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Archie Ingersoll and Kyle Potter, Published December 31 2013

VIDEO: Casselton mayor says about 65 percent of town evacuated overnight

CASSELTON, N.D. - Mayor Ed McConnell said he hopes that residents asked to leave town because of an oil-fueled fire caused by Monday's train crash near here will be allowed back into their homes by the end of Tuesday.

Tuesday morning, a few train cars that contained oil were still burning, and crews were working to isolate those cars by removing surrounding debris and other cars nearby, said Sgt. Tara Morris of the Cass County Sheriff's Department.

"It's coming to the conclusion, I would say, as far as burning," she said.

McConnell said about 65 percent of the town's 2,400 residents left Monday night at the urging of the sheriff's department.

Most evacuees stayed with friends and family while some got hotel rooms. Seventeen people spent the night at a temporary shelter in Fargo's Discovery Middle School, according to the American Red Cross.

Because of the massive black plume of smoke created by the blaze, health officials have been testing the air quality in town and at the site of the fire. "The results have been very promising as there are not a lot of contaminants in the air," Morris said.

No one was hurt in the train derailment and subsequent collision and explosions, and hospitals have not seen an influx of patients with respiratory problems, she said.

"I'm happy it happened where it did," the mayor said, noting how close the crash occurred to Casselton's downtown business district. "That's a pretty short half-mile."

Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board flew into Fargo Tuesday morning and held a news conference at the Fargo Jet Center.

Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB board member, said a team of investigators will consider track conditions, track signal systems, the mechanical condition of the trains, train recorders, the hazardous materials on board and the response from emergency workers. The NTSB team will also be interviewing the train crews, he said.

"I think our biggest challenge right now is that the fire is still burning, and we're not able to get up close and personal to the wreckage until the fire has gone out," he said.

Sumwalt expects the team will be collecting information from the crash scene for five to seven days. "We will not do any analysis while we're here, and we will never do any speculation at all," he said.

He offered an official summary of the crash between the two BNSF freight trains: About 2:10 p.m., a westbound train carrying grain derailed near Casselton. Cars from that train went onto the adjacent track, and an eastbound train hauling crude oil struck those derailed cars. The two locomotives pulling the oil cars were destroyed in the crash. Twenty cars from the eastbound train derailed; 19 held oil and one was a sand-filled car used as a safety buffer between the locomotives and the oil cars.

Sumwalt said the NTSB will share their preliminary findings in about 10 days and its final report will be released in 12 to 18 months.

"If we find something that needs immediate attention, we can issue emergent safety recommendations," he said.

Mayor McConnell said there have been at least three other derailments in the last decade on the same stretch of track where the trains collided Monday.

"They fix it up, they do their maintenance," McConnell said of BNSF. "There's just so much traffic in it."

"With that kind of traffic, there are going to be accidents. Evidently, they're pretty bad accidents."

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who is from Casselton, is expected to visit the town later Tuesday.