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Black, hazardous smoke rises from the scene of the derailed train near the town of Casselton in North Dakota. Michael Vosburg / Reuters
Black, hazardous smoke rises from the scene of the derailed train near the town of Casselton in North Dakota. Michael Vosburg / Reuters

US townsfolk asked to evacuate after oil train derails

Authorities urge residents to evacuate US town after a 1.6 kilometre-long train carrying crude oil derails, shaking residents with explosions.

CASSELTON, North Dakota // Authorities urged residents to evacuate a US town after 1.6-kilometre-long train carrying crude oil derailed, shaking residents with explosions that sent flames and black, hazardous smoke into the sky.

The Cass County Sheriff’s Office said the National Weather Service was forecasting a shift in the weather. “That’s going to put the plume right over the top of Casselton,” Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said. The town has about 2,400 residents.

No one was hurt in Monday’s derailment, and the cause was being investigated.

About two-thirds of the town’s residents had evacuated their homes, Sheriff’s Deputy Joe Crawford said yesterday.

The derailment in North Dakota, the country’s No 2 oil-producing state, happened amid heightened concerns about the US’s increased reliance on rail to carry crude oil.

Fears of catastrophic derailments rose after the July crash in a Quebec town of a runaway train carrying crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. Forty-seven people died in the ensuing fire.

The number of crude oil carloads hauled by US railroads surged from 10,840 in 2009 to a projected 400,000 this year. Despite the increase, the rate of accidents has stayed relatively steady. Railroads say 99.997 per cent of hazardous materials shipments reach destinations safely.

North Dakota’s state’s top oil regulator has said he expected as much as 90 per cent of the state’s oil would be carried by train in 2014, up from the current 60 per cent.

Investigators could not get close to the burning train outside of Casselton. BNSF Railway Company said it believes about 20 cars caught fire after its oil train left the tracks on Monday afternoon. The sheriff’s office said as many as 10 cars were on fire.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it has sent a team to investigate the accident.

The railway tracks pass through the middle of Casselton, and police said it was “a blessing it didn’t happen within the city”.

It could take up to 12 hours before authorities could get close to the fire, police added.

In the initial hours, authorities told residents to stay indoors to avoid the smoke.

Hannah Linnard, 13, said she was at her friend’s house about 800 metres from the derailment.

“I looked out the window and all of a sudden the train car tipped over and the whole thing was engulfed in flames and it just exploded. The oil car tipped over onto the grain car,” she said.

She could feel the heat even inside the house.

* Associated Press

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