MINNEAPOLIS -- A natural gas explosion Thursday morning ignited a huge fire in Minneapolis near the Richfield border, sending balls of flames shooting several stories high, forcing residents from their homes and making a tangled mess of traffic at the peak of rush hour.
The fire started just after 8:30 a.m. CDT and burned until shortly before 10 a.m., when CenterPoint Energy shut off the gas, said Assistant Fire Chief Cherie Penn.
Twin Cities hospitals said they had no reports of injuries "as the area surrounding the immediate blast site is relatively isolated," said city spokesman Matt Lindstrom.
The blaze was near 60th Street and Nicollet Avenue, north of the Crosstown Highway (Highway 62) and close to a Cub Foods store, and it drew firefighters from Minneapolis and Richfield. Cars in the Cub parking lot were left scorched.
The explosion occurred near a CenterPoint maintenance facility and involved a natural gas pipeline, said Kristine Chapin, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
CenterPoint spokeswoman Becca Virden said that the Cub store would remain closed, but the evacuation of the neighborhood has been lifted. The cause of the explosion and fire is not yet known, Virden added.
The Crosstown and Interstate 35W were closed in both directions for a few hours, said state transportation spokesman Kevin Gutknecht. By lunchtime, travel in the area was pretty much back to normal, with only a couple of Crosstown ramps remaining closed, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Mary Stanek, of Savage, Minn., was turning several miles to the south onto Interstate 35W from County Road 42 in Burnsville, when she saw multiple explosions to the north.
"I just saw three big repetitions of fire balls in the distance," Stanek said.
When the fire was burning, motorists said, heat could be felt while driving by on the Crosstown.
Brad Solem, service leader at Bobby & Steve's Auto World at 58th Street and Nicollet, said he was outside the shop when he heard "just a 'boom' and then the flames instantly shot sky high. You could instantly feel heat on your face."
Solem said the explosion occurred across the street from Cub. "Cars were melting" in the parking lot, he said.
A steady stream of residents of nearby homes and apartments was walking north on Nicollet, the flames streaking the sky behind them. "I'm going to get me a hotel downtown," said Sterling Clark of Atlanta, who was visiting his brother, Terrance.
"It felt like a blast furnace," said Arthur Geise, who like other residents was told by authorities to walk north on Nicollet to city buses that were waiting to shelter them.
Resident Richard Ojar was walking north on Nicollet in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops. "I didn't have time to get anything else," Ojar said.
Mirah Ammal, a Middle Eastern dance performer and instructor, said, "The firefighters were running down the street and banging on doors. We took our four cats and ran out the door."
(Staff writers Steve Brandt, Patrick Doyle, Matt McKinney, Josephine Marcotty, Warren Wolfe, Mary Jane Smetanka, Corey Mitchell and James Walsh contributed to this report.)