MINOT, N.D. -- Deputy Scott Erb was responding to a train derailment when he suddenly became disoriented in a thick, toxic cloud. He called for help, but was trapped for nearly an hour until rescue crews saw his car's flashing lights.
"It was literally like breathing fire in," he said.
Erb was one of dozens of people who suffered respiratory problems after a train carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed and sent a vapor cloud of the fertilizer over a neighborhood in Minot. One resident died after inhaling the gas.
By evening, three cars still were leaking but the affected area was confined to a square mile, fire Chief Bob Wetzler said.
"We believe we've got the situation stabilized," he said.
The white cloud covered the area for about five hours after the derailment early Friday, Wetzler said. Dozens of residents were evacuated.
About 100 people were treated for respiratory problems at Trinity Hospital, and 15 were admitted, said Dr. Jeffrey Verhey, a critical-care specialist.
"We saw a whole range of symptoms, from mild burning of the eyes, nose and mouth to very severe burning," he said. "In severe cases, people get to the point where they can't breathe."
The fertilizer, anhydrous ammonia, is transported as a liquid, but turns gaseous when it contacts air. Spraying water onto the leak would contain it.
The cause of the derailment was under investigation.
Cleanup crews built roads to the derailment site so they could reach the leaking cars with pumper tankers, Wetzler said.
Power was knocked out to part of the town, and schools canceled classes for the day.
The 38-year-old man who died was found outside his home near the derailment site, county Emergency Manager Thom Mellum said.
Resident Lori Raub was told to evacuate about 3 a.m. as temperatures hovered around 5 below zero.
"You could really smell the ammonia, but we weren't in it long enough for it to burn our eyes," Raub said. "It was very foggy, and we could hardly see more than 6 feet in front of us."
About 30 of the train's 112 cars derailed, according to Canadian Pacific Railway. The train was headed from Medicine Hat, Alberta, to St. Paul.
As many as 18 carried ammonia, and at least five were punctured, railway Vice President Patrick Pender said.
Federal Emergency Management Agency and Environmental Protection Agency officials were at the scene Friday, said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. A National Guard unit also was helping with the cleanup.
On the Net:
Canadian Pacific Railway: http://www.cpr.ca/cprportal.asp
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