(Ligonier, Indiana – March 27, 2012)
A Norfolk Southern freight train consisting of three locomotives hauling 59 freight cars derailed at least 22 of the cars, some loaded with extremely hazardous commodities, causing evacuation of nearby homes due to fires and air contamination resultant from the train wreck in northeastern Indiana early Tuesday morning about 4:40 A.M.
Among the cars derailed were ones carrying toluene, which were reportedly not leaking, and molten sulfur, one of which burst into flames and was still burning 12 hours after the derailment. Three other cars were thought to be leaking undisclosed chemicals not believed to be hazardous, while a car loaded with wine was also burning.
Toluene is known to affect the nervous system through inhalation, which can cause light-headedness, dizziness, unconsciousness and even death, while exposure to sulfur dioxide, the by-product of molten sulfur, can do serious damage to the respiratory system, leading to death in extreme cases.
An initial call for evacuation of all homes and businesses within a one mile radius of the derailment site was scaled back to a half-mile due to wind direction. Indiana environmental agency officials were continually monitoring both air and water quality in case conditions changed.
“The public safety risk is relatively low,” said Noble County, IN Sheriff Doug Harp, whose jurisdiction includes the nearby community of Ligonier, IN, which is about 40 miles northwest of Fort Wayne, IN.
Although Harp said he did not think the spilled chemicals and residue were reaching the Little Elkhart River, Amy Hartsock of the Indiana Dept. of Environmental Management said the area around the derailment site is a wetland which flows into the aforementioned river.
There was no speculation as to what caused the derailment on a NS route that carries between 90 and 100 trains, including two Amtrak passenger trains, daily.