Train drill turns into reality
By RANDY GONZALES
Just last week, the Hays Police Department and Hays Fire Department conducted a table-top drill on what to do if there was a train accident involving a fire at the railroad crossing near Eighth and Vine.
Five days later, a Union Pacific freight train crashed into a stationary train in the early morning hours Tuesday at the rail yard next to Eighth and Vine.
"We're supposed to do that; that's our job, to be prepared, to do these what-if scenarios," Hays Fire Chief Gary Brown said. "It's just kind of eerie that last Thursday we did one for a train accident at Eighth and Vine, and then we go to a train accident (Tuesday) to Eighth and Vine with a fire."
Brown said all departments involved at the accident scene performed as had been drilled.
"This was a very large incident for the city of Hays to manage," said Brown, who was the incident commander on the scene. "Quite frankly, all the key players came together to manage it effectively."
Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said Tuesday the accident was under investigation. On its website, the National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending investigators to Hays.
At approximately 1:25 a.m. Tuesday, a Union Pacific train with three locomotives and 79 cars was westbound from Salina to Denver when it left the main line and crashed into the rear of a stationary train on a side rail. Four cars from the sitting train and four cars sitting on an adjacent line -- all empty -- derailed, as did 10 cars from the train that was diverted from the main line. Three of the derailed cars from the Salina train contained beer, six had wood products and one had poultry meal.
The sitting train that was struck from behind normally travels back and forth between Hays and Salina.
As diesel spilled from the Denver-bound train, flames rose 30 to 40 feet in the air. Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis confirmed each locomotive had taken on 4,000 gallons of diesel at Salina. He said each locomotive was damaged beyond repair by the fire. None of the three crew members on board -- an engineer, conductor and switchman -- were injured.
Firefighters from the Hays Fire Department, Ellis County Rural Fire Department, Ellis Fire Department and Victoria Fire Department worked to control the blaze, using foam and also spraying 5,000 gallons of water per minute for a period of several hours.
As a result of the water demands to douse the blaze, which was out at 8:30 a.m., Hays residents were asked to conserve water usage Tuesday by city officials.
At the rear of the train were 20 tankers carrying low-grade ethanol, which did not derail. Firefighters worked to keep the fire from spreading to those cars.
Davis said he believed it was happenstance the cars carrying ethanol -- a flammable product -- were at the rear of the train.
"I'd have to say that would be coincidence," Davis said. "That travels in a variety of locations in a train."
Emergency personnel also worked to prevent Chetolah Creek from being contaminated with water mixed with diesel.
A dozen people from Parkview Mobile Home Park and adjacent apartments were evacuated in the early morning hours Tuesday and were sent to a shelter at Holy Family Elementary School.
Davis said Union Pacific and its contractors had approximately 100 people on the accident scene Tuesday. The main track, which was not damaged by the accident, reopened later Tuesday evening. Four trains had been delayed, Davis said. Repairs will have to be made to the track on which the accident occurred.
A key question for investigators is how the train was diverted from the main track. The train's event recorder could answer some of those questions, including how fast it was traveling when it struck the sitting train.
Davis said the train was not guided automatically.
"In this area, this is what we call a non-automated territory," Davis said. "What you have to do, the procedures are to talk with the train dispatcher. The dispatcher gives you permission to go from Point A to Point B.
"In this particular case, the train crew thought they were going to continue down the main line track. So the focus of the investigation is why their train was diverted into the rail yard."
Hays Police Chief Don Scheibler said the accident could have been much worse.
"No. 1, with night time, less traffic to deal with," he said. "If the accident was a little farther to the west, (it could have) set downtown on fire."