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Smiles All Around As Tanker Burns Bright

July 12, 1986

MIAMISBURG, Ohio (AP) _ Authorities who watched a derailed tanker of white phosphorus burning for the fifth straight day today were optimistic that the fire was nearing its end.

Officials had predicted for three days that the phosphorous and the irritating and potentially toxic smoke it formed would be gone by now.

But they had faith that today really would end the accident that prompted what the Federal Railroad Administration called the largest evacuation ever in connection with a U.S. train wreck.

More than 17,000 people were evacuated from Dayton’s southern suburbs after the accident Tuesday night, and up to 40,000 were forced to flee Wednesday night when the tanker again began burning out of control.

Workers succeeded Friday night in putting the tank car, which had been tilted into Bear Creek, on a level footing. That allowed the phosphorus to spread out inside the car, accelerating the rate of combustion, officials said. They added that the fire could burn out sometime this morning.

″I feel so great, I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders,″ Fire Chief Robert Menker said.

Most evacuated residents were allowed back home Thursday, but about 100 remained at Miamisburg High School.

Investigators from the FRA, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and the CSX Transportation Co. railroad will search for the cause of the wreck.

They indicated Friday that track conditions may be to blame, although nothing has been ruled out. NTSB member John Lauber said equipment welded to the tank car may have broken loose during the wreck, opening a gaping hole that let air reach the phosphorus.

The element burns spontaneously in air, producing thick white clouds of smoke. Federal regulations no longer allow such welding, but this car was exempt because it is 20 years old, Lauber said.

A $250 million class-action lawsuit on behalf of the evacuees was filed Friday against CSX, Erco Co. of Canada, which manufactured the phosphorus, and Allbright & Wilson, which was to use it to make phosphoric acid at its Fernald plant.

A total of $450 million in lawsuits has been filed in state and federal courts in Dayton in connection with the accident.

Dale Hawk, CSX Western Division manager, said that at about 9:15 p.m. Friday during a driving thunderstorm workers used a bulldozer and winched the flaming tank car back about 30 feet from the creek.

″Once it leveled, the product immediately came to the front and it began to start glowing,″ he said. Earlier, crews had tried to force air into the tanker to speed the burning.

Lauber said lining and surfacing recently had been done on that stretch of track, which might have disturbed it.

″When you combine things like the possiblity of a train with high temperatures that can expand the rail and maintenance operations that can disturb the rail ... that’s all things we’ll need to look at,″ Lauber said.

Officials said the train was operating at 44 mph or 45 mph, well within the safe speed of 60 mph for that track, and the crew appeared to have acted properly.