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Crash cleanup begins as inquiry expands

Jan 18, 2007 | The Courier-Journal

CSX workers began burning thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals left from a fiery Bullitt County train derailment yesterday, as investigators interviewed the train's two crew members and inspected cars for clues.

Mark Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said it could take more than a year for officials to determine what likely caused the crash Tuesday that spewed clouds of hazardous chemicals over Brooks. But officials had all but ruled out sabotage.

The CSX crew reported feeling slack among the cars, a common occurrence, Rosenker said after climbing a hill near Brooks. Shortly after that, the crew felt two short tugs and the emergency brake deployed, he said, adding, "There is no reason to believe it is anything other than an accident."

Roughly 500 people in the area were evacuated, and federal and county officials could not say when residents might be able to return home. Several homes sustained significant damage, officials said.

The 80-car train was headed to Louisville from Birmingham, Ala., when it derailed about 8:45 a.m. Tuesday. At least 14 cars caught fire, including 12 containing hazardous materials, according to CSX and federal officials.

A car filled with cyclohexane, a colorless liquid used as a solvent and in nylon production, continued to burn yesterday afternoon, and firefighters started a controlled burn, in a huge pit, of 90,000 gallons of 1, 3-butadiene from three rail cars.

Fire officials said they hoped to have the fires extinguished by noon today.

By evening, CSX contractors were monitoring the controlled burn and firefighters with local departments were on standby in case of an emergency.

Chris Simpson, a volunteer lieutenant with the Zoneton district, said he intended to keep working, even though he needed sleep.

"I'm here until it's all done," he said.

Air-quality samples are being taken at 19 locations, and three roaming teams also collect samples, said Steve Spurlin, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's on-scene coordinator.

So far they have found nothing of concern, he said last night.

Several businesses, including the 500 employees of the Geek Squad City electronics repair firm, reopened yesterday.

But Brooks Elementary School remains closed today, and the school's teachers, but not students, were told to report to Hebron Middle School, said John Roberts, a spokesman for Bullitt County Schools.

All other county schools are open today, but there will be no bus service along Ky. 1020 between Preston Highway and Brooks Hill Road.

Roberts said school officials would decide this afternoon whether Brooks Elementary will be closed tomorrow.

Also yesterday, CSX Corp. offered to reimburse expenses, such as restaurant meals and hotel bills, to residents forced to leave because of the crash.

CSX does not know how much the cleanup will cost, but company spokesman Bob Sullivan said the railroad would reimburse the Zoneton department and other emergency crews for overtime and other expenses.

Rosenker said investigators began questioning the two crew members about how they spent the 72 hours leading up to the derailment, in addition to what they saw and felt shortly before the crash.

There were no signs of any problems with the train in the minutes before the accident, according to the account crew members gave federal investigators.

The train passed another train about eight miles before it derailed. The CSX train's engineer said the other train's crew reported no apparent problems with the Louisville-bound train, Rosenker said.

The event recorder showed that the train was traveling 47 mph at the time of the crash. The train was authorized for speeds up to 50 mph.

The names of the 51-year-old conductor and 65-year-old engineer have not been released. They had been off duty for about 14 hours before the crash, more than the 12 hours required, Rosenker said.

Results from standard toxicology tests will be available within two weeks, he said.

Investigators inspected the four locomotives and the 14 cars at the head of the train yesterday, looking for nicks and abrasions that would indicate "if the train struck anything on the tracks," Rosenker said.

Federal officials also expected to receive maintenance records for the section of railroad where the derailment occurred. CSX inspected the tracks on Monday as part of routine, twice-a-week maintenance.

Tests investigators performed on cars and the section of track they could reach did not show any obvious defects, Rosenker said. He said he was unaware of previous accidents near the site.

Since the derailment, Kentucky environmental officials have been monitoring waterways for signs of possible chemical contamination. They found an unknown chemical in several tributaries of the Salt River on Tuesday.

Todd Giles, an official with the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection, said waterways will be sampled for signs of contamination starting today.

Bullitt County farmer Joe Rhea, who lives about three miles north of Shepherdsville, said contractors for CSX skimmed derailment-related pollution all day from a creek that flows through his family's property and is downstream from the wreckage.

Rhea described the pollution as a "petroleum sheen" and "brown muck," and said a sharp odor from chemical vapors irritated his eyes.

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