The sudden sound of steel banging and crunching startled Kim Carlson as she read in her Fridley living room Saturday morning.
"We hear trains all the time," she said. "You could hear this crash, crash, crash. It just didn't sound normal."
Rushing out into the pouring rain, she found a chaotic scene. Seventeen railcars and two locomotives on a westbound freight train had derailed on a road washed out by torrential overnight rains near Rice Creek, a Mississippi River tributary.
The derailment, which happened around 7:15 a.m. Saturday, injured an engineer and conductor, spewed corn and diesel fuel and blocked many other trains, including the Northstar line, which would have carried hundreds of Twins fans to Target Field for weekend games.
It was the most dramatic damage caused by torrential rains overnight, which also flooded and closed a section of Interstate 35W and many other roads, homes and parking lots.
Carlson, one of the first people on the derailment scene, called 911 and alerted her husband, Christopher, a doctor at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale. He slogged through 2 feet of water to get to the two crew members, who had crawled out of the derailed cars. They were taken to Fridley's Unity Hospital with minor injuries.
Officials said that it appears that the derailment was triggered when the train crossed the bridge over Rice Creek and hit a road where an overnight downpour had swept away the track's foundation. The resulting derailment heavily damaged the bridge and 16 of the 17 cars, which will be scrapped, officials said.
Efforts to minimize the fuel spill and clean it up began immediately and were continuing into the night, officials said.
The Northstar rail line, which runs between Big Lake and Minneapolis and includes the damaged tracks, will be closed at least through Monday. In addition to its regular daily routes, the Northstar runs Twins game trips to Target Field. Those were canceled for Saturday's and Sunday's games.
When the Hiawatha light rail shuts down, Metro Transit offers alternative bus service. But that's impractical for the Northstar line, Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland said, because of capacity differences between buses and large commuter trains, as well as the much longer trip time for bus service to rail stations on the 40-mile line.
On average, about 1,200 people use the Northstar line on Saturdays and 1,100 people on Sundays, he said. Weekdays draw about 2,400 rail commuters.
BNSF Railway spokeswoman Amy McBeth said it will take a couple of days for crews to clear debris and repair the tracks. In addition, they will contain the fuel leak, which she described as a slow leak, and clean up. "It's an important route for us," she said.
Fifty trains a day use the damaged line, she said. They will be rerouted until the area is safe.
At the scene, yellow police tape blocked off a walking path near the derailment as onlookers snapped photos from afar.
Steve Breitenfeldt heard a big boom Saturday morning but nearly dismissed it as lagging thunder from the overnight storms. When he walked out onto his deck, he saw the train cars crumpled off the line. "It was a big mess," he said.
The fuel spill posed no immediate danger to nearby homes and no one was evacuated, authorities said. But until the scene is cleared, no recreational use of Rice Creek west of University Avenue will be allowed, Fridley police Capt. Brian Weierke said.
Water, water everywhere
Three to 5 inches of rain fell in the Twin Cities between early Friday and early Saturday, with the heaviest rain in the north and east metro area.
Floodwaters led to a shutdown of a milelong section of all lanes of I-35W between I- 694 and County Road 96 for much of the day, as well as several other roads in the metro area. By late Saturday evening, both northbound and southbound lanes of that section of I-35W were reopened, said Lt. Eric Roeske of the State Patrol.
In New Brighton, residents reported flooded basements near Freedom Park after 4 feet of standing water in the park created a creek that flowed through a neighborhood.
In St. Anthony, 12 condos near the 400 block of Foss Road had to be evacuated after about 1 foot of rainwater filled first-floor units, Fire Chief John Malenick said. Fire crews starting getting inundated with calls starting around 4:30 a.m. from residents in the northern part of the city reporting flooded basements and streets. Some cars had to be abandoned after water rose to their windows.
The Red Cross provided food to residents at the St. Anthony building as well as to residents at a Roseville mobile home crushed by flooding water and a flooded St. Paul apartment.
According to the National Weather Service, about an inch of rain fell each hour starting around midnight Friday. At the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, 2.9 inches of rain fell between 7 a.m. Friday and 7 a.m. Saturday, while 3 inches fell in St. Paul and 4 inches of rain was recorded in Crystal.
"It's certainly a lot of water in a short period of time," said Dan Effertz, a meteorologist at the Chanhassen Weather Service office. "That's rare."
In the wake of all that rain will come a heat wave. Sunday is expected to bring a high of 97 degrees, with dew points at 70 extending into the week, forecasters said. It could be the longest stretch of consecutive days with highs of 90 or greater in five years.
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141