NIIGATA, Japan — A roaring, oil-fed fire exploded its way through the mammoth Showa Refinery early Thursday, claiming 250 homes on the heels of one of the worst earthquakes in Japan's history.

U.S. and Japanese planes bombarded the refinery with chemical foam Wednesday night and early Thursday in efforts to control the flames before they spread.

The fire, sometimes 500 feet high, was fed by nearly a million gallons of crude oil and propane.

By Thursday morning oil that had drained into a nearby canal was ignited, spreading the flames to homes on the other side.

The fire was contained a few hours later, however, and firemen said they hoped to get it under control soon. There seems to be no danger, they said, of flames spreading further into the city.

At one point, it was feared the blaze would reach the refinery's stores of poisonous tetraethyl lead and spread its nerve-damaging fumes through Niigata, but the fire did not reach the tetraethyl storage point.

Tuesday's shattering quake and the floods and fire that followed destroyed or damaged nearly 80,000 homes and buildings and killed 25 persons.

Eleven persons are still missing and 285 were injured.

Government officials rushed to the quake scene Wednesday morning to assess damage and start relief programs. All had been briefed on the quake, but they were shocked at the scene of destruction.

Bridges, department stores and other downtown buildings were torn apart. Roads were flooded and cracked open. Debris was everywhere.

Victims throughout the city manned shovels to clear up what they could — most of them working to dig away up to three feet of sand left by floods that followed the quake.

Wednesday morning it appeared that the refinery fire would be brought under control, but flames reached 90 oil tanks on the outskirts of the plant and exploded them.

The heat was staggering.

Thousands jammed the few passable thoroughfares of Niigata, abandoning homes when it seemed that a good part of the city might burn.

Most persons made their way to surrounding towns for food, water and shelter.

Planes flew constantly over the fire, dropping chemicals in an attempt to halt it. Other aircraft dropped supplies and more chemicals for fire fighters on the ground.

Niigata's airport is useless to anything but small planes — its main runways are cracked as if they were hit by a giant sledge hammer.

As the fire subsided early Thursday, full-scale relief operations began. Workers were attempting to restore water and electricity to the city. Communications men were working desperately to restore telephone lines. The city virtually has been sealed off from the rest of Japan since the quake.

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