Evacuation ends for N.D. city near crude oil inferno

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 31, 2013 - 9:28 PM

Two-thirds of Casselton’s 2,400 residents heeded warnings to leave after trains derailed.

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A fire from a train derailment burns uncontrollably Dec. 30, 2013, west of Casselton, N.D.

Photo: Michael Vosburg, Fargo Forum via AP

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Residents of Casselton, N.D., returned to their homes Tuesday afternoon after being assured that a fire from a nearby train derailment was under control and the air was safe. Their return followed 24 hours of tension and fear that played out amid subzero temperatures.

At one point, about 65 percent of the town’s 2,400 residents voluntarily left their homes as strong winds blew potentially hazardous, acrid smoke from a massive fireball toward town.

The incident renewed debate about how to safely transport massive amounts of crude from oil-rich North Dakota.

Casselton resident Eva Fercho spent the night at her daughter’s home 25 miles away in Moorhead, Minn. The family dog also made the uneasy trip. Fercho returned home at midmorning after hearing state officials assure residents that the air was safe. Late Tuesday, smoke still wafted nearby, and soot was crystallized on snow and trees.

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks run straight through the middle of Casselton, 20 miles west of Fargo. The Fercho family lives a few blocks from the tracks.

“It’s always been scary to us knowing that any kind of train crash is a possibility,” she said. “But with all the crude that is coming through, that raises the risk, and that was proved with this incident. I hope some safeguards are put into place.”

National Transportation Safety Board representatives remained on site Tuesday afternoon. At a late-afternoon briefing, an agency spokesman said the fire on the locomotives was so severe that it probably destroyed the data recorders in the oil train’s two lead locomotives. Investigators hope to interview crew members on Thursday.

Meantime, BNSF hazardous-materials crews were working to clear the wreckage and extinguish smoldering fires. The Cass County Sheriff’s Office warned that small fires or smoke clouds might flare up as damaged cars are moved.

The wreck happened when a westbound train carrying soybeans headed to Minot, N.D., derailed west of Casselton just after 2 p.m. Monday. An eastbound train carrying highly volatile petroleum crude bound for Missouri hit the derailed train, causing the fire. Two locomotives of the eastbound train were destroyed and 20 cars derailed, the NTSB said. Despite the collision and fire, no injuries were reported.

The train carrying crude included 106 cars, BNSF said. About half of the cars detached from the wreck and the rest were involved in the accident.

One rail tank car can hold about 700 barrels of oil, according to the Energy Information Administration, the Energy Department’s statistical arm.

Residents said the blasts went on for hours after the derailment, shaking their homes and businesses.

NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said the 112-car grain train had originated in Royal, Neb., and was bound for the state of Washington. The oil train originated in Fryburg, N.D., and was bound for Hayti, Mo. The oil train included three locomotives and 103 tank cars. Two tank cars were full of sand to act as buffers between the product cars and the locomotives at the front and rear of the train.

The grain train crew started its day at 12:15 p.m. in Dilworth, Minn., just under two hours before the wreck. The oil train crew started work at 6:10 a.m. in Mandan, N.D., and had been on duty about eight hours.

Videos were sent to ‘the cloud’

Each locomotive contained data recorders and forward-looking video cameras. Although two of the data recorders probably were destroyed, the others likely will provide useful data, Sumwalt said. The videos upload almost continuously and investigators already have examined the last 20 seconds showing the collision sequence, he said.

The NTSB has requested data from a “hotbox detector” stationed 4 miles east of the accident to look for hot wheels and axles, as well as any dragging equipment on the grain train. All of the data will be correlated with the videos and analyzed later, Sumwalt said.

“What we do know is that the grain train, there was one car that in particular had sort of gone over onto the opposing track, and it fouled that track,” he said. “It was the engine of the oil train that struck this midpoint car of the grain train.”

  • related content

  • PDF: Railroad tank cars

    Tuesday December 31, 2013

  • This photo provided by Cass County Commissioner Ken Pawluk shows a train derailment and fire west of Casselton, N.D., Monday, Dec. 30, 2013.

  • A massive fireball from an exploding train car rose into the air just west of Casselton, N.D., on Monday afternoon. Each tank car on the mile-long eastbound train carried about 700 barrels of crude oil from western North Dakota.

  • Clouds of smoke drifted across the North Dakota prairie Tuesday afternoon, 24 hours after a derailment caused an oil train to crash into wreckage and burst into towering flames. The tank car in this photo was empty — it had been attached to the westbound grain train.

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