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Hundreds evacuated from Clara City following train derailment

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Hundreds evacuated from Clara City following train derailment
Hastings Minnesota 745 Spiral Boulevard 55033

CLARA CITY -- Nearly 12 hours after being hurriedly evacuated from their homes in the pre-dawn darkness, residents in Clara City received the all clear to return.

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Officials in Clara City gave the go-ahead for residents to return to their homes at 4 p.m., after being assured that efforts to clean up a hydrochloric acid spill on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway main line were complete.

No one was injured in the early morning mishap, but an estimated 350 to 400 people were ordered to evacuate their homes. All residents west of Division Street and north of Minnesota Highway 23 -- as well as those in neighboring farm places -- were ordered to evacuate.

Shortly after 4:30 a.m., volunteer fire fighters from Clara City and Maynard along with ambulance crew members went door-to-door to rouse people from their sleep and send them to an evacuation center at the Bethany Reformed Church.

City officials also blew the town's emergency siren shortly before 6 a.m.

The hazardous spill occurred nearly one-half mile from the western residential area of the community, or about 300 feet from the Minnesota Highway 7 overpass. "If it had been closer to town, it would have been a different story,'' said a visibly relieved Mayor Kurt Koenen during a Monday morning press conference.

The mishap occurred at 3:30 a.m. when a northbound train struck a derailed car that had come free of a southbound train pulling onto a siding there. The derailment caused the 22nd and 23rd cars of the northbound train to derail, along with the two locomotives. The 22nd car ruptured on its upper portion, and began spewing hydrochloric acid, according to Steve Forsberg, public affairs director with BNSF.

Three cars behind the spilled car were cars holding liquid natural gas that did not derail or rupture. The derailment also tipped over 58 empty ethanol cars on the side rail, according to the railroad official.

Calm air at the time of the derailment and the fact that the hydrochloric acid was a weak dilution of 38 percent were factors that helped avoid a tragedy, according to officials.

Several thousand gallons of the acid are believed to have spilled from the car, according to Forsberg. Most of it dissipated into the air. Clara City firefighters sprayed a fog mist on the escaping gas to assist in its dispersal, according to a statement from city officials.

Initially, the slow-moving plume crept toward the western residential area of Clara City and was headed toward the schools and Clara City Care Center. Volunteers going door-to-door said they felt a slight burning sensation in their throats from the gas, but a fortunate wind shift turned the plume and kept it blowing west and away from town.

Air sampling indicated that the concentration of hydrochloric acid in the air in the community did not exceed .5 parts per million. "That's very, very small,'' said Gary Hendrickson, Minnesota Emergency Management Division.

Two of the tipped, empty ethanol cars had lodged against the pillars of the Minnesota Highway 7 bridge. The bridge was to remain closed until Minnesota Department of Transportation officials could complete an inspection, but a visual check showed no signs of damage, according to Dennis Marty of the Willmar MnDOT office.

Workers with West Central Environmental Services, and the City of St. Paul hazardous waste team, were among those responding to the spill. They smothered the spilled hydrochloric acid solution with lime, which neutralized it.

The evacuation caused no panic, according to officials.

"I heard a knocking on the door,'' said Helen Brouwer, who along with her husband Alvin joined the evacuees at the Bethany Reformed Church. "I didn't know what was going on.''

Clara City Fire Chief Dave Lieser said he approached the emergency scene with two concerns -- the safety of his men and the town.

"The worst thing you can do is run right into it,'' he said. "You could see it,'' he said of the plume of gas.

Firefighters said they had a difficult time waking some people at the early hour. Volunteers also began calling family or friends of people when firemen reported no one came to their doors. "The benefits of a small town,'' said Chad Forkrud, assistant fire chief, in reporting that all people in the evacuated areas were accounted for.

MACCRAY Schools cancelled classes for the day before busses began their routes. Officials also closed the Highways 23/7 intersection, and closed the portion of Highway 7 east of the site.

Businesses near the rail line, including Citizens State Bank, did not open.

The Farmers Cooperative Elevator in Clara City had to halt its operations while the cleanup took place. The spill occurred about 30 to 45 minutes before employees there would have began loading a unit train near the site.

Residents of Clara City Care Center did not need to evacuate, but staff at the facility had the 67 residents ready to leave at a moment's notice if necessary, according to administrator Marge Swenson. She said five residents who require oxygen were transported to area hospitals as a precaution.

There were lots of "what if'' discussions around town after the spill, but local officials said the emergency response went very well. "I can't say how well everybody has worked together,'' said Marv Garbe, emergency management director for Chippewa County.

Forsberg said the railroad expected to have the main rail line re-opened to traffic by 5 a.m. today. The line handles 12 to 18 trains a day. He said it would probably take three or four days to remove the derailed cars at the site, however.

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