Fire still burning after hazardous rail spill in Blount County


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

At a 4:30 p.m. news conference Thursday in Maryville, Craig Camuso, CSX regional vice president for state government affairs, said firefighters are getting as close to the damaged 24,000-gallon tank car as they can, given the heat.

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

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 it’s dangerous if inhaled. The EPA says some effects of breathing acrylonitrile include headaches, dizziness, irritability and rapid heartbeat.

Ten first responders received hospital treatment after breathing fumes.

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

Camuso said authorities don’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. EDT in Maryville.

About 5,000 people in the area were being evacuated, along with several businesses. A manufacturing plant, Denso Manufacturing, 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 will provide bottled water to residents at a local middle school.

Maryville City Manager Greg McClain added that there’s 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. He said early air testing Thursday indicated air quality “around background levels.”

McClain advised evacuees to make plans to be away from home at least for 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 said early Thursday that the evacuations could last from 24 to 48 hours.

Camuso said the company is placing evacuees in hotels, will provide reimbursement when it sets up its outreach center and will provide gift cards for food and essentials to those who need them.

“We will continue to do that for as long as it takes,” he said.

The train was traveling from Cincinnati to Waycross, Georgia.

Camuso said it had 57 cars and two locomotives, and that 27 cars carried hazardous chemicals: nine with acrylonitrile, 16 with propane and two with asphalt. He said the cause of the derailment is not yet known.

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.

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 local 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 at 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.

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Associated Press writers Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tennessee, and Rebecca Yonker in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.

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