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Late one night, just outside of the small town of Meritville, disgruntled former company worker Burt Nash breaks into a plant of the Exiter Fuel Corporation to steal dynamite. Upon escaping, Nash kills a guard and sets a small tank of fuel ablaze. Advised of the break-in, plant manager Mike Brand hastens to the plant and, in the midst of meeting with police and FBI agents, receives an anonymous phone call by a man threatening to blow up the plant. Discovering that ten sticks of dynamite were taken in the theft, Mike deduces that the caller was the thief and immediately orders the police to evacuate everyone within a three-mile radius, as a plant explosion would be catastrophic. To protect the plant, Mike arranges to pump all of the gas to another plant one hundred miles away, even though he knows the procedure will take five hours. Mike then telephones his wife Nancy to advise her to take their young son Eric to his mother's home in the next town. Under questioning, foreman Jack Fife reveals that he fired Nash earlier that day for smoking in an unsafe area and that Nash threatened him. While the plant is gradually shut down, Nash, with the dynamite strapped to his chest, prowls about the perimeter, watching the evacuation before telephoning Mike from a nearby booth to repeat his threat. Mike anxiously oversees the fuel transfer, which begins at midnight. Soon after, the police establish that Nash, angry over his dismissal, threatened suicide, and arrange for a department psychiatrist to assist in evaluating him. Meanwhile, Nash heads to Mike's house, arriving just in time to stop Nancy and Eric's departure. At gunpoint, Nash forces Nancy to telephone Mike to demand entrance to the plant. Nancy drives Nash to the plant, and police sharpshooters refrain from firing, fearful of striking Eric or Nancy. FBI agents return from searching Nash's rented room and report discovering plans for an intricate bomb-triggering device using liquid mercury. Psychiatrist Howard Culver advises Mike and the police to humor Nash as long as possible and to refrain from any threatening or abrupt movements. Meanwhile, Nash, Nancy and Eric arrive at the plant for a face-to-face meeting with Mike, while several police hide nearby. When Eric bolts, Nash shoots the policeman who attempts to help, but Eric is spirited away safely. Nash confesses to Mike that he has been mistreated all his life and that Fife unfairly battered him before firing him. Nash then steers Nancy to a large tanker, one of the last to be emptied in the transfer, and forces her to climb it as Mike and the police follow at a distance. Nash insists that Mike and the police depart and they retreat to Mike's office, where he gets corroboration of Nash's accusation against Fife. More than midway through the transfer, Mike receives a report that the pipes are under excessive strain from the all-out transfer and may start to buckle. While Nancy tries to get Nash to tell her about himself, Culver advises Mike that he does not believe Nash wishes to die and suggests they offer him money, which would also continue to delay things. Later, Nash forces Nancy back down the tanker, but is startled when Mike confronts him and offers him $5,000. Nash agrees to consider the proposal, but later tells Nancy that since he has killed two men he does not believe that they will pay him. The FBI discover that the local bank's vault has a time-lock that prohibits them getting the money until 9 a.m. Mike and the police become alarmed when Nash takes Nancy farther into the plant, out of police range. Nash demonstrates the delicate triggering device for the dynamite to Nancy, then asks her to run away with him. In Mike's office, the men hear a muffled explosion as a strained steam line blows, delaying the nearly completed transfer by several minutes. Panicked, Fife dashes away and unwittingly heads right to Nash, who shoots him as Nancy watches with horror. Nash hustles Nancy away to the top of a building as Mike rushes after them. The police and agents call to Nash through a bullhorn that they have the money, but with bright spotlights upon him, Nash grows disoriented and uncertain. Mike remains hiding on the roof with Nash and Nancy, waiting for the all-clear siren, indicating that the transfer is complete. Abrupt plant silence and the ensuing siren agitate Nash, who nevertheless tries to shoot Nancy when she attempts to flee. Mike jumps Nash while struggling to keep from setting off the bomb. The men tumble to the ground, but there is no explosion. Nash darts away and while standing on a rail, shows Mike that the device was never wired. Nash then wires the triggering device, only to topple from the rail, setting off the bomb.