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Columbus residents shocked by 2 a.m. train explosion

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Onlookers described the early morning explosion as a light so bright it looked like the sun.

However, the train derailment and explosion that occurred early Wednesday morning was not so harmless.

“We were inside, the kids were asleep. The explosion was so loud it opened the front door,” said Rhonda Wickham, a 9th Avenue resident.

Her home is one of the closest to the scene of a Norfolk Southern train derailment and explosive fire that gained national attention Wednesday.

The derailment occurred just south of the Ohio State Fairgrounds in the off-campus area at Fields and 5th avenues.

The flames could be seen miles away as students and other onlookers flocked to the area to get a better look. Officers from the Columbus Division of Police shut down roads and instructed pedestrians to remove themselves from the area.

Officers suggested early Wednesday morning that anyone within a half-mile radius of the fire evacuate, and anyone within a mile radius stay indoors.

“I walked outside to see what was going on, and an officer told us we might have to leave,” Wickham said, who took several pictures of the fire on her cell phone before leaving the residence. She stayed the night in a nearby Comfort Inn with her two kids.

“We got out of there pretty fast,” she said.

Columbus Division of Fire Battalion Chief Michael Fowler said about 100 people had been evacuated to the Rhodes Center at the Ohio State Fairgrounds Wednesday morning.

Wickham returned to her home later in the morning with her family, where an officer gave her an update on the situation. The smoking cars visible from her front porch made her uneasy.

“As long as it keeps smoking, it’s a breathing hazard,” she said.

Wickham’s neighbor Kate Cook said she woke up in the night to the sound of an officer pounding on her door.

“I’m a heavy sleeper … by the time I woke up the officer was already down the street,” Cook said. “They said don’t go outside. It’s not toxic, but it’s extremely flammable.”

The derailed train was headed to Linwood, N.C., from Chicago, and contained chemicals like styrene and ethanol, along with grain and corn syrup. Dangerous chemicals were removed from the area, and cars containing styrene were not punctured during the derailment.

Hours later, the fire continues to burn, fueled by three cars of ethanol, according to a Norfolk Southern Corporation release.

American Electric Power turned off power to residences close to the site of the fire as a precaution Wednesday morning, and Cook said that her power went off at 4 a.m.

Ohio State students received an alert about the fire at 3:45 a.m. and another at 8:45 a.m., warning them to avoid the area. Some students however, found out about the explosion sooner.

“I was just sitting on my couch and there was this like huge sunburst. I thought like the sun had come up for a second, and then I like looked outside and no one acted like anything had happened,” said Christina Sykes, a fourth-year in economics.

Sykes said she turned on the news to find out what was happening, but could see the flames from her house at 16th and 4th avenues.

As of 6 p.m. Wednesday, the evacuation has been lifted from the area, but the derailed train continues to burn.

The National Transportation Safety Board sent representatives to Columbus to inspect the incident site Wednesday afternoon. After visiting the site, NTSB member Earl Weener spoke in a press conference at about 5:15 p.m.

Weener said NTSB sent “staff with expertise in rail equipment, hazards, materials and emergency response,” to Columbus, and that the team is still gathering details about the derailment.

Two minor injuries related to the incident were reported, and the cause of the derailment is still unknown.

 

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