Image: Train cars are derailed in Lafayette, La.
Alex Brandon  /  AP
Train cars derailed in Lafayette, La., Saturday, forcing the evacuation of thousands of people because of a hydrochloric acid leak.
updated 5/18/2008 8:07:43 PM ET 2008-05-19T00:07:43

Thousands of residents were allowed to return to their homes Sunday night as crews continue to clean up hydrochloric acid that spilled when six train cars derailed a day earlier.

All of the residents told to leave the area — about 3,000 in all — were allowed to return home, as authorities cut the one-mile evacuation radius Sunday to 1,000 feet from the accident site, state police said.

The reduced area will affect only a few businesses, and the restrictions could last a few more days, authorities said.

Saturday's derailment spread a toxic cloud over the city. Five people, including two railroad workers, were sent to a hospital and treated after complaining of skin and eye irritation, State Police Trooper David Anderson said.

Anderson said he couldn't estimate how long the cleanup and evacuation would take. Hazardous materials specialists have to work cautiously because the acid is so dangerous.

Hydrochloric acid can cause respiratory problems and skin and eye irritation, said Joe Faust, a spokesman for Texas-based BNSF Railway, which operated the train.

An estimated 10,000 gallons spilled, forming a yellowish pool.

By late Sunday, more than half of the acid had been removed, state police said.

All six rail cars were restored to an upright position, and some had been moved out of the 1-acre contamination site, Anderson said. "The stuff we're dealing with is bad — very bad stuff," he said.

A nursing home with 161 residents was evacuated, and about 35 of the residents were taken to area hospitals because they were too frail to be moved to other facilities, state officials said.

The Red Cross set up a shelter at a high school but no one was using it on Sunday, Anderson said. Most of those evacuated were with family and friends, and some were put up in hotels by the rail company, he said.

Lafayette is about 125 miles west of New Orleans.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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