Fort Worth

Railroad tracks were covered by water when train derailed in Fort Worth, official says

A set of south Fort Worth railroad tracks where a massive train derailment, ethanol spill and explosion occurred April 24 was underwater at the time the train came through, an official said.

And, that water apparently came from the swelling shores of Echo Lake, a 16.8-acre body of water that runs along the railroad tracks. The lake is part of Echo Lake Park, which is owned by Fort Worth, but the drainage is handled by Tarrant County.

“It’s my understanding that the train basically went through there when the water was over the tracks,” Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said Wednesday in an interview.

Federal investigators are looking into what caused the crash, which derailed 25 tanker cars carrying ethanol from a Nebraska plant to Galveston, causing a massive explosion that burned surrounding property and killed three horses.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still in the early stages of its investigation of the incident, which occurred in a neighborhood just southeast of Interstate 35W and East Berry Street. A preliminary report on the derailment has not yet been published, and the final determination of the cause could take months.

A prominent feature in the neighborhood is Echo Lake, which was built in 1919 to provide water for steam locomotives operated by the International & Great Northern Railroad Co. Eventually, the lake and surrounding land was acquired by Tarrant County.

About two years ago, Tarrant County transferred the park to the city, but as part of the transaction county officials agreed that they would stay on site until an upgrade to the lake’s drainage was completed.

That drainage work was still going on in late April, when the overnight thunderstorm dumped massive amounts of rain on Fort Worth — up to two inches per hour in the vicinity of the lake.

It’s not yet publicly known how much water was covering the railroad tracks, or how fast the southbound train was going.

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Ducks waddle around Fort Worth’s Echo Lake, which is being drained by generators and pumps. Gordon Dickson

Tarrant County is now facing questions about its efforts to improve drainage around the lake. This week, the Tarrant County Commissioners Court voted to hire an outside law firm as special counsel, to represent the county in the derailment matter at a cost of up to $25,000.

Whitley said that law firm, Robbins Travis, has expertise in railroad issues, and could help the county in talks with NTSB, the Union Pacific Railroad and other parties involved in the derailment.

Jim Southworth, NTSB investigator in charge, confirmed that NTSB is “looking at the lake” as a contributor to the events that preceded the derailment. He declined to elaborate, saying the investigation was ongoing.

The lake serves as storm water storage for 632 acres of property in the surrounding area, according to a city website.

Whitley said the county’s transfer of Echo Lake Park to the city was part of a multi-pronged deal that also involved city-county cooperation on street and bridge work during the past several years.

Union Pacific officials could not be reached immediately to comment.

On Wednesday, crews could be seen pumping water out of Echo Lake, although it wasn’t clear why, or whether the crews were working for the city or county.

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.