Clara City Train Derailment Tragedy Narrowly Averted, As Evacuees Allowed to Go Home

<"">Clara City train derailment evacuees were allowed to return to their homes around 4:00 p.m. yesterday, 12 hours after a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train ran off the tracks outside of town. Nearly 400 people from the small Minnesota town had been forced to take refuge in a church early yesterday morning after one of the derailed train’s tanker cars ruptured and began leaking hydrochloric acid. Fortunately, good weather and even better luck had kept the Clara City train derailment from becoming a major tragedy.

The Clara City train derailment occurred at 3:30 a.m. as the Burlington Northern Santa Fe train was a half mile outside of town, and evacuations began around 4:30 a.m. The train hit another parked train, sending at least 80 cars from the Burlington Northern train off the tracks. The leaking tanker sent a cloud of hydrochloric acid floating over Clara City. Inhaling hydrochloric acid vapors can cause coughing, choking, inflammation of the nose, throat, and upper respiratory tract, and in severe cases, pulmonary edema, circulatory failure, and death. The vapors from hydrochloric acid can irritate and damage the eyes, and direct contact with the toxin can cause redness, pain, and severe skin burns.

Several thousand gallons of hydrochloric acid spilled from the derailed Burlington Northern Santa Fe tanker, but fortunately the chemical was a weak dilution, and the weather was calm. Because of that, no one was injured in the Clara City train derailment; however about 400 people from the west and north side of town were evacuated to the Bethany Reformed Church in Santa Clara. All public schools in the area were shut down, and several roads where closed around the scene of the Clara City train derailment. Some volunteers who went door to door to warn residents to evacuate did report a burning sensation in their noses.

Though residents were reportedly relieved that the Clara City train derailment did not turn into a tragedy, the West Central Tribune reported that many were concerned that the situation could have been worse. The mayor of Clara City told the newspaper that “if it would have been closer to town, it would have been a different story.” And emergency officials said that the good weather was a blessing, as hydrochloric acid can become a dangerous mist if it is exposed to rain.

Work crews from West Central Environmental Services and the City of St. Paul hazardous waste team spent the day smothering the spilled hydrochloric acid from the Clara City train derailment with lime to neutralize it. By late afternoon the hydrochloric acid spill had been contained, allowing Clara City train derailment evacuees to return home. Air quality tests indicated that the level of hydrochloric acid present near the town was below .5 parts per million, a level that is not considered dangerous.

The stretch of railroad track involved in the Clara City train derailment, which handles more than a dozen trains a day, was expected to reopen this morning. However, it could be four days before all of the wrecked cars are removed from the site of the Clara City Train derailment.

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