By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Dozens of explosions rocked a propane tank servicing plant in central Florida, northwest of Orlando, late on Monday, injuring seven workers, at least three critically, and prompting the evacuation of nearby homes, authorities said.
No one outside the plant was hurt by the blasts, which began at about 10:30 p.m. local time at the Blue Rhino propane gas filling station in the town of Tavares, about 40 miles northwest of Orlando, said John Herrell, a Lake County sheriff's spokesman.
Fifteen workers out of the two dozen on duty were initially reported missing, but all subsequently were found unscathed, Herrell said. Two others were safe from the outset.
"Obviously it was a very, very dangerous scene" when firefighters arrived, Herrell said.
The chain reaction of explosions, ripping through 20-pound propane cylinders one after another - one tank every few seconds at its peak - unleashed tall columns of flames into the night sky. Homeowners several miles away reported feeling shocks from the explosions.
"We are hearing the booms here inside the restaurant," said Jessica McClure, 23, a waitress at a Denny's restaurant 7 miles north of the scene in the town of Eustis.
She said a bright orange glow from the fire was visible in the distance as she arrived at work at about 11 p.m.
What caused the explosions was not immediately known, Herrell said.
He said seven workers were injured.
Three men from the Blue Rhino plant were flown by helicopter to the Orlando Regional Medical Center, all of them in critical condition with burns, Sybrina Childress, a spokeswoman for the trauma center told Reuters.
Lake County emergency dispatchers said homes located within a mile of the facility were ordered to evacuate as a precaution.
Aerial views of the facility from footage shot by a local television station about 90 minutes after the first explosions showed a large fire, apparently being fed by continuing explosions, surrounded by smaller blazes.
After another 30 minutes, the main fire appeared to be dying down, and the wreckage of what appeared to be burned-out trucks could be seen.
Speaking by telephone to local NBC affiliate WESH-TV, former plant supervisor Don Ingram said the company took in propane tanks used for home gas grills, cleaned them, checked the valves and refilled them. He said that tanks were stacked on plastic pallets four and five high behind the filling station.
Herrell said an estimated 53,000 propane cylinders were kept on the property.
He said a late crew typically refills 4,000 to 5,000 tanks overnight. The nearest residential neighborhood is located about a quarter-mile from the facility behind a row of trees, Ingram said.
(Reporting by Barbara Liston in Orlando; additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Writing by Steve Gorman; editing by Jackie Frank and Elizabeth Piper)
Watch CNN video of the explosion below: