Train Derailment and Fire Forces Evacuation of 5,000 People in Eastern Tennessee

A tanker car containing acrylonitrile, also know as vinyl cyanide, is on fire and spewing toxic fumes that irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory system.

by Rob Verger
Jul 2 2015, 7:25pm

Photos via Twitter/Michaelpix

Several thousand people have been evacuated in eastern Tennessee following an early morning train derailment and fire.

The Blount County Fire Department received a call just before midnight on Wednesday following a report of a burning rail car, firefighter Kermit Easterling told VICE News. An initial report from the scene suggested the burning car might be filled with liquefied petroleum gas, which triggered an evacuation of people within one mile of the accident.

Officials later determined that the car contained acrylonitrile, which when burnt releases fumes that can irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract, Easterling said. The evacuation zone was widened to nearly two miles. In addition to residents, businesses were shuttered, including Denso manufacturing, the county's largest employer, Walmart, Home Depot, and several restaurants.

About 5000 people have been evacuated, Easterling said.

"CSX is working with first responders and relief agencies in Maryville, Tennessee, following the derailment of a tank car that is on fire," said company spokeswoman Kristin Seay. "CSX personnel are on hand at an Outreach Center that has been established at Heritage High School. Displaced residents are being offered assistance, including lodging."

The American Red Cross told VICE News that 70 people have sought shelter at the school.

Marian O'Briant, a spokesperson for the Blount County Sheriff's Office, told VICE News that medical personnel had evaluated 10 police officers after exposure to the accident scene. She said the train car was still burning and that the evacuation orders remained in effect until further notice.

Residents in the area who get their water from wells were being told to drink bottled water.

A spokesman for Blount Memorial Hospital, Josh West, told VICE News that 10 first responders to the accident scene had come to the hospital to be decontaminated, which involves showering and changing clothes. They were being held for observation and given oxygen.

Thirty people have sought medical attention, West said, with nine admitted to the hospital.

The 57-car train was pulled by two locomotives and was travelling from Cincinnati, Ohio to Waycross, Georgia, according to CSX. Twenty-seven cars contained hazardous materials, and the burning car was flanked by two other cars carrying acrylonitrile. The car was carrying about 24,000 gallons of acrylonitrile, according to CSX, and nine cars in total were transporting the chemical. 

"CSX Operations personnel, in cooperation with first responders and other officials, are working to remove unaffected cars as safely and quickly as possible," Seay, of CSX, added on Thursday afternoon. "The product in the tank car continues to burn, making it unsafe to set up any transfer operation. The cause of the derailment is under investigation by the company and officials of the Federal Railroad Administration." 

Norman Kleiman, an associate research scientist at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, told VICE News acrylonitrile is widely used in plastics manufacturing and is also called vinyl cyanide.

The material is flammable and volatile, can dissolve in water, and can even explode given the right conditions, Kleiman said. When it burns, it releases hydrogen cyanide, a toxin. Health effects include possible liver, kidney, and brain damage. 

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