Quick-thinking train crew averts potential disaster

The derailment of a 112-car CP Rail train on January 18 near Minot, N.D., claimed the life of one local resident, injured two rail crew members, and forced officials to order the evacuation of a portion of the city of Minot.

However, the accident probably would have been much worse had it not been for the quick-thinking train crew members, whose actions probably prevented further injury and death.

According to BLE Special Representative Dave Ditzel, who represented the BLE Safety Task Force at the scene of the accident, some 30 cars derailed, including approximately 15 tank-cars of anhydrous ammonia, some of which ruptured, causing a release of toxic fumes, which later covered a significant portion of the city.

Immediately following the derailment and the hazmat release, Locomotive Engineer J.A. Olson of BLE Division 160 (Harvey, N.D.) and Conductor Craig Benson, a member of the UTU, "made some quick decisions that saved many more lives and prevented injuries," according to the BLE's North Dakota State Legislative Board Chairman Mike Muscha.

After the derailment, the train crew members were able to detach the locomotive power consist from the train and use it to escape the immediate area, including the expanding toxic vapor cloud. Brother Olson continued to send a distress signal from the cab of the locomotive while making several emergency calls with a cellular phone.

They proceeded to what they considered a safe distance from the crash site, and ran from the area on foot to escape the toxic cloud. They then warned motorists to turn their vehicles around and not to enter the spill site. Upon leaving the locomotive, they had the presence of mind to bring along the train list and hazmat papers, which helped state and local authorities quickly learn the danger of the toxic cloud.

"There were many reports of injuries due to the toxic cloud that spread in the hours after the derailment, and there probably would have been many more injuries - and possibly deaths - had it not been for the quick thinking of the train crew members who notified authorities regarding the toxic spill," Brother Muscha said.

Brother Muscha also said the derailment highlights the necessity of two-man crews. If only one crew member had been aboard and had been incapacitated during the derailment, then there would have been no one available to notify local authorities about the deadly cloud of gas headed toward the heavily populated area.

Minot resident John Grabinger, 38, was found dead in his yard, and tests determined his death was related to the derailment. Reports in the local press following the 1:47 a.m. derailment indicated that as early as 3 a.m., many people were already seeking medical care. More than 100 persons were treated in the emergency room at the local Trinity Hospital, where 15 persons were admitted, some in the intensive care unit. Others sought medical attention at the nearby Minot Air Force Base hospital.

Brother Olson received treatment at a local hospital and was later released. The conductor was also taken to the hospital but required further treatment.

The CP Rail train, which had originated in Edmonton, Alberta, with a destination of St. Paul, Minnesota, was traveling eastbound in air temperatures between five to ten degrees below zero, as it approached the location where the derailment occurred.

At BLE headquarters in Cleveland, BLE President Don Hahs commended the prompt action of the train crew to remove themselves from harm's way. "Had they not acted quickly to get out of the area, we would surely have had a much more tragic outcome to this derailment," he said. "Train crews each day routinely move hundreds of tons of hazardous materials, and in virtually in an instant of time, they can find themselves in a fight for their lives," he continued. "This is a part of railroading that our people must live with each and every day they work, and something the general public seldom considers as they watch trains go by them at grade crossings, or pass through various towns and cities in Canada and the United States."

In speaking of the locomotive engineer, J. A. Olson, BLE Division 160 Local Chairman Craig Thurow said, "Jim is a very dedicated and conscientious engineer, who is well liked by all of his co-workers. I speak for all the members of Division 160 to say were concerned about the welfare of Jim, and all those involved in this incident."

The Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spearheaded the accident investigation. The NTSB assumed supervision of the investigation and has undertaken the process of accident cause finding. Typically, the process leading to a final cause determination by the NTSB can take up to a year complete.

The BLE dispatched its Safety Task Force to the scene, where the BLE was made a party-of-interest in the NTSB's investigation.


2002 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers