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Train Derails in Lafayette

LAFAYETTE. La. -- An early Saturday morning train derailment in northwestern Lafayette spurred an evacuation order for several thousand city residents.

Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office Lt. Craig Stansbury said the derailment happened between 2:30 a.m. and 3 a.m. but did not cause major injuries. It occurred on the railroad track which passes under the Ambassador Caffery Parkway overpass near the road's intersection with Cameron Street.

Stansbury said six rail cars jumped the tracks and at least one, carrying hydrochloric acid, ruptured and was leaking.

He said City Police and sheriff's deputies began going door-to-door telling residents to evacuate within a 1-mile radius of the derailment. Evacuees were sent to a shelter at the Carencro High School gymnasium.

The acid spill sent a cloud over the area, and Stansbury said at least five people, including two railroad workers, were taken to a hospital and treated for complaints of skin and eye irritation.

Hydrochloric acid can cause respiratory problems and skin and eye irritation, according to Joe Faust, a spokesman for Fort Worth, Texas-based Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, which operated the train involved in the spill.

An estimated 3,500 people live in the area, and residents were told to prepare for up to two days away from home, Stansbury said.

"We're advising them to take enough supplies for approximately 48 hours," he said.

Evacuation of two nursing homes in the area was accomplished without any trouble, said Department of Health and Hospital Secretary Alan Levine.

"More than 100 patients living at Our Lady of the Oaks nursing home facility and 16 patients from the Joseph Tyler Mental Health Center were successfully evacuated," Levine said.

Lafayette City Parish Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley said that while local law enforcement is handling the evacuation and traffic concerns, State Police will be investigating the derailment and dealing with hazardous-material concerns.

State Police Troop I spokesman David Anderson that the leak in the damaged car was under control. About 11,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid was released but contained to a relatively small area. The acid formed a yellowish pool at the site, and a nearby train car carrying ethylene oxide, which is used in agricultural products and as a sterilizer for medical supplies, also overturned into the spill.

The car with the ethylene oxide was not leaking, said Rodney Mallett, a spokesman with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

Andersonsaid State Police investigators are working with BNSF to determine the cause of the derailment.

BNSF issued a written statement Saturday afternoon from the law office of Lafayette attorney Kevin M. Dills. He said the railroad was working with local and state officials and it understood the inconvenience caused by the accident but the "safety of the local residents has been our first priority."

"We understand that the situation has inconvenienced many people's lives and that businesses have been impacted by this situation. While the investigation into the cause of this unfortunate event will be ongoing, it is BNSF's intention to deal promptly and fairly with any legitimate claims or concerns arising from the derailment or evacuation."

Dills' statement added that it will be providing information, via local news media, on where affected residents can meet with BNSF officials.

"We are making the necessary preparations and will be ready to meet as soon as the situation stabilizes," he said.

Evacuees started arriving at the Carencro gym about 10:30 a.m. and about 51 people had registered at 1:30 p.m., Red Cross figures showed.

Most of the people in the gym said they had been evacuated between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Public buses took them to Carencro.

Some complained of chemical exposure in the hours before they were notified of the evacuation.

"I stayed outside a little bit and got light-headed," said Melionie Hopkins, who was at a relative's house in an apartment complex near the derailment.

Hopkins' cousin, Shannon Boyd, said children who had been outside complained of that their eyes were burning. Still, Boyd said she was thankful.

"I'm just glad we made it out here safe and nobody was hurt," she said.

The Louisiana Emergency Medical Unit was on standby, but emergency officials had reported only a handful of minor injuries.

The evacuation caught some off guard.

"I was lucky to get my clothes on," said Stephen Evans, a New Orleans man who was awakened by emergency officials to load a bus about 1 p.m. at the Regency Inn on Cameron Street. "We don't even know where we are or what town we're in."

Stansbury said that the evacuation area was initially set at about a half-mile around the accident site, but was later widened as a precaution.

BNSF was using lime to neutralize the hydrochloric acid. After that, cleanup workers will either dig or vacuum the acid and then lift the cars back onto the track, Mallett said. Samples of the air near the spill site haven't raised concerns, he said.

Faust declined to speculate on how long the cleanup might take but said residents wouldn't be allowed back into the area until officials were certain the hazardous material was gone.

Another State Police spokesman, Lt. Doug Cain, said I-10 was closed temporarily at 7:30 p.m. as a precautionary measure while one of the tank cars was up righted. It was reopened at 9 p.m. No other closures were planned.

State Police had earlier advised that I-10 could be closed should weather and prevailing winds react to cause another hazardous situation near busy highway.

Steve Kulm, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, said the agency will conduct an investigation, which he said is routine in cases involving release of hazardous materials.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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