ATH, Belgium -- A natural gas pipeline pierced by construction workers exploded yesterday in a huge pillar of flames that killed at least 15 people and injured at least 120, crushing buildings, scorching cars, and burning farm fields for hundreds of yards.
Officials feared the death toll could rise, because some of the injured were in critical condition.
The earthshaking blast occurred about 8:30 a.m. in an industrial area of the village of Ghislenghien, about 20 miles southeast of Brussels, the capital, and could be seen and heard for miles.
Emergency crews from across Belgium and from France, Luxembourg, and Germany rushed to help, and a gray haze hung over the rural area as helicopters and about 50 ambulances carried injured to hospitals.
About a half hour before the explosion, construction workers alerted firefighters that they had damaged the underground gas line, acting provincial Governor Guy Petit said.
At least five of the dead and many of the injured were believed to have been police officers and firefighters responding to that call.
A towering wall of orange flames after the blast sent a series of huge fireballs boiling high into the sky.
The shock wave crushed a swath of large buildings in an industrial park and hurled bodies more than 100 yards.
Everything within 400 yards of the crater ripped open by the blast was melted or incinerated.
''There were bodies in parking lots, in fields. There were burned-out cars," said a spokesman for the Brussels fire department, Francis Boileau. ''We have not seen devastation on such a scale for 40 years."
A local fire official, Jean-Claude Mondo, said cars were incinerated more than 100 yards away.
The head of the local volunteer fire department, Eddy Pettiaux, was among the dead, Mondo said.
Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, who flew back from a vacation in Italy, said 15 people were confirmed dead and three were unaccounted for.
He said 120 people were hospitalized, including 12 who were sent to burn centers in northern France.
Verhofstadt refused to speculate on what caused the accident, saying that would have to wait for an official investigation.
He said it was the worst such accident in Belgium since 1967, when a tanker truck carrying liquefied gas exploded and killed 22 people.