A train carrying more than 100 tankers of crude oil derailed during a snowstorm in southern West Virginia on Monday, sending at least one tanker into the Kanawha River, igniting at least 14 tankers in all and sparking a house fire, officials said.
Officials evacuated hundreds of families and shut down two water treatment plants threatened by oil seeping into the river. State public safety division spokesman Lawrence Messina told the Associated Press late Monday that fires were still burning nearly nine hours after the accident. The plan was to let the fires on tankers burn themselves out.
David McClung said he felt the heat from one of the explosions at his home about a half mile up the hill.
"It was a little scary. It was like an atomic bomb went off," he said. One of the explosions that followed sent a fireball at least 300 feet into the air, McClung said.
Becky Nuckols heard the train hit the house directly across the river from her house in the community of Boomer.
"I thought it was a snow plow," she said. "That's what made me look out. All you heard was a big boom."
After calling 911 Nuckols said she ran outside and saw a man leave the house and take off running. Messina said that local emergency responders were having trouble reaching the burning house.
One person was being treated for potential inhalation issues, but no other injuries were reported, according to a news release from CSX, the train company.
The state was under a winter storm warning and getting heavy snowfall at times, with as much as 5 inches in some places. It's not clear if the weather had anything to do with the derailment, which occurred about 1:20 p.m. along a flat stretch of rail about 30 miles southeast of Charleston. Federal railroad and hazardous materials officials are probing into the accident.
Kanawha County manager Jennifer Sayre said that between 14 and 17 tankers caught fire or exploded.
Officials opened shelters, while CSX reserved hotel rooms and opened an outreach center for affected residents.
The office of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, which has issued a state of emergency, said the tanker cars were loaded with Bakken crude from North Dakota and headed to Yorktown, Virginia.
All but two of the 109 cars being hauled were tanker cars, officials said.
West Virginia American Water shut down a water treatment plant, located about 3 miles from the derailment, spokeswoman Laura Jordan. Another water plant downstream in the town of Cedar Grove also closed its intake, state health officials said.
The U.S. Transportation Department is weighing tougher safety regulations for rail shipments of crude, which can ignite and result in huge fireballs.
Responding to a series of fiery train crashes, including one this spring in Lynchburg, Virginia, the government proposed rules in July that would phase out tens of thousands of older tank cars that carry increasing quantities of crude oil and other highly flammable liquids. It's not clear how old the tankers were on the derailed train.
The Lynchburg train also was hauling Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to Yorktown, Virginia.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.