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Tragedy Averted Following Derailment

Flames Leap Skyward

March 14, 2017
by Dan Voigt , Emmetsburg News

GRAETTINGER - The stillness of the night erupted into a raging inferno early Friday morning as 17 tank cars carrying ethanol derailed and burst into flames one mile southeast of Graettinger.

According to Palo Alto County Sheriff Lynn Schultes, the Palo Alto County Communications' Center received a call at 12:53 a.m. March 10 of a fire near the railroad tracks after a train had passed by in the 2900 block of 435th Avenue. The Graettinger Fire Department, Graettinger Ambulance and Palo Alto County Sheriff's Deputies responded to the scene and discovered a derailment of a Union Pacific train, with the fire the direct result of the derailment.

The train was comprised of 101 tank cars carrying ethanol from the Green Plains Renewables plant in Superior. Each tank car was capable of carrying up to 25,000 gallons of ethanol.

Article Photos

FIERY?INFERNO - Tank cars loaded with Ethanol fill the night sky with flames following a derailment early Friday morning southeast of Graettinger. The 101-car Union Pacific train was southbound when 17 tank cars derailed near a trestle structure south of the Dale Hoffman residence in Section 15 of Walnut Township just before 1 a.m. Several of the tank cars ended up in Jack Creek, with other tank cars erupting in flames. While no injuries were reported, authorities evacuated three neighboring homes for several hours due to the risk of possible explosions from other tank cars. The fires continued to burn into the afternoon hours as emergency crews from the Union Pacific Railroad and the National Transportation Safety Board assumed control of the scene. --Dan Voigt photo

The Engineer and Conductor of the train were able to separate the lead locomotives and 19 tank cars from the derailed cars and moved that portion of the train a safe distance away. The train crew then made its way to the rear of the train where a secondary locomotive was attached, and were able to separate an additional 46 tank cars from the train and remove them a distance away from the site as well. No injuries were reported by the train crew.

A total of 27 tank cars remained at the derailment site, with nine cars still on the rails and the remaining 18 cars off the tracks, with what eventually was determined to be eight tank cars on fire.

Graettinger firefighters, along with the Emmetsburg Fire Department, established a perimeter around the site, and extinguished some small grass fires in fields to the south of the derailment site, downwind of the accident scene. Firefighters, after consultation with Union Pacific Emergency Response, elected to let the fires burn themselves out, but residents of three homes within a half-mile of the scene were evacuated due to the possible risk of explosion.

Those residents were allowed to return to their homes shortly after noon on Friday as the fires were diminishing and the explosion hazard had been reduced.

A Union Pacific Emergency Response team arrived at the site before sunrise and specialty contractors hired by the railroad to assist in cleanup efforts began arriving as well.

Officials of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources arrived on scene to take water samples from Jack Creek, monitoring possible contamination by the train's cargo of ethanol. The site is roughly three miles upstream from where Jack Creek empties into the West Fork of the Des Moines River.

At mid-morning, the National Transportation Safety Board notified officials on scene that a "GO-Team" had been activated and was enroute to Graettinger to investigate the derailment. Part of the "Go-Team" was in Biloxi, Mississippi investigating the crash of a train and charter bus earlier in the week. Other members of the Go-Team were deploying from NTSB?Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Along with Graettinger and Emmetsburg Fire Departments, the Graettinger and Emmetsburg Ambulance Services, Palo Alto and Pocahontas County Emergency Management Agencies, Iowa State Patrol, Iowa Commercial Motor Vehicle Enforcement and Palo Alto County Secondary Roads are assisting at the scene.

"We were very fortunate,"?noted Sheriff Schultes. "One mile further back and this could have happened inside Graettinger."



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