Train derailment in Ohio sparks huge fire and prompts evacuations

COLUMBUS, Ohio – A train derailment caused a huge fire to erupt in eastern Ohio on Friday night, prompting officials to order about half of a town’s residents to evacuate as crews assessed whether the cargo contained toxic material, authorities said.

Roughly 50 cars derailed about 9pm in East Palestine, Ohio, which has 4,700 residents and is about 50 miles (804km) north-west of Pittsburgh.

On Saturday, local and federal officials and Norfolk Southern, the rail operator, were still investigating the cause of the derailment, which led to a fire that swept much of the town in smoke and cast a red glow over homes in the area overnight.

There were no reports of injuries or deaths, Trent Conaway, the mayor of East Palestine, said at a news conference Saturday. But 1,500 to 2,000 residents were asked to evacuate the area near the derailment, officials said.

Videos and photos of the fire showed smoke swelling up in the night as emergency vehicles rushed to the site. On Saturday morning, some train cars continued to burn, putting out gray puffs across East Palestine. Officials said there had been several explosions, including some Saturday morning.

It was not immediately clear how many train cars caught fire.

Mr Keith Drabick, chief of the East Palestine Fire Department, said Saturday that officials had monitored the air quality and “so far, everything is good.”

But, he added, authorities were still unsure whether the material burning was hazardous. He noted that the train, which had been traveling from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, was carrying some material that could be hazardous.

“If you have to come to East Palestine – don’t,” Mr Drabick said. “Stay out of the area until we can get this mitigated.”

The possible product that investigators were most worried about burning, he said, was vinyl chloride, a colourless and flammable gas that is toxic to people.

“The rail car that was carrying that is doing its job,” Mr Drabick said. “The safety feature of that rail car is still functioning.”

Drones were deployed to the site Saturday to determine what was burning, he said.