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Thousands evacuated after sulfuric acid spill

Fumes spew from train cars leaking sulfuric acid in Tennessee Sunday.
Fumes spew from train cars leaking sulfuric acid in Tennessee Sunday.  

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee (CNN) -- A hazardous materials team worked through the night to clean up thousands of gallons of sulfuric acid that spilled from an overturned rail car in this eastern Tennessee city, emergency officials said.

Authorities evacuated 8,000 people Sunday after the acid being shipped by the U.S. military spilled, forming a heavy, billowing cloud of hazardous gas.

Most evacuees came from the Farragut and Turkey Creek communities and surrounding areas within a 5-mile radius of the accident site, 20 miles from downtown Knoxville. The Red Cross and city authorities set up shelters across the city.

The evacuees most likely would not be able to return to their homes until late in the day or longer, authorities said.

No casualties were reported from the accident or from the ensuing toxic spill, Knoxville police said.

The Norfolk Southern train was en route from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Birmingham, Alabama, and had 141 cars and three locomotives, said Susan Terpay, a company spokeswoman. She said 24 cars and two locomotives derailed.

The cause of the accident, which happened at 11:23 a.m., was being investigated.

Only one of the derailed cars contained the chemical, known as "fuming sulfuric acid," which was being shipped to Birmingham by the military, Terpay said.

Knox County Sheriff Tim Hutchison said he believes the cleanup operation will be "long-term."

The military shipment included two Army tanks on a flatbed car attached to the one containing the sulfuric acid. Hutchison said the tanks "contain no ammunition" and are secure.

Sulfuric acid fumes are an extreme irritant, and direct contact with them can cause blindness. The acid is commonly found in car battery acid, some toilet bowl cleaners, chemical munitions and some fertilizers.

The immediate effect of exposure to the fumes is irritation to the eyes, nose and throat and difficulty breathing. Prolonged exposure can cause extensive damage to the mouth, throat, and stomach, while ingestion of the acid in its liquid form may be fatal.




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