MOSIER, Ore. -- Angry fireballs of exploding Bakken crude oil burned alongside the town of Mosier Friday. The derailment happened at 12:20 p.m. Sixteen cars went off the tracks, and several caught fire.

A few blocks away, MaryLou Perry watched from her home.

"We were at Level 2 evacuation. I have my cat here. We were freaked out I didn't do anything all afternoon except pace around," she said.

As the black column of smoke rose into the sky, hour after hour, she and others here saw some of their worst fears coming true.

The latest: Train derails, catches fire in Mosier

Second-grader Gus Reed was working away in his writing class at the Mosier school, very near the wreck.

“Everybody was spread out and then we heard, like, this churning noise and everybody rushed to the window,” he said.

The students saw the roiling column of black smoke rising from the crash. They were dangerously close.

“As everybody, like, nestled in we heard from our teacher that an oil train had basically blown up,” he said. "Everybody was kinda nervous and some people were crying.”

His mom, Emily, was stuck in California on a business trip. She rushed back.

“The word I keep using is surreal. This is definitely one of those things that you don’t want to happen,” she said. “I think actually, we were incredibly lucky. If it had been the day before, the winds would have swept that fire right through our town.”

Photos: Train derailment in the Gorge

The derailment galvanized many environmental groups that already opposed the trains.

“The question has always been not if but when. We’ve had a taste of the when and we’re gonna taste it again and again and again unless we do something about it,” said Friends of the Columbia Gorge Executive Director Kevin Gorman.

“We’ve got to do something to stop this. This was too close of a call,” said Executive Director Paul Lumley of the Columbia River Intertribal fish commission.

But it’s likely none of them feel the passion of Emily Reed, a mother who knows how close she came to losing everything.

“I sincerely hope the next time that they’re as lucky as we were. And that it doesn’t take somebody losing their 8-year-old boy to make this something that people really look at and take seriously."

Raw video: Flames, plumes pouring from oil train fire

Mosier is a small town where everyone knows each other. That made news of the wreck a bit more tolerable for Herb Morris. He knew his friends had the problem somewhat under control.

"I think they did the best they could and they had plenty of help and I thank them," he said.

But his wife Gayle is more conflicted.

"They come through our town way too fast. The trains are way too long. And that oil going up and down the Gorge is a scary thing," said Gayle Morris. "But if they do it safely, it has to be done."

But some think it does not have to be done and should not be done.

"It does make me furious," said Rhonda Starling, who lives in Mosier and has lobbied against the oil trains. This fire shows why.

"I know a lot of the volunteers. They all have families and they've all put their lives at risk today. And all these small towns that aren't equipped to handle such a big thing. It's pathetic," she said. "And I feel somewhat powerless,"

Its unclear how much damage the ugly black smoke and the boiling fire did to the town or the environment. A light sheen of oil was seen about 6 feet offshore in the Columbia River at the mouth of Rock Creek.

As of Sunday, the town's waste water treatment plant and sewer lines were not operational as a result of Friday's derailment.

And for many in Mosier and the Columbia River Gorge, seeing their worst fears confirmed is something they won’t soon forget.