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Probe begins in fiery crash



Published: Sat, October 21, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



The borough manager said the blast shook his house.

NEW BRIGHTON, Pa. (AP) -- Federal investigators arrived Saturday at the scene of a fiery train accident caused when ethanol tanker cars derailed and exploded on a southwestern Pennsylvania bridge the night before.

The tanker cars continued to burn as National Transportation Safety Board officials announced they planned to gather maintenance records and interview witnesses, including crew members of the Norfolk Southern train, who were not injured.

Twenty-four cars derailed and nine caught fire on the bridge over the Beaver River in New Brighton in Beaver County. The burning substance, ethanol, is also known as grain alcohol.

Officials with the state Department of Environmental Protection, Norfolk Southern and Beaver County were determining whether to let the fire burn itself out or extinguish it, said Robert Sumwalt, vice chairman of the safety board.

Larry Morley, New Brighton borough manager, who lives nearby, said the explosion shook his house as if "lighting struck in the front yard" and that a fireball rose in the air. "It could take a long time to burn," he said.

The derailment

The eastbound train's midsection derailed around 10:50 p.m. Friday while crossing the railroad bridge, which is about 100 feet high and a half-mile long. None of the cars on land were burning and the fire was not expected to spread beyond the derailed tankers.

State environmental officials were monitoring the air and water in the area, Sumwalt said. Downstream water users were notified of the accident as a precaution, said DEP spokeswoman Betsy Mallison.

Officials evacuated nearby residents out of concern for further possible explosions, and about 50 people spent the night at a local school. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

Woke her up

Barbara Huddy, a 41-year-old customer service employee for United Airlines who lives about five blocks from the scene, said she was awakened by an explosion and walked out her front door to see neighboring houses illuminated by flames.

"It was bad," said Huddy, who went to a hotel in a nearby town for the rest of the night. "It was really frightening."

Residents were being escorted to their homes Saturday to retrieve necessities and pets, and were then to arrange to stay with friends or relatives, Morley said.

The train -- 83 tanker cars pulled by three locomotives -- was traveling from Chicago to New Jersey when it derailed. Sumwalt could not immediately say how fast it was traveling.

About 10 federal safety board experts were on the scene, but they did not expect to inspect the crash site until the fire was out. The investigation would cover mechanical, track and engineering issues, human factors and the emergency response to the crash, Sumwalt said.

Officials had no preliminary theories about what caused the accident, he said.

Getting started

"At this time, our investigation is just beginning," Sumwalt said. "We want to collect information before we start making analytical statements."

Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband did not comment on the crash, but said the company is responsible for track maintenance. He declined to comment on the condition of the tracks before the accident.

"We inspect our mainline tracks at least twice a week," Husband said.

About 50 to 70 trains use the affected tracks daily, and Norfolk Southern was working to detour as many of them as possible, he added.

Friday's accident is the second high-profile derailment in the state in recent months involving a Norfolk Southern train.

A June derailment near Gardeau in north-central Pennsylvania fouled a once-pristine fishing creek with lye. The DEP filed papers earlier last week seeking 8.89 million in fines for the accident.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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