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West Virginia oil train derailment: Fires for hours, smoke

Fires burned for hours after a train carrying more than 100 tankers of crude oil derailed in a snowstorm in West Virginia, sending a fireball into the sky and threatening the water supply of nearby residents, authorities and residents said Tuesday.

Officials evacuated hundreds of families and shut down two water treatment plants after the Monday afternoon derailment. The West Virginia National Guard was taking water samples to determine whether the oil had seeped into a tributary of the Kanawha River, state public safety division spokesman Larry Messina said.

On Tuesday, black smoke could be seen rising from some of the tanker cars in a photo posted by WSAZ-TV on Twitter.

Messina said fire crews decided to let the tanks burn themselves out.

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Federal railroad and hazardous materials officials are probing the accident, in which part of the train formation hit a house. The office of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, which has issued a state of emergency, said the tanker cars were loaded with Bakken crude from North Dakota and headed to Yorktown, Virginia.

All but two of the 109 cars being hauled were tanker cars, officials said. One person was treated for potential inhalation issues, but no other injuries were reported, according to a statement from CSX, the train company.

David McClung said he felt the heat from one of the shuddering explosions at his home. He lives about a half mile up a hill from the site.

"It was a little scary. It was like an atomic bomb went off," he said. One of the explosions that followed sent a fireball at least 300 feet into the air, McClung added.

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The state was under a winter storm warning and getting heavy snowfall at times, with as much as 7 inches in some places. It's not clear if the weather had anything to do with the derailment, which occurred about 1:20 p.m. Monday along a flat stretch of rail about 30 miles southeast of Charleston.

Responders at the scene reported at least one tanker went into the river but Messina said early Tuesday that that did not appear to be the case.

Local emergency responders were initially having trouble getting to the house that caught fire, he said.

Fourteen to 17 tankers caught fire or exploded, said Jennifer Sayre, Kanawha County manager.

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West Virginia American Water shut down a water treatment plant, located about 3 miles from the derailment, spokeswoman Laura Jordan said. Another water plant downstream in the town of Cedar Grove also closed its intake but later resumed operations, Messina said.

About 85 displaced residents went to shelters set up by CSX and the American Red Cross, he said.

The U.S. Transportation Department is weighing tougher safety regulations for rail shipments of crude, which can ignite and result in huge fireballs. Responding to a series of fiery train crashes, including one this spring in Lynchburg, Virginia, the government proposed rules in July that would phase out tens of thousands of older tank cars that carry increasing quantities of crude oil and other highly flammable liquids. It's not clear how old the tankers were on the derailed train.

The Lynchburg train also was hauling Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to Yorktown, Virginia.