Did an incredibly powerful rainfall early Wednesday contribute to a train derailment in south Fort Worth — one that caused a massive ethanol fire, forced residents from about 20 area homes and killed three horses?
Or, was there some other cause? Maybe something related to the condition of the track, the tanker cars or the train crew?
Federal investigators and railroad officials say it’s too early to elaborate on a specific cause of the derailment of 25 tanker cars carrying ethanol that toppled like dominoes in the early Wednesday incident south of East Berry Street, between Interstate 35W and South Riverside Drive. At least four of the tanker rail cars burned in the fire, although some of the other rail cars remained intact, with their flammable liquid cargo still inside.
Raw video footage shot after sunrise Wednesday -- many hours after the 12:30 a.m. incident -- and shown on WFAA Channel 8 television in Dallas-Fort Worth showed storm water rushing underneath the Union Pacific Railroad main line.
At the time of the derailment, the Fort Worth area was enveloped in a thunderstorm that was dumping up to two inches per hour in some areas.
Union Pacific Railroad, which owns the tracks where the derailment occurred and was operating the train that toppled, declined to comment on whether weather was a factor.
“We have not made a determination on the cause yet,” Union Pacific Railroad spokeswoman Kristen South said. “We are working with NTSB on a cause.”
The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the incident and on Wednesday afternoon was en route to Fort Worth to begin that work. NTSB is an independent arm of the federal government that investigates major accidents involving aircraft, railroads, highways and other parts of the nation’s transportation grid.
Are tanker cars safe?
The NTSB is mostly concerned with investigating accidents to prevent similar occurrences in the future, a spokesman said.
For example, NTSB might turn its focus onto why the derailed cars caught fire, and whether anything could have been done to prevent the rupture of the cars.
Five NTSB members were en route to Fort Worth on Wednesday afternoon, agency spokesman Christopher O’Neil said.
“Rail accidents are selected for investigation (we do not investigate every rail accident) based upon the totality of the circumstances, as reported, surrounding an accident, and what we may learn from investigating the accident,” O’Neil said in an email. “In this instance, the carriage of ethyl alcohol in tank rail cars, and the reported breach of several cars carrying that cargo, is an area of interest for the NTSB.”
O’Neil also declined to say if weather was being looked at as a factor in the incident, which forced the evacuation of about 20 nearby homes.
“In each investigation,” O’Neil said, “we look at the people and machinery involved in the accident, and the environment in which the accident happened. We will look at the training, qualifications and fitness for duty of the people involved and the actions they took or failed to take ...”
The NTSB has long been concerned about the safe transport of hazardous material in tanker cars.
The Fort Worth Fire Department also declined to comment on weather as a possible factor, spokesman Kyle Clay said. Officials from the department left the scene Wednesday afternoon, leaving the cleanup to railroad officials and a small number of contractors.
Residents point to storm runoff
Dario Diaz’s parents have complained to officials before about this area being dangerous for trains during flooding. His family lives nearby on Atkins Street, where they keep many animals such as horses and dogs.
Echo Lake floods and drags rocks across the tracks, Diaz said. Then the trains can hit the rocks.
Another resident, Adrian Castillo, said drainage of storm water has been an issue in that area for some time.
Last year, after an 18-year-old woman, her 2-year-old daughter and another man drowned during heavy rainfall near East Loop 820 and Wilbarger Street in east Fort Worth, a Star-Telegram investigation showed that the city knew about sorely needed drainage improvements since 2016 but failed to take action.
However, Wednesday’s derailment took place about six miles east of last year’s flooding deaths, and the area of the derailment wasn’t mentioned in the 2016 report.
A check of the Federal Railroad Administration database sheds only a little light on whether other accidents have occurred in the vicinity of Wednesday’s derailment.
For example, an accident report was filed in 2007 after a BNSF Railway train, using the Union Pacific line, crashed into a pickup that had apparently stalled and been abandoned on the tracks, at a crossing near East Shaw Street and V.C. Shamblee Drive. No injuries were reported.
No other reports of train-related incidents were readily available in that area.
Who uses ethanol?
The tanker cars contained ethanol, which is a highly flammable substance and should not be stored or used near an open flame, according to the American Chemistry Council.
But ethanol also is a very common product found in numerous household goods.
Ethanol is commonly used as an ingredient in motor fuels. Also, it is commonly used in lotions, hand sanitizers and other cosmetics, as well as in alcoholic foods and beverages and even candy, according to the council.
Railroads are commonly used to transport ethanol from producers to manufacturers of these goods.
Ethanol is transported using a standard tanker rail car approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.
The so-called DOT 111A rail cars are inspected before, during and after each shipment to ensure safety equipment is operating correctly, according to the association.
Today, 85 percent of rail cars used to transport ethanol are less than seven years old.
Staff Writers Domingo Ramirez Jr., Kaley Johnson and Mitch Mitchell contributed to this report, which includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.