Thousands evacuated after freight train derails, catches fire, in Tennessee

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 02, 2015 8:10 AM

By Ben Klayman and Suzannah Gonzales

(Reuters) - A freight train carrying flammable and toxic gas derailed and a car caught fire in Tennessee, forcing the evacuation of thousands of people on Thursday, while 10 officers were hospitalized after breathing in fumes, officials said.

More than 5,000 people were evacuated from homes and businesses, they said.

Still, there were no injuries after the derailment around midnight Wednesday of the CSX Corp <CSX.N> rail company train in Blount County, eastern Tennessee.

Matt Farr, his brother and their parents woke up to the news and grabbed a change of clothes at about 8:30 a.m. ET before heading to a nearby animal center to drop off their Yorkie dog, Rosie. Farr, 21, said the four Maryville residents would stay in two rooms at a nearby hotel until the evacuation is lifted.

"We didn't think we'd be there that long, but now it's starting to look like we may be there for a couple days," he told Reuters via telephone from the animal center. "We've had trains derail before, but not with chemicals, so it's pretty bad."

Firefighters were allowing the blaze to burn itself out on the advice of specialists, as attempts to extinguish it could be hazardous, Blount County firefighter Kermit Easterling said.

The county has urban and rural areas and is also home to part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, he said.

Ten officers, five each from the Blount County Sheriff's Office and the Alcoa Police Department, were exposed to chemical-laden fumes from the blaze as they went door-to-door, sheriff's spokeswoman Marian O'Briant said.

Blount Memorial Hospital was holding all 10 officers for observation as a precaution but they were not admitted, hospital spokesman Josh West said.

Two people who fled the area without their medication were also at the hospital, he said.

CSX said a tank car loaded with acrylonitrile, a hazardous material used in manufacturing plastics and other industrial processes, derailed at about midnight on the train headed to Waycross, Georgia, from Cincinnati, Ohio.

The substance is flammable and presents an inhalation risk, CSX said. The 57-car train included 27 carrying hazardous materials, including cars carrying acrynolitrile on either side of the burning rail car, it said.

There was no crude oil among the 57 cars, CSX said.

EVACUATION

Residents could be forced from their homes for up to two days and the Red Cross had set up a shelter in a nearby high school, officials said.

About 100 people were sheltered at Heritage High School in Maryville early Thursday, while many others opted to stay with friends and family, O'Briant said.

CSX said it was offering displaced residents assistance, including lodging.

"People are coming in left and right now," Peter O'Neill, volunteer director at the Blount County Red Cross, said in a telephone interview. "We have food set up. Cots. And we sent games for the kids."

Residents within a two-mile radius were evacuated initially, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The zone was changed to 1-1/2 miles later on Thursday, according to O'Briant.

O'Neill said the area that was cleared includes industries, private homes and motor-home parks.

"It's a really populated area," he said.

Local businesses were closed to limit workers' exposure to possibly toxic fumes, while a community college was being used as a command center, Easterling said.

Beth Forsythe, administrator for the Blount County Animal Center in Maryville, said evacuees had brought in their pets before heading to shelters themselves, and there were about 45 cats and dogs admitted by midday.

(Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Ben Klayman in Detroit, Tim Ghianni in Nashville and Vijaykumar Vedala in Bengaluru; Editing by Bernadette Baum)