LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Emergency workers in Kentucky were increasingly confident that fire crews had contained a blaze spewing flames and smoke from a derailed tanker car, allowing them to focus on untangling other stricken rail cars loaded with toxic chemicals nearby.
Hundreds of people remained out of their homes Thursday, including the entire town of West Point and some people from nearby Louisville. The burning butadiene, a chemical commonly found in rubber used to make tires, can damage the central nervous system and reproductive system. Workers were hosing down two other railcars filled with hydrogen fluoride, another corrosive chemical that can cause severe respiratory damage.
"The scene has stabilized," said Doug Hamilton of Metro Louisville Emergency Management. "It is safe for them, while the controlled burn is occurring, to do other work."
The blaze began Wednesday afternoon, and authorities initially thought it would last no longer than a couple hours. They were still waiting for it to die out Thursday, acknowledging they were unsure how much butadiene was left in the burning railcar to fuel the flames.
Fire crews hosed down the chemical-laden railcars nearby to keep the fire from spreading.
All the water used to keep those railcars cool, however, raised fears that the water could become contaminated and wash into the Salt and Ohio rivers. The Environmental Protection Agency was monitoring water quality and quickly put up a dam to keep out contaminated water.
The biggest worry was the stockpile of hydrogen fluoride pinned so close to the fire.
"This is as bad as it gets as far as a hazmat incident, if it were to be released," said Art Smith, an emergency coordinator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Aruni Bhatnagar, a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville, said a hydrogen fluoride release would be "very, very dangerous."
Three workers were hospitalized after the blaze ignited, one of whom remained in critical condition Thursday. Another worker, a contract consultant, was released on Thursday, Paducah & Louisville Railway officials said.
The workers had been using a cutting torch to separate two cars at the site of Monday's derailment, after being told by air-quality monitors that the air was clear and the torch safe to use, said Gerald Gupton, of the Paducah & Louisville Railway.
Asked if the workers who supplied those air measurements were responsible for the fire, Gupton replied, "Absolutely not. It was an accident."
When further pressed about who was responsible, he said, "I'm not prepared to answer that right now. The investigation is being conducted."
On Thursday, workers were siphoning styrene -- another toxic chemical used in rubber -- from one stricken railcar. Otherwise, the main concern and biggest threat of danger was the cars filled with hydrogen fluoride that were within about 10 feet of the burning car. Gupton said those cars would be carefully moved so the chemical could be removed.
Officials said it was unclear exactly how long the fire would last.
"We can't get up and look in the hole and take any measurements with the conditions as they are," Gupton said.
That left nearby residents such as 30-year-old April Graham and her three children -- ages 14, 11 and 7 -- to sleep on cots at an elementary school-turned-shelter after a hasty evacuation. The family ate ham sandwiches for dinner; her youngest son played basketball and ran the hallways with other children to pass the time.
"We just want to go home," she said when asked how the family was holding up. "Depressed, don't know what's going to happen."
The train derailed on a line that runs between Paducah in western Kentucky and Louisville, which is home to rubber manufacturers and other chemical plants, most of them concentrated in the Rubbertown neighborhood.
The Paducah & Louisville Railway train derailed Monday morning near Dixie Highway, a main corridor between Louisville and Fort Knox. Nine of the 13 derailed cars were carrying hazardous chemicals. The train was traveling from the company's headquarters in Paducah to its Louisville switching facility, said spokeswoman Bonnie Hackbarth. She said she did not know whether Louisville was the final destination for the chemical cars or if they were going elsewhere.
Investigators from the Federal Railroad Administration have been at the site since Monday investigating the cause of the derailment.
Records provided by the company show it reported a total of 13 derailments to the Federal Railroad Administration since 2008. No injuries, casualties or evacuations were reported, the chart showed.
CSX lists Paducah and Louisville Railroad as one of its 51 majority-owned subsidiaries in its annual report to the Surface Transportation Board, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation that regulates railroad rates, services and transactions.
P&L Railway opened an outreach center Thursday where people forced from their homes were being reimbursed for lodging, food, lost wages and other expenses. They received additional payments amounting to $100 a day for adults and $50 for children for each day they are displaced.
Susan Chambers of West Point was among the displaced who stopped by. She and her husband and son were staying with friends.
"There's no sense in getting upset about it," she said. "You just do what you can do. My son was a little wigged out. He didn't think we were going to have any place to sleep."
Chambers said she has a science degree and is familiar with the dangers of the chemicals on the train, including butadiene.
"That's just not something you want to be breathing," she said.