PORTLAND, Ore. – A train towing cars full of oil derailed Friday in Oregon’s scenic Columbia River Gorge, sparking a fire that sent a plume of black smoke high into the sky.
The accident happened around noon near the town of Mosier, about 70 miles east of Portland. It involved eight cars filled with oil, and one was burning, said Ken Armstrong, state Forestry Department spokesman.
Highway 84 was closed for a 23-mile stretch between The Dalles and Mosier and the radius for evacuations was a half-mile.
About 200 students were evacuated from an elementary and middle school near the scene.
The train was operated by Union Pacific. Railroad spokesman Justin Jacobs didn’t return calls.
Silas Bleakley was working at his restaurant in Mosier when the train derailed.
“You could feel it through the ground. It was more of a feeling than a noise,” he told The Associated Press as smoke billowed from the tankers.
Bleakley said he went outside, saw the smoke and got in his truck and drove about 2,000 feet to a bridge that crosses the railroad tracks.
There, he said he saw tanker cars “accordioned” across the tracks.
Another witness, Brian Shurton, was driving in Mosier and watching the train as it passed by the town when he heard a tremendous noise.
“All of a sudden, I heard ‘Bang! Bang! Bang!’ like dominoes,” he said.
He, too, drove to the bridge overpass to look down and saw the cars flipped over before a fire started in one of the cars and he called 911, he said.
“The train wasn’t going very fast. It would have been worse if it had been faster,” said Shurton, who runs a windsurfing business in nearby Hood River.
Environmentalists reacted quickly to the accident and called it a reminder of why oil should not be transported by rail.
“Moving oil by rail constantly puts our communities and environment at risk,” said Jared Margolis, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity in Eugene, Oregon.
Matt Lehner, a spokesman from the Federal Railroad Administration, said a team of investigators was headed to the scene from Vancouver, Washington.