Firefighter Killed, 3 People Missing in Explosion at Russian Helium Plant

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RUSSIA (AP) -- One firefighter was killed and three people were missing after a gas leak caused a massive explosion at a helium factory in central Russia, emergency officials reported Saturday.

The blast at the factory in Orenburg, about 1,300 kilometres southeast of Moscow, occurred around 2:55 p.m. local time, according to a duty officer at the Emergency Situations Ministry, who declined to give his name.

Firefighters spent five hours putting out the blaze, which sent thick smoke and balls of fire hundreds of metres into the air, Russian RTR television reported.

Three people were taken to hospital with serious burns, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported. Rescuers were searching for three other people, the official said.

The resulting fire destroyed several buildings at the plant and more than 200 people had to be evacuated from the site, ITAR-Tass said.