Authorities urged residents to evacuate a small North Dakota community after a 1.6km-long train carrying crude oil derailed outside of town, shaking residents with a series of explosions that sent flames and black smoke skyward.
The Cass County Sheriff’s Office said on Monday that it was “strongly recommending” that people in the town of Casselton and anyone living within 8km to the south and east evacuate.
A shelter has been set up in Fargo, about 40km away. Casselton has about 2,400 residents.
The sheriff’s office said the US National Weather Service was forecasting a shift in the weather that could increase the risk of potential health hazards.
“That’s going to put the plume right over the top of Casselton,” Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said at a news briefing.
Investigators could not get close to the blaze about 1.6km outside of Casselton and official estimates of how many train cars caught fire varied.
BNSF Railway Co said it believed about 20 cars caught fire after its oil train left the tracks at about 2:10pm on Monday. The sheriff’s office said it thought 10 cars were on fire.
No one was hurt. The cars were still burning as darkness fell, and authorities said they would be allowed to burn out.
Authorities had not been able to determine exactly how the derailment happened, but a second train carrying grain was involved. BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the train carrying grain derailed first, then knocked several cars of the oil train off adjoining tracks.
BNSF said both trains had more than 100 cars each.
The US National Transportation Safety Board said on Monday it launched a “go-team” to investigate the accident.
Ryan Toop, who lives about 800m away from the crash site, said he heard explosions and drove as close as about two city blocks to the fire, which erupted on a day when temperatures were below minus-18°C.
“I rolled down the window, and you could literally keep your hands warm,” Toop said.
The tracks on which the train was running on Monday pass through the middle of Casselton, and Cass County Sheriff’s Sergeant Tara Morris said it was “a blessing it didn’t happen within the city.”
Morris said it could take up to 12 hours before authorities could get close to the fire. About 80 of the cars were moved from the site. Jeff Zent, a spokesman for North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple, said the National Guard was on alert.
In the initial hours, authorities told residents to stay indoors to avoid the smoke.
Hannah Linnard, 13, said she was in the bedroom of her friend’s house about 800m from the derailment, wrapping late Christmas presents.
“I looked out the window and all of a sudden the train car tipped over and the whole thing was engulfed in flames and it just exploded. The oil car tipped over onto the grain car,” she said.
Hannah said she could feel the warmth even inside the house.