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Fire Continues to Smolder; Most Evacuees Return Home

July 11, 1986

MIAMISBURG, Ohio (AP) _ A chemical fire smoldering in a ruptured railroad car could burn for days, authorities said Thursday, as thousands of weary residents headed home from the largest evacuation ever resulting from a U.S. train wreck.

″It was quite interesting, to say the least, to spend your vacation evacuating,″ said Jody Beckwith of Rockford, Ill., who was visiting her sister in suburb south of Dayton. ″We had a good time, but I think I’ll be ready to go back to Illinois tomorrow.″

The tanker was partially opened late Thursday to force the white phosphorus to burn more quickly, said Dale Hawk, manager of CSX Corp.’s western division, which operates the railroad.

A fan was installed to feed additional air to the fire, which began emitting a much larger plume of smoke, Hawk said, estimating that the fire would contiune until at least Friday morning.

At least 11 people remained hospitalized, including two with previous respiratory disorders who were in critical condition. And Dayton fire officials said a 34-year-old man who was evacuated died Thursday when fire broke out in the camper in which he was staying.

William E. Loftus, executive director of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the evacuation - 17,500 people Tuesday and up to 40,000 people Wednesday - was the largest ever in connection with a U.S. train accident.

While the fire continued, city spokesman Ron Parker said, crews would try to dam Bear Creek, north of the derailment, to keep the chemicals from flowing into the Great Miami River, a source of drinking water.

″It could keep burning for some time, possibly days,″ Parker said.

Even though the fire was burning more quickly Thursday night, officials declined to renew evacuations. Most of the city was reopened to wary residents, but Parker said a two-square-mile area of Miamisburg would remain off-limits to 300 familes.

Sens. John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum, both Ohio Democrats, said they had asked President Reagan to order an investigation of the accident’s cause and of the nation’s policy for transporting hazardous materials.

A $200 million class-action lawsuit was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Dayton on behalf of four residents charging the railroad with negligence and operating at excessive speed. CSX officials, who have previously said crew members were not to blame for the accident, were not in their offices when telephone for comment.

The tanker car carrying the volatile and highly toxic chemical, caught fire Tuesday afternoon shortly after 15 cars of a 44-car CSX Transportation train derailed at Bear Creek bridge. The first evacuation forced 17,500 people from their homes.

On Wednesday, firefighters were pouring sand and water on the blaze and were permitting people to return home when the phosphorus exploded, spewing another poisonous plume. Local Red Cross officials estimated 25,000 to 40,000 residents of Dayton’s south suburbs fled their homes Wednesday night, some for the second time.

Six hospitals reported treating more than 400 cases of shortness of breath, irritated eyes or sore throats as a result of the fires.

Temporary shelters were set up at the University of Dayton Arena and, later, at the Dayton Convention and Exposition Center, but those were closed Thursday. People still unable to return home were directed to Miamisburg High School.

Some residents refused to leave.

″I snuck back in; I didn’t have any other place to go,″ said Vic Blankenship, who owns a used appliance store in Miamisburg and lives above it. ″The rest of the places are all sleep-on-the-floor, and I wasn’t going to do that.″

Fred Hannah, 58, was upset that officials could not tell him when he could reopen his Daisy’s Kitchen restaurant.

″Today is usually our biggest day because we have chicken pot pies,″ he said. ″I figure we lost $1,200 to $1,500.″

CSX Transportation has said there is no indication the crew was at fault.

Pat Madigan, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said the phosphorus was made by Erco of Islington, Ontario, and was en route to Albright & Wilson Inc. of Fernald, near Cincinnati. Sam Goodson, plant manager for Albright & Wilson, said it was to be converted into phosphoric acid, which is used by the food and beverage industry, as well as in detergents.

Allan D. Franks, also an EPA spokesman, said the environmental damage was minimal, but added ″As far as the number of people evacuated, it’s by far the worst, and that’s over 14 years and 30,000 spills.″

During the first three months of 1986, there were eight train derailments that resulted in the release of hazardous materials, mostly chemicals, the Federal Railroad Administration said. There were 43 such derailments in 1984 and 49 last year.

There were 2,915 derailments overall in 1984, with 11 fatalities, and 2,492 in 1985, with two deaths. From January to March, there were 484 derailments but no deaths, the agency said.

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