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Weyauwega Residents Go Home at Last

March 22, 1996

WEYAUWEGA, Wis. (AP) _ At last. Two and a half weeks after a train derailment and propane fire forced the evacuation of this Wisconsin town, residents returned home today under sunny skies and with sunny dispositions.

``It’s just great. I have never had a better day in my life,″ Fred Maass, 80, said with a big smile on face as he prepared to enter the town.

Residents started getting the go-ahead to return home around 6 a.m. They still had to pass through roadblocks, intended to keep out sightseers. The roadblocks are expected to stay up until Saturday.

Carl Artz, a Waupaca County sheriff’s deputy, said about 60 to 80 cars had rolled through the station he was manning during the first two hours.

``They have all been real happy. They all say, `Have a nice day. We like you guys and the job you did.′ They just want to get home,″ he said.

Later, two young men rode their bicycles to the derailment site, and Donna Allenstein and her three children strolled downtown.

``We just emptied the refrigerator,″ Allenstein said. ``I just needed to go for a walk. That is one of the things I enjoy in Weyauwega.″

The entire central Wisconsin town of 1,700 was evacuated after 35 cars in a Wisconsin Central Ltd. train derailed at daybreak March 4.

Fourteen of the cars contained liquid propane, and the leaking fuel erupted in a fire that destroyed a trackside feed mill. There were no injuries, but the blaze in the pile of wrecked train cars continued for days, threatening a massive explosion.

Several hundred people living more than a mile from the wreckage were allowed to return home Monday after crews burned off most of the propane by pumping it out of the tankers. But the residents within a mile of the site were kept out, except to visit their homes briefly to inspect for damage.

Roughly 15 to 20 percent of homes were found to be damaged, mostly from broken water pipes. Natural gas was cut off to the town during the evacuation.

Wisconsin Central said Thursday it has already paid $1 million in claims because of the derailment. The railroad had promised displaced residents it would pay for lodging, meals, damages to homes and other losses associated with the derailment and evacuation.

Waupaca County Sheriff Jim Waid had said Thursday that the only remaining snag was getting the city’s water system pressurized and a leak repaired. Residents would be ordered to boil tap water used for drinking or food preparation, at least for a few days, as a precaution.

Wisconsin Central resumed running trains Tuesday on the repaired line where the derailment occurred. The cause of the derailment is under investigation.

Dan Hietpas went to the scene of the wreckage to take some pictures, but flatbed railroad cars had already carried the rusted and blackend tankers out of town. He was disappointed.

``We should all have been allowed to see the monster that chased us out of here before they cleaned it up,″ he said.

Meanwhile, Burlington Northern Santa Fe officials were clearing the wreckage early this morning of two tank cars filled with denatured alcohol that exploded on the outskirts of Ada, Okla.

No one was injured in Thursday’s derailment, though witnesses said the explosion could be heard and felt miles away.

About 1,500 residents were evacuated from their homes for several hours ant two schools were closed for the day as firefighters let the alcohol in the two cars burn and kept a wary eye on a third car leaking the material.

Authorities initially had feared that a car was crushed beneath the train, but Pontotoc County Sheriff Jeff Glase said that proved unfounded.

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