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Off the rails in Mahnomen

Cleaning up the mess in Mahnomen are crews with speciality contractors that deal with railroad spills and derailment cleanups. Eight tanker cars, each with 20,000 gallons or more of canola oil, were involved in the derailment, though not all cars lost all their oil. Railroad officials were assessing the damage and pumping out the oil on Tuesday. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)1 / 2
Rail cars were scattered in Mahnomen between Highway 59 and the Canadian Pacific Railway tracks after being dragged from the site of a 13-car derailment on Monday afternoon. SARAH KOLBERG/GRAND FORKS HERALD2 / 2

A railroad disaster drill held last week in the city of Mahnomen seemed eerily prescient when the real thing happened -- 13 cars in a southbound Canadian Pacific freight train derailed late Monday afternoon.

Luckily, no one was hurt in the real derailment, and the clear liquid gushing out of an overturned tanker car -- like water out of a fire hydrant --  turned out to be harmless canola oil.

In the drill last week, it was anhydrous ammonia.

Still, the derailment was enough to put the fear of God into two witnesses -- Bill Beckman and his son, Scott, 19 (race car drivers, both of them, and not easily shaken).

They were at work at Beckman's used car dealership, Grease Monkee Automotive on Highway 59 across from the railroad tracks, when the derailment occurred about 5:30 p.m north of the Washington-Avenue crossing.

"The initial noise was loud," Beckman said. "You know how it sounds when train cars slam together when they're slowing down -- they were banging together, banging together, banging together -- then my son gave me an elbow and said, 'Look, dad.'

Scott said he saw a grain car "nosedive into the ground. The next one rolled in and piled off one way and the next one piled off the other way. Then they started derailing."

The train wasn't moving very fast and the derailment appeared to be happening in slow motion, Beckman said.

"It was kind of like watching a movie," he said. "It didn't look like it was going that fast, but it kept coming -- it must have had that momentum."

The derailed cars included eight tankers full of canola oil and three empty grain cars, but to those watching the accident, the grain dust looked like smoke and the clear liquid -- shooting out of the broken cap of an overturned black tanker car -- looked like fuel.

"It looked like gas pouring out, I thought we better stand back in case it explodes," Scott said. "It would have shattered every windshield in this car lot."

Beckman dialed 911 and was on the phone with the dispatcher while the derailment was still going on.

To their horror, the two men saw a man walk over to the wreckage just a few minutes after the accident. But he wasn't as crazy as they thought.

"Within 5 minutes (law enforcement and the train crew) had identified the leak," said Mahnomen County Sheriff Doug Krier. "Within 10 minutes traffic was being re-routed, and within an hour we had the command center set up."

The 100-car mixed-freight train was traveling from Winnipeg to Chicago, and the derailment occurred in the middle part of the train, said Canadian Pacific spokesman Jeff Johnson.

The disaster drill held a week earlier, and four blocks south of the derailment site, gave emergency crews the chance to practice for just this type of situation, he said.

"That's why we cooperate with the communities," Johnson said. "So they can prepare. They did a fine job. They're the emergency responders. We want to make sure they get their questions answered so they can be prepared for any type of incident, and I think they were."

"Everything went as smooth as could be -- the drill helped," Sheriff Krier said from the command post.

It was busy at the scene Monday and Tuesday, as contractors specializing in environmental cleanup worked to contain and pump out the canola oil (minimum load for a tanker is 20,000 gallons) which was pooled behind dikes, pumped into trucks then dumped into large tanker cars.

The vegetable oil was in demand by waste oil dealers. "One guy wanted 12 truckloads," Johnson said.

Semis loaded with new rails were unloading in preparation for track repairs.

Ironically, that stretch of railroad track had been undergoing repairs and reconstruction for the past several weeks and had just been finished.

Johnson, the Canadian Pacific spokesman, wouldn't speculate as to the cause of the derailment, or how long it would take to clean it up and rebuild the tracks.

Trains are being rerouted around Mahnomen.

"Our main focus is pumping out the canola oil, then cleaning up the cars and rebuilding the rails," Johnson said.

Dozens of workers for a contractor that handles derailment cleanup and repairs were busy with backhoes and specialized heavy equipment Tuesday.

State troopers and tribal police officers kept motorists off the shoulder of Highway 59 and local law enforcement secured the perimeter of the cleanup site, marked off with yellow police tape.

No injuries to the train crew or bystanders were reported, Johnson said.

"Safety is our top priority and there were no injuries," he said. "I want to thank the emergency responders for their quick response. They were there within minutes."

Local law enforcement and the Mahnomen Fire Department were assisted by Becker County deputies and firefighters from Mahnomen, Waubun and Twin Lake.

Beckman said he was amazed at how quickly word got around after the derailment.

"It was really weird -- from the time the train crashed to the time a buddy called me from Detroit Lakes was about 20 minutes," he said. "After about 10 minutes the traffic out there increased by about 10 times normal -- we finally had to park a car across the driveway to keep people out."

The damage from the wreck was limited to the railroad's right of way and did not affect any neighboring property. Canadian Pacific is investigating, but Johnson does not expect the results to be available for several months.