Flames and thick black smoke rose into the air after a train derailed Wednesday afternoon along a river in downtown Lynchburg, Va., toppling more than a dozen oil tanker cars and plunging several into the water.
At least three of the oil tankers were punctured, spilling crude oil, city spokeswoman Heather Childress told the Los Angeles Times. No injuries were reported. The train is operated by CSX, city officials said, but the rail company did not immediately respond for comment.
Authorities said the fire had been contained, though they were not using any extinguishing agents to tamp it down. Instead, they were letting it burn out because of concerns about what other materials the train might be carrying.
Lynchburg police advised motorists to keep away from the area and for nearby businesses to evacuate. Photos from the scene showed several black tanker cars on their side alongside the railroad tracks, but authorities did not immediately say what was inside the containers.
The derailment was along the James River near the Depot Grille restaurant, according to witness accounts on social media.
Philip Wilmarth felt the heat from the fire on the sixth floor of a building a couple of hundred yards away. He told the Los Angeles Times that he didn't hear an explosion, but he saw at least a handful of train cars off the tracks.
"The train had completely come off the tracks, and the fireball, it's very large," Wilmarth said. "They evacuated us out pretty quickly. My guess is something ruptured in the tanks, and they got sparks from cars hitting together."
He said he couldn't see the end of the train, but all of the cars he saw were exactly the same – black cylinders.
While he waited on the street before being told to leave the area completely, other witnesses told Wilmarth that the explosion had blown the windows off Depot Grille.
One witness told WSET-TV that the train was traveling along as usual when the earth appeared to collapse below the middle of it, suggesting a possible sinkhole after heavy rains in recent days.
Other people in the downtown district said they heard a roar, like a jet passing by, which led them to check outside their windows.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he had sent state-level emergency responders to the scene of the derailment.
"Deputy Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Adam Thiel has been dispatched to the scene and will provide my team and me with constant updates as this situation unfolds," the governor said in a statement. "I have also spoken with Lynchburg Mayor Michael Gillette and offered him any and all resources he needs to respond to this incident and keep Virginians safe."