CASSELTON, N.D. — A southeastern North Dakota town narrowly escaped tragedy when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded nearby, the mayor said Tuesday, calling for changes in how the fuel is transported across the U.S.
No one was hurt in Monday's derailment of the mile-long train that sent a great fireball and plumes of black smoke skyward about a mile from the small town of Casselton. The fire had been so intense as darkness fell that investigators couldn't get close enough to count the number of burning cars. The National Transportation Safety Board was preparing to investigate.
Most residents heeded a recommendation to evacuate their homes as strong winds blew potentially hazardous, acrid smoke toward the town overnight, Mayor Ed McConnell said early Tuesday.
"I drove in this morning and looked like most people had left. There weren't a lot of lights on," McConnell said.
The North Dakota Department of Health warned that exposure to burning crude could cause shortness of breath, coughing and itching and watery eyes. It had said those in the vicinity with respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis or emphysema should minimize outdoor activity.
Health experts were testing the air quality.
"Is it highly hazardous or did most of it burn off in the fire?" Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said of elements in burning crude that could be risky for health. "We just don't know."
Residents said the blasts endured for hours after the derailment, shaking their homes and businesses. Official estimates of the extent of the blaze varied. BNSF Railway Co. said it believed about 20 cars caught fire after its oil train left the tracks about 2:10 p.m. Monday. The sheriff's office said Monday it thought 10 cars were on fire. Officials said the cars would be allowed to burn out.