Three firemen, blasted by a fiery explosion in a Hamilton coolstore this afternoon, were fighting for their lives in Waikato Hospital tonight.
The trio, listed by the hospital as being in a critical condition, were among eight firemen hurt when the blast ripped through part of the coolstore about 4.30pm.
Waikato Region assistant chief fire office Roy Breeze told NZPA that no one was killed in the blast and no firemen were missing as had been reported by some media.
But he said the three in critical condition had suffered severe "black burns" in the explosion.
One man had been hit by flying debris.
The hospital reported two other firemen were in serious condition and two more were stable. One man had been discharged after treatment.
Mr Breeze said the eight men were the crews of two fire trucks that responded to an emergency call after gas or fumes were reported coming from one of the three buildings at the Icepak Group's coolstore in suburban Tamahere on the southeast outskirts of the city.
"When our chaps arrived they could see or smell gas, or something like that."
As the crew tried to get into the building to investigate it "blew up".
"It's like those pictures you see of the nuclear bomb going off," said journalist Philippa Stevenson, who lives about 150 metres from the blast spot.
She described the scene as she watched: "It's just a huge funnel of black, black smoke pouring up into the sky, with huge bright orange flames leaping out of the coolstores."
Mr Breeze said the building was a mass of flames after the blast and the fire spread to a second adjoining building, destroying both.
Firemen were still battling to save the third coolstore on site and to protect a nearby dwelling. Other houses were some distance away and not threatened.
Late night flames and thick black smoke were still pouring from the stricken coolstore and nearby residents were advise to close their windows in atmospheric conditions or wind drove the smoke to ground level.
Hospital spokeswoman Mary Anne Gill said in a statement about the three critical cases that one man, 37, was in intensive care, the second, in his 50s, was in theatre, and the third, 43, was in intensive care and likely to be transferred to the national burns unit at Middlemore Hospital, Auckland.
The two firemen in serious condition were both 51, the two stable were aged 35 and 36.
The cause of the blast in the coolstore -- reported to be holding cheese, has not yet been determined.
Icepak Group owner Jan Van Eden was quoted on Radio New Zealand tonight as saying no one was working the coolstore when the blast occurred.
Mr Breeze said about 80 to 100 firefighters and about 20 trucks were called in top fight the fire.
Reinforcements were being sought from Auckland and Tauranga tonight to takeover from exhausted local firecrews.
The coolstore was the original plant in the Hamilton-based Icepak Group.
The company stores mainly dairy products and fruit and vegetables in its stores at Tamahere and Waharoa in the Waikato and at Wanganui and Otaki.
It has expanded rapidly since it was bought by Jan Van Eden in 1990 when it had just the three-room coolstore and blast freezer in Tamahere.
Icepak was ranked 27th on Deloittes list of fastest-growing New Zealand companies in 2006.
The Waikato Times reported earlier this year the firm was expected to turn over $7.3 million this year.
In February the Times quoted Mr Van Eden as saying Icepak would not be leaving Tamahere but that the company's big new Waharoa plant would be the main focus of the company's Waikato expansion.
He added Icepak had had continuing difficulties with neighbours over plans to extend Tamahere and resource consent applications had been opposed. The firm had withdrawn the applications.
"We have reached the end of our development in Tamahere. We might put up a couple of rooms."
The company's customers include Fonterra, Pars Petfood, Tatua Dairy Company, Open Country Cheese, Land Meats, Seeka Kiwifrutit and Balle Bros Potatoes.