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Search begins for cause of Oneida derailment, explosion

Mar 13, 2007 | A detailed investigation into what caused Monday's train derailment and explosion could take up to 18 months, but authorities said they may have some answers by the end of the week.

The chaos in Oneida started around 7 a.m. when 28 cars of a 79-car CSX train derailed, sending a bright orange fireball into the sky. Two tanks containing pressurized propane initially caught fire. Soon after those fires burned out, two other tanks with liquefied petroleum gas and one with the solvent toluene began to burn.

By Monday night, the remaining 23 cars were either upside down, on their sides or in a ditch, said Oneida Fire Chief Don Hudson. It was unclear as to whether the derailment or explosion came first.

Fire officials had no choice but to let the fire burn itself out.

As the air turned into a funnel of black smoke, the explosion affected hundreds:
  • Two schools: Broad Street elementary and Durhamville elementary were closed.
  • At first, many homes and businesses were evacuated in a one-mile radius around the Madison County site. By late afternoon, only eight homes were affected in a half-mile radius as a state of emergency was declared.
  • Madison County jail was evacuated.
  • State Thruway exits 34A and 33 were closed.
Robert Sullivan, a spokesman for CSX, said ferric chloride had leaked and his inspectors would be working "around the clock" Monday night and into today.

"We have specialists en route to deal with the hazardous materials," he said. "We've been doing air monitoring since 8 a.m., and there have been no readings except for on the scene."

Sullivan said CSX was committed to meeting the needs of the residents who were displaced from their homes.

A cause had not yet been determined, he said.

"We have to wait and make sure it's safe for investigators to get on scene," said Keith Holloway, public affairs officer for the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent federal agency that investigates various transportation accidents in the country.

"Once that has been done, we will document and examine cars, look for any failures in the structure of the tank cars, look at the track and look at the wheels of the car," Holloway said. "We'll look for anything that can give us an idea of what happened. We've had accidents like this before."

As of Monday afternoon, seven NTSB inspectors were en route to Oneida, Holloway said.

CSX authorities said the train originated in Buffalo and was headed to Selkirk, south of Albany.

The Federal Railroad Administration sent inspectors to the scene within an hour or two after the accident Monday to assist with the investigation. "We perform a supporting role," said Warren Flatau, the agency's spokesman. "We're a regulator, and they have the legal authority to make recommendations."

Approximately 55 to 60 firefighters from at least five departments responded to the scene, but Hudson said most stood on the sidelines, watching the blaze.

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