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Train in Iowa With Hazardous Materials Derails, Prompting Evacuation

About 80 people in a city in northwest Iowa were evacuated on Sunday afternoon after part of a Union Pacific train hauling hazardous materials derailed and then caught fire, officials said.

The derailment of about 47 cars took place around 2 p.m. in Sibley, said Robynn Tysver, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific. By 3 p.m., local officials had texted an evacuation order to people nearby, citing “HAZMAT train derailment and fire.”

There were no reports of injuries or fatalities, said Lucinda Parker, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. It was not clear where the train was headed or how many total cars it had.

Mike Schulte, a member of the Osceola County board of supervisors, and Ms. Tysver said they were unable to confirm what materials were on the train when it derailed.

Ken Huls, the fire chief in Sibley, said the train was carrying ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer that can be used in explosives, the radio station KIWA reported. Sibley, which is about 80 miles north of Sioux City, has a population of about 2,700.

Wendy J. Buckley, president and chief executive of STARS Hazmat Consulting, said that ammonium nitrate mixed with diesel fuel is “a very explosive mixture.”

The combination is used in the mining industry as an explosive. It was also used in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that killed 169 people and injured 467, she said.

Dan Bechler, the emergency management coordinator for Osceola County, said in an interview that responders were still trying to piece together what happened.

Robin Eggink and her husband, Scott, were eating inside a Pizza Hut when they noticed a large train nearby.

“It was slowing down and then it came to a stop,” she said.

Mr. Eggink, 52, had worked as a train conductor for about a year and “he just knows by the noise that it shouldn’t have came to a stop like it was,” she said. He said the noise sounded like the “squeal” of some type of brake being deployed.

Seeing the train stop at that location was unusual, Ms. Eggink said. The train was blocking a highway intersection and “it can’t stop for very long where it’s at,” she recalled thinking.

About 10 minutes later, they saw the smoke and fire, Ms. Eggink said.

Ms. Tysver said she could not comment on such details because the derailment was still being investigated.

Ms. Buckley, whose firm advises companies on how to transport and store hazardous material, said a train derailment resulting in the loss of hazardous material is very uncommon.

Trains, she said, are the safest transportation method for such material.

“Per million miles traveled, rail is far safer than highway or vessel,” she said. “And you can’t really transport bulk quantities of hazmat on an airplane.”

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