Fifteen rail cars overturned when the train, traveling from Kazakhstan to Poland, derailed near Lviv on the Polish border. Of those, six caught fire, spreading a poison cloud over 90 square kilometers.
"The [poison] cloud has affected 14 villages in the Busk district, where some 11,000 people live," Pavlo Vasylevskyy, the press secretary for the Lviv branch of the Emergency Situations Ministry, said today.
Vasylevskyy added that a government committee ordered the evacuation of 793 people, 472 of whom left the area on their own.
Toxic Cloud Spreads
Twenty people, including emergency workers and local residents, suffered inhalation injuries after the liquefied yellow phosphorus combusted, forming the toxic cloud.
Yellow phosphorus is highly flammable and can catch fire spontaneously upon contact with air, creating a distinctive garlic smell. The substance is highly toxic, and can cause liver damage when ingested.
Residents have been advised to stay inside their homes with their windows closed, and to avoid drinking well water and cow milk, or eating local produce.
Yulia Meshanka, who lives in the town of Brody, some 20 kilometers from the place of the accident, told RFE/RL that locals were panicking.
"We did not have enough information," Meshanka said. "Nobody knew what was true. We were told not to leave our houses, do not allow kids to go outside, to seal our homes. We used wet towels and blankets to seal the windows and we continually changed them to keep them wet."
She said people were glued to their radio stations to get information about the danger and ways to survive.
A local senior priest, Father Petro from the Busk region where the accident took place, told RFE/RL that people are worried.
"We are trying, as best we can, to help children and to take them to places not affected by this terrible poison," Petro said. "For adults it is advised to leave and some have left to relatives or friends. But you know people are afraid to leave their belongings as they might be robbed."
Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk visited the site and compared the accident to the Chornobyl nuclear crisis in 1986, saying that "we are again dealing with a case that can pose a real threat for the Ukrainian people."
Kuzmuk said a probe has been opened into what caused the 58-car train to derail. "The Prosecutor-General's Office has already opened a criminal case, the Interior Ministry and the Security Service were given appropriate tasks," he said. "We have to learn why it happened."
Phosphorus compounds are chiefly used in fertilizers. They are also important components of pesticides, toothpaste, and detergents, as well as explosives, nerve agents, and fireworks.