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Published: Tuesday, 2/8/2011

Norfolk Southern track reopened after fire burns out

ARCADIA, Ohio -- Norfolk Southern opened its track just before midnight Tuesday after clearing the last wreckage from a site where 26 cars in an ethanol train derailed and burned in northeast Hancock County west of Arcadia.

Train traffic is slowed to 10 mph through the area, according to railroad spokesman Rudy Husband.

Three of the wrecked tank cars were still on fire Monday afternoon and the railroad waited "until they burn[ed] themselves out" before removing them from the track bed, Mr. Husband said.

The fires did not pose a public safety threat, he said.

Garry Valentine, director of the Hancock County Emergency Management Agency, said all evacuations associated with the derailment had been lifted late Sunday, but two residents chose to remain at emergency shelters overnight.

An investigation continues into why the train, en route from Chicago to North Carolina, derailed in Cass Township at 2:20 a.m. Sunday, Mr. Husband said. Official results for such accident investigations typically are not released for several months.

The railroad spokesman said temporary panels to replace 624 feet of destroyed track had been delivered to the derailment site, so that restoration could begin as soon as the last derailment wreckage was cleared. Railroad contractors had already cleared wrecked railcars that had burned out.

Each car contained about 30,000 gallons of denatured ethanol, Mr. Husband said.

Some of the derailed cars ruptured immediately from the derailment's impact and caught fire, which in turn heated other tank cars until the pressure inside them caused explosions with fireballs that lit up the night sky. But no one was injured, and the flames did not spread to a fertilizer plant near the tracks that had tanks of other dangerous chemicals.

Besides clearing the wreckage and rebuilding the track, Mr. Husband said Norfolk Southern would take soil samples from the accident scene. Mr. Valentine said some unburned ethanol had seeped into the ground at the site and then emerged nearby and was being cleaned up Monday afternoon.

Pure ethanol burns with a nearly clear flame, but the ethanol in the train was mixed with 5 percent gasoline for transport, resulting in the more spectacular fire after the derailment. Denaturing makes the alcohol unsuitable for human consumption.

Ethanol, also known as grain alcohol, has many commercial uses, but its transport in trainload lots has increased significantly during the past five years because of its growing use as a pollution-control additive in gasoline. Ethanol must be added to gasoline at regional distribution terminals, rather than being mixed in gasoline before it is piped from oil refineries, because it attracts and bonds well with water, which contaminates the fuel.

Mr. Valentine said he was pleased with the response to the emergency, and credited the railroads that have four significant tracks in Hancock County with keeping public officials apprised of what commodities they haul and supporting emergency-response training.

"This was the first time we've actually had a problem like that," he said of the fiery derailment. "The six fire departments that were there all worked together very well."

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.

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