Investigation Begins Into Fiery North Dakota Oil Train Crash

fromNDPR

Federal safety investigators are in eastern North Dakota at the site of a train wreck. The train was carrying crude oil and apparently crashed into a soybean shipment that had derailed, triggering a series of blasts that engulfed nearly two dozen cars in flames. Residents of nearby Casselton, N.D., evacuated overnight, and the town's mayor is now calling for changes to how crude oil is transported across the country.

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Residents of Casselton, North Dakota are starting to return to their homes. That's after yesterday's fiery crash of two freight trains, one carrying crude oil. From Fargo, Prairie Public's Todd McDonald reports.

TODD MCDONALD, BYLINE: Black soot covers parts of Casselton's water tower, which is just south of a smoldering fire that erupted when a westbound train carrying soybeans derailed on the city's western edge. Then a second train, eastbound and carrying crude oil, struck that derailed train, catching fire. At least three explosions were heard as oil tankers burst into flames, sending fireballs and a huge black plume of smoke hundreds of feet into the air.

Officials say as many as 21 railcars caught fire and those fires are now being allowed to burn out. Crews of workers aboard both trains were able to escape without injury and, before fleeing, were able to decouple many of the cars from the locomotives.

Dozens of trains pass through Casselton and dozens of small North Dakota towns each day, carrying oil from booming fields in western North Dakota. Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney says emergency response training paid off for this community, that and a bit of luck.

PAUL LANEY: If you look at - if that thing had happened a half mile into town, we'd be looking at a very, very different discussion here today.

MCDONALD: The plume of thick black smoke raised concerns about possible toxins. About two-thirds of the town's 2,400 residents were evacuated, including Sharon Hall, who spent the night at an emergency shelter.

SHARON HALL: So I looked out the window and there was like a big cloud of black smoke covering the area. Eventually, you could smell it and taste it. As of 8:30 last night when they came to actually get us, you could really taste it in your mouth. It was like, oh, gross, you know, just disgusting.

MCDONALD: Safety officials are trying to prevent crude from soaking into the frozen ground. Bitter cold temperatures, as low as 20-below, have prevented emergency crews from spraying water or foam on the flames. The incident raises new concerns over rail traffic that passes through towns here. More than two-thirds of the state's oil production is shipped by rail and that number is expected to rise sharply next year. For NPR News, I'm Todd McDonald in Fargo.

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