Nearby buildings were evacuated for a time, but officials said there were no injuries and the city on its website and Twitter said firefighters on the scene made the decision to let the fire burn out. Three or four tankers were breached on the 15-car train that CSX said was on its way from Chicago to an unspecified destination. Most of the cars were knocked off the tracks.
Online photos and videos showed large flames and thick, black smoke right after the crash. But in later photos it seemed the fire was mostly out.
Concern about the safety of oil trains was heightened last July when runaway oil train derailed and exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border. Forty-seven people died and 30 buildings were incinerated. Canadian investigators said the combustibility of the 1.3 million gallons of light, sweet Bakken crude released in Lac-Megantic was comparable to gasoline.
"This is another national wake-up call," said Jim Hall, a former NTSB chairman said of the Lynchburg crash. "We have these oil trains moving all across the United States through communities and the growth and distribution of this has all occurred, unfortunately, while the federal regulators have been asleep."
"This is just an area in which the federal rulemaking process is too slow to protect the American people," he said.
There have been eight significant oil train accidents in the U.S. and Canada in the past year involving trains hauling crude oil, including several that resulted in spectacular fires, according to the safety board.
Though there was no immediate indication about how much crude leaked into the river, Lynchburg said on its website that there was no impact on the drinking water for its 77,000 residents due to oil spillage into the James. However, officials for the city of Richmond said its public utilities department is drawing from an old canal system instead of the James as a precaution.
Drinking water was the first concern for Lynchburg resident Mark Lindy, a network engineer who came with his son, Zach, to look at the accident scene from a parking deck overlooking the river. He said he planned to buy a week's worth of water for his family just to be safe.
"I'm not drinking tap water, that's for sure," he said.
Booms have been set up and have appeared to contain the spill, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality said. The agency said it will oversee the oil cleanup and assess the river for any environmental impacts.
CSX said it is "responding fully, with emergency response personnel, safety and environmental experts, community support teams and other resources."
The National Transportation Safety Board said it is sending investigators to the scene, as is the Federal Railroad Administration. Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Deputy Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Adam Thiel was dispatched to provide officials with updates.
The city said on its website that CSX officials were working to remove the portion of the train that is blocking workers from leaving Griffin Pipe Foundry located in the lower basin.
"We're used to kind of bangs and booms," said Gerald McComas, a security officer at foundry up river from the derailment site. "My first thought was it sounded like one of the guys started a motorcycle and then a realized, wait a minute, no ... that was more of a boom. We walked outside and there was the smoke rolling in."
In one of her last acts before leaving office last week, outgoing National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman warned the Obama administration that it needs to take steps immediately to protect the public from potentially catastrophic oil train accidents even if it means using emergency authority.
The safety board has long recommended that the Department of Transportation toughen its design standard for the kind of rail tank cars used to transport crude oil and ethanol. The cars are too easily punctured or ruptured, even in low-speed accidents. Their flammable contents are then spilled, fouling the environment and often igniting.
"We are very clear that this issue needs to be acted on very quickly," Hersman told reporters at the conclusion of a two-day forum the board held on the safety of rail transport of oil and ethanol.
Glen Besa, the executive director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, reiterated those concerns following Wednesday's derailment.
"This accident is a potent reminder of the dangers that come with our dependence on dirty fuels and reinforces the need for better safety measures and increased emergency preparedness," Besa said in a statement. "The safest place for dirty fuels is in the ground."
In 2011, the oil, ethanol and railroad industries agreed on voluntary measures that toughened standards for rail cars known as DOT-111s, which are the kind of tank cars used to transport most flammable liquids. However, since then, there have since been several accidents in which cars built to the new standards ruptured. NTSB officials have said the voluntary standards don't go far enough.
It's most likely the tank cars involved in the Lynchburg accident were older DOT-111s or new "enhanced" DOT-111s because that is what is primarily being used to transport crude oil, Bob Chipkevich, a former head of NTSB rail accidents investigations, said.
Associated Press writer Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.