NEW BRIGHTON, Pa. (AP) – The blast shook houses, woke neighbors and sent a fireball into the night sky.

Word spread quickly that several ethanol tanker cars had exploded after two dozen train cars derailed while crossing a half-mile bridge spanning the Beaver River late Friday.

Though no one was injured, residents of this former industrial town were evacuated because of concerns about new explosions. Federal investigators arrived Saturday morning to begin an investigation, even as the tanker cars continued to burn.

Officials with the state Department of Environmental Protection, Norfolk Southern and Beaver County were determining whether to let the fire burn itself out or extinguish it, said Robert Sumwalt, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

New Brighton borough manager Larry Morley said that the explosion shook his house as if “lighting struck in the front yard” and that a fireball rose in the air.

Barbara Huddy, 41, was asleep at her home about five blocks away when the 23 cars tumbled off the tracks, some to the river and banks below.

“It woke me up,” said Huddy, a United Airlines customer service employee. “It was bad. It was really frightening.”

More than 50 residents stayed overnight at the New Brighton Middle School, said John Stubbs, executive director of a Red Cross chapter. About 150 others checked in with authorities at the school Saturday morning.

The derailed cars were in the train’s midsection, and nine caught fire on the bridge in New Brighton, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

The train – 89 tanker cars pulled by three locomotives – was traveling from Chicago to New Jersey. Sumwalt said data recorders on three locomotives showed the train was likely traveling 36 to 39 mph. The speed limit on the bridge is 45 mph.

Ten NTSB experts were on the scene, but they did not expect to inspect the crash site until the fire was out. They will investigate mechanical issues, human factors, track and engineering issues, and the emergency response, among other things, Sumwalt said.

“At this time, our investigation is just beginning,” Sumwalt said. “We want to collect information before we start making analytical statements.”

None of the cars on land was burning, and the fire was not expected to spread beyond the derailed cars.

State officials were monitoring the water and air quality, Sumwalt said. Downstream water users were notified of the incident as a precaution, environmental department spokeswoman Betsy Mallison said.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband would not comment on the condition of the bridge before the accident but said company officials inspect mainline tracks, such as the ones on the bridge, at least twice a week. Sumwalt said Norfolk Southern engineers will inspect the bridge to determine if it is still safe, but that can’t be done until the fire is out and the damaged cars are removed, a process that could take days.

Husband said all of the tanker cars in the train contained ethanol, a colorless, flammable liquid used as a solvent.

About 50 to 70 trains use the affected tracks daily, including Amtrak passenger service. “We’re working on a plan to detour as many of those trains as we can,” Husband said.

Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said one passenger train uses that rail each day, the Capitol Limited which runs between Chicago and Washington, D.C. Until that section of track reopens, the train is being detoured to other tracks between Pittsburgh and Cleveland, causing a delay of about 21/2 hours each way, Black said.

Friday’s accident was the second high-profile derailment involving a Norfolk Southern train in the state in recent months. A June derailment near Gardeau in north-central Pennsylvania fouled a fishing creek with lye.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.