A freight train carrying yellow phosphorus derailed in western Ukraine, causing a fire that produced a giant poison cloud and contaminating the area around 14 villages, emergency officials said on Tuesday.
Twenty people, including 10 local residents, were poisoned and hospitalised, said Ihor Halyavinsky, spokesman for the defence ministry, adding there was no threat to their lives.
Of the 11,000 people who live in the contaminated area, 815 were evacuated, said Ihor Krol, the spokesman for the emergency situations ministry.
The train, which was traveling from Kazakhstan to Poland, derailed yesterday evening near Lviv on the Polish border. Of the train's 58 cars, 15 overturned and six caught fire, Krol said.
Rescuers extinguished the fire yesterday but continued to work at the site.
Ukraine's Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk, who was at the site, compared the accident to the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986. "A disaster has happened. After the Chernobyl catastrophe we are dealing with a case that can pose a real threat for our people," said Kuzmuk.
"It is an extraordinary event, the consequences of which cannot be predicted."
Yellow phosphorus is highly inflammable and can catch fire spontaneously on contact with air at temperatures higher than 40 degrees centigrade, emitting a characteristic garlic smell when it burns.