About 50,000 gallons of crude oil were unaccounted for late Wednesday after a CSX train derailed in downtown Lynchburg and sent three flaming tanker cars careening into the James River.
The ensuing conflagration ignited oil on the surface of the river, sent flames and smoke hundreds of feet into the air, forced evacuations of downtown businesses and homes and rattled the nerves of hundreds of downtown workers.
Dozens of first responders from multiple area agencies descended on the chaotic scene after a slew of emergency 911 calls.
No serious injuries or deaths were reported.
Employees of Scarlett’s Main Street Antique store were tending to typical midweek business when they first saw the flames erupt from the riverbank.
Annette Jordan called 911, and a dispatcher said someone had already reported the train derailment. But that wasn’t the whole story.
Plumes of thick smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air and then began to spread a half-block in both directions, Jordan recalled.
“The whole sky turned black,” she said.
Jordan recalled the fairly understated reaction from the dispatcher: “I better get some more trucks.”
The southbound CSX tanker train derailed about 2 p.m. near the corner of Ninth and Jefferson streets.
Mark Mellette saw “a huge pillar of smoke and fire” and could feel the heat from his apartment on Jefferson Street.
Businesses and residences between Fifth and Washington streets and from Main Street to the riverfront had to be cleared for several hours, as firefighters and hazardous materials workers charged toward the blaze.
Evacuees swarmed Main Street, peering around buildings and police barriers, craning for a better view of the disaster that might provide some explanation as to what went so terribly wrong.
As of Wednesday evening, the crash was still under investigation by multiple government agencies, and no official cause of the derailment had been determined.
CSX confirmed about 15 tanker cars were involved in the derailment. Three or four caught fire, Lynchburg Police Lt. Dave Gearhart said.
Three tanker cars packed with crude oil slid down the bank and into the river during the derailment, according to City Communications and Marketing Director JoAnn Martin.
About 50,000 gallons of their haul was unaccounted for Wednesday evening.
Martin said it is unknown how much of the crude burned up in the fire following the explosion and how much leaked into the James River.
Fire department crews came up with the estimate by using thermal imaging on the three cars, Martin said. Each car carried approximately 30,000 gallons, she said. One car was found empty, one car was full, and one car was about one-third full.
Crews have been able to contain the material still in the cars and will work to empty them safely, she said. She explained those that remained on land did not rupture.
By 4:30 p.m., Gearhart said the fire was under control, and firefighters were letting the rest of the flames burn themselves out.
Speaking several hours after the derailment, Gearhart said no injuries had been reported.
The Centra hospital system put staff on standby Wednesday afternoon in case they were needed to tend to extensive casualties. They were not.
City officials said drinking water is unaffected. Lynchburg typically gets its water from the Pedlar Reservoir in Amherst County. Downstream, Richmond began Wednesday afternoon to switch to an alternate water supply.
City Manager Kimball Payne said the air quality in Lynchburg has been tested, and there are no concerns.
In Lynchburg Circuit Court, a criminal case was about to proceed when Judge Leyburn Mosby mentioned the news of the derailment and evacuated the courtroom, said Joseph Lee, a city assistant prosecutor.
Roads in the downtown area, including the John Lynch Memorial Bridge were closed. The bridge reopened about 4:15 p.m., but some roads were expected to remain closed overnight, as were recreational features such as Blackwater Creek Trail.
The wreck prompted aid from agencies at the state and federal level.
Crews from the National Transportation Safety Board were called in to assist with cleanup.
A representative of the Department of Environmental Quality office in Lynchburg was sent to help as well. The Danville Fire Department announced via Twitter that it would send 15 members of its hazardous materials team.
Crews from Amherst County, state police and Lynchburg Sheriff’s Office also helped.
“This afternoon my Public Safety team informed me of the train derailment and fire in Lynchburg,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe said in a statement. “Immediately after those reports were received the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the Virginia State Police, and the Virginia Department of Fire Programs were instructed to coordinate with local responders and mobilize the resources necessary to respond to this incident.
“Deputy Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Adam Thiel has been dispatched to the scene and will provide my team and me with constant updates as this situation unfolds. I have also spoken with Lynchburg Mayor Michael Gillette and offered him any and all resources he needs to respond to this incident and keep Virginians safe.”
Meanwhile, CSX is organizing its own response.
“We are deploying all of our resources for three primary purposes, one to support the local emergency responders, and secondly to protect the community and citizens from injury, and finally to protect the environment,” CSX CEO Michael Ward told Fox Business Network.
“We're setting up a community response center at this point and we've deployed both external and internal environmental experts to the scene.”
To make way for all the response equipment, the city towed cars that were left in the Amazement Square and Depot Grille parking lots Wednesday evening.
Civilian cars were transferred to the nearby Social Services building at 99 Ninth St., where they can be picked up. No fines will be issued.
The riverfront parking area remained closed to the public Wednesday evening. The RiverWalk portion of the James River Heritage trail near Percival’s Island has been closed indefinitely.
NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman discussed oil train wrecks last week at a two-day safety forum in Washington.
Hersman said the Obama administration needed to take steps immediately to protect the public from potentially catastrophic oil train accidents even if it means using emergency authority.
The Transportation Department was in the midst of drafting regulations to toughen standards for tank cars used to transport oil and ethanol, as well as other steps prevent or mitigate accidents. But there isn't time to wait for the cumbersome federal rulemaking process - which often takes many years to complete - to run its normal course, Hersman said.
A derailment sparked another downtown blaze in recent memory. In March 1998, 10 cars and a tanker carrying acetone caught fire, destroying a city storage building.
Staff writers Barrett Mohrmann, Steve Hardy, Amy Trent, Alicia Petska, Jessie Pounds, Thomas Fraser and Matt Busse as well as the Associated Press and The Richmond Times-Dispatch contributed to this report.