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Ill. town evacuated after train carrying ethanol derails

A freight train loaded with ethanol crashed and explodes in Illinois, sending up bright orange flames and plumes of smoke that could be seen miles away.
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/ Source: The Associated Press

With flames shooting to the predawn sky from a train derailment just blocks from her home, a 17-year-old girl refused to evacuate until she helped a paralyzed young neighbor with cancer get to safety. She then banged on the doors of seven houses to make sure other neighbors were awake and out of harm's way.

"In small communities, you know everybody," Cynnandra Luttrell said. "It means more."

Explosions shook the north-central Illinois village of Tiskilwa early Friday when a freight train loaded with highly flammable ethanol crashed and ignited, sending bright orange flames jetting skyward.

Capt. Steve Haywood of the Ottawa Fire Department said the train's tanker cars were shipping ethanol and other materials for Decatur-based corn processor Archer Daniels Midland Co. when it derailed around 2 a.m. At least six tanker cars burned, he said. No injuries were reported.

"It was the tallest thing in town," 19-year-old Dylan Carlson said of the flames, which he recorded from his home about four blocks away.

The evacuation of Tiskilwa, a village of about 800 people about 100 miles west of Chicago, was strictly precautionary and there was no immediate danger, said Les Grant, a spokesman for Bureau County Emergency Management. Evacuees were taken to a nearby high school.

The glow from the initial fire could be seen from miles away, but Grant said the blaze was contained by midmorning. Firefighters were using foam and water to extinguish the fire later in the day, Grant said.

"The explosion woke me and blew me out of the bed," said Beverly Beams, who lives less than a half block from the fire. "I looked outside and the sky was all aglow. ... I could feel the heat. It was that intense. And then you could hear other cars exploding."

A mile away, Laura Henry said she heard a strange clacking noise followed by an unnerving boom that shook her and her husband from bed. Fearing a derailment, the couple decided to see if they could help and called 911 as they ran to the tracks, Henry said. At the edge of town, they saw tanker cars ablaze.

"It was just amazing. I've never seen a fire like that before," Henry said. "When it would ignite or the pressure would relieve from one of the cars it would shoot, probably 100 or 200 feet in the air, these huge flames."

Each tanker cars generally carries about 29,000 gallons of ethanol, experts said. Twenty-six cars on the 131-car train derailed, including seven to nine loaded with ethanol, according to Mick Burkart, chief operating officer of Iowa Interstate Railroad. The fire prevented officials from immediately getting close enough to the train to determine what caused the accident, Burkart said.

Archer Daniels Midland spokeswoman Jessie McKinney said the train included ADM railcars carrying ethanol and a type of dry animal feed.

The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a six-person team to investigate and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency sent a representative to make sure waterways and the environment are protected.

Accidents involving the hundreds of thousands of tanker cars carrying ethanol that crisscross the U.S. any given year are rare, last year involving 50 rail tanker cars out of roughly 316,000 total shipments, said Matt Hartwig of the Renewable Fuels Association trade group.

As much as three-fourths of the 13.7 billion gallons of ethanol expected to be produced in the United States will be shipped by rail, Hartwig said. That's largely out of necessity because pipelines aren't close enough to ethanol producers to make that a practical transportation mode, Hartwig said. The industry has been collaborating in recent years with emergency responders on how to effectively deal with such accidents, he said.