we're not expecting any problems. We don't expect any permanent damage."

Workers were evacuated from businesses in the area. Florida Power & Light, the largest Florida utility, said it was evacuating nonessential personnel from the St. Johns River Power Park, a few blocks from the explosion.

St. Johns River is a 1,252-megawatt power plant owned by FPL and JEA. The unit was operating at the time of the explosion and continued to operate after it.

(Reporting by Jim Loney, editing by Jane Sutton)

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