A 26-car pile-up and explosion forced the evacuation of the village of Clair and surrounding area last Tuesday morning, Oct. 7, when a Canadian National (CN) Railway train running from Winnipeg to Saskatoon jumped the tracks just east of the village.
Some of the rail cars caught on fire, throwing billowing flames wrapped in dense black smoke that reportedly could be seen from Kelvington, about 60 kilometres northeast, as emergency response personnel including Wadena Volunteer Fire Department, RCMP and Shamrock Ambulance from Wadena and Quill Lake Volunteer Fire Department rushed to the scene around 10:40 a.m.
At the grid crossing about a kilometre east of Clair, several rail cars were piled into two distinct mangled messes. Large shards of shattered steel and loose wheels could be seen in the ditch between the highway and the rail line for the entire length of the crash site. One pile was burning fiercely; the roar of an intensely hot fire could be heard by curious bystanders gathered on the grid road adjacent to the Kaweski farm across the highway from the fire.
Highway 5 was closed between Watson and Wadena as travellers were asked to detour north, away from the direction of the smoke.
RCMP blockades were initially set up along Hwy. 5, which runs east-west parallel to the CN rail lines approximately 2 km east and west of the fire. The blockades were later extended to the turnoff at Watson through to Wadena.
High wind gusts of 35 km/h at the time were causing concern as the content of the cars and what was causing the fire and smoke were initially unknown. No one was being allowed close to the scene, including any of the local emergency response personnel, who remained at the ready alongside the RCMP until the CN and provincial emergency response teams arrived.
CN later confirmed that the train was carrying 100 cars – 40 loaded and 60 empty. Twenty-six cars derailed, including six that were carrying dangerous goods: hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide and petroleum distillates, the latter of which is commonly known as Varsol.
“Of the 26 derailed cars, two cars carrying petroleum distillate have spilled and that’s the product that caught fire. There were four other dangerous goods cars; two of hydrochloric acid, two of caustic soda. They are reported to be intact,” said CN spokesman Jim Feeny.
The company also confirmed that the two employees on board were not injured and that the derailment was not caused by operator error.
At the same time, the Rural Municipality of Lakeview, in which the communities of Clair, Paswegin and surrounding area fall, declared a local state of emergency and initiated its emergency response protocol, acting as a command post in liaison with emergency response units on the scene.
According to the R.M.’s acting administrator Carrie Turnbull, more than 45 landowners, residents of the two villages and their families were told to evacuate immediately from their homes and farms, including those within a 5-km radius of the crash site. Evacuation orders also included those who were located south and east in the direct path of the smoke.
Once the CN hazardous materials crew arrived, the province, including the ministries of Emergency Measures and Fire Safety and Environment, set up a command post on a pullout along Hwy. 5 at Clair. Members of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) were also deployed.
Local concerns about air quality, water, crop and livestock contamination due to fallout were quick to emerge as reports of the derailment hit the national level.
“The Ministry of the Environment has a lab that arrived at about three o’clock (Tuesday) and tested the immediate area,” said Saskatchewan fire commissioner Duane McKay on Oct. 8.
When the News visited the site late Tuesday evening, a member of the Environment lab team explained to R.M. representatives that the type of chemical involved burns off into the atmosphere, leaving no trace, “much like a barbecue,” he said.
“Environment continued testing throughout the whole incident,” stated Ministry of Environment spokesperson Ralph Bock during a provincial news conference held Wednesday morning. “The tests resulted in no reports of contaminants above measured values of concern.”
At some point Tuesday afternoon, members of the RCMP at the scene were relieved from manning the barricades as members of the CN Police took over.
Recovery efforts by CN began as soon as the fire was contained. Although some flare-ups could still be seen from the command post late Tuesday night, heavy equipment was being unloaded at the scene to begin the onerous task of untangling the metal mess, moving the debris off the tracks and transferring the remaining loads, including the four cars that contained dangerous goods.
By 11 p.m. Tuesday, members of the Quill Lake fire department were sent home. Four members of the Wadena fire department plus Fire Chief Harold Narfason and local Emergency Medical Services personnel remained on the scene.
