RAYMOND, MINN. — Janice Piechowski, longtime city clerk in Raymond, lives in a big white house on a corner just blocks from the railroad tracks.
A resident for more than 60 years, Piechowski knows everyone. So about 1 a.m. on Thursday, when a firefighter who graduated high school with one of her children barged into her house and start hollering at her to leave, she knew she had to flee.
A train carrying ethanol and corn syrup on the BNSF line not far from Piechowski's home had derailed and caught fire. She had sleep in her eyes at first, but when she crossed the tracks to reach the other side of town, she saw the flames.
"That's when I went, 'Oh geez,' '' Piechowski said.
On Friday, the day after the evacuation order, Raymond breathed a sigh of relief that things weren't worse. No one was hurt when the 22 cars jumped the tracks, and the spilled cargo did not present a significant threat to the Kandiyohi County community.
By noon, a small army of railroad workers in BNSF trucks and neon helmets had descended on the town, crowding side streets with flatbeds. The State Patrol blocked off Hwy. 23 near the tall, silver grain bins that signal this small town is an agricultural epicenter. The wreckage — at least a half-dozen charred tanker cars, some smeared yellow with corn syrup — lay just south of town.
U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, as well as U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach, addressed a phalanx of reporters at a gravel road midday after speaking with townspeople and touring the site. The tankers, as large as beached whales, were just on the other side of Hwy. 23.
"It was pretty shocking to see those burnt-out grain cars," Klobuchar said. "You can see how close the houses are. ... It was a close call."
Officials say the trains should be running again within 48 hours — weather permitting. And Hwy. 23 reopened late Friday.
"This wasn't East Palestine," Fischbach said, referring to the Ohio community devastated by the derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials Feb. 3. "This is under control."
Klobuchar and Smith are cosponsors of the Railway Safety Act, which would enhance safety procedures and inspections for trains carrying hazardous materials, require two-person crews aboard every train and increase penalties for rail companies when wrongdoing occurs.
At least 1,164 train derailments occurred last year across the country, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials arrived in Raymond on Friday to begin looking into what caused the derailment. Investigators will examine the track and the integrity of the rail cars and document the scene to determine what happened, why it happened and what actions need to be taken to prevent it from happening again, said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway.
"I suspect they will be on scene for about three to four days, give or take," he said, noting that a final determination could take 12 to 24 months.
Environmental Protection Agency officials also were in Raymond Friday to monitor air quality and other potential health concerns. Testing on Thursday found no significant threats, said spokeswoman Rachel Linduska.
Firefighters and first responders from 28 agencies have responded to the scene of the derailment, where small fires still burned Friday, the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Office said.
Raymond Mayor Ardell Tensen said his town is in the hub of farm country. Trains — many carrying ethanol — run through every 90 minutes, around the clock. Tensen, who also is a firefighter, said members of the city Fire Department recently attended a training event with BNSF to prepare for just such an ethanol car derailment.
"The coincidence is just two weeks ago, we just did a training for a situation like this," he said.
At the Raymond Christian Reformed Church on Friday, exhausted first responders gathered around tables. In the parking lot was an ambulance and RV, a generator running. Inside, a white board announced "food," "restrooms" and a WiFi password. Two pallets of bottled water stood outside the church.
"I'm actually a farmer," said Brian Neal, Raymond's fire chief. He grows corn, soybeans and sugar beets and knows how important the BNSF line is for farmers looking to market their crops. "Half of the town in some way, shape or form has ag ties."
Neal was on the first truck to arrive at the scene Thursday.
"I got a good look at it," he said.
Fires have started before in town. When Piechowski first moved to Raymond, the grain elevator burned, and there have been other small incidents. But she never expected such a significant accident.
Nearly all of the town's residents were forced out of their homes. Many were taken to a school and church in Prinsburg, about 8 miles away. By midday, the evacuation order was lifted and they were allowed to go home.
On Friday, 24 hours after returning to the home where she raised her family, Piechowski chopped ice on her sidewalk, recounting how her quiet hometown had become nationally known because of the derailment, prompting a phone call from her sister-in-law in New Jersey.
But she acknowledged the good side: It could have been worse.
"I've had a good week," Piechowski said. "I had a root canal yesterday. A train derailment, too. And this morning, I had a shot in my eye up in St. Cloud."
She stabbed her shovel into the thick ice and added some dour humor.
"I should be good for a couple months."
After Piechowski went inside, the cleanup continued in town, two cranes gingerly lifting a section of rail high into the air and moving slowly down the tracks.