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Video: Fire Breaks Out At Train Derailment Site

Crews braved zero-degree weather on Sunday to extinguish a fire that broke out in the debris of a major freight train derailment near Uptown Normal.

The fire began before 9 a.m. Sunday in a semitrailer that was part of the derailed train, near Vernon and Hester avenues, the Normal Fire Department said. Normal fire crews appeared to have it under control by about 11:15 a.m., according to a WGLT reporter on scene.

The fire apparently started with a refrigerated unit inside the semitrailer, which runs off diesel fuel and freon, said Normal Fire Chief Mick Humer. It apparently ruptured as crews were moving the semitrailer and ignited, Humer said. A nearby student apartment building sustained some siding damage due to the flames, he said.

Non-toxic water-soluble paint was in one of the semitrailers. Some of it ran off into nearby Sugar Creek, causing a strange, red discoloration. The Normal Fire Department said the paint is not hazardous, and that the Bloomington-Normal Water Reclamation District tested the creek water and confirmed there were "no hazards to life."

"The coloring will dissipate, and there is no risk to life or the water supply," the fire department said on Facebook. "The water and the ice and snow surrounding the creek may remain discolored until it has a chance to thaw, but there is no life or environmental hazard."

Matt Resch lives in an apartment unit nearby. He woke up and saw the fire outside his window.

"It's been a crazy weekend in Normal," Resch said. Firefighters also fought a major apartment fire Saturday afternoon near Vernon and Linden.

Resch said he went door-to-door inside one of the apartments nearby to wake up residents and alert them to the fire Sunday morning. He invited some to stay warm at his apartment.

"Seeing the fire, I wanted to go over and help and do whatever I could," Resch said. "It's not safe for anybody to be outside in the cold right now. I just wanted to do what's right and help people, because I'd hope they would the same for me."

Train derailment investigation

Meanwhile, federal authorities were investigating what was called a "major train derailment," as crews continued cleanup efforts.

The derailment happened just before 5 a.m. Saturday near Hester Avenue, just south of Watterson Towers, said the Normal Fire Department. It resulted in railroad crossings being blocked throughout the Town of Normal by the remaining train, the fire department said.

No injuries were reported, and no hazardous materials were involved, the fire department said.

Warren Flatau, a spokesperson for the Federal Railroad Administration, said the agency has launched a preliminary investigation into the derailment, but he did not have specifics.

It's unclear when rail service will be restored. Trucks hauling fresh tracks were lined up near the detailment site for crews to install. 

The Normal Fire Department said three railroad crossings remain closed as of 11:45 a.m.; University Street, Fell Street and the Vernon Avenue and Beaufort Street underpass. Six other rail crossings that were closed following the crash have reopened. 

Mike Cully, a Illinois State University senior and construction management major, told WGLT he saw much of it unfold from his nearby apartment building.

“You could just hear the train and it was getting louder and louder, to the point it was shaking the whole building,” Cully said. “Then I looked out my window and I could see the train was starting to come off (the tracks) and what that happened it slipped and hit the power line and the power line started going crazy.”

NFD urged the public to avoid the train or the tracks to try to take pictures or video.

“There are power lines down and portions of the train or track may be energized and poses a electrocution hazard,” the fire department said in a statement. “In addition is in unlawful to trespass on railroad property and may results in fines or arrest."

Normal Mayor Chris Koos said in a post on social media that Ameren has shut down power in a "large area around Uptown to make repairs," adding Uptown Station and Bone Student Center are open as warming centers for those affected.

Normal Community West High School also has been opened as a warming center, according to Unit 5 spokesperson Dayna Brown.

Illinois State University spokesperson Eric Jome said the university has not heard reports of students impacted by power outages as of 1 p.m. Saturday, but said ISU is monitoring the situation in case temporary housing accommodations are needed. 

The university messaged students via social media asking them to address concerns to the Dean of Students office by email: deanofstudents@ilstu.edu.

Amtrak route changes

Amtrak has announced changes to its train schedule while the tracks remain closed in Uptown Normal.

Public relations manager Beth Toll said its Lincoln Service which operates between St. Louis and Chicago has canceled trains 303, 306 and 307. Passengers who were onboard Lincoln Service train 300 that was already in route were put on buses in Springfield to complete the route to Chicago.

Toll said Texas Eagle trains 422 and 22 will detour between St. Louis and Chicago, missing all intermediate spots. Those scheduled to board between Chicago and St. Louis will be provided alternate transportation, she said.

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