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Broken axle focus of train crash, fire near Fargo

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A broken axle is one focus of a federal probe into what caused a Monday train explosion and fire that prompted the voluntary evacuation of the town of Casselton, North Dakota.

As cleanup crews hauled away debris, federal investigators said Wednesday that they recovered the broken axle at the scene of the oil train derailment and fire but haven't determined yet whether it was a cause or result of the wreck, the Associated Press reported.

Among a number of other preliminary findings, signals in the area were in good working order, Forum Communications reported. Investigators are also looking at the speed of the trains and trying to retrieve travel data from the trains, Forum reported.

National Transportation Safety Board officials have said a westbound BNSF train hauling grain derailed, and a portion of it fell onto an adjacent track carrying the eastbound BNSF oil train.

Eighteen cars on the 106-car oil train derailed and burned in a spectacular fire that sent black smoke billowing into the air over Casselton, roughly 20 miles west of Fargo on the Minnesota border.

Many residents in the 2,300-population town evacuated due to concerns about toxic smoke, but they were allowed to return after 3 p.m. Tuesday, and on Wednesday they were welcoming a return to normalcy, the Associated Press reported.

BNSF is setting up a claims center Thursday, where residents and businesses can file for losses as a result of the incident, WDAY reported.

WDAY also had reported that just weeks ago, a team from BNSF was in town and officials talked about the chances of a crude oil train accident. WDAY reported that Amy McBeth, speaking for BNSF in November, said, “Any incident with hazardous materials is very, very rare. In fact, 99.99 percent of hazardous materials make it to their destination without any incident.”

The fire has again sparked debate about whether it’s safer to ship oil by rail or pipeline as the U.S. completes a review of the Keystone XL project, Bloomberg reported.

The explosion occurred about a half-mile west of town, and residents say it could have been far, far worse.

“We could have had this go so many different ways,” Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said, Forum Communications reported. “If that thing happened a half mile into town, we’d be looking at a very, very different discussion here today.”

Video posted to YouTube by MPR News' Dan Gunderson shows a massive fireball:

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