By Kyle Potter and Archie Ingersoll
CASSELTON - Trails of smoke lingered and flames dwindled amid scorched railcars Tuesday, a disturbing reminder of a huge oil-fueled blaze sparked by a train crash that officials agreed could have been drastically worse.
A BNSF train hauling crude oil struck a derailed car filled with soybeans Monday afternoon about a half-mile west of Casselton, setting off explosions that sent fireballs into the sky and prompted evacuations due to concerns about toxic smoke.
“We could have had this go so many different ways,” Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said. “If that thing happened a half mile into town, we’d be looking at a very, very different discussion here today.”
Casselton Fire Chief Tim McLean said the first firefighters at the crash scene could feel the heat of the flames a quarter-mile away, and they knew all they could do was let it burn. No injuries were reported in the wreck or subsequent fire.
The blaze created a large plume of smoke that led health officials to continually test the air quality in town and at the crash site. Laney said medics treated one resident for respiratory issues.
“We really haven’t had anybody that has had a bad exposure to any of this smoke,” said Dr. John Baird with Fargo Cass Public Health.
The air quality tests revealed particulates in the air, but no carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide or nitrogen dioxide - dangerous compounds that can result from burning crude oil, said Dr. Alan Nye, a toxicologist with the Center of Toxicology and Environmental Health, an Arkansas-based consulting firm hired by BNSF.
“I don’t think that there’s really any significant health risk,” Nye said.
Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell said about 65 percent of the town’s 2,400 residents left Monday night at the urging of the sheriff’s department. Most evacuees took refuge with friends and family while some stayed in hotel rooms. Seventeen people and two pets spent the night at a temporary shelter in Fargo’s Discovery Middle School, according to the American Red Cross. Casselton is about 20 miles west of Fargo.
By 3 p.m. Tuesday, officials were satisfied the air was safe, and they lifted the voluntary evacuation order in Casselton and closed the shelter in Fargo.
Throughout Tuesday, the sheriff’s department kept the crash site blocked off, and a hazardous materials crew from BNSF worked to clear the wreckage and extinguish fires that remained.
McLean said some soil contamination is likely at the crash site, but that no waterways were polluted.
“A lot of things went right,” Laney said. “We were blessed in a lot of ways.”
On Tuesday morning, a team from the National Transportation Safety Board flew into Fargo and began investigating the crash to determine the cause. Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB board member, said investigators will collect information from the crash scene for five to seven days.
Sumwalt said the crash between the two freight trains happened about 2:10 p.m. A westbound train carrying soybeans derailed, and a car from that train went onto the adjacent track where it was struck by an eastbound train hauling crude oil. Twenty cars from the eastbound train derailed; 19 held oil and one was a sand-filled car used as a safety buffer between the locomotives and the oil cars.
The oil train, with 106 cars, originated in Fryburg, west of Dickinson, and was headed for Missouri. The 112-car soybean train came from Nebraska and was destined for Washington state.
Both trains had two locomotives in front and one at the rear. All the locomotives were equipped with black boxes and forward-facing video cameras.
Sumwalt said the two lead locomotives on the oil train were destroyed, and he’s not optimistic the data from the black boxes will be recovered. However, the rear locomotive of the oil train and all three locomotives from the soybean train were not damaged, so those black boxes are likely intact, he said.
Since the footage from the trains’ video cameras is continuously uploaded to a computer system, investigators will be able to analyze what the cameras captured.
Sumwalt said investigators plan to interview the train crews Thursday. The NTSB hopes to learn how much time elapsed between the derailment of the soybean train and the crash with the oil train, and whether the oncoming crew was notified of the derailment, he said.
Sumwalt said the NTSB will share its preliminary findings in about 10 days and its final report will be released in 12 to 18 months.
“If we find something that needs immediate attention, we can issue emergent safety recommendations,” he said.
Sharon Hall spent a sleepless night in Fargo’s Discovery Middle School, where the Red Cross set up a makeshift shelter for Casselton residents Monday night.
She and her fiancé, Walter Offen, were at home for hours after the crash, waiting to see whether they needed to leave town. Then a neighbor knocked on the door and told them they should leave. That’s when the fumes from the burning wreckage hit Hall.
“It just made you want to barf your guts out,” she said.
After initially telling residents to stay indoors and then evacuating the southwest corner of the city, local and county officials urged the entire city Monday evening to evacuate, at least for the night.
Around 8:30 p.m. Monday, a deputy swung by and brought Hall and Offen to Discovery along with their Cocker Spaniel, Isabella, and cat, CoCo. The deputy brought a pizza for the couple to eat on the ride. Isabella scarfed down a slice.
“It’s just been terrifying,” she said Tuesday morning, well before getting the all-clear to head home. “I’d like to know more, because I’m starting to get panicked.”
With the town half empty and the fear of harmful smoke hanging in the air, city officials asked Casselton businesses to shut their doors Tuesday.
Many shops and restaurants in downtown complied, but Fred Wangler had to open up his grocery store, Wangler Foods, for a delivery truck. That’s why Wangler stayed in town Monday night, he said.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a slow day,” he said, “at least until people start coming back.”
One of several derailments
Gov. Jack Dalrymple called the fiery train crash in his hometown “a huge accident” that could have been far worse.
Dalrymple and other North Dakota politicians, including U.S. Sen. John Hoeven and U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, visited Casselton on Tuesday afternoon to survey the site of the crash and meet with local officials and federal investigators from the NTSB.
In an interview before his visit, Dalrymple said he planned to ask the NTSB whether anything could have been done to prevent the crash.
“It’s a huge accident, I don’t think there’s any denying that,” the governor said. “There are a lot of questions, and I suppose the first one is: How did this train derail in the first place?”
Dalrymple also acknowledged the accident may stir anxiety among North Dakotans, who may not have given a second thought to hundreds of trains carrying oil through their towns.
Nothing will change for Casselton residents Dale and Loree Halverson.
“You see these cars go by. We know we’re vulnerable,” Dale Halverson said after the couple returned from spending the night in nearby Buffalo. “We realize where we live, something’s going to happen.”
Though Monday’s wreck was by far the most serious, Mayor McConnell said he knows of at least three other derailments in the last decade on the same stretch. He blamed the previous derailments on unstable ground around Casselton.
Amy McBeth, a BNSF spokeswoman, said an average of 50 trains, hauling various types of cargo, come through Casselton in a 24-hour period.
“With that kind of traffic, there are going to be accidents,” McConnell said. “Evidently, they’re pretty bad accidents.”