Fort Worth

A fiery Fort Worth train derailment could change how railroads handle hazardous cargo

Drone video shows cleanup efforts after train derailment, fire in Fort Worth

Drone footage shows an aerial view of cleanup efforts underway Thursday at the site of a train derailment near Echo Lake and a resulting fire that burned a barn, killing 3 horses. The accident occurred early Wednesday morning.
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Drone footage shows an aerial view of cleanup efforts underway Thursday at the site of a train derailment near Echo Lake and a resulting fire that burned a barn, killing 3 horses. The accident occurred early Wednesday morning.

Some tanker cars involved in a fiery train derailment Wednesday in south Fort Worth were older model rail cars that are considered less safe for transporting flammable liquids than newer models, federal officials say.

The older tanker cars, known as DOT-111s, are being phased out and will no longer be allowed on U.S. railroads by 2023, according to federal regulations. The DOT-111s are being replaced by DOT-117 tanker cars, which feature thicker protective shells, head shields (to reduce collision impact) and an additional thermal protective layer of fiber.

But the derailment of the Union Pacific Railroad train in a somewhat-isolated area of Fort Worth near East Berry Street and South Riverside Drive — which triggered a massive fire fueled by more than 100,000 gallons of ethanol from the tanker cars — presents a fascinating case for the National Transportation Safety Board to probe because the train also was carrying many of the newer model DOT-117 tanker cars.

It will be the first time the NTSB, which has been pushing hard for railroad tanker car owners to get rid of the DOT-111 cars and use the DOT-117s instead, will be able to compare how the different models of tanker cars held up side-by-side in the same crash.

This tanker car was damaged by a derailment but didn’t leak or catch fire. It is one of the newer model DOT-117 tankers, which are designed to protect flammable cargo in a crash. Gordon Dickson

“We’re going through them one by one, looking for breaching damage,” said Paul Stancil, NTSB hazardous materials accident investigator.

The NTSB isn’t yet ready to say how many of the 24 derailed cars were DOT-111 models versus how many are the newer DOT-117 models, Stancil said. The agency also isn’t ready to say which version of the tanker cars caught fire, and which stayed intact.

There were also some older tanker cars retrofitted with safety improvements — and known as DOT 117Rs — involved in the crash, Stancil said.

The Fort Worth derailment could motivate railroads to phase out the older tanker cars sooner, officials said. It is the latest in a string of railroad accidents in the U.S. that have damaged property, caused injuries and drawn attention to how rail carriers handle hazardous materials.

Although Union Pacific Railroad was responsible for the train, the tanker cars involved in the derailment were actually owned by others, officials said.

Sometimes, tanker cars are owned by the companies that hire a railroad to move their flammable cargo. But in the Fort Worth case, the tanker cars were owned by three companies that specialize in leasing the tanker cars to companies that needed to ship their ethanol from a production facility in Nebraska to a gasoline refinery in Galveston, NTSB officials said.

Probe just getting started

On Thursday, investigators from the NTSB, Union Pacific and the Federal Railroad Administration worked at a brisk pace in a dirt and concrete lot that once belonged to an incinerator company, just north of the derailment site.

Enormous cranes picked up the damaged tanker cars one at a time and placed them in a dirt field, where workers were to empty them of any remaining ethanol then fumigate them so investigators can cut them apart and take pieces back to the East Coast for further investigation.

Of the 24 tanker cars, nine leaked at least some of their ethanol cargo, including the four cars that witnesses saw burn up in the fire, officials said.

Despite the enormity of the crash, it appeared that the environmental cleanup was limited to the area immediately along the railroad tracks.

Jim Southworth, NTSB investigator in charge, said Thursday he was not aware of any ethanol making its way into any nearby creeks or other waterways, including Echo Lake, a small body of water adjacent to the derailment site.

With each tanker car capable of carrying roughly 28,000 gallons of ethanol, Wednesday’s derailment had the potential to create a deadly inferno fueled by up to 672,000 gallons of flammable liquid. But instead, most of the tankers kept their cargo safe.

Even so, a massive fire lit up the neighborhood in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday. The fire spread to nearby properties, destroying a barn and other buildings and also killing three horses. Residents of up to 20 nearby homes were asked to evacuate.

Weather a factor?

Federal investigators also are probing whether raging rain water damaged or left debris on railroad tracks and caused the fiery derailment of the train, which was carrying a load of freshly-produced ethanol from Nebraska to a gasoline refinery in Galveston. Ethanol, a highly-flammable liquid made from processed corn, has many uses, including as an additive in gasoline.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth region, gasoline blended with ethanol is sold at the pumps in warm weather months, to help reduce automobile emissions.

Workers use heavy equipment to move a damaged tanker car from railroad tracks in south Fort Worth. Gordon Dickson

The Metroplex experienced massive rain Tuesday night and much of Wednesday, with some areas of Fort Worth reporting two inches of precipitation an hour around the time of the derailment.

Some residents of a nearby neighborhood say storm water has been known to leave debris on railroad tracks after heavy rainfalls. Also, aerial video shot in the hours after the derailment showed what appeared to be rainwater rushing underneath the twisted railroad tracks at the derailment site, leaving open the possibility of erosion beneath the tracks.

“The storms and the movement of water during the storms is certainly part of our focus of what we are doing here,” Southworth said.

He added that investigators likely will be on site collecting evidence until at least Sunday, and afterward could spend weeks or even months analyze their findings before determining a final cause.

Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997. He is passionate about hard news reporting, and his beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, business trends. He is originally from El Paso, and loves food, soccer and long drives.