Seven Southern Pacific freight cars, including a tanker filled with 30,000 gallons of flammable butane, derailed in front of Compton City Hall and the Los Angeles County branch courthouse Monday, prompting an evacuation of five downtown blocks for fear of an explosion.
No one was injured, but hundreds of government workers were sent home for the day and about 45 stores in and around the Compton Towne Center--the city's business heart--lost as much as $100,000 in Christmas sales, merchants said.
The mishap also added fuel to Compton's long-running debate with the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission over construction of the proposed $595-million Los Angeles-to-Long Beach Light Rail, which is scheduled to pass along the same route.
The accident occurred about 6:45 a.m. as a 55-car train was traveling south from West Colton in San Bernardino County to Carson over rails paralleling Willowbrook Avenue.
As the last dozen cars were passing the City Hall complex, railroad spokesman John J. Tierney said, one rail apparently "fractured," tripping three boxcars loaded with cotton, one refrigerator car bearing frozen foods and three chemical tankers.
Butane Car Toppled
Two tankers containing anti-freeze and a small amount of naphtha remained upright, but the butane car bound for a Union Oil Co. plant toppled onto its side.
Police and fire officials feared that the butane might explode. But Tierney said there was little chance of that happening because of the tanker's heavy insulation.
"I'm not concerned," Tierney said. "There are no leaks, therefore we have no reason to believe that there's any danger."
Tierney added that the Willowbrook tracks had been inspected within the past week. "Just thank God it was not nerve gas," City Councilman Floyd A. James said in reaction to the railroad spokesman's comment. "I think the police chief and the fire chief made the right decisions to evacuate.
"I think it shows the need for us to have something done with the freight (traffic), to move it away from City Hall," James said. "It is a clear example of what we've all been talking about."
New tracks along Willowbrook will carry the Light Rail transit. But Compton officials want all freight traffic diverted at the same time to other tracks a few blocks away.
Transit officials are considering such a proposal, but are still negotiating certain points with the City Council.
Southern Pacific crews expected to have the butane tanker and other derailed cars removed by the end of the day.