The engineer and conductor on a BNSF oil train that derailed in North Dakota in December 2013 had seconds to escape their locomotive before it was engulfed by fire, according to interview transcripts made available Monday by federal accident investigators.
The interviews, conducted in January 2014 by the National Transportation Safety Board, show the occupational risks railroad workers face, especially with trains carrying hazardous materials. The train’s engineer is suing BNSF, and says the wreck left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.
They also show that emergency responders did not initially understand the severity of the situation they faced when two trains derailed near Casselton, N.D., on Dec. 30, 2013. One of them was carrying grain, and the other, crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region.
The train’s engineer, Bryan Thompson, told investigators that he had only seconds to react before the oil train, traveling 43 mph, hit a derailed grain car in its path.
He activated the emergency braking system, but he knew from nine years of experience that virtually nothing could stop the 13,335 tons of train behind him from going off the track. He told his conductor to hit the floor and brace for impact.
“I knew what was coming,” he told investigators, “and I honestly said a prayer. It was really quick.”
Thompson and the conductor, Pete Riepl, were not injured when the locomotive came to rest. But almost immediately, they noticed that the train was on fire, and they needed to get away. They couldn’t exit through the front of the locomotive: The impact with the overturned grain car had jammed the door.
Their only choice was to exit through the back of the locomotive, which forced them to go toward the rapidly encroaching fire.
“That’s the last place you want to go,” Thompson said, “ but it was our only escape.”
Riepl told investigators that the pair got about 200 yards away before they looked back and saw that their locomotive was engulfed in flames.
He also said that several minutes after the derailment, tank cars began exploding, in succession, one about every 10 minutes.
Thompson left his belongings in the locomotive cab, save for his coat _ it was about 20 degrees below zero that day _ and cellphone. He called 911. The dispatcher asked him if she needed to call the local fire department.
“I said, ‘you need to call every fire department,’” Thompson said he told the dispatcher.
The 911 dispatcher instructed Thompson to report to the incident command center established at a local high school. Once there, Thompson said he could hear over radio chatter that people were watching the train burn. In similar situations, authorities usually recommend a half-mile evacuation radius.
“I don’t think you understand what’s going on here,” he said he told a deputy sheriff. “You need to get those people away from there.”
Thompson asked the deputy if he knew about the deadly oil train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people in July 2013. He told the deputy that his train was carrying the same kind of cargo: Bakken crude.
“And his eyes got big, you know,” Thompson said, “then he said ‘Code Red’ on his radio.”