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Tampa port reopens after train derailment, ethanol spill

TAMPA — A train carrying thousands of gallons of ethanol derailed early Thursday, tipping 11 rail cars and causing a leak that shut down a portion of the Port of Tampa for hours.

Firefighters received word about 1 a.m. that the train had derailed near Maritime Boulevard and S 22nd Street, Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Lonnie Benniefield said. Three of the cars hauling as much as 30,000 gallons of highly flammable ethanol began leaking after the accident.

Some 4,500 gallons of ethanol seeped from fittings but the cars stayed intact, said Gary Sease, a spokesman for CSX Transportation, which operates the rail line.

Two people — a locomotive engineer and a conductor — were aboard when the train derailed, Sease said. Neither was injured.

Most of the port reopened later Thursday morning.

The spilled ethanol was contained to the immediate area, Sease said, and the leaks in the rail cars were stopped. Environmental experts dug ditch lines in the area closest to the spill to prevent it from spreading, Sease said. They also used vacuum equipment to remove the fuel.

Heavy wind and rain that moved through the area near dawn Thursday complicated efforts to contain the spill, fire officials said.

The train was en route to the Port of Tampa from Chicago, with two locomotives hauling 81 rail cars, officials said. Of the 12 cars that came off the tracks, 11 overturned.

The cause of the derailment was not immediately known, authorities said. CSX officials were investigating.

Firefighters were working with CSX to figure out how to right the toppled rail cars. They had requested specialized equipment similar to a crane to return the cars to the tracks, Benniefield said. One piece of equipment was coming from Atlanta and another from Nashville.

Sease said efforts to right the cars and clean the area had begun Thursday evening. Cleanup was expected to last into today.

Fire and hazardous materials crews spent part of Thursday coating the spilled ethanol with foam. Ethanol, a type of alcohol, is commonly used as a solvent, in thermometers and as a gasoline additive. By afternoon, many of the firefighters were relieved but some expected to be called back when the train cars are removed.

Authorities restricted access to the port in the derailment area while fire crews sprayed foam to dilute the ethanol and temper its flammability, Benniefield said.

Firefighters believe they avoided what could have been a dangerous blaze.

"Any time you have a fuel like this — especially a flammable liquid — you have the possibility of a spark starting some type of fire," Benniefield said.

Tampa Fire Rescue is the main first-responder to the Port of Tampa, and those who got to the scene first quickly recognized the leaking substance to be flammable, according to Benniefield. It's hard to say how big of a blaze could have resulted if the ethanol caught fire, he said.

The spill canceled business for scores of workers at the various industrial sites south of the area. Dock workers, ship builders and wastewater treatment employees gathered before 6 a.m. near the site, watching rescue workers curiously as they realized they had no way to get to work.

"We saw all the lights and we couldn't go in. We didn't know what happened," said Rene Delgado, a welder superintendent. "That's 10 hours of work that we miss today. We don't go in and we don't get paid."

About 100 workers assembled nearby in the parking lot of Copa's Latin American Cafe, sipping coffee and juice while chatting about the lost work day. As heavy gray clouds rolled in, the men took cover in their cars and under buildings.

"It's the one day I left without my rain jacket," said John Reis, 46, who works as a pipefitter on an oil rig. He rode 5 miles from his Palm River home on a mountain bike, a lunch bag mounted above the back wheel. Hearing he might be out of work for the day, Reis shrugged it off.

"I'm going fishing," he said.

Times staff writers Zachary T. Sampson, Jessica Vander Velde and Charles Scudder contributed to this report.

Tampa port reopens after train derailment, ethanol spill 07/25/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 9:19am]

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