CASSELTON, N.D. – Cass County officials urged the people of Casselton and the surrounding area to evacuate their homes as they dealt with the fallout from a massive fire caused by a train derailment and collision here Monday afternoon.
The fire started about 2:10 p.m. when a westbound grain train derailed about a half-mile west of Casselton and slammed into an eastbound 106-car train carrying crude oil. Ten-plus oil cars caught fire and eventually exploded, pumping a thick stream of black smoke into the air that blacked out the sun and cast a long shadow over the town.
The fiery blasts blocked off nearby traffic, and grabbed national headlines.
Fire officials expected the flames to rage overnight in the oil cars that had not yet been disconnected. BNSF believes about 21 of its cars caught fire. The cause of the crash is under investigation.
For hours, the Cass County Sheriff’s Office told the roughly 2,400 residents of Casselton to stay indoors, eventually asking the southwest corner of town to evacuate.
But as the forecast called for shifting winds that could push the billowing smoke east over the city, Sheriff Paul Laney and other officials agreed Monday night to ask the entire town to clear out as a precautionary measure.
“This is nothing to play with,” Laney said, adding that the smoke would be most harmful to those with respiratory illnesses. “We’re going to err on the side of caution.
Discovery Middle School was opened as a shelter for the night, and Central Cass High School in Casselton was opened as a meeting place for families.
“We will find places for people to stay,” Laney said.
Crash ‘rocked our county’
The collision and ensuing fire “rocked our county,” Cass County Sgt. Tara Morris said.
It rocked Casselton resident Cora Koepplin, too.
Koepplin watched the thick smoke billow in the air from her house just three blocks from the site of the crash.
“We heard the boom three times,” she said while sitting on the floor of the Central Cass High School gymnasium. “It shook our windows.”
By 6:30 p.m., Cass County deputies were knocking on her door, “saying you can go or you can stay.”
Though the county stopped short of a mandatory evacuation, Laney stressed the seriousness of their “strong recommendation” that the people of Casselton leave town as crews try to maintain the flames.
“We hope that people will listen,” he said.
The primary concern, Laney said, is people with respiratory illnesses. Dr. John Baird with Fargo-Cass Public Health said the particulates and dangerous fumes could be very harmful.
Koepplin weighed her options, then grabbed a blanket and a pillow, dropped her dogs off at her daughter’s house and headed to the school.
Laney said he’s not sure when they’ll give the all-clear for residents to return. He said county officials will re-assess the situation overnight.
Black smoke filled the sky within minutes of the collision.
Police immediately urged residents to stay indoors, and blocked off traffic within a mile of the crash. Even air traffic was restricted from getting close to the train.
BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said no injuries were reported in the crash. She didn’t know the oil train’s destination or origin.
Crews managed to detach about half of the oil train’s 106 cars to get them out of harm’s way, Morris said. They will allow the remaining cars to burn out.
“We’ll just have to let it burn off it sounds like, just because of the intensity,” she said Monday night.
The cause of the crash is unclear.
Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said they are assembling a team to investigate the derailment and crash. Most of the team is from Washington, D.C., and the team leader is from Chicago.
The NTSB team is expected to land in North Dakota this morning. BNSF personnel from across the nation also are en route to help respond.
Firefighters’ attention will turn to putting out the blaze this morning, too, Casselton Fire Chief Tim McLean said Monday night. They’ll start mapping out a game plan for tackling the fire late Monday night, he said.
“We’ve got the right people coming and we’ve got the right people on the job,” Laney said.
A history of crashes
The last reported oil train derailment in North Dakota was Dec. 2, when nine empty oil tank cars derailed about 60 miles southeast of Minot.
A pickup truck hit the train cars, causing the derailment. The 104-car train was empty, coming from Oklahoma to be filled with North Dakota crude oil.
Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral said city officials went through a training exercise for a hypothetical train derailment scenario about a month ago.
In the training course, the police and fire chief took over and set up a command center, Zavoral said. Crews then worked to determine the direction of the wind, and the city has determined that everything within a one-mile radius of the crash would be evacuated, Zavoral said.
“I’m sort of glad that it was out in the prairie,” Zavoral said of the Casselton incident.
Forty-seven people were killed after a derailment in Quebec in July, when 72 tank cars carrying North Dakota crude rolled driverless down a hill into the center of Lac-Megntic, Quebec and exploded.
In September, BNSF CEO Matt Rose told Forum News Service that after the Quebec incident, BNSF exceeded requirements of the Federal Railway Administration’s emergency rules on unattended trains and did retraining exercises with crews about the use of hand brakes.
BNSF will have spent $200 million in the Bakken this year and another $400 million over the next 18 months, Rose said.
Zavoral said after the Quebec incident, city officials met with BNSF safety officials to discuss an action plan. Based on those meetings, Zavoral said it’s standard protocol to let oil cars that are on fire burn out on their own.
“What they’ve been saying is that you do not attempt to put out the fire at the point of contact,” Zavoral said. “What you try to do is keep the other tankers from being impacted by the fire, and also any property from burning.”
‘It was loud’
Eva Fercho, a Casselton resident, said the sky was “totally black from smoke” just after the collision. Fercho said she heard two explosions not long after she saw the smoke.
“I could almost feel the house shake in that (second explosion),” she said. “It was loud.”
Koepplin was prepared to spend the night at Central Cass High School on Monday night. She never thought anything of the hundreds of trains that run almost through her backyard.
After Monday, she said she’s worried.
Laney acknowledged the possible danger that comes with train traffic through Cass County.
“This is why we drill for this,” he said.
Brandy Pyle, the former city auditor who lives on a family farm west of town, was about half a mile from the crash.
“All I can think is, thank God it didn’t happen in town,” Pyle said.
By Erik Burgess and Kyle Potter
Readers can reach Fargo Forum reporters Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518 and Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502