Train derails: Officials say tracks checked Friday, were OK
Federal probe into deadly train derailment could take a year, NTSB investigators say
The track where a freight train derailed Friday night was found in good shape Friday afternoon during a regularly scheduled inspection by Canadian National Railway employees, federal investigators said Saturday.
The National Transportation Safety Board started what’s expected to be a yearlong investigation of a derailment that ignited an ethanol-fueled blaze, killed one person and injured nine others.
While witnesses said the train appeared to be hydroplaning before the derailment and the track bed had been washed out, NTSB officials declined to confirm Friday’s storms were a factor.
“It’s one of many things that we are looking at,” said Robert Sumwalt, one of the NTSB’s five board members and one of 15 NTSB staff members in town for the investigation. “Derailments can be caused by a number of issues, so I don’t want to get into a lot of issues because that’s going to sound like I’m speculating.”
The train was traveling 34 mph at the time of the accident, well below the 50 mph speed limit, according to information retrieved from the train’s data system. Because the train was leaving an urban area, it was accelerating, Sumwalt said.
The emergency brake went off at 8:36 p.m., but wasn’t deployed by the train’s engineer, Sumwalt said. While he wouldn’t confirm what set it off, he said the brake can be set off by train cars separating from each other.
The NTSB starts a full day of investigations today, examining the scene and interviewing witnesses and others involved. They’ll be working with the Cherry Valley Fire Protection District, the railroad, the Federal Railroad Administration and several railroad unions.
The local investigation will take up to a week, but a full report won’t come for about a year.
The NTSB will talk to the crew and train dispatcher, check for weather alerts and slower speed notices, examine what was on the train and study other things related to the incident.
Investigators couldn’t get to the wreckage Saturday because it was still smoldering. The fire was declared out at 5 p.m. Saturday, but a firetruck and ambulance were standing by overnight as a precaution.
Sumwalt said ethanol “burns very cleanly” so there wasn’t a concern about toxins in the air.
The 114-car train left Freeport for Chicago on Friday, but the ethanol cars that made up most of the train came from Iowa. The rest of the train was made up of “miscellaneous freight” that contained no hazardous materials, CN spokesman Patrick Waldron said.
Waldron couldn’t say how many cars of ethanol go through that rail line regularly, but said ethanol is a commodity CN transports in its network. He said three or four trains a day use that line, which the company owns.
He said CN’s focus now is assisting the NTSB and clearing the track. He hoped to have the track open Monday.
Some train cars were being moved to a nearby clearing Saturday, while others will be moved when they cool down, Sumwalt said.
With record rainfall on Friday, witnesses said the train cars started hydroplaning in standing water, left the tracks and two tanker cars exploded. Others tankers later caught fire.
Sharon and Gene Opsahl crossed the tracks at South Mulford Road an hour before the wreck and said the track bed had been washed out just a few feet west of the crossing. Gene Opsahl called 911 and reported it.
“I said, ‘A lot of trains use that track and if you don’t do something about it, you’re going to get a lot of cars derailed,’ ” he said. The 911 dispatcher “said, ‘I know who to call on this.’”
Local public safety officials declined to comment on such an emergency call.
Robert Ellison, a local train buff and businessman, was at a crossing three miles west when the train passed him. He and his wife were the first car in line at the crossing when the ethanol cars passed.
“I said, ‘If that thing derails with all that ethanol, we’re ash in a flash,’ ” he said.
Ellison said there’s a creek near the tracks that overflows in heavy rains. He said the track bed near South Mulford Road had been washed out during floods in 2006 and 2007 and repaired each time. Officials could not confirm that and said they would investigate repair records.