While firefighters worked earlier, police evacuated hundreds of people from homes in a 3,000-foot radius of the fire, roads were closed, and three shelters were set up. Many businesses in the immediate area closed, even if they were not damaged by the flames, but a couple stayed open to help firefighters. Ice was used from the Pathmark grocery store. A Wendy's restaurant made burgers and shakes for firefighters.
Thirty fire and emergency units from Delaware County responded, and every police department in the county was represented. Fire companies from Chester, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties helped at the scene or were on call in case fires broke out elsewhere in Delaware County.
Delaware County police said just before midnight Wednesday night that MacDade Boulevard, a main thoroughfare, was reopened.
Into the early evening, two large propane tanks - 30,000 gallons and 18,000 gallons - had been a major concern, but they were secured, according to John Moors, chief of Collingdale Volunteer Fire Company No. 1. He said the nearby Boeing Co. would soon move in with foam to smother what might remain of heat or embers.
Delaware County fire investigators and the District Attorney's Office were on the scene to investigate.
Scully also operates a propane-distribution business at the site, at the intersection of MacDade Boulevard and West Oak Lane.
When the fire broke out, a black plume of smoke mushroomed over the area and was visible from as far away as Media. Flames reached 100 feet high as shrapnel from dozens of exploding tanks rained down on MacDade Boulevard.
"Metal was flying all over," Collingdale Mayor Frank Kelly said. "People were running in the streets."
Kelly said a Scully worker was moving several four-foot-long propane tanks when they dropped, sparking the blaze.
Kelly described the conflagration as "the worst fire disaster since 1969, when a lumber facility caught on fire at MacDade and Cherry Street."
The Rev. Perry Messick, a fire department chaplain, was in his office at the First Baptist Church of Collingdale when he heard the first explosions.
"It sounded like metal cans being thrown around," Messick said, "or fireworks."
Kaiser, the fire marshal, was working at the storage center he owns adjacent to the Scully plant. He said the blaze ignited his building. The fire destroyed two old Collingdale fire trucks that he kept on the premises and storage units rented by 70 customers.
About 40 employees work at the 12,000-square-foot Scully Welding Supply property. Documents list Jimmy Jenzano as company president.
His mother, Jeanne Scully Jenzano, said her father started the business in 1947. She said that by early evening, her son was unsure of the cause of the fire.
MacDade Boulevard, a four-lane commercial corridor, is usually jammed with vehicles at rush hour. On Wednesday afternoon, the only things on the road were red and yellow fire hoses. The boulevard was blocked off from Bartram to West Ashland Avenues.
The Red Cross set up three evacuation centers for displaced residents - at Collingdale Borough Hall, the Glenolden School, and the Folcroft Fire Department, Kelly said.
State Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R., Delaware) lent a helping hand, lugging water and ice to firefighters.
"We took all the ice from [Pathmark's] seafood department," Miccarelli said. As a veteran of the war in Iraq, he said, "I thought I left heat and explosions over there."
In Glenolden, the Wendy's restaurant on MacDade became a temporary shelter for tired and hungry firefighters. The staff was busy making dozens of burgers and orders of fries to donate to the rescue workers.
"We'll help out as much as we can," manager Elena Kurza said. "They wanted 100 [meals], and we'll start with that."
Eamon O'Hara, 43, was picking up his truck at Lene Auto Body early Wednesday afternoon when he saw people running from the supply company, screaming. He said that was enough to make him reach for his cell phone and shoot video.
"The explosions didn't start until the workers were out," said O'Hara, of Drexel Hill. He estimated there were 40 blasts in quick succession.
"The explosions were actually moving my hand, moving the camera, moving me," O'Hara said. "I was scared, absolutely, the adrenaline, you know."
Greg Pecko, owner of Accurate Auto & Tire, was in his office when he heard the first of many deafening bangs.
"There was a series of loud explosions," Pecko said. "It shook the building."
When he went to find the source of the sounds, he said, he saw flames 75 feet high.
The Scully company is near Philadelphia International Airport. An airport spokeswoman said no flights had to be redirected because of the smoke.
Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at 610-627-0352 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inquirer staff writer Larry King contributed to this article.