Ammonia gas leaks following North Dakota train derailment

Saturday, January 19, 2002

MINOT, N.D. -- A train derailed west of this North Dakota city early Friday, sending a cloud of anhydrous ammonia gas over the area. One person died and more than a dozen were hospitalized.

"It was like something just grabbed your lungs," said state Sen. Randy Schobinger, who lives about 500 feet from the tracks.

Gov. John Hoeven said more than 60 people went to the hospital and 13 were admitted, seven in intensive care. Their conditions were not immediately known.

Authorities did not immediately identify the man who died, but said he was found outside his home, close to the wreck.

The accident occurred at 1:40 a.m. when about 30 cars of a 112-car Canadian Pacific Railway train derailed and a couple of them rolled away from the track, Hoeven said. The train was headed from Medicine Hat, Alberta to Minneapolis.

CPR Vice President Patrick Pender said 17 or 18 of the cars were carrying anhydrous ammonia and he believed at least five were punctured. The cause of the derailment was under investigation.

Anhydrous ammonia is a fertilizer, which is stored in a liquid form but turns into a toxic gas when it contacts air. It can cause a burning sensation to the eyes and throat and, in some cases, can lead to suffocation, experts say.

Crews worked Friday to build a road to the accident site, and officials planned to dump water on two tanks that still appeared to be leaking to prevent the liquid from turning to gas. Officials estimated more than 100 gallons of the ammonia had spilled.

Minot, population 36,000, is about 100 miles north of Bismarck.

With temperatures hovering around 5 below zero, Paul Behm, who owns a truck stop near the derailment site, put a moist towel over his nose and mouth and went knocking on doors to make sure friends living nearby were not hurt.

"The cloud had started kind of enveloping the truck stop area," Behm said. "It smells just like ammonia cleaner, only higher concentrate."

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