Explosions, fire follow train derailment in Alberta; no injuries

GAINFORD, Alta. – Firefighters battling a major blaze after a CN tanker train derailed west of Edmonton on Saturday have decided to withdraw and wait for the flames to burn themselves out.

With no further explosions expected from the 13 cars carrying oil and liquefied petroleum gas, that’s the safest thing to do, said Parkland County fire chief Jim Phelan.

“This fire needs to be extinguished by consuming the product,” Phelan said. “We’re going to let it burn itself out.”

About 100 people from the village of Gainsford were evacuated after the cars — four laden with petroleum crude oil and nine carrying liquefied petroleum gas — came off the tracks around 1 a.m. local time. Three cars began leaking and caught fire.

“It was a huge boom and the house started shaking,” said Devon Cadwell, 15, who lives on a ranch just outside Gainford.

One resident told CHED radio he heard a series of crashes moments before seeing a “huge, huge fireball” shoot into the sky.

“The fireball was so big, it shot across both lanes of the Yellowhead (Highway) and now both lanes of the Yellowhead are closed and there’s fire on both sides,” said the witness, identified only as Duane.

The evacuation was organized almost immediately.

Gainford resident Glenda Madge said she and her husband were jolted awake at 3 a.m. by pounding on their door. It was the fire department telling them they had to get out.

“They were waiting outside for us, so we had to hurry up and get dressed and grab whatever we could — medication that my husband is on,” Madge said, speaking by phone from a hotel in Entwistle about 20 minutes’ drive from Gainford.

Officials roused owners of Entwistle’s restaurant and grocery store, so evacuees could get supplies. The gas station was opened so RCMP and other emergency workers could fuel up.

By 3 a.m., an evacuation centre with hot coffee and food was set up in Entwistle’s community hall. People were sent off to local hotels with assurances their expenses would be covered.

“It’s a good rural environment where people support each other,” said Sara Jensen, the community development co-ordinator with Parkland County.

“Everyone’s either in bed or being fed.”

At about 9 a.m., about six residents were being escorted back into Gainsford to pick up medications when they were driven back by a second small explosion.

Phelan said a pressure valve on one of the cars opened, spraying fuel into the blaze and creating a fresh gust of flame.

“There was a little pop,” Phelan said.

No injuries to people or livestock have been reported. No damage to homes or other private property has occurred.

Helicopters were in the sky, tracking and fighting small brush fires caused the derailment.

Meanwhile, fire crews waited outside a perimeter about a kilometre-and-a-half away from the derailment scene.

“It’s your typical train derailment, where all the cars are jumbled up and the middle ones are burning and the end ones are not,” Phelan said.

At the peak of the blaze, about 43 firefighters and 12 pieces of firefighting equipment were on site, said Phelan. That was being downscaled by about half by early afternoon.

He said it would likely take at least 24 hours for the flames to die down.

CN spokesman Louis-Antoine Paquin said the train was travelling to Vancouver from Edmonton.

The area, which is about 80 kilometres from Edmonton, remained under a state of emergency. Travel on the Yellowhead Highway — the main east-west corridor in northern Alberta — was restricted and news media were being kept far back.

Madge said that when she reached an evacuation centre in Entwistle, she and her neighbours were talking about events earlier this year in Lac-Megantic, Que., where a train derailment and explosion killed 47 people.

“It was a little scary,” Madge said, noting she felt lucky that no one appeared to have been hurt in this derailment.

The Transportation Safety Board was sending investigators to the scene.

Carson Mills, a spokesman for Parkland County, noted that it was in Parkland County that more than 40 cars of a CN Rail train derailed in 2005, spilling 800,000 litres of bunker oil and wood preservative into Wabamun Lake.

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