The flames exploded into the sky like a volcanic eruption, blanketing a swath of the Iraqi countryside in a noxious haze of black smoke.

The inferno reached more than 300 feet high on a recent afternoon when the wind shifted direction, bending the billowing wall of fire toward the men from Iraq’s North Oil Co. on the ground below.

Within seconds, a fast-moving cloud of hot gas and thick smoke washed over the work site, blotting out the sun and sending workers and engineers scurrying for safety.

Some of the men sprinted toward their vehicles; others took cover in corrugated tin sheds, where they patiently waited for the wind to change direction so they could return to the work without being burned alive.