A Southern Pacific freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in the Ventura County coastal community of Seacliff Sunday afternoon, after dragging the disabled, careening cars along several miles of track in a cascade of sparks.
Four of the 14 railroad cars that spilled off the tracks just after noon were carrying two types of chemicals: a half-strength aqueous hydrazine solution used to make agricultural, metal plating, plastics and photo processing chemicals; and naphthalene, an industrial solvent for making other chemicals. Both chemicals can be toxic if inhaled but are not considered highly flammable, Southern Pacific spokesman Mike Brown said.
"This appears to be serious," said Jules Griggs, a Ventura County Fire Department spokesman. "The hydrazine has caused highly toxic vapors in the area. It is a strong oxidizer that reacts with different substances, and it is reacting with the rails. It is going to be a real big cleanup."
Authorities reported no serious injuries. A television cameraman and an area resident who ventured too close to the vapors were taken to area hospitals after complaining of nausea. Both were treated and released.
Hundreds of people--residents, surfers and oil-facility workers--were evacuated from sunny stretches of beach near the tracks about eight miles north of Ventura because of concerns about toxic fumes. Although smoke continued to rise throughout the evening from the tangle of cars, officials said it was unclear whether the plume of smoke was from vaporizing chemicals or just from burning grass set afire by sparks thrown from the skidding cars.
Southern Pacific cautioned that it was too soon to determine the source of the plume. "There is some indication that there is some spilled material," Brown said, but "there is no indication that hazardous stuff was burning."
Fearing that the cloud might be toxic, the California Highway Patrol closed a 10-mile stretch of the Ventura Freeway, creating delays as long as four hours for Sunday travelers. Northbound traffic was routed through Ojai on the small, winding lanes of California 150 and California 33. Southbound traffic was turned around and sent back up the Ventura Freeway.
Ingmar Mellein of Ojai said it took him 4 1/2 hours to make his usual 35-minute trip from Montecito to Ojai. "It was sort of a party atmosphere. I didn't see any lost tempers at all," Mellein said of the rerouted drivers.
The massive traffic jam of weekend traffic was further complicated by an accident on California 150 a few miles from the Ventura Freeway, and a head-on collision near California 33 on Ventura Avenue.
The diverted traffic brought a windfall to Ojai, with weary drivers stocking up on food, drinks and gasoline to help them brave the rest of their trips.
Caltrans officials said the freeway could remain closed this morning, depending on cleanup and an assessment of the Old Pacific Coast Highway overpass, which was damaged in the derailment.
The accident also disrupted Amtrak train service on the main San Francisco-to-Los Angeles route, requiring passengers to be transported by bus between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Amtrak officials said service would resume today by rerouting trains around the site.
Officials said a broken axle apparently contributed to the accident, and witnesses reported seeing the 42-car freight train--en route from Los Angeles to Oakland--dragging on its belly, spewing sparks from as far as Camarillo, nearly 20 miles south of where it derailed. The train also kicked up rocks, showering them on motor homes parked along the Rincon Parkway near the derailment.
Carl LaFlamme of Canoga Park was bicycling north with friends on a trail near the freeway when he heard screeching metal and looked south in time to see the train cars topple off the tracks.
"The cars slowly started tilting over like the back end was being dragged around," LaFlamme said. "There was high dust clouds and rocks flying all over."
Bill Hager, a fire investigator for the Ventura County Fire Department, said he found an axle in a brush fire three miles below the derailment site. The severe drag on the train did not begin until the last three miles, he said. A bearing in the axle "got overheated and seized up. The friction caused it to be so hot, the axle eventually broke off."
The train's conductor, Bob Nagle, said he was unaware of trouble until about half of the cars broke free, snapping the air compression brake line that threw the train into an automatic emergency stop. He said the train was traveling about 56 m.p.h. on a stretch of track designed to handle speeds of up to 60 m.p.h.
"I looked back and saw clouds of dust, and I knew we had a problem," Nagle said.