One moment Joe Passi was asleep in his bed. The next, he was fully awake, rocked into consciousness by an explosion the likes of which he had never heard before.
Looking out the front window of his home on the eastern edge of the town of Tiskilwa, "about three city blocks" to the farmland beyond, he saw the source: an angry mass of flames, burning red and yellow and shooting plumes of fire straight up into the air, illuminating the night sky.
"The whole thing was just in front of my window," said Passi, 62. "It looked like the cornfield was on fire."
A call to 911 revealed instead that it was a freight train derailment just east of his property. He was the third resident of Tiskilwa to have called, he says the dispatcher told him.
By midday Friday most of the citizens of the 800-resident town in central Illinois were somewhere other than home, asked by emergency officials to stay away as firefighters poured foam on the fire.
Officials by the evening were still trying to determine what derailed 26 cars, some of which were carrying ethanol, on the Iowa Interstate Railroad-operated train at about 2 a.m., just east of Tiskilwa. The early morning crash made big news in sparsely populated Bureau County, about 120 miles west and south of Chicago, where the headlines the previous day described an armed bank robbery and a farmer allegedly pulling a gun on a seed salesman.
The site quickly became a hive of activity as media and emergency officials scrambled to the scene, including investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and officials from the Illinois Commerce Commission.
The cause of the crash hasn't been determined, but the ICC team will work with an NTSB team on the investigation as soon as the fire is out and the scene "stabilized," said John Blair, assistant rail safety program administrator for the state agency.
Once the area is deemed safe for investigators and heavy equipment, the train cars will be moved to another location so that they can be examined separately, he said. Only after the track is confirmed safe will it be opened again to traffic.
The 131-car train originated in Rock Island and was scheduled to arrive in Chicago on Friday morning, said Mick Burkhart, a spokesman for Iowa Interstate Railroad. The train was hauling various freight for several customers, including the ethanol in the cars that derailed and caught fire.
The train crew — a conductor and an engineer — carry with them paperwork that describes what cargo is in each rail car and notes whether the material is hazardous. When emergencies happen, he added, either the crew or rail dispatchers are in immediate contact with local first responders to tell them what to expect on the scene.
Local fire officials Friday morning said the freight belonged to Archer Daniels Midland, the Decatur-based food-products manufacturer.
Archer Daniels Midland spokeswoman Jessie McKinney said the train included ADM rail cars carrying ethanol and a type of dry animal feed, and that the company was working with authorities. McKinney said ADM didn't have confirmation from the rail company on whether the affected cars were the ones carrying its freight.
Residents tried to nail down a fitting description of the blasts. One man said he thought the first explosion was the sonic boom of a jet, and others described plumes of smoke shooting hundreds of feet into the air several times afterward.
"I heard a loud noise, and thought, 'That sounds like a train derailment,'" said Warren Searles, who runs a water treatment business out of a two-story brick building on Main Street. "But then I thought, 'Nah, train derailments don't happen here.'"
Searles said he went back to sleep, and first learned of the explosion at around 5 a.m., when a friend pounded on the door.
"It was just amazing. I've never seen a fire like that before," said another witness, Laura Henry, who lives about a mile west of the derailment. "When it would ignite or the pressure would relieve from one of the cars it would shoot, probably 100 or 200 feet in the air, these huge flames."
Inside the cafeteria at Princeton High School, seven miles north of Tiskilwa, about 30 Tiskilwa residents gathered around a television watching train cars burn and waiting to find out when they would be allowed back in their homes.
Residents shared stories about being roused by Bureau County sheriff's deputies and fellow citizens.
After her parents left their Tiskilwa home, high school senior Cynnandra Luttrell stayed behind because she was trained in CPR and first aid. The 17-year-old went door-to-door in the dark, waking neighbors and telling them their town was being evacuated.
"A lot of people were really calm. Other people were really frightened," Luttrell said while she helped the Red Cross at the high school, which was converted to a temporary shelter.
"One house, an elderly woman answered the door with a baseball bat in her hands. But then she saw I was in my pajamas and had my hair up, and I explained to her what was going on. She saw I wasn't a creep, so I went inside and helped her get out."
Most town residents were allowed back into their homes by late Friday night, officials said, but firefighters were expected to be dousing the fire into early Saturday.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times