Federal investigators have released hundreds of pages of records that offer new insight into the moments just before and after a 2013 oil train derailment near Casselton, North Dakota, that created a massive fire and forced 1,400 people to evacuate for several days.
Interviews with the BNSF Railway workers operating the two trains in the derailment are included in documents the National Transportation Safety Board posted online Monday. Federal investigators also said in the documents that a broken train axle found after the derailment might have been prevented if BNSF railroad had inspected it more carefully and found a pre-existing flaw.
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The broken axel wasn't pinpointed as the cause of the crash, but the NTSB ordered the industry to recall 43 axles made by Standard Steel in the same 2002 batch.
Officials have said the accident happened when a westbound freight train derailed and a portion of it fell onto an adjacent track carrying the eastbound oil train. Eighteen cars on the 106-car oil train derailed and several exploded and burned.
In the records released Monday, the two men onboard the BNSF oil train describe losing sight of the tracks in a cloud of blowing snow shortly before seeing a derailed grain car lying across the tracks. Emergency brakes were applied, but the train was still moving 42 mph when it struck the car.
The 18 tank cars broke open and spilled 400,000 gallons of crude oil that fueled the fire that could be seen from nearly 10 miles away. It took several weeks to clean up the remaining oil from the site 30 miles west of Fargo after the flames were extinguished.
Everyone aboard both trains escaped unharmed. But just a couple minutes after conductor Pete Rigpl exited the oil train, he looked back to see flames engulf the locomotive he and Bryan Thompson had been in.
"I was exiting the cab then and started to get away from all the fire. It was — the heat was intense," Rigpl said to investigators. "I mean, the whole situation just — I was in knee-deep snow. I couldn't get away as quickly as I would like to."
The two men called 911 and talked with BNSF dispatchers as they moved away from the growing fire consuming their cargo. Rigpl and Thompson told investigators they stressed the potential danger as they talked with emergency responders.
Railroad shipments of crude oil are facing additional scrutiny and tougher regulations because there have been several fiery derailments involving the commodity in recent years. The worst happened in July 2013 and killed 47 people in a small Canadian city just across the U.S.-Canada border from Maine.
Thompson, the oil train's engineer, said that when he heard people were approaching the derailment to get a glimpse of the wreckage he urged a sheriff's deputy to remove them because of the danger.
"I don't think he grasped what was going on until I told him, I said do you know the story of the train in Canada? I said that's the type of train I am," Thompson said to the NTSB. "And his eyes got big, you know, then he said Code Red on his radio. I remember that."
BNSF and the other major freight railroads have taken a number of steps to improve the safety of crude oil shipments, including reducing speeds in high-risk areas.
BNSF officials did not immediately respond Monday afternoon to a request for comment about the report.
Federal regulators are expected to release new standards for the tank cars that carry crude oil and new rules for railroad operations as soon as next month.
The number of carloads railroads hauled nationwide increased again last year to 493,126 from 407,761 in 2013. In 2008, before the oil boom took off in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana, as well as in Canada, railroads hauled just 9,500 carloads of crude oil.
BNSF, which is owned by Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc., hauls most of the oil produced in the Bakken region. It is based in Fort Worth, Texas.