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Train carrying crude oil derails, burns in Lynchburg, Va.

A CSX train carrying crude oil derailed in Lynchburg, Va. on Wednesday, April 30, 2014, resulting in an explosion and massive fire. Three of the train's cars slid into the James River, spilling an undetermined amount of oil into the river.
A CSX train carrying crude oil derailed in Lynchburg, Va. on Wednesday, April 30, 2014, resulting in an explosion and massive fire. Three of the train's cars slid into the James River, spilling an undetermined amount of oil into the river.Photo courtesy of Paula Mays

A CSX train transporting crude oil derailed near 9th and Jefferson streets in downtown Lynchburg, Va. shortly before 2 p.m. on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. According to WSET-TV, witnesses say the ground below the train tracks gave way before the derailment, sending three 30,000 gallon cars into the James River. No injuries were reported.

The James River seemed to be on fire following a train derailment and explosion on Wednesday, April 30, 2014 in Lynchburg, Va.
The James River seemed to be on fire following a train derailment and explosion on Wednesday, April 30, 2014 in Lynchburg, Va.Photo courtesy Paula Mays

Lynchburg City Manager Kimball Payne declared a state of emergency. Police and fire workers quickly evacuated those in the area as a precaution, including residents of nearby loft apartments, patrons at Depot Grille restaurant and families visiting Amazement Square Children's Museum. The train blocked the crossing at Griffin Pipe Products, keeping workers from leaving the parking lot.

Market at Main restaurant owner Rodney Taylor said, "I heard it when it happened. It sounded like a low flying plane." A few minutes later, one of Taylor's employees asked if he knew what was happening outside.

"When I went back out," Taylor said, "flames were shooting up from the river, almost as high as the Bank of the James building." Taylor said sirens filled the air within minutes as first responders rushed to the scene.

David Sickmen was in the courthouse building several blocks from the river when the train derailed. Sickmen said, "I saw it from the couthouse. The flames were way up, at the same level as the courthouse."

Sickmen, who enjoys spending time with his family on the trails and near the river, is concerned about the impact to the environment. Sickmen also expressed concern about the upcoming James River Batteau Festival, set to begin in Lynchburg on June 14. During the Batteau Festival, replica flat bottom batteaux spend eight days floating down the James River from Lynchburg to Richmond.

City officials are uncertain how much crude oil burned up in the explosion and how much spilled into the James River. City Communications and Marketing Director JoAnn Martin told The News Advance about 50,000 gallons of crude oil are missing from the three tanker cars that slid into the river.

Martin said fire department crews used thermal imaging on the three cars to arrive at the estimate. One of the cars was found empty, one car was full, and one was one third full.

Twitter and Facebook feeds filled with photos and video clips shared by Lynchburg area residents. Crowds of spectators gathered on downtown parking decks and a park across the river from the scene of the derailment for a closer look.

This isn't the first train derailment involving crude oil. An article in The Virginia Gazette highlights concerns about the safety of hauling crude oil from the Bakken Shale region in North Dakota, following three earlier train derailments and explosions within a six month period..

An oil train with Bakken crude oil derailed, causing an explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec last July.The town was leveled and 47 people were killed in the accident, which caused more than $1 billion in damages.

In November, a 90-car crude oil train was traveling through a rural part of Alabama when 20 cars derailed and 11 of them exploded. An unknown amount of crude fouled nearby wetlands, and damage was estimated at nearly $4 million.

A third crude oil train was involved in a collision with a derailed grain car in North Dakota in December. Of the 21 derailed oil cars, 18 ruptured and exploded. About 400,000 gallons of crude were released and 1,400 residents had to be evacuated. Damage was estimated at $8 million.

CSX Transportation officials have opened a community outreach center at the Wingate Hotel on Candlers Mountain Road. Crews from the National Transportation Safety Board, the deputy secretary of public safety and homeland security and the acting director of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management will bee on the scene in Lynchburg this week to investigate the accident.

The City of Lynchburg issued a press release stating that a section of the RiverWalk Trail on the James River Heritage Trail is closed indefinitely for cleanup beginning April 30. The RiverWalk Trail includes the popular Percival's Island Natural Area. The James River Heritage Trail can be accessed at any point above the Point of Honor Trailhead.