GRAETTINGER - A train derailment and subsequent fire early Friday morning have federal investigators descending on Palo Alto County to figure out the cause.
Tank cars full of ethanol continued burning 15 hours after the accident. No injuries were reported.
''There was a pretty big explosion about 45 minutes ago,'' Ken Hessenius, a field officer for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said at about 3:15 p.m. Friday.
Tank cars filled with ethanol burn following a derailment early morning on March 10 near Graettinger in Palo Alto County. Some of the cars were still burning 15 hours after the accident on Union Pacific Railroad tracks. No one was injured. Residents of three nearby homes were evacuated.
''No one can get within about a third of a mile of the fire yet,'' he added. ''It's still pretty dangerous there.''
The incident was reported at 12:53 a.m., according to a statement from Palo Alto County Sheriff Lynn Schultes.
The caller reported seeing a fire near Union Pacific Railroad tracks one mile southeast of Graettinger, Schultes said.
When deputies and rescuers arrived on scene, Schultes said they determined the fire started as a result of a train derailment.
There were 101 cars on the train, carrying alcohol from an ethanol plant in Superior. The train also had three locomotives and two employees on board.
Sasha Forsen, a spokeswoman for Green Plains Inc., in Omaha, Nebraska, confirmed that the tank cars were filled at the company's plant in Superior. She declined to say where the ethanol was heading.
Raquel Espinoza, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific Railroad, referred all questions to the National Transportation Safety Board.
"Union Pacific officials were able to detach approximately 74 loaded tankers and removed them from the derailment site," Schultes said. "Nearly 27 tankers remained, of which several were engulfed in flames."
The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a 15-member Go Team to investigate the derailment, according to a press release from the NTSB.
According to Schultes, three area homes within a half mile of the derailment site were evacuated in order to maintain a safe zone. The people who live in those homes were allowed to return at about 10:30 a.m. after it was determined that the fire lost some of its intensity.
Representatives of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources collected water samples from nearby Jack Creek to determine if any of the alcohol got into the waterway. Hessenius said it did not appear that any significant amounts of ethanol had spilled into the creek.
According to the NTSB, initial reports indicate the tank cars that were involved in the derailment are legacy DOT-111 rail tank cars.
The NTSB said that it has identified many vulnerabilities in that tank car design "that create the risk of the release of hazardous materials or flammable liquids when those tank cars are involved in an accident."
As a result of those vulnerabilities, the NTSB stated the United States Congress has mandated the rail industry to end the use of those tanker cars for hazardous or flammable material transport by 2029.
The NTSB will continue to investigate the derailment and said it will update as more information becomes available.
Firefighters from Graettinger and Emmetsburg, emergency medical personnel from Graettinger and Emmetsburg, the Palo Alto and Pocahontas county emergency management agencies, the Iowa State Patrol and the Palo Alto County Roads Department responded to the incident.