(Casselton, North Dakota – December 30, 2013)
The 2,300 residents of Casselton, ND, a community about 20 miles west of Fargo, ND, came within less than a mile from the potential of suffering an oil train derailment downtown Monday afternoon at about 2:10 P.M. when a BNSF train headed east toward town derailed an undetermined number of oil tank cars among its 106-car consist, resulting in massive explosions and thick, black smoke that could be seen from as far away as 15 miles.
Cass County Emergency Manager Dave Rogness said that residents within a two-mile radius of the accident scene – a circle which includes the entire city – were warned to stay inside their homes as a precaution. In addition, he said reports from the scene, which was near the city’s ethanol plant, a condition giving concern to emergency and firefighting crews attempting to stem the extent of the conflagration, were that one train derailed and possibly had some of its cars struck by a second train travelling in the opposite direction on an adjacent track. Rogness said emergency personnel also reported that as many as a dozen oil-laden tank cars left the tracks and several of them burst into flame. Instead of extinguishing the fires, they may instead be allowed to burn out. Crews on the scene were requesting truckloads of sand to help contain the spilled oil.
Meanwhile, Cass County Sheriff’s Officer Sgt. Tara Morris said as many as 300 residents might have to be physically evacuated as the fires continue to burn.
Casselton resident Eva Fercho told news media that “The sky is totally black from smoke,” and that she heard two explosions shortly after she saw the smoke. “I could almost feel the house shake in that (second explosion). It was loud!”
Local grain elevator manager Terry Johnson said he heard and saw, through his office window, at least six explosions within the two hours following the train wreck. “Each one, you could hear the explosion,” Johnson told news media “It shook our building and there was a huge fireball.”
Video taken from numerous media remote crews and amateur photographers filmed flames shooting hundreds of feet into the air as subsequent blasts occurred.
BNSF Spokesperson Amy McBeth affirmed that the train’s cargo was, indeed, crude oil, and that there had been no reports of any railroad employees being injured. She added that a grain train derailed first and the oil train cars struck the derailed grain cars, causing the second derailment.
The massive derailment and numerous explosions brought to mind the terrible oil train tragedy at Lec Megantic, Quebec, Canada where a train loaded with crude oil derailed and exploded in the tourist-filled community early July 6, resulting in 47 deaths and at least 70 non-fatal injuries. That train was carrying the same commodity and using the same classification of tank cars which have been suspect as unsafe for transportation of hazardous materials.
Casselton is the home not only of current North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple but also spawned four of his predecessors.