LEMONT, Ill., -- Thirteen people were confirmed dead today and three others were missing in an explosion that turned a Union Oil Co. refinery into a 'war zone' of towering flames, smoke and shooting debris.
Union Oil spokesman Bill Redding confirmed the death toll climbed to 13 with the recovery of four more bodies. The three remaining missing victims are presumed dead, authorities said.
The Will County Coroner's office set up an emergency morgue in a trailer behind the coroner's mortuary in nearby Joliet to begin the task of identifying the badly charred bodies. Relatives of the victims were advised by Coroner Robert Tezak to stay away until tentative identifications are made.
The blast sent fire and smoke shooting thousands of feet into the air Monday night, shattered windows in businesses three miles away and shook houses as far as 50 miles away, police said.
'We're not really sure where the fire started,' Redding said. 'There's some talk it could have been a mechanical failure but in all honesty it can't be told at this point. It could be weeks before we know the cause.
'Some areas (of the plant) are still too hot to explore.'
Fourteen of the dead and missing are believed to be Union Oil employees, with the remaining two believed to be security employees hired by the firm. Redding said authorities began their search for the missing after rubble in sections of the plant cooled.
The last of the flames -- including a residual gas fire -- were squelched by 11:45 a.m.
The plant 'looks like a war zone,' Romeoville Police Sgt. Richard Nugent said.
At least 21 people were injured and 10 required hospitalization, authorities said. Terry Parker, 38, is in critical condition at the Bernard Mitchell Burn Unit at University of Chicago Hospital. The condition of Robert Gomer, 32, was downgraded to serious. He suffered burns over 70 percent of his body.
A 9-month-old baby in a house one mile away was in good condition after being struck in the head by a jewel box that was knocked through the air by the force of the blast.
The explosion occurred in a catalytic cracking unit that distills crude oil into propane and various chemicals. Other fires then broke out in nearby storage tanks.
'Some of the bodies were in areas of intense heat and suffered considerable damage,' said Bill Ferguson, deputy lieutenant coroner. 'Some died from shock (of the blast) and some were incinerated. At this point, none of the bodies can be identified from sight.'
The first nine bodies recovered were in an outdoor area around storage tanks, including two in one vehicle and another alone in a second.
Tezak said Union Oil is drawing up a list of the names and addresses of the victims and those still missing. He said tentative identification has been made on four or five victims based on where their bodies were found in the plant.
'In the 16 years I've been in the coroner's office I've not seen anything like it and this many deaths,' Tezak said.
He said figures of the dead and missing were based on a Union Oil report that said 16 people had been working at the cracking unit.
Redding said there were 55 employees in the plant at the time of the two explosions. 'I don't know if there was a warning. We haven't been able to talk to the people to find out.'
The injured were taken to 15 hospitals in Chicago, Joliet and neighboring communities.
Redding said about 700 people work at the plant, which is Union's newest and largest in the United States, constructed about 15 years ago. A similar fire -- touched off by lightning -- broke out at the plant in 1980 but there were no injuries.
'We're fortunate it happened when it did,' he said, referring to the night shift, when fewer workers were on hand.
Firefighters and plant officials allowed a residual gas fire to burn even though the source fire was extinguished.
'It's better to burn the gas off then let it escape.' Redding said.
He also said it could take weeks to determine the dollar damage estimate.
The explosion occurred at 5:52 CDT Monday in the cracking unit at the southern end of the plant located about 30 miles southwest of Chicago's Loop.
Flames produced by the explosion shot 500 feet into the air and clouds of smoke extended 3,000 feet high. The sound of the blast could be heard 35 miles away and its force shattered windows in a discount store three miles away.
Nugent said the explosion may have started from welding work being done at the refinery.
Firefighters from at least 30 surrounding communities were called in. A Chicago fireboat pumped water from the Des Plaines River for fire trucks.
Fire equipment was delayed in getting to the scene because the crews had to take a three-mile detour around a bridge that has been out of service because of a barge accident.
The impact of the blast was felt in Coal City, about 50 miles southwest of the explosion, said Terry Kopczick, Grundy County Sheriff's police dispatcher.
Houses were shaken and windows broken in the Coal City area, she said.
Morris police patrolmen Tom Bednarik said he felt the impact about 40 miles away from the blast.
'I know some houses shook because mine did,' he said. 'I had several other people who told me their house shook like cars running into it.'