LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) -- Nicole Gibs was serving a table at Lynchburg's Depot Grille across the tracks along the James River when she heard a train that sounded even louder than usual. When she looked up, she saw several train cars wobbling, and then one fell over, immediately sparking a fire.
Several others toppled "like Tyco trains," the 32-year-old said, and her manager yelled: "Evacuate!"
CSX crews were on the scene today trying to quickly clean up and clear what city officials described as more than a dozen derailed train cars, some carrying crude oil. A few caught fire Wednesday, with three tanker cars ending up in the water and leaking some of their contents. It was the latest in a string of crashes involving oil trains that has safety experts pushing for better oversight.
Nearby buildings were evacuated for a time, but officials said there were no injuries. CSX said the train was on its way from Chicago to an unspecified destination when most of the cars were knocked off the tracks. Online photos and videos showed large flames and thick, black smoke right after the crash.
"You could feel the heat like you were standing by a campfire," Gibs said. "It was hot."
Concern about the safety of oil trains was heightened last July when a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border. Forty-seven people died and 30 buildings were incinerated. Canadian investigators said the combustibility of the 1.3 million gallons of light, sweet Bakken crude released in Lac-Megantic was comparable to gasoline.
"This is another national wake-up call," said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman said of the Lynchburg crash. "We have these oil trains moving all across the United States through communities and the growth and distribution of this has all occurred, unfortunately, while the federal regulators have been asleep."
"This is just an area in which the federal rulemaking process is too slow to protect the American people," he said.
There have been eight significant oil train accidents in the U.S. and Canada in the past year involving trains hauling crude oil, including several that resulted in spectacular fires, according to the safety board.
Lynchburg city manager Kimball Payne said about 50,000 gallons of oil were missing from the tankers, but fire officials were unsure how much had burned up and how much had spilled into the water. Those estimates are based on thermal imaging done of the three tankers that were partially in river. Each car holds 30,000 gallons of oil, Payne said.
However, city spokeswoman JoAnn Martin said there's no impact to the water supply for Lynchburg's 77,000 residents because it only sources from the James in times of drought.
Still, drinking water was the first concern for Lynchburg man Mark Lindy, a network engineer who came with his son, Zach, to look at the accident scene. He said he planned to buy a week's worth of water for his family just to be safe.
"I'm not drinking tap water, that's for sure," he said.
Booms had been set up and have appeared to contain the spill, said the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which is helping with oversight.