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Updated: Tue, 31 Dec 2013 06:04:33 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

North Dakota train derailment, explosion, prompts evacuation from town



A fireball goes up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D. The train carrying crude oil derailed near Casselton Monday afternoon. Several explosions were reported as some cars on the mile-long train caught fire. Bruce CrummyAssociated Press

A fireball goes up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D. The train carrying crude oil derailed near Casselton Monday afternoon. Several explosions were reported as some cars on the mile-long train caught fire. Bruce CrummyAssociated Press

A shift in the weather could heighten the risk of potential health hazards after a 1.6 km-long train carrying crude oil derailed in North Dakota and set off explosions, authorities said, urging residents of a nearby town to evacuate.

About 2,400 people live in Casselton, about 1.6 km from Monday's fiery derailment. The Cass County Sheriff's Office called on residents there and those living eight kilometres to the south and east to leave their homes because of the weather shift, which it said the National Weather Service was forecasting.

"That's going to put the plume right over the top of Casselton," Sheriff Paul Laney said.

No one was hurt, and the cause was still being investigated.

Sheriff's officials said that the evacuation unfolded in calm and orderly fashion in recent hours, with the majority of nearby residents heeding a strong recommendation by authorities to leave.

The derailment happened amid heightened concerns about the increased reliance in the U.S. on rail to carry crude oil. Fears of catastrophic derailments were particularly stoked after last summer's crash in Québec of a train carrying crude from North Dakota's Bakken oil patch. Forty-seven people died in the ensuing fire.

The explosions Monday afternoon sent flames and black smoke skyward outside of Casselton, about 40 kilometres west of Fargo. Investigators couldn't get close to the blaze and official estimates of how many train cars caught fire varied.

10 to 20 cars catch fire

BNSF Railway Co. said it believed about 20 cars caught fire after its oil train left the tracks about 2:10 p.m. local time Monday. The sheriff's office said it thought 10 cars were on fire.

The cars continued to burn past sunset, and authorities said they would be allowed to burn out.

Authorities hadn't yet been able to untangle exactly how the derailment happened, but a second train carrying grain was involved. BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the train carrying grain derailed first, then knocked several cars of the oil train off adjoining tracks.

BNSF said both trains had more than 100 cars each.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday night it has launched a "go-team" to investigate the accident.

Ryan Toop, who lives a little under a kilometre away, said he heard explosions and drove as close as about two city blocks to the fire, which erupted on a day when temperatures were below zero.

"I rolled down the window, and you could literally keep your hands warm," Toop said.

The tracks that the train was on pass through the middle of Casselton, and Cass County Sheriff's Sgt. Tara Morris said it was "a blessing it didn't happen within the city."

Morris said it could take up to 12 hours before authorities could get close to the fire. About 80 of the cars were moved from the site. Jeff Zent, a spokesman for Gov. Jack Dalrymple, said the National Guard was on alert if needed.

Temperatures were forecast to drop to –28 C in Cass County overnight.

"Of course, Mother Nature, being North Dakota, it has to be one of the coldest nights of the year. It's deadly cold out there tonight," Laney said.

A shelter has been set up in Fargo. Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell said he didn't want any residents sleeping in their vehicles.

"All the experts say it can be a hazardous situation to their health," McConnell said. "We're going to try to get everybody out of the town."

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

The North Dakota Department of Health had warned in an advisory 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.

Hannah Linnard, 13, said she was in the bedroom of her friend's house under a kilometre from the derailment, wrapping late Christmas presents.

"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. Hannah said she could feel the warmth even inside the house.

6 explosions

Terry Johnson, the manager of a grain dealer less than a kilometre from the derailment, said he heard at least six explosions in the two hours following the incident.

"It shook our building and there was a huge fireball," he said.

North Dakota is the No. 2 oil-producing state in the U.S., trailing only Texas, and a growing amount of that is being shipped by rail. The state's top oil regulator said earlier this month that he expected as much as 90 per cent of North Dakota's oil would be carried by train in 2014, up from the current 60 per cent.

The number of crude oil carloads hauled by U.S. 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 percent of hazardous materials shipments reach destinations safely.

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