Feds Arrive in Kentucky to Investigate Hazardous Chemical Rail Fire

January 18, 2007

Federal agents will spend the rest of the week near Brooks, Kentucky investigating what caused a train carrying hazardous chemicals to derail and catch fire, forcing nearby residents to evacuate their homes.

The chemical fires continued to burn early Wednesday morning. Fire officials said they were using foam and water to extinguish some of the fires, while others will likely have to burn out on their own.

“The amount of water that we’re flowing is just ungodly, and it’s not making a lot of headway, to be quite honest,” said Rob Orkies, fire chief of the Zoneton Fire District in Bullitt County.

Zoneton firefighters and those from neighboring departments used 2,000 gallons of foam from late Tuesday to Wednesday morning.

“It’s a better weapon of choice,” Maj. Garry Key of the Zoneton Fire Department said. “The foam smothers the flames.”

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board plan to be in the area for three or four days, said the agency’s chairman, Mark Rosenker.

The crash and fire caused no serious injuries, but at least 11 people near the crash checked themselves into a hospital and were soon released, authorities said. Officials asked residents within a mile to evacuate.

The blaze produced a large column of black smoke in the mostly rural area. Television footage showed several blazing cars stacked across the rail lines and flaming liquid flowing down ditches from the mangled tanker cars.

The chemicals on the CSX train contributing to the fire were cyclohexane, methyl ethyl ketone, butadiene and alcohol, said Gary Sease, a CSX spokesman.

“These substances themselves are pretty toxic, but when they burn they break down a whole lot,” said Jeremey Urekew, a spokesman for Bullitt County Emergency Management. “This fire is going to burn itself out.”

Two other cars were carrying hazardous materials that could pose an environmental threat, but they were not near the fire, he said.

Art Smith of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said officials would continue to monitor the air and that a nearby creek would be sampled and private wells identified for monitoring.

Sease said the train — with four locomotives and 80 cars — was headed to Louisville from Birmingham, Ala.

The immediate area, including Brooks Elementary School, was evacuated, Kentucky State Police Maj. Lisa Rudzinski said.

The crash occurred about 8:45 a.m. EST, and an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 65 was closed for about 11 hours.

The Kentucky National Guard said it mobilized 20 to 25 soldiers and airmen to check air quality.

Bullitt County resident Daymon Strange said he was outside his home less than a half-mile from the crash site when he heard an explosion.

“I turned around and looked and there was fire at least 500 feet in the air,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’ve never seen such a fire. It was huge.”

Strange said he smelled the fumes even though they were blowing away from his home.

“You can taste it and feel it in your lungs when you go outside,” he said.

The Red Cross set up a shelter in neighboring Jefferson County for evacuees, but only about a dozen people had checked in by early evening, said William Ney, a volunteer.

NTSB officials were investigating and declined to comment on a possible cause.

Rosenker, the NTSB chairman who was in Bullitt County for the investigation, said the event recorder from the train was being downloaded and would be sent to Washington for reading Tuesday evening. Rosenker said he had not been able to get to the derailment site yet but expected to Wednesday.

The track had been inspected by CSX inspectors on Monday, Rosenker said.

Results of toxicology tests performed on the two-man crew were expected within two weeks, he said.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who flew over the area with the Kentucky Air National Guard, said he had not determined whether a state of emergency would be declared.

It was the second fiery train crash in Kentucky in two days. On Monday, four runaway rail cars struck two parked locomotives in central Kentucky, catching fire and spilling a chemical that prompted a limited evacuation.

AP-CS-01-17-07 0831EST

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