Train derailment

A fire erupted along the tracks in downtown Lynchburg today following the derailment of a freight train.

UPDATE: Lynchburg has declared a state of emergency and Richmond has begun to switch to an alternate water supply after a train carrying crude oil derailed today, spilling oil into the James River upstream from Richmond's primary water supply.

A CSX train of 12 to 14 tanker cars laden with fuel oil derailed near downtown Lynchburg at 2 p.m., according to LuAnn Hunt, a spokeswoman for the city. Three to four of the tanker cars breached and caught fire, she said.

"There is some spillage in the river of crude oil," Hunt said.

Pat Calvert, riverkeeper for the upper James, said, "The first report I received from a citizen was the river's on fire. It would appear a part of the river's on fire."

Robert C. Steidel, Richmond director of public utiliities, said the city is making plans to tap the old Kanawha Canal system at Tuckahoe Creek instead of drawing water from the James, the city's primary source of drinking water.

"We are making preparations for going to an alternative water supply," Steidel said.

No one was killed or injured in the derailment, but Lynchburg City Manager Kimball Payne declared a state of emergency and evacuated several blocks of the city's downtown.

Lynchburg firefighters are "allowing the fire to burn itself out," said Hunt, who added that firefighters are preventing the fire from spreading to the other tanker cars.

Hunt advised that anyone in the Lynchburg area with breathing problems to remain inside or stay away from the affected area.

Pat Calvert, the riverkeeper -- or citizen monitor -- for the upper James River, said, "The first report I received from a citizen was that the river's on fire...It would appear a part of the river's on fire."

Speaking on route to Lynchburg, Calvert said he will take water samples and look for fish kills in an effort to gauge the incident's ecological effects, which he said remain to be seen.

Oil will break down and biodegrade over time, but "not without causing some potential harm," said Calvert, who works for the nonprofit James River Association.

The incident is an example of what some critics call "bomb trains" -- trains that carry flammable or toxic cargo.

"We need to start a larger discussion on what is appropriate for us to be transporting by rail," Calvert said.

A spokesman for Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Adam Thiel, the deputy secretary of public safety and homeland security, is heading to Lynchburg, as is the acting director of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

In a statement, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said that after he was informed of the derailment, “the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, the Virginia State Police, and the Virginia Department of Fire Programs were instructed to coordinate with local responders and mobilize the resources necessary to respond to this incident."

McAuliffe said he had also spoken with  Lynchburg Mayor Michael Gillette and offered him "any and all resources he needs to respond to this incident and keep Virginians safe.”

A thick column of black smoke rises over downtown Lynchburg from a fire that erupted following train derailment in the downtown area.

Thomas Goode, of the city fire marshal's office, said the train was not a passenger train. It is potentially carrying chemicals.

Goode said he had not heard of any injuries related to the derailment.

Centra Health spokesperson Diane Riley said Wednesday afternoon, "Our incident command is on stand by. Right now we haven't been told of any injuries."

The incident occurred near the bottom of 10th Street. Commerce Street is shut down. Authorities are evacuating numerous buildings in the area.

Roger Murphy, executive chef at Shoemaker's American Grille, said a Virginia State Police trooper evacuated the restaurant.

Dozens of firefighters and police officers are on the scene.

Diana Saunders and Paul Waggener were hiking on Percival Island when, Waggener said, “We heard a huge, crazy noise.”

Waggener said they immediately saw “all this black smoke and fire coming up.”

He said one ruptured tanker was bearing “flammable” warnings and appeared the main source of a “huge, 50-foot-high fire.”

He said he witnessed no injuries, but “didn’t want to get too much closer.”

He described the current scene as “a total mess and a big old fire.”

Lynchburg Circuit Court was evacuated, according to a prosecutor in the Lynchburg Commonwealth's Attorney Office.

Joseph Lee, an assistant prosecutor, said he was in the courtroom before a criminal case was about to start Circuit Court Judge Leyburn Mosby mentioned the news of the derailment and evacuated the courtroom.

This has been a breaking news update. Check back later for more information.

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