Chesterton Tribune

It could have been worse: Train wreck Friday hurt two, left mountain of debris

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By KEVIN NEVERS

The smoke from the fires was visible for roughly five miles.

Firefighters battled the blaze all night long, for something like 16 hours.

One square mile, to the north and east of the site, was evacuated as a precaution.

It was the second CSX train wreck in Jackson Township in less than two years. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.

The incident began at 1:18 p.m. Friday, when a westbound CSX train, stopped for an unknown reason on one of two sets of parallel tracks, was rear-ended by a second train just north of C.R. 600N, in the area of C.R. 500E, Porter County Sheriff’s Police Sgt. Larry LaFlower told the Chesterton Tribune on Saturday.

That collision caused multiple cars to derail across the second set of tracks, on which a third westbound train was traveling. As that third train began to round the curve north from Washington Township into Jackson Township, at a speed of 57 miles per hour, its engineer was unable to stop it in time to avoid hitting the debris field from the first collision. It too wrecked.

None of the three trains’ total of six crew members—two on each train—was seriously injured, Porter County Emergency Management Agency Phil Griffith said. Two of them were treated at Porter hospital and released.

But the damage was colossal, Griffith said, a “big pile of train cars”: 25 cars were derailed, five of seven locomotives, and 45 intermodal trailers being carried on flat-bed cars were strewn across the area like Tinker Toys.

Liberty Township Volunteer Fire Chief Brian Duncan, no stranger to accidents, for his part expressed astonishment at the sheer mass and degree of damage. “There’s an engine out there that’s totally destroyed,” he said. “To see something that large destroyed. It was obliterated, just bits and pieces. And the fact that nobody was killed.”

Of immediate concern to first-responders was the possibility of a hazardous-materials release. Train No. 1—the stopped one—was carrying ethanol tankers, empty as it happened, but as a precaution an area extending one mile north of the site and one mile east was evacuated, LaFlower said.

Both Jackson Elementary School and Washington Township Schools were safely clear of the evac area, but Duneland students who lived inside it—a “limited number” who attend JES, CHS, and CMS—were held at their schools for parents to pick up, Duneland Director of Transportation Jim Bonfield said.

There proved to be no large-scale haz-mat release and the evacuation order was lifted after four hours.

Still, six of the seven locomotives on the three trains were leaking diesel fuel, Griffith said—almost indistinguishable from kerosene and technically considered a hazardous material—and very quickly the spilled diesel ignited paper products being carried on one of the trains: enormous rolls of newsprint and supplies of cardboard fast-food containers.

LaFlower said that he could see a “black plume of smoke” while en route to the scene, only minutes after the collision, and from as far south as Ind. 2, nearly five miles away.

For the rest of the day and into the night, the fires were the real challenge, Duncan told the Tribune, and in particular the remoteness of the site both from roadways and from hydrants. “There was just a piled-up mess of train cars and access was the biggest problem,” he said. “It was so far off the road.”

Eight-hundred feet of hose had to be hand-stretched to the scene from the east and 500 to 600 feet from the west, Duncan said. Then, possibly the largest tanker plan in county history was put into effect. In fact, only three fire departments in Porter County did not respond—Burns Harbor, Ogden Dunes, and Lakes of the Four Seasons—while Hobart in Lake County did. In the end, tankers filling at the Washington Township Volunteer station brought an estimated 139,200 gallons of water to the scene.

The firefighters’ job was further complicated by the wreckage itself. “A lot of the problem was getting to the actual scene of the fire because of the piled-up cars,” Duncan said. “They had to be pulled off and out.” Meanwhile, box cars had to be broken open just so firefighters could get at the rolls of newsprint.

At least two contractors were at the scene, one of them Cranemasters Inc. of Hammond, which also responded to the CSX derailment in Jackson Township in June 2010.

The LTVFD finally cleared the scene around 5 a.m. Saturday, Duncan said, but was back again on Sunday to police some still smoldering hot spots. Crews were building berms and establishing a containment area, where burning debris would be buried for later removal.

Duncan took a moment on Sunday to express his heartfelt gratitude to all of the agencies which assisted the LTVFD, including not only the various fire departments but the Porter County Chapter of the American Red Cross, which delivered food and water to firefighters; the Porter County Emergency Management Agency, whose incident command center Griffith himself manned all weekend; and the Porter County Sheriff’s Police, the Hebron Police Department, and DNR Law Enforcement, on traffic-control duty.

“It looked a little like an amusement-park city with all the people,” Duncan said.

Does Duncan remember any previous incident on the scale of Friday’s train wreck? The Ruge & Sons Meat inferno, in December 2002, “got pretty crazy,” Duncan recalled. He added that, in the midst of battling the blaze in Jackson Township on Friday, two separate departments—South Haven and Kouts—had to respond to possible structure fires in their own jurisdictions. “When it rains, it pours.”

By 12 p.m. Sunday, Griffith said, one of the two sets of tracks had been sufficiently cleared to allow rail traffic to resume again. But the work of dragging derailed cars to a staging area where they could be loaded onto flat cars for removal continued. Four of the seven locomotives at the scene were severely damaged, he noted, and of those four probably three were destroyed.

This morning some of the county roads near the scene remained closed, with only residents and school buses being allowed access. Bonfield thanked the PCSP for escorting Duneland buses around and through the barricades.

Friday’s train wreck is the second in less than two years in Jackson Township.

On June 16, 2010, a a westbound train derailed in the so-called Suman Valley, north of C.R. 600N and west of C.R. 300E. Fourteen of the train’s 42 cars left the tracks.

No one was injured in the derailment itself but the next day, June 17, a derail supervisor with Cranemasters Inc. of Hammond—a contractor brought to the site by CSX—was crushed to death when a crane being used to clear the tracks fell on him.

The Suman Valley in Jackson Township has been the site of other derailments as well, at least two others to Duncan’s knowledge.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating Friday’s incident.

 

Cleanup continues at scene of three train crash and derailment in Jackson Township

 

Track sections in farm field as crews remove debris from rail bed

Locomotives showing fire damage await removal at accident site Saturday

(Tribune Photos by Margaret L. Willis)

 

Posted 1/9/2012