ROCKFORD, Ill. (AP) -- Railroad tank cars holding thousands of gallons of highly flammable ethanol derailed and exploded in flames, killing a 41-year-old woman as she tried to run to safety from a car stopped at a crossing.
Three other people from the same car escaped with severe burns. Hundreds of people were evacuated from homes near the explosion.
Eighteen tank cars, all filled with ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, derailed Friday on the edge of Rockford, about 80 miles northwest of Chicago.
The wreckage burned through the night, but the fire was extinguished by Saturday evening, leaving a blackened collection of rail cars piled on top of one another. Crews are expected to use cranes to remove the cars from the tracks for inspection later Saturday.
Railroad Investigator Stephen Klejst said Saturday the train's event recorder, similar to a plane's black box, has been recovered. The train was traveling at 34 mph at the time of the incident, below the track speed limit of 50 mph, he said.
National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Robert Sumwalt said investigators wouldn't speculate about what may have caused the derailment. A thorough investigation could take a year, he said.
Investigators will look into the train crew's performance, the train's mechanical components, signals, the integrity of the cars containing ethanol and the emergency response, Sumwalt said.
Weather is one of the factors investigators will be considering as they try to determine a cause, Klejst said. The tracks had been inspected Friday, and no problems were detected, he said.
Reports that the derailment was caused by a washout of the tracks following heavy rain were "not a certainty and this remains under investigation," said Canadian National Railway Company spokesman Patrick Waldron.
The woman who was killed -- Zoila Tellez, 41, of Rockford -- had escaped from the stopped automobile, but she managed to get only 20 feet away before she fell and died, said Winnebago County Coroner Sue Fiduccia. Tellez' body was found face down on the ground.
Three people with the woman also ran from the car when it was bombarded with flying railroad ties and they were severely burned by flaming ethanol, said Rockford Fire Chief Derek Bergsten. They were taken to OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center in serious to critical condition, and one was transferred to Stroger Hospital in Chicago, he said.
Officials evacuated about 600 homes in the area on the edge of Rockford, about 80 miles northwest of Chicago, Friday night amid concerns about air pollution.
All residents were allowed to return Saturday evening, and many milled around the scene taking pictures of the wreckage with their phones or cameras.
Larry Bruce, who lives near the scene, evacuated with his family, and they spent Friday night in their RV parked at a Wal-Mart. The 41-year-old father said he had no choice but to leave because his twin 21-year-old daughters have respiratory problems.
"We have very little room for error and no room for mistakes," he said, adding that officials have not told him when the air quality will improve.
Two crewmen on the eastbound Canadian National train escaped injury, Waldron said. The engine crew was able to pull 64 cars away from the fire.
At least 26 fire departments had sent crews to the scene.
Witnesses told the Rockford Register-Star that cars on the Chicago-bound train began hydroplaning in standing water as it approached the crossing.
Alicia Zatkowski, a spokeswoman for ComEd, said the derailment knocked out power to about 1,000 of the Chicago-based utility's Rockford-area customers.
Parts of northern Illinois may have gotten as much as 4 inches of rain Friday, said meteorologist Gino Izzi of the National Weather Service. Chicago's O'Hare International Airport measured 3.6 inches, a record for the date, he said.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)