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Train derailment forces evacuation

Mar 13, 2007 | AP A fiery explosion of a freight train carrying liquid propane forced an evacuation Monday from the city of Oneida, stalled passenger train service and shut down a section of the state Thruway.

The 7 a.m. blast from the derailed train sent a huge fireball into the dawn sky. Thick, black smoke continued to pour out for hours as propane tanker cars burned through the morning. Oneida Fire Chief Don Hudson said two cars containing liquid propane exploded and burned out.

Two other tankers filled with liquid petroleum a fifth car filled with toluene, a solvent, also burned.

“I was standing in the driveway waiting for the bus when I saw this big ball of fire go into the sky. It must have shot up thousands of feet,” said Will Medler, 16, of Oneida. “First I thought, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ Then I realized something bad has happened.”

Medler said he did not hear anything because he was wearing his iPod.

There were no reports of injuries or fatalities.

“All the dangers of explosions have passed,” said Hudson.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation released data showing train accidents across the country declined for the second year in a row, falling from 3,236 in 2005 to 2,834 in 2006. The number of accidents fell from 105 to 89 in New York state.

U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton Monday called for an investigation of New York’s rail safety in the wake of the derailment.

“This accident should be a wake up call. We cannot continue to treat these derailments as isolated incidents. I urge the Federal Railroad Administration to launch a full investigation of railroad safety across the state to prevent the next derailment before it occurs,” she said.

Clinton added that Monday’s derailment in Oneida was yet another troubling incident in what has become a series of rail accidents across New York. She said even more concerning, the incident involved explosive and hazardous materials with the potential to cause widespread damage, injury and even loss of life. “It is necessary for the security of all New Yorkers that railroads throughout the state run safely,” the senator said.

In early December of last year, two derailments occurred in the cities of Cheektowga and Buffalo. On Jan. 16 of this year a train transporting 30,000 gallons of liquefied propane was derailed in Maspeth. As a result, businesses and homes were evacuated and a Long Island Railroad train was forced to divert its operation onto a different track. On the very same day in East Rochester, several cars carrying tractor trailers derailed, some of which ended up on locals’ lawns. As a result several homes were evacuated and power lines were downed leaving hundreds of people without power. Earlier this year, the Federal Railroad Administration called for an investigation into railroad safety in Erie and Chautauqua counties.

In Monday’s incident a 23-mile stretch of the Thruway, which passes within a mile of the explosion, was closed in both directions for about four hours as a precaution. Amtrak suspended service between Syracuse and Albany. The rail service is making plans to provide bus service to passengers.

Officials evacuated areas a mile around the blast, which included most of the downtown area of the city of 10,000.

Up to 4,000 people live in the affected area, though the evacuation was mandatory only for homes closest to the blast.

About 100 people reported to a local shelter. Most people were back in their homes by mid-afternoon.

Madison County jail officials moved 78 inmates to the jail in neighboring Chenango County. They were expected to spend one night there.

The CSX Corp. train was headed from Buffalo to Selkirk, just south of Albany, and consisted of 80 cars about half of them carrying propane, said company spokesman Robert Sullivan.

Federal Railroad Administration investigators were at the scene trying to find out what caused the 28 cars to derail. Drug tests will be performed on the engineer and data from the locomotives’ black boxes will be analyzed, said CSX spokesman Maurice O’Connell.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators also were headed to the scene.

Officials declared a state of emergency for a half-mile area around the accident site, which affected 11 homes.

A police dispatcher said that evacuation was expected to last at least into Tuesday.

Four firefighters had to be decontaminated after being exposed to liquid chloride that leaked out of an overturned car.

They remained at the scene and continued to fight the fire.

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