TORONTO (AP) – Explosions at a propane facility forced thousands of people to evacuate early Sunday, and witnesses described the sky lighting up in the glow of an enormous fireball before turning black with billowing smoke. One firefighter died, authorities said.

Firefighters were battling blazes at the Sunrise Propane Industrial Gasses facility hours later. A worker at the plant was unaccounted for, Toronto police spokesman Mark Pugash said. Some residents suffered minor injuries.

Toronto fire services division chief David Sheen said a veteran firefighter died at the scene.

“It’s hard,” Sheen said, his voice cracking. “I’m sure all of our guys are having a rough time with it.”

The explosions early Sunday also shut down Canada’s busiest highway and a part of the subway system, snarling traffic for thousands of travelers. Mayor David Miller the fire was under control, but the chance of another explosion still exists because it is a propane facility.

Some residents said the blast was so forceful they felt their homes rock as though they had been struck by an earthquake.

“It was just a tremendous explosion and blew all the windows out of the house, just blew the house up, and I just managed to get out of there in time,” said Robert Helman, who was covered in cuts and bruises as he fled his home.

Fearing the air had turned toxic, police used bullhorns to order the estimated 12,500 residents within a mile radius of the plant to flee their homes immediately.

Air quality tests later in the day showed the fumes were not toxic.

About a dozen terrified residents ­- some clad in pajamas and housecoats – found their way on foot to nearby Yorkdale shopping mall, where security offered them water and a place to rest. The mall was later evacuated.

Toronto fire services division commander Bob O’Hallarn saw at least five heavily damaged homes and said windows were blown out a fair distance from the scene. He also saw large pieces of metal on the street and said it looked like they were from tanker trucks.

He said it could he hours before residents are allowed to return, and that most of them were evacuated to a nearby university.

Miller said authorities are reviewing why the propane facility was allowed to be built near a residential area.

AP-ES-08-10-08 1632EDT

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