CASSELTON, N.D. – A train crawls west through Casselton, past an ethanol plant on its right and the burnt-out and mangled wreckage of a train crash to the left.
Two charred locomotives sit side-by-side where they collided with another train, their railings warped by the ensuing blaze and their sides coated in gray ash and black soot.
Then, a boneyard of axles, pulled from those locomotives and tank cars to be heaped into a pile now blanketed with snow.
And 20-some tank cars, once filled with Bakken crude, are laid out in rows: some twisted but mostly intact, some punched out with holes where fire ripped through steel, a few crushed as if they were pop cans and one torn in half. Each car now has a number, neatly drawn in orange marker on its end.
It’s been more than three weeks since the fiery train crash just west of Casselton, and still the wreckage sits in a nearby field dusted with ash – a monument to the town’s near miss.
Federal investigators are still studying the Dec. 30 crash, when the eastbound train carrying crude oil collided with a derailed westbound train carrying soybeans. More than a dozen oil cars caught fire and exploded, belching a plume of thick black smoke into the air that cast a long shadow over Casselton.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation won’t be done for a year or more, but it says up to 425,000 gallons of oil burned or spilled from 18 cars involved in the crash, making it among the worst crude-by-rail spills in U.S. history. In its preliminary report, the NTSB said the crash caused an estimated $6.1 million in damage.
BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the railroad company will soon haul away the two locomotives and some soybean boxcars that were damaged in the accident. She said there’s no timeline for when the NTSB will clear the oil tankers to be dragged away and scrapped.