VIENNA: An explosion and fire that ripped through Austria's main gas pipeline hub on Tuesday (Dec 12) killed one person and injured at least 18 others, prompting Italy to declare a state of emergency as flows from the strategic site were cut off.
Photos showed a huge tower of orange flame visible for miles around roaring out of the Baumgarten facility some 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Vienna near the Slovak border.
"An explosion occurred at 8.45am (0745 GMT), followed by a fire," police spokesman Edmund Tragschitz told AFP.
He later put the number of people hurt, including one seriously as well as those with minor injuries, at around 60.
But Red Cross spokeswoman Sonja Kellner told the Austria Press Agency that one person had been killed and 18 were injured, one of them seriously who has since been airlifted to hospital in Vienna.
"I heard a huge explosion and thought at first it was a plane crash," photographer Thomas Hulik, a resident of a nearby village in Slovakia, told AFP.
"Then I saw an immense ball of flame," he said.
Armin Teichert, a spokesman for the site's operator Gas Connect Austria, said that the site had been evacuated and that the facility had been put into "security mode".
The material damage is "major," Teichert told AFP.
Police said on social media that people should avoid the area.
Media reports said that more than 200 fire fighters from several brigades in the surrounding area were called in to help, as well as a number of air ambulances.
Lower Austria state police said on Twitter that the situation was "under control".
"Fire services are currently engaged in putting out the fire following the explosion. Emergency services are treating the wounded," the statement said.
An AFP journalist nearby said that by late morning the flames had been extinguished but there was still a huge cloud of smoke over the site.
Other photos showed the heat from the blast was so extreme that cars parked at the site partially melted.
Police added that the cause of the incident was a "technical" one and the local authorities had begun an investigation.
The Baumgarten site is Austria's largest reception point for gas, the end-point for a number of pipelines bringing it in from Russia, Norway and elsewhere.
It receives some 40 billion cubic metres of gas annually and redistributes it elsewhere in Europe including to Germany and northern Italy.
Teichert, the Gas Connect Austria spokesman, said that there could be interruptions in supply to Italy and Croatia, but not to elsewhere.
Russian gas giant Gazprom, which relies on the Baumgarten site to send gas to clients around Europe said in a statement that it was aware of the incident.
"Currently the company is working on redistribution of gas flows and (doing) its best to secure uninterrupted gas supplies to the clients on this transport direction," Gazprom said.
Gas Connect Austria said its deliveries to Austria's southern and southeastern borders were affected by the blast until further notice. Those pipelines supply Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia but also Baumgarten's biggest recipient, Italy.
That dependence on its gas led Italy to declare a state of emergency on Tuesday as its industry minister said the country had a "serious" energy supply problem.
A state of emergency would give Rome the right to use a series of extraordinary measures such as allowing coal and oil power plants to fire at full blast.
The Italian wholesale day-ahead price surged 150 per cent to 60 euros per megawatt-hour, its highest recorded level.
Italian gas transport group Snam, however, sounded optimistic on a return to normal soon.
"On the basis of the information currently available, supplies could resume today if the first indications on the absence of damage to transport infrastructure are confirmed," it said.
Gas Connect Austria said only that Austrian authorities would conduct a damage assessment at Baumgarten as soon as it was safe and it said supplies would resume as soon as possible.
Slovakia's main gas transit route to Austria was suspended after the fire, Slovak pipeline operator Eustream said. Russia's Gazprom Export said it was working on redirecting gas flows and trying to secure uninterrupted supplies to clients.
In Britain, Europe's biggest gas market, gas for immediate delivery soared 40 per cent to 95 pence per therm, a level not seen since 2013.
A UK National Grid spokesman said there was sufficient gas supply to meet demand amid multiple outages, underlining the breadth of concern about supply after the Baumgarten blast.