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Six firefighters and safety experts ventured into the smoldering rubble of a plastics plant Tuesday to determine whether rescuers could begin searching for 23 workers missing after fiery explosions killed at least one employee and injured more than 100 others.

Authorities offered mixed prospects of finding survivors in the Phillips Petroleum Co. factory, where explosions Monday afternoon flung debris five miles and shook the ground 25 miles away."You always hope for the best. Our fingers are crossed," Phillips spokesman Jere Smith said.

"We don't think there's anybody alive in there," said Dr. Paul Pepe, director of Houston's emergency medical services.

Doctors treated 124 people for injuries. Thirty-five were hospitalized, up to six of them in critical condition, Pepe said. Some had severe burns.

Survivors said they had less than half a minute's warning to get out of the plant after a reactor began leaking flammable gas that ignited in a huge fireball.

"I thought it was the end," said Billy Ridenour, a 35-year-old worker. "I was thinking, `Run till you die.' "

A thin column of smoke was rising from the plant Tuesday morning as several members of an emergency response team went inside. Phillips officials said the fire was contained and the smoke and gas released were not toxic, but that the team would have to judge whether it was safe to send in a larger group of rescuers.

"The fire is just about out. That was the objective overnight," Smith said. "With daylight now we can start to account for the unaccounted."

Twenty Phillips employees and at least three contract workers were unaccounted for, Phillips Petroleum President Glenn Cox told reporters late Monday. The body of a worker was found at the plant, but Cox did not have other details.

Seismologists at Rice University in nearby Houston said the blast appeared to be the equivalent of 10 tons of dynamite. The first explosion could be felt as far away as 25 miles. Several explosions followed.

"It was like somebody just dropped an atomic bomb," said Kelly Manerly, a pipefitter at the plant, which makes 4.5 million pounds a day of plastics like those used in milk jugs and toys.

The blasts buckled a ceiling and blew out cafeteria windows at an elementary school about a mile away. No one was injured, but the school's 700 pupils were sent home.

The first explosion at Phillips' Houston Chemical Complex, on the Houston Ship Channel just off Highway 225, occurred early Monday afternoon.

Maintenance worker Roby Clemons said employees had 20 seconds to escape after a warning message was broadcast over the plant's emergency radio.

Workers said they heard a hissing sound and saw a white cloud. The explosion that followed knocked them off their feet.

Many then saw a fireball.

"It looked like somebody set a boulder on fire and was rolling it towards us," said Terry Crowson, 37, a construction worker.

"Everybody was a-duckin', a-dodgin' and a-runnin'," said D.E. Sonny Mann, 49, an iron-worker foreman who was able to account for his 150-man crew. "We outran the fire."

"I never saw people run so fast," added Clemons.

Firefighters fought the blaze by pumping water from a sewage treatment plant and the nearby ship channel. The fire was brought under control within five hours but continued to burn. A two-mile section of the heavily-traveled channel was closed for seven hours, authorities said. No ships reported damage.

Officials didn't immediately know what caused the explosion.

Phillips environmental director Bill Stoltz said a seal blew out on an ethylene loop reactor, releasing ethylene-isobutane, a compound used in making plastics. The reactor is built of tubes where the key chemical reactions take place.

The blast sent pieces of metal flying through the air.

Glen Dickey, who lives five miles from the plant, said he came home from lunch to find a 6-foot piece of metal in a tree.