An explosion in a shipping container at the world’s largest rail yard prompted evacuations in western Nebraska on Thursday due to toxic smoke released when one of the chemicals on board caught fire.
An explosion occurred around noon in an intermodal container on a rail car at Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard in North Platte, although it was not clear what caused the explosion, railroad spokeswoman Robynn Tysver said. No one was injured and no cars derailed.
Authorities evacuated everyone within a mile of the explosion on the west side of the railroad property because of smoke, and US Highway 30 was closed between North Platte and Hershey. Interstate 80 was not affected by the smoke. It was not immediately clear how many homes were involved in the largely rural area that was evacuated on the edge of the city. North Platte, about 230 miles east of Denver and about 250 miles west of Omaha, has a population of about 23,000.
According to the railway, the fire was extinguished around 5:30 pm on Thursday. Previously, the North Platte Fire Department said in a post on Fire officials did not immediately respond to a call for more details.
One of the containers involved was carrying perchloric acid, which is used in explosives and in a variety of food and drug products, Tysver said. The car that exploded had been stationary for several hours, authorities said.
Joanna Le Moine, deputy director of the Lincoln County Emergency Management Agency, said officials are monitoring the situation and weather to determine which direction the smoke will go “to protect first responders and citizens out of an abundance of caution. ”
The railway property where the explosion occurred covers 2,850 acres (1,153 hectares) and at one point extends as far as 13 km (8 miles). A few years ago, an eight-story observation tower was built so people could watch thousands of train cars being sorted from one train to another on Union Pacific’s main east-west corridor.
One of the volunteers working at the Golden Spike Tower on Thursday told the North Platte Telegraph newspaper that he saw a “big fireball” billowing out while he was talking to someone.
“And then it was just fire, fire, fire, constantly for maybe 10, 12 minutes. And then the fire went out and the smoke increased, and then just sparks came out,” Gregg Robertson told the newspaper.
Two plumes of smoke rose from the explosion site, Robertson said. “The eastern plume was like black smoke. The western plume was orange smoke, something I have never seen from a fire,” he said.
Railroad officials said Union Pacific was able to continue operating part of the facility and keeping the trains moving because the explosion occurred near the western end of the rail yard and prevailing winds carried the toxic smoke outside the rail line. After the fire was extinguished Thursday evening, Union Pacific was able to resume use of the entire rail property, spokeswoman Kristen South said.
Railroad safety has been a national focus since a Norfolk Southern train derailed and caught fire in eastern Ohio. That derailment led to evacuations and calls for reform from members of Congress and regulators.
The National Transportation Safety Board is monitoring the situation but has not yet launched an investigation, agency spokeswoman Sarah Taylor Sulick said.
Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Warren Flatau said that agency officials are at the rail yard monitoring Union Pacific’s response to the explosion.