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Train carrying toxic chemical derails in Tennessee; tank car still burning

A fire continued to burn Thursday at the site where a train car carrying hazardous material derailed and caught fire in eastern Tennessee, and officials said firefighters had been trying to keep neighboring rail cars cool as they make efforts to move them away from the flames.

At a late afternoon news conference in Maryville, Craig Camuso, CSX regional vice president for state government affairs, said firefighters were getting as close to the damaged 24,000-gallon tank car as they could, given the heat.

The derailment late Wednesday night prompted the evacuation of thousands of people within a mile-and-a-half radius.

Maryville City Manager Greg McClain said Thursday that 45 people had been admitted to the hospital following the incident, and 21 were still there by late afternoon. Word on their conditions was not immediately available.

Ten first responders received hospital treatment after breathing fumes.

Camuso said 27 cars carried hazardous chemicals: nine with acrylonitrile, 16 with propane and two with asphalt. The cause of the derailment is not yet known, he said.

The damaged car was carrying liquid acrylonitrile, which officials said is a hazardous material used in multiple industrial processes including making plastics. It's flammable and dangerous if inhaled. The EPA says some effects of breathing acrylonitrile include headaches, dizziness, irritability and rapid heartbeat.

A statement from the Federal Railroad Administration said the agency had investigators and hazmat inspectors at the scene. "Once it is safe, FRA will begin a thorough investigation to determine the cause of the derailment," the statement said.

Camuso said authorities didn't know how much acrylonitrile is spewing out and burning, and how much remains in the tank.

"We can't get close enough because of the fire to really determine how much is coming out," he said.

Blount County Fire Department Lt. Johnny Leatherwood said a call about the train derailment came in Wednesday night at 11:50 p.m. local time from Maryville.

About 5,000 people in the area were being evacuated, along with several businesses. A private manufacturing plant closed down Thursday morning because of its proximity to the derailment, Blount County firefighter Kermit Easterling said.

Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell asked residents near the derailment site not to drink well water for now. He said CSX would provide bottled water to residents at a local middle school.

McClain, however, emphasized that there is no indication yet whether well water has been affected by the incident.

Kevin Eichinger, an on-scene coordinator with the EPA, said air, water and soil samples would be taken and tested. 

McClain advised evacuees to make plans to be away from home at least through Thursday night.

"We're doing our very best to get you back to your homes as soon as possible," he said.

On its Facebook page, the Blount County Sheriff's Office had said earlier that the evacuations could last from 24 to 48 hours.

Camuso said the company was placing evacuees in hotels, would provide reimbursement when it sets up its outreach center and would provide gift cards for food and essentials to those who needed them. "We will continue to do that for as long as it takes," he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is not investigating the accident, but will monitor it and could send an investigator later, NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said in an email.

A shelter for residents was set up at a high school. Several residents there said they were not aware of the derailment until they got a call or someone knocked on their door early in the morning.

"We saw police going back and forth and emergency vehicles going back and forth on our road, but we didn't know why until about 3 to 3:30," Maryville resident John Trull said. "That's when they told us. We didn't hear anything" beforehand. "We just saw some emergency vehicles go by and kind of wondered what was going on, and that's about it."

Brittany Parrott said she was awakened by a knock on her apartment door about 4:30 a.m. Although she didn't hear the derailment, she said she noticed the effects of it as she went outside.

"You could smell it in the air," Parrott said. "I had a headache; I was feeling nauseated and lightheaded, all the symptoms."

Maryville is a town of nearly 30,000 people located about 20 miles south of Knoxville and just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


3:19 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with new details.

4:40 a.m.: The story was updated with officials extending the evacuation area.

This article was originally posted at 3:29 a.m.