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VIDEO: Updated: Casselton residents can return home

A fire from a train derailment burns uncontrollably as seen in this aerial photograph Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, west of Casselton, N.D. (Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor)2 / 2

 By Kyle Potter and Archie Ingersoll

Forum News Service
CASSELTON, N.D. - The voluntary evacuation of Casselton after the fiery train crash nearby is being lifted at 3 p.m. today.
 Multiple health and environmental officials say the air quality is now safe for residents to return. Hazardous materials crews from Burlington Northern Santa Fe will still be working to clear the wreckage and extinguish any smoldering fires from the burning railcars, said a news release from the Cass County Sheriff's Office.. There may be small flare ups or smoke clouds as cars are being moved. In these instances residents should keep a respectful distance. Current predictions are that winds are favorable for the city of Casselton from the North/Northeast direction.
 Those directly within one mile south of the incident location are being advised to use extra caution upon returning to their homes. Gov. Jack Dalrymple called Monday’s collision and fire in Casselton, his hometown, a “huge accident” that could have been far worse. Dalrymple is set to visit the site of the crash this afternoon, where he will meet with local officials and federal investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board to discuss accident response, safety and what may have caused the crash. Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB board member, offered an official summary of the crash between the two BNSF freight trains: About 2:10 p.m., a westbound train carrying grain derailed near Casselton. Cars from that train went onto the adjacent track, and an eastbound train hauling crude oil struck those derailed cars. The two locomotives pulling the oil cars were destroyed in the crash. Twenty cars from the eastbound train derailed; 19 held oil and one was a sand-filled car used as a safety buffer between the locomotives and the oil cars.
 More than 10 of those oil cars eventually caught fire and exploded, belching a thick cloud of black smoke into the air that led local and county officials to urge the 2,400 citizens of Casselton about 20 miles west of Fargo to evacuate. In an interview, Dalrymple said he plans to ask the NTSB whether anything could have been done to prevent the crash. He said it’s currently unclear how long the first train was derailed before it was struck. “It’s a huge accident, I don’t think there’s any denying that,” the governor said. “There are a lot of questions, and I suppose the first one is: How did this train derail in the first place?”
 Dalrymple also acknowledged the accident may stir anxiety among North Dakotans, who may not have given second thought to hundreds of trains carrying oil through their towns. But he stressed that Monday’s crash was a "bad coincidence."

Here's the Forum News Service's previous report. 

By Archie Ingersoll

Forum News Service

CASSELTON, N.D. - Crews worked through the night to contain a huge oil-fueled fire caused by a train derailment and collision near here Monday afternoon.

As of 7:45 a.m. Tuesday, three oil cars were still burning, and crews were working to isolate those cars by removing surrounding debris and other cars nearby, said Sgt. Tara Morris of the Cass County Sheriff's Department.

"It's coming to the conclusion, I would say, as far as burning," she said.

The residents that were urged to evacuate the town Tuesday have not yet been told to return to their homes. Morris said about 65 percent of residents complied with the recommendation from authorities to leave the area.

Most evacuees stayed with friends and family while some got hotel rooms. Seventeen people spent the night at a temporary shelter in Fargo's Discovery Middle School, according to the American Red Cross.

Because of the massive black plume of smoke created by the blaze, health officials have been testing the air quality in town and at the site of the fire. "The results have been very promising as there are not a lot of contaminants in the air," Morris said.

No one was hurt in the train derailment and subsequent collision and explosions, and hospitals have not seen an influx of patients with respiratory problems, she said.

Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board have arrived in Fargo and plan to investigate the crash over the next week and attempt to determine the cause.


Here's the Forum News Service's report from Monday evening: 

By Erik Burgess and Kyle Potter

Forum News Service

CASSELTON, N.D. – Officials urged people in Casselton and the surrounding area to evacuate their homes as they dealt with the fallout from a massive fire when two trains collided Monday.

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. More than 10 oil cars exploded, pumping thick clouds of black smoke into the air.

Fire officials expected the flames to rage overnight in the oil cars that had not been disconnected.

For several 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.

Central Cass High School in Casselton and Fargo’s Discovery Middle School were opened as shelters. Casselton is about 20 miles west of Fargo.

“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.”

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.

Koepplin 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.

Cause unclear

Black smoke filled the sky within minutes of the collision, casting a long shadow over much of Casselton.

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 in the 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.

“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 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.

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