Derailment cleanup swift, precise



May 25, 2011 - 12:00 AM

Response to the train derailment three miles south of Moran came off with military precision.
In charge was Ruben Lopez, Union Pacific transportation services superintendent from Wichita and a graduate of West Point Military Academy.
Lopez led a team of railroad and salvage company workers involved in recovery efforts Tuesday afternoon. The goal was to clear debris, lay new track and have trains running again as soon as possible — probably sometime today, weather permitting, he said.
The fiery derailment of the 114-car freight train occurred at 4:10 Monday morning. Thirty-two cars went off the tracks. One of three tank cars containing the chemical ethylene toppled over, leaked and caught fire, creating a column of black smoke visible throughout the day.
The key to opening the site to repairs, officials said, was the safe disposal of the remaining ethylene in the other tank cars. Officials determined the best way to dispose of the ethylene, a chemical with widespread industrial uses, was through burning. The contents of the remaining two tankers were purposely incinerated yesterday.
As the last tanker was blown open at 3:20 Tuesday afternoon, a fireball leaped above hedge trees — all but those not directly involved were ordered back a half mile.
Lopez said the released ethylene would burn to nothing in about an hour.
New rails, fastened to ties in 40-foot sections and looking like giant pieces of a model railroad set, were at the ready. Huge machines were standing by to put them in place.
First, though, the rail bed had to be smoothed by bulldozers, and 14 carloads of ballast, rock to provide firm footing for rails, were standing by. In addition to the heavy equipment, a small army of specialists were there to operate it. Intentions were to work throughout the night.
“We can rebuild the track in six or seven hours,” Lopez said.
The only hitch, Lopez said, would be thunderstorms, which materialized.
“Lightning will stop work,” he said.
In an interview on site on Tuesday, Union Pacific spokesperson Mark Davis praised the efforts of “all the first responders that have been here to help since the derailment occurred.”
Allen County responders of several stripes — Iola firefighters, county ambulance crews and emergency services personnel, including the Community Emergency Response Team — were among the many who worked the derailment.
“The people who live near the accident site also have been wonderful,” Davis said, adding that the railroad would address claims for compensation for those who call (877) 877-2567, option 1.
Even while repairs were going on, a team of specialists had begun to determine what caused the derailment. Several areas are probed: Mechanical aspects of the train; track conditions; human factor, including those other than the train’s crew; and debris or weather-related incidents.
“Derailments really are quite rare,” Davis said. “The last I recall was at Kingfisher, Okla., about 12 years ago. Very seldom is a cause not found.”