Every few hours, volunteers stepped up to deliver fresh coffee and food to the command centre while reeve Mervin Kryzanowski and acting administrator Carrie Turnbull remained on standby overnight at the R.M. Lakeview office in case of a change of events.
About 5 a.m. Wednesday morning, Oct. 8, trains could be heard along the track in Wadena, a sign that some progress was being made further west.
Residents of the R.M. were being notified that the evacuation order had been lifted and they were allowed to return home.
At 8 a.m. Wednesday, a full complement of R.M. councillors along with Kryzanowski and Turnbull met with CN claims representatives Mark Bouffard and John O’Donnell of Edmonton. Bouffard and O’Donnell explained the process for making claims to CN and detailed items that qualified both the R.M. and its ratepayers for compensation. This includes the cost of hotels, a per diem for meals, mileage, lost wages and lost revenues due to the derailment and subsequent evacuations. There is also a $50 per person per night reimbursement to family members who accommodated evacuees.
“Reimbursement includes expenses for firefighters, mileage and meals,” said Bouffard. “We will match the local mileage rate.”
When the question of health risks as a result of the incident was raised, Bouffard said their briefing with the Ministry of Environment that morning indicated there should be no fallout from the derailment and subsequent fire.
“Air quality continues to be monitored by Environment,” said Bouffard, “The distillate that burned goes up into the air and stays there. We are assured that Environment continues to test for contaminants. They have placed monitors east, west and south of the scene.”
As for those concerned about water quality, Bouffard said they will arrange and pay for the testing of wells and local dugouts at the request of landowners.
All soil that may have been contaminated is being picked up as part of the recovery process, said Bouffard.
All claims are being co-ordinated through the R.M. office. Both representatives assured listeners that the processing of claims was a matter of getting through layers of bureaucracy. “As long as the claims are appropriately supported with invoices, receipts or documentation, cheques can be issued within days,” said O’Donnell.
As Wednesday unfolded, TSB investigators began their work amid a beehive of activity from national media outlets – all vying to get a closer look, the latest quote or update – filling the airwaves with speculation as to the cause.
Although not nearly of the same magnitude of the train derailment and explosion that disintegrated the centre of the town and killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Que., in July 2013, local concerns mirrored national questions about rail safety.
Speculation has ranged from the condition of the rail crossing itself, where the accident occurred, to the condition of the rails, the railway ties, railcar wheels, drag-brake rigging, speed of the train, and even the strong wind that was prevalent at the time of the accident.
Three TSB investigators led by senior regional investigator Jerry Berriault of Winnipeg continued to inspect and document the accident site and wreckage.
In its initial report, the TSB stated that it had reviewed data from the locomotive event recorder, interviewed the crew, and identified pieces of rail being sent to its engineering laboratory in Ottawa for further analysis.
“Investigators will review the mechanical condition of the rolling stock, review the condition of the track infrastructure, and conduct a detailed damage assessment of all tank cars involved,” stated the report, concluding that it was “too soon to draw any conclusions.”
The recovery continued throughout Wednesday and Thursday and concerns about “What if…?” permeated local conversations from the R.M office to coffee row.
CN Police maintained the blockade on Hwy. 5 and local emergency personnel, including members of the Wadena fire department and EMS, stood by the site until they were finally released around 9:40 p.m. Thursday and Hwy. 5 was reopened.
According to local Fire Chief Harold Narfason, who was one of the many who remained on the scene for about 60 hours, Wadena firefighters still needed to report back to the scene Friday and Saturday until the transfer of all chemicals was complete and cleanup efforts were at a point where no risk was posed.
In a brief conversation with Turnbull on Thursday night, she said the R.M. will be debriefing the incident with the province as well as reviewing their whole emergency response, to tighten up or make changes to procedures.
As well as Wadena and Quill Lake volunteer fire departments, Shamrock and Midway Ambulance Services and RCMP members from Wadena, Wynyard, Lanigan, Rose Valley, Punnichy and Humboldt were all called in as part of the emergency response effort.
With an incident of this magnitude, the conversation is not over. The Wadena News will continue to bring reports from the R.M., the firefighters, and investigators as they become available.
By Alison Squires