Ill. town evacuated after train derailment, explosion

October 7, 2011 (TISKILWA, Ill.)

Part of a freight train with 126 cars derailed around 2:15 a.m. near the town of Tiskilwa, Ill., in Bureau County, and several explosions were reported by witnesses.

Officials say the train was carrying ethanol. They've evacuated the residents as a precaution, and no injuries have been reported. Authorities say the people evacuated from Tiskilwa are being taken to the high school in nearby Princeton, Ill.

Heather McComber owns a hotel in a nearby town where many people from Tiskilwa went right after evacuations began. McComber was at the Indian Valley Inn restaurant with about 10-12 other people, she said, figuring out where to go next.

"I didn't personally hear it, but after it happened the skies were all lit up and there was a fire going up in the air, and it sounded like a jet engine outside," she said.

Steve Samet of WZOE Radio in Princeton said the derailment occurred on the Iowa Interstate Railroad, which runs through Tiskilwa, a town of about 800.

"They were unable to do anything about it, and so they decided to evacuate the town because nobody was sure of exactly what those cars were carrying, although it is believed to be ethanol. Nobody is sure. Of course, they're concerned about explosions as well," Samet said. "Deputies have been going door to door to awaken people and get them out of town. It is pretty serious."

"We talked to a listener whose house abuts the tracks, and he was having a campout for 16 kids in his back yard," Samet said. "The air is acrid, almost unbreathable. Tiskilwa is a valley, and there is no breeze. The decision to evacuate was a good one."

Samet said Bureau County was receiving assistance from all over the northern part of the state.

"Peoria is up here. All the towns in between, up north, up towards Rockford. It's been wonderful to see the response and the organization that is available to these communities," Samet said.

Due to the chemicals in the tankers, firefighters say water would not be effective in extinguishing the blaze.

"The sheriff called earlier and said, 'Please tell everyone that nobody is going home at any time soon.' It's going to take awhile to get this resolved," Samet said. "The recommendation was to go to friends or relatives' houses because they would be more comfortable, but anyone who does not have that available to them is being housed at the Princeton high school. Again, we're about seven miles north of Tiskilwa, but they're in there. They are being taken care of."

Approximately a half-dozen cars appeared to be completely off the tracks. Samet said the tracks in Tiskilwa are part of a small, regional freight operation.

Samet said the authorities would let the fire burn for awhile on its own. He said there's little worry of a hazardous situation, but authorities are watching the direction of the smoke to be sure.

"We have a light breeze out of the south today, which would bring it up over Princeton if something like that happened. We're concerned here about it, but they believe that it is simply ethanol. Of course, from a fire point of view, that's not simple at all, but from a public safety point of view, that is not as big of a problem," Samet said.

Tiskilwa is located about seven miles south of the town of Princeton, Ill., or roughly 87 miles west of southwest suburban Joliet.

Amanda Knight, a bartender and waitress at the Indian Valley Inn restaurant in Tiskilwa, was holed up there Friday morning after the train derailed just about 500 feet from her home.

"It's pretty much right in my back yard," she said.

About 1:45 a.m. she said her sister woke her upon hearing the accident, and 20 minutes later officials began knocking on doors and telling people they needed to leave the town. She went to the Indian Valley Inn, about a quarter of a mile away, which stayed open to accommodate people preparing to leave town. From there she could see the flames spreading from car to car and said the whole train seemed to be ablaze.

"There's a lot of fire and big flames," she said.

Aaron Whittington, a dispatcher for Oglesby police and fire, said the call came into Oglesby about 2:15 a.m. and that the train had 126 cars, over 60 carrying ethanol. He said the railroad company was working to get another engine out the scene to move some of the cars and open up some of the railroad crossings so fire trucks could pass. In the interim, six-wheeled off-road vehicles were being used to access the scene.

Emergency crews from Utica, Oglesby, Peru and LaSalle County were among those responding, he said, but as of 5 a.m., they had not yet attempted to put out the fire because water could not be used to battle the alcohol-fueled flames, and instead a firefighting foam would have to be used.

Knight said she heard several explosions coming from the site of the accident.

"It sounds like a jet coming over the town. That's all I can compare it to," she said.

As of about 4:15 a.m. Knight said she, too, was getting ready to head to nearby Princeton to stay with family or friends.

The Sun-Times Media Wire contributed to this report.

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