LYNCHBURG, Va. — Several CSX train cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire Wednesday along the James River, with three black tankers ending up in the water and leaking some of their contents, becoming the most recent crash involving oil trains that has safety experts pushing for better oversight.
Nearby buildings were evacuated for a time in downtown Lynchburg, but officials said there were no injuries and the city on its website and Twitter said firefighters decided to let the fire burn out. Three or four tankers were breached on the 15-car train that CSX said was on its way from Chicago to an unspecified destination. Most of the cars were knocked off the tracks.
Online photos and videos showed large flames and thick, black smoke right after the crash before the fire burned itself out. Still, officials were keeping people out of the area.
Nicole Gibs, 32, a server at the Depot Grille, just across the street, said she was waiting on a table when she heard a train that sounded louder than usual. She saw several train cars wobbling, and then one fell over, sparking a fire immediately. Several other cars also toppled “like Tyco trains,” she said.
The manager yelled: “Evacuate!” and the restaurant immediately began emptying, with some people in wheelchairs being carried down steps as the fire raged, filling the air with black smoke.
“You could feel the heat like you were standing by a campfire,” Gibs said.
Concern about the safety of oil trains was heightened last July when runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border. Forty-seven people died and 30 buildings were incinerated. Canadian investigators said the combustibility of the 1.3 million gallons of light, sweet Bakken crude released in Lac-Megantic was comparable to gasoline.
“This is another national wake-up call,” Jim Hall, a former National Transportation Safety Board chairman, said of the Lynchburg crash. “We have these oil trains moving all across the United States through communities and the growth and distribution of this has all occurred, unfortunately, while the federal regulators have been asleep.”