Thousands evacuated after Tennessee derailment

Last Updated Jul 2, 2015 1:28 PM EDT

MARYVILLE, Tenn. -- A car on a CSX train carrying a flammable and toxic substance derailed and caught fire in eastern Tennessee, prompting the evacuation of thousands of people within a 2-mile radius.

The fire was still burning around noon Thursday, Maryville City Manager Greg McClain said at a news conference.

Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell asked residents near the derailment site not to drink well water for now. He said CSX will provide bottled water to residents at a local middle school.

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An aerial view shows the scene after a train car carrying a flammable and toxic gas derailed and caught fire in eastern Tennessee.
WVLT-TV

Maryville City Manager Greg McClain added that there's no indication yet whether well water has been affected by the incident.

He also advised evacuees to make plans to be away from home at least for Thursday night.

Blount County Fire Department Lt. Johnny Leatherwood said a call about the train derailment came in Wednesday night at 11:50 p.m. EDT in Maryville.

About 5,000 people in the area were being evacuated, along with several businesses. A manufacturing plant, Denso Manufacturing, closed down Thursday morning because of its proximity to the derailment, Blount County firefighter Kermit Easterling said.

Craig Camuso, CSX regional vice president for state government affairs, said the derailed car was carrying acrylonitrile. The company said it's a hazardous material used in multiple industrial processes including making plastics, it's flammable and it's dangerous if inhaled.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency's website, some effects of breathing acrylonitrile include headaches, dizziness, irritability and rapid heartbeat.

Ten first responders were taken to the hospital because they breathed in fumes, officials said. Blount Memorial Hospital told CBS News they were expecting 12 more responders.

Blount County Memorial Hospital spokesman Josh West said the first responders were given oxygen, which is standard procedure for the chemical they were exposed to. He said they were not injured but were being held for observation.

He also said no local residents underwent treatment due to fumes.

Camuso said the company is placing evacuees in hotels, will provide reimbursement when it sets up its outreach center and will provide gift cards for food and essentials to those who need them.

"We will continue to do that for as long as it takes," he said.

The train was traveling from Cincinnati to Waycross, Georgia.

Camuso said the train had 57 cars and two locomotives, and that 27 cars carried hazardous chemicals: nine with acrylonitrile, 16 with propane and two with asphalt. He said the cause of the derailment is not yet known.

A statement from the Federal Railroad Administration said the agency had investigators and hazmat inspectors at the scene.

"Once it is safe, FRA will begin a thorough investigation to determine the cause of the derailment," the statement said.

It may be 24-48 hours until people are allowed back to their homes and businesses in the evacuated area, reports CBS Knoxville affiliate WVLT-TV.

A shelter for residents was set up at a local high school. Several residents there said they were not aware of the train derailment until they got a call or someone knocked on their door early in the morning.

"We saw police going back and forth and emergency vehicles going back and forth on our road, but we didn't know why until about 3 to 3:30," Maryville resident John Trull said. "That's when they told us. We didn't hear anything (beforehand). We just saw some emergency vehicles go by and kind of wondered what was going on, and that's about it."

Trull said he heard from a sheriff's deputy who knocked on his door.

"He just knocked on our door and told us there'd been an issue with one of the trains and they were evacuating the area," he said.

Brittany Parrott said she was awakened by a knock on her apartment door at about 4:30 a.m. Although she didn't hear the derailment, she said she noticed the effects of it as she went outside.

"You could smell it in the air," Parrott said. "I had a headache, I was feeling nauseated and lightheaded, all the symptoms."

Maryville is a town of nearly 30,000 people located about 20 miles south of Knoxville and just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.