Part of a freight train carrying ethanol derailed and caught fire in Ohio's capital city early Wednesday, shooting flames skyward into the darkness and prompting the evacuation of a mile-wide area as firefighters and hazardous materials crews monitored the blaze.
Norfolk Southern Corp. said it appeared about 11 cars of a southbound train derailed around 2 a.m. near Interstate 71, southeast of the Ohio State University campus. The train, traveling from Chicago to Linwood, N.C., went off the tracks north of downtown, in an industrial area blocks from residential neighborhoods.
Joel Priester said he watched the blast from his home two blocks away.
"I saw flames, then I heard a loud sound, like a boom, and saw the flames shooting higher," he said. "It looked like the sun exploded."
Three of the burning cars were tankers carrying ethanol, said Assistant Chief David Whiting of the Columbus fire division. After viewing the scene in daylight, authorities decided to let the fire burn out instead of trying to extinguish it.
It wasn't immediately clear what caused the derailment, which blocked access to about half of the Central Ohio Transit Authority's fleet of vehicles, limiting the city's public bus service. The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending an investigator to the scene.
Two people who ran toward the scene before the explosion were injured but were able to take themselves to a hospital, fire Battalion Chief Michael Fowler said.
None of the three personnel onboard the train was hurt, Norfolk Southern spokesman Dave Pidgeon said. He said he couldn't comment on the crew's safety record but said the company has been recognized in the industry for its overall safety record.
Photographer Chris Mumma said he was more than 10 miles away in New Albany when he saw the night sky brightened by a "huge illumination" that he later learned was an explosion. He said he went to the scene to take photos and saw punctures on top of the train that were spewing flames 20 to 30 feet high. He also noticed an odd odor.
"I noticed there was a chemical smell, and I was inhaling it so I backed up a little bit more because I wasn't sure what I was getting involved with," he said. Mumma said it made him so nauseous that he ended up at the hospital.
About 50 evacuees went to an American Red Cross aid site set up at the state fairgrounds. Among them was Linda Ogletree, who lives a block from the accident site.
"I was in the house and heard the explosion, then I ran outside to see where it was coming from. The whole outside was lit up," she said.
She said she walked to the end of the street with other people but took off running when an explosion occurred.
Norfolk Southern said trains blocked by the crash would be rerouted to other tracks in Columbus.