While the wreckage was significant, a train derailment Tuesday northwest of Ligonier that sparked a fire and a hazardous spill appeared to be causing minimal environmental damage.
Twenty-five train cars derailed early Tuesday morning on an eastbound train along the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks northwest of C.R. 950 North and C.R. 1100 West, according to the Noble County Sheriff’s Department.
Three cars went back onto the tracks, but 22 cars were off. There was one car east of the C.R. 1100 West intersection and the rest were west of the crossing, Noble County Sheriff Doug Harp said.
The derailment was reported at about 5:30 a.m. and a fire broke out about 6 a.m.
Emergency responders initially believed liquid molten sulfur had leaked into a marsh that connects to the Elkhart River. However, by late morning Tuesday officials revised their assessment, saying they believed the spill was limited to a stagnant marsh and that the river was likely not affected.
“The risk is relatively low as far as public safety,” Sheriff Harp said. “At this point, we feel pretty good.”
Authorities were monitoring the Elkhart River near the spill and monitoring air quality Tuesday.
Strong gusty winds out of the southeast limited the evacuation area to a small section just northwest of the derailment.
“The area we evacuated is relatively safe for anybody (who remains) there,” Harp said.
As for the spill, “It might not be as bad as the first reports were,” Harp said. “A lot of the spill was contained in some stagnant water, so they were hopeful it wasn’t going to go into the river system.”
Observers were set up west of the accident along the river to look for any sign of contamination, and two booms were stretched across the river as a precautionary effort.
Harp said no injuries were reported from the derailment or from any fumes. He said Tuesday the cause of the derailment is still under investigation.
In a mid-afternoon press conference, Harp explained that the sulfur was still burning and officials thought that placing any water on that fire might spread the contamination. He did not estimate how long it may burn, but said fire and HAZMAT crews were using meters to judge the air quality.
“For the most part, there is not any issue with air quality unless people are closer than 100 yards,” Harp said. He added that officials had to turn away spectators who rode to the scene on off-road machines.
“No one is in immediate threat,” the sheriff said. “The scene is well-contained. Let the responders do this job.” Harp also said it seemed like there were representatives of 100 different agencies at the scene and they are working well together because emergency crews practice for this kind of event.
“I am really impressed with the railroad. They don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Harp said. He estimated the work may continue to noon today.
Construction crews were still arriving at the scene, about two miles east of the Elkhart County Line, at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
In addition to a car carrying liquid molten sulfur, officials believe three cars were leaking, but authorities did not believe the leaks were hazardous.
Work crews for Norfolk Southern had already begun repairing tracks to the east of the derailment Tuesday morning.
Elkhart County and Noble County officials established a mobile command center just to the south of the tracks at a farm at 9569 C.R. 1100 West. Nearly a dozen flatbed trucks with earth-moving machinery and railroad repair machinery arrived by mid-morning and parked along C.R. 950 North.
The Elkhart County Mobile Command Center and Red Cross canteen truck were also on the scene.
Neighbors just south of the tracks whose farms were converted into a makeshift command center took the chaotic scene in stride.
“This is the most traffic we’ve had in some time,” said Carol Guyas, who lives with her husband, Bill, in a farmhouse on the east side of C.R. 1100 West.
Guyas said she slept through the derailment and didn’t realize something had happened until she listened to a message on her phone from a neighbor, Inah Schrock.
The large emergency response was comforting, Guyas said.
“I’m not concerned about it because I know they’ll take care of it eventually,” she said.
Schrock, who lives across the street from the Guyas, stood in her front yard amid all the bustle of emergency responders and held her 2-year-old daughter, Jana.
She said she was initially worried.
“I knew if it were bad, they would have come to the door,” Schrock said.
Eventually, emergency responders knocked on her door asking if they could use the Schrock’s front yard as a staging area.
Tuesday’s derailment wasn’t the first train-related excitement Bill and Carol Guyas have experienced in the 46 years they’ve lived in their home.
Years ago, a human foot was found along the tracks not far from their home. Carol Guyas said she was told it was the result of an accident in Toledo, Ohio, and that the foot had somehow dislodged itself from a train as it was passing nearby.
They also recalled another derailment more than 25 years ago. Unlike Tuesday’s crash, Guyas said, she saw that derailment happen and recalled that some of those cars were momentarily standing up on end.
Guyas said Tuesday’s emergency response was “much, much larger” — in part, she speculated, because of the threat of hazardous materials.
According to The Associated Press, more than 300 Amtrak passengers traveling to Chicago were stranded in Ohio by the derailment.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said two trains were waiting Tuesday at the Toledo, Ohio, station for the track to open or a detour to be found. He says the Lake Shore Limited from New York and Boston had 165 passengers, and the Capitol Limited from Washington was carrying 197 passengers.
Magliari says Amtrak is arranging buses or other transportation for short-distance passengers.
Goshen News staff writer Rod Rowe contributed to this report.