Train Derails, Spills Acids in Southern California
MECCA, California, March 4, 2008 (ENS) - A Union Pacific train carrying hazardous materials derailed while crossing the southern California desert last night, sending up a plume of fumes and smoke and forcing evacuations, according to the Riverside County Fire Department. An undetermined amount of hydrochloric acid and phosphoric acid was spilled at the scene.

Fire officials say 28 cars derailed two miles north of Mecca, a farming community of 3,000 people. A total of 40 residents were evacuated from the general area as a precaution. No injuries have been reported.

The Union Pacific freight train derailed near Mecca, California. (Photo courtesy Riverside County Fire Dept.)

Sixteen fire engines and a helicopter converged at the scene of the derailment to extinguish the blaze, which was reported about nine o'clock last night.

The train was hauling tanker cars full of hydrochloric acid, a corrosive substance, and phosphoric acid, which is milder. Both acids were spilled when the train derailed, but officials cannot now tell how much acid was spilled until they can get closer to the damaged cars. The fumes have so far kept workers away.

Six of the railcars are still upright but 22 cars are in a mangled pile off the railroad tracks. Officials are keeping the general public out of a one mile radius around the site.

None of the tank cars filled with hazardous materials caught fire, says Captain Fernando Herrera of the Riverside County Fire Department. The column of dark smoke that could be seen for miles was from burning railroad ties and other cars, he said.

State and company officials flew over the site this morning to get a good look at the situation. Now, at least 150 people are working their way in to the derailed tankers to assess the spill, get the overturned cars moved, and repair the tracks.

"Union Pacific will be using heavy equipment to remove dirt and cover the spill site to reduce vapors around the hot zone area so personnel can work, then we'll be seeing if the cars are intact enough to move," said Captain Herrera. "That's hard to see from the air."

The cause of the derailment is under investigation, said James Barnes, director of media information for Union Pacific. Barnes said the 65 car train was heading from West Colton to El Centro, California.

The accident site is adjacent to Highway 111, which is closed for seven miles south of State Road 195. A detour is available.

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