About 15 train tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed Wednesday afternoon in Lynchburg, Va., plunging several of them into the James River, sparking a massive fire and spilling oil.
The derailment prompted evacuations in the downtown district near the railway for hours until the massive fire that spewed black, acrid smoke was extinguished. There were no reports of injuries or damage to nearby buildings.
Downstream more than 100 miles, a spokeswoman for the city of Richmond said utility officials stopped capturing water from the river as a precaution until the extent of environmental damage caused by the oil spill became clear. Instead, Richmond is relying on a backup canal for water. Lynchburg said the oil spill did not affect its water supply.
CSX Transportation, which operated the Chicago-to-Virginia freight train, said the fire erupted from three punctured cars after the 2:30 p.m. derailment. In a statement, the company said it was sending safety and environmental experts to the scene.
"We are committed to fully supporting the emergency responders and other agencies, meeting the needs of the community and protecting the environment," the rail company said.
Lynchburg spokeswoman JoAnn Martin told the Los Angeles Times that firefighters were "keeping an eye" on the train cars to make sure they didn't spark up again as night fell.
Wednesday's fire is the latest in a series involving trains carrying crude oil as the nation's drilling boom fuels a surge in oil transportation. Fearful of seeing similar accidents in their own jurisdictions, some officials have called for tougher safety regulations for freight train operators.
Pat Calvert, who monitors the James River's ecology for the nonprofit James River Assn., said he received reports that "blobs of black glue" had been seen floating in the river after the derailment. The river has been surging after recent heavy rainfall, stoking concerns that the spill would quickly spread.
"We've had train derailments on the river before, but it's never before been a toxic substance," Calvert told The Times as he drove to the scene. His office is about 150 yards away from the site, but he was in a meeting in Charlottesville on Wednesday afternoon.
"I hope a real national discussion will ensue so this doesn't happen to anyone else's river or community," he said. " I just wish it wasn't happening in our river."
Calvert said the area near the derailment had undergone a renaissance in recent years, switching from a heavily industrial area to a residential and commercial neighborhood that has embraced the riverfront.
"A great deal of effort has been put into making it into an asset," he said. The river stretches 350 miles, with the freight rail line along its bank most of the way, Calvert said.
He and other critics of existing safety standards for rail cars worry that similar accidents could happen along riverways or even more densely populated areas such as Richmond.
On Wednesday, Philip Wilmarth felt the heat from the fire on the sixth floor of a building a couple of hundred yards away. He told The Times that he didn't hear an explosion, but he saw at least a few 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, other witnesses told Wilmarth that the explosion had blown the windows off Depot Grille restaurant.
One witness told WSET-TV that the train was traveling along as usual when the earth appeared to collapse beneath 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.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he 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."