A Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad train went off the tracks near the small village of Heimdal, N.D., just east of Harvey, N.D., about 7:30 this morning. That’s not news any more, since the train was pulling 109 tank cars of oil, and when six of them caught on fire, it made national news pretty quickly because it’s just the latest in a long string of oil train derailments resulting in big fires.
Since Heimdal is just a hundred miles or so from my house, I decided to go take a look for myself. I mean, I might never get to see an oil train fire close up again, and ever since my newspaper reporter days back in the 1970s, I’ve always chased fire trucks. I’m glad I went.
What I learned was that it was not the spectacular show put on by the derailment at Casselton, N.D., a year and a half ago, thanks to the fact that the oil was in newer, safer tanker cars. What I saw when I arrived about three hours after the derailment was mostly smoke, sometimes black, sometimes white, as the oil in the six cars that caught fire slowly burned itself out.
What was pretty amazing was the local response by mostly volunteer fire departments and BNSF. By the time I arrived, they had set up road blocks on all roads that would have taken sightseers like me closer than two miles from the fire. I bluffed my way past the fellow guarding the south entrance from state Highway 15 into Heimdal by just shouting “News Media” but was still stopped more than a mile from town, where all the other news media had gathered. That location offered nothing, so I got out my North Dakota atlas and headed out across country.
The officials had done a good job of blocking off gravel roads north and east of Heimdal, with signs that said “No Thru Traffic,” but since I wasn’t planning on “going thru” anywhere, I just drove around them and ended up down at the tracks about half a mile east of the accident. (My years in the news business have taught me you can’t get the story (or the photo) from two miles away. I guess they don’t teach that in journalism school these days. Do they still have journalism schools?)
I pulled into an abandoned farmyard and as I got out of my Jeep, I looked up and saw a caravan of vehicles led by flashing lights coming down the road behind me. Uh-oh, I thought. Busted.
But the caravan stopped on top the hill half a mile away, and then I realized it was a police escort for the news media. Reporters with cameras clambered out of mostly SUV’s and set up tripods on top the hill and began shooting video, over the top of my head, of the fire (more accurately, smoke) from more than a mile away from the accident. I watched in anticipation of that police escort coming down to tell me to get out, but after about 10 minutes of filming, they all turned around and drove away.
Next came a BNSF pickup with flashing lights. A BNSF employee drove up, parked beside me, and we started to visit. He asked me if I was a neighbor, and I nodded and pointed to my camera — “Just came to take a few pictures.”
I asked him what had happened. He said the rail “split” about a quarter of a mile east of Heimdal. I asked how that could happen. He said it is not unusual in places like North Dakota, with extreme climate changes. In the winter, the tracks shrink from the cold. In the spring, they begin to expand again from the warm weather. Splits happen.
As we walked over to the tracks, he showed me the track maintenance that was going on. Between where we were, east of Heimdal, and the accident site, the company had been lifting up the track and putting about 12 inches of new rocks and gravel under it, and then setting the track back down and “shaking” it into place in the new bed of rocks. That process ended about halfway down the track, where the old rail bed was still in place. He said down where the accident occurred, they had been doing the same thing. In one of the photos I took a little later, you can see where the new rail bed runs up against the old one.
The fellow I was talking to said he had been among the first on the scene this morning, and he said he had helped get the engine and 80 cars out of there after the accident, leaving 29 cars behind, six of which had caught fire. At least one had spilled its oil into the slough next to the track.
Then he said he was going to walk down to the accident site and inspect the tracks along the way. I asked him if he minded if I walked along, but he said his bosses wouldn’t like that, so I stayed where I was.
I watched him walk slowly down the track, stopping to look down carefully once in a while, and to talk to someone on his cell phone. As he neared the site, two other BNSF employees who had come from another direction met him and the three of them conferred for a few minutes before he headed back. When he got back, he said the tank cars were nearly burned out, but the oil that had leaked about 500 yards out into the slough was burning, and they were just going to let it burn, rather than put it out and try to clean it up later. Made sense to me.
I asked him how long it had been between the previous train coming down these tracks and this one. He said he thought about 20 minutes between trains. “This is a busy track.” He said they were going to have to get to work as soon as possible cleaning this up and getting the tracks reopened. “This is a main line. We can’t leave it shut down very long.”
With that, he turned and headed for his pickup, looking back over his shoulder to say, “I’d appreciate it if you would stay off the tracks.”
I’d seen enough. My camera and I got in the car and followed him back to the highway and headed home. I got here in time to watch the six o’clock news on the two local TV stations. Lame. One got the location wrong, placing it west of Heimdal, instead of just east of the town. The other had obviously sent a rookie reporter who couldn’t manage the sound, and her report was barely audible with the wind blowing in her microphone. Both had the same footage, shot from the top of the hill half a mile behind me.
There’s no doubt this will be a national story, although it appears to have been the least spectacular of the many oil train accidents in the last couple of years. We’ve dodged another bullet. This happened not more than half a mile east of the houses in Heimdal, by my estimation. The Heimdal elevator can be seen clearly not far from the fire in the photos I shot.
Take a look at those photos. You can see clearly how uneven the tracks are, although they are a little distorted by the telephoto lens I was using. Still, pretty easy to see how a train might run off tracks like that. Maybe we ought to have some state inspectors …