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911 calls; It shows crew member didn’t realize train was carrying crude oil

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911 calls; It shows crew member didn’t realize train was carrying crude oil
Jamestown North Dakota 121 3rd St NW 58401

FARGO — Emergency 911 calls indicate at least one member of the crew involved in the Dec. 30 train derailment and explosion west of Casselton thought the train was carrying ethanol instead of highly combustible Bakken crude oil.


Another railroad worker shortly after the accident told dispatchers he was worried the derailed cars could explode, and sought permission to decouple burning cars to prevent a chain reaction.

The emergency calls to the Red River Emergency Dispatch Center were obtained by The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead on Wednesday from the Cass County Sheriff’s Office.

The first call Dec. 30 came from a BNSF worker shortly after 2:12 p.m.

“It’s about a quarter mile west of Casselton on the railroad tracks. There’s a train derailed and there’s a fire,” said the caller. “Right on Highway 10, towards, right by the ethanol plant.”

Dispatcher: “… And you said there’s fire?”

Caller: “Yeah, there’s fire. And there’s engineers trying to get out of the train right now. So, I’m heading out. …”

Dispatcher: “Do you know how many cars derailed?”

Caller: “I can’t tell you at this time. All I know is there’s a lot of smoke.”

Dispatcher: “Do you know what is in the cars?”

Caller: “It looks like grain cars.”

Dispatcher: “Do you know how many people are still in the train?”

Caller: “There’s probably three guys in the train. I heard ‘em on the radio. They were trying to get out. I don’t know if they’re in it or not. I’m trying to get that way.”

Dispatcher: “Are you with BNSF?”

Caller: “Yeah. I am. I was parked and I heard a noise. I saw some stuff flying off the tracks. And I called their train right away and they went into an emergency-stop mode.”

Then came a call from a worker at the nearby Tharaldson Ethanol Plant just before 2:14 p.m.

Caller: “I’m guessing these are oil cars. I work out here at Tharaldson Ethanol. The train is derailed and it looks like it is going to go from car to car, they keep lighting on fire.”

Dispatcher: “OK, how many cars do you see?”

Caller: “It’s probably a 100-car unit train. It looks like it’s back toward the tail end, towards Casselton.”

Dispatcher: “How many cars are on fire right now?”

Caller: “I cannot tell. I would guess about 10 cars.”

At nearly 2:16 p.m., a member of one of the train crews called 911. He said the train was carrying ethanol.

Dispatcher: “Are you involved in this at all?”

Caller: “I’m part of the train crew.”

Dispatcher: “You are part of the train crew. Do you know if anyone is injured? Do you have someone else on there? Do you know if anybody is injured?”

Caller: “Nobody is injured at this point, that we know of.”

Dispatcher: “What do you have on board?”

Caller: “Uh, ethanol.”

Dispatcher: “You have ethanol?”

Caller: “Right. … We’re walking away from it. It looks like there’s two trains. We’re actually trying to figure it out yet.”

Dispatcher: “Two trains?”

Caller: “As far as I know, yep.”

(Later in the call.)

Dispatcher: “Do you know how many cars?”

Caller: “No. I can’t tell how many cars. For sure, there’s one ruptured, but I’d be worried about these empties blowing up.”

At nearly 2:37 p.m., another train crewman called, asking permission to separate some of the cars of one of the trains from the wreck.

Caller: “Hey, I’m callin’ about this train that’s on fire out by Casselton. I’m part of the train crews. ... We’re in position here. If we get the OK from somebody, if they want us to make a cut on this train and pull part of it away.”

Dispatch: “Hold on just a second.”

Unidentified background voice: “I think this stuff is going to start blowing up instead of burning up.”

Helmut Schmidt
Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.
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