- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2004

TEHRAN — Runaway train cars carrying fuel, fertilizer and industrial chemicals derailed and exploded in northeastern Iran yesterday, killing more than 200 people, injuring hundreds more and devastating five nearby villages, the government news agency said.

The explosion outside Neyshabur, a history-rich city 400 miles northeast of Tehran, was so powerful that residents thought it was an earthquake. Iranian seismologists recorded a 3.6-magnitude tremor, the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported.

Most of the known dead were fire and rescue workers, who died in the blast hours after the train cars derailed and caught fire. Officials in the city of Neyshabur — including the local governor, mayor and fire chief — were among those killed.

Vahid Bakechi, a senior official in Khorasan province’s emergency-operations headquarters, said more than 400 people were injured. Blood donations were being sent to the area, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards closed the area fearing more explosions.

The 51 runaway freight cars left the tracks, with many catching fire and burning several hours before they exploded, IRNA said.

Homes, mainly small mud houses, collapsed from the force of the explosion in villages near the train tracks. Windows were broken within six miles of the blast.

Many of the buildings that collapsed in a Dec. 26 earthquake in Bam, in southeast Iran, also were mud-brick structures. That tragedy killed more than 41,000 people.

IRNA quoted Mehran Vakili, Neyshabur’s medical examiner, as saying 180 bodies had been recovered by yesterday evening from the scene of the blast. Few, if any, of the firefighters were believed to be trained to fight chemical fires.

Mohammed Maqdouri, head of the local emergency headquarters, said 182 firefighters and rescue workers were among the dead.

Neyshabur has a population of about 170,000, and is at the center of a region that grows cotton, fruit and grain. It became one of Persia’s foremost cities, a center of culture with several important colleges, in A.D. 400. Omar Khayyam, the famous 11th-century Persian poet, was born in Neyshabur and is buried there.

The freight cars were waiting at the Abu Muslim train station near Neyshabur when they were set in motion by “some vibrations,” according to initial reports from the city. It wasn’t clear what the vibrations were, though Neyshabur is in a region prone to earthquakes.

The U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colo., said it recorded no earthquake activity in the region.

According to the head of the local emergency operations, the cars rolled out of the station at 4 a.m. Picking up speed and moving without an engine or anyone in control, the cars overturned when they reached Khayyam, the next stop, starting a blaze.

Gov. Mojtaba Farahmand-Nekou, the city’s top political leader, was among the dead, IRNA reported. It said the head of the city’s energy department also was killed and that the director-general of the provincial railways was missing.

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