Explosions shake Ill. village after train derails

Published 1:10 pm Friday, October 7, 2011

TISKILWA, Ill. — Explosions shook a northern Illinois village awake early Friday when a freight train loaded with ethanol crashed and derailed, sending bright orange flames shooting into the sky and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents.

Capt. Steve Haywood of the Ottawa Fire Department said the train’s tanker cars were shipping ethanol and other materials for Decatur-based corn processor Archer Daniels Midland when it crashed and derailed around 2 a.m. At least six tanker cars burned, he said. No injuries were reported.

“It was the tallest thing in town,” 19-year-old Dylan Carlson said of the flames, which he recorded from his home about four blocks away. He described a sweet smell, “almost like if you roasted maple syrup.”

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The evacuation of Tiskilwa, a village of about 800 people about 100 miles west of Chicago, was strictly precautionary and there was no immediate danger, said Les Grant, a spokesman for Bureau County Emergency Management. Evacuees were taken to a nearby high school.

The glow from the initial fire could be seen from miles away, but Grant said the blaze was contained by midmorning.

“Pretty much things are under control right now. … The initial threat has been addressed,” Grant said.

Tiskilwa resident Laura Henry said she heard a strange clacking noise followed by an unnerving boom that shook her and her husband from bed at their home about a mile from the derailment. They’d been sleeping with the window open and Henry was lying awake sometime after 2 a.m. when she heard the train coming.

“It was like something very heavy dropped,” Henry said. “You definitely felt the ground shake when you heard the boom,” she said.

Fearing a derailment, the couple decided to see if they could help and called 911 as they ran to the tracks, Henry said. At the edge of town, they saw tanker cars ablaze.

“It was just amazing. I’ve never seen a fire like that before,” Henry said. “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.”

Twenty-six cars on the 131-car train derailed, including seven to nine loaded with ethanol, according to Mick Burkart, chief operating officer of Iowa Interstate Railroad. The fire prevented officials from immediately getting close enough to the train to determine what caused the accident, Burkart said.

Archer Daniels Midland spokeswoman Jessie McKinney said the train included ADM railcars carrying ethanol and a type of dry animal feed.

“We are cooperating with authorities investigating the incident,” McKinney said in an email.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency sent a representative to the scene to make sure waterways and the environment are protected, said spokeswoman Maggie Carson.

Carson said ethanol fumes should burn off without any long-term effects for area residents. The EPA will reevaluate the situation if other chemicals are found to be involved, she said.