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Kyle Potter, Published January 02 2014

BNSF begins taking reimbursement claims from fiery Casselton train crash

FARGO – After hightailing it to Fargo while a plume of black smoke hovered over his city earlier this week, Gary McKenzie of Casselton walked out of the Days Inn here with an unexpected $50 check – half for gas, half for meals.

From hotel bills to travel expenses to lost income, BNSF Railway on Thursday began taking reimbursement claims from Casselton residents displaced or affected by the fiery train crash on Monday just west of town. The prospect of recouping the costs of leaving town was welcome news to McKenzie and dozens of other Casselton residents like him who worked their way in and out of the hotel Thursday within 20 or 30 minutes. Most left with a check in hand.

About two-thirds of Casselton’s 2,400 residents evacuated overnight Monday, after an eastbound train hauling Bakken crude collided with a derailed soybean train heading west. The explosions from oil cars that caught fire pumped thick black smoke into the air, and officials called on the town to leave due to fears of dangerous fumes and particulates.

“We understand this was a big inconvenience for people and to the community,” BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said. “We want to do the right thing.”

BNSF representatives will keep their command center open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at the Days Inn. Residents should bring any related receipts, a driver’s license and proof of residency, such as a utility bill.

Claims can also be submitted by phone through BNSF’s Fargo claims office at (701) 280-7217. There is no deadline for submitting a claim.

It was a quick process for Paige Bartsch, who had to skip work at First State Bank in downtown Casselton on Tuesday as response crews tried to get a handle on the crash, just a half-mile or so down the tracks. Bartsch said it took “a solid 15 minutes” to get a BNSF check written out for a whole day’s pay.

BNSF received about 50 claims by noon Thursday, McBeth said.

Even local businesses are eligible for reimbursement, but Roy Kieffer will have to wait a few weeks for his check.

Kieffer sent his employees home and closed up his business, Custom Aircraft Refinishing, as he watched the smoke from the crash stream overhead Monday afternoon.

“Being in the painting business, we don’t mess with fumes,” he said.

Business owners who put in claims have to go through a lengthier process with BNSF, which will double-check financials to determine how much in revenue each business may have lost. BNSF General Director Mark Hojnacki said it may take four to six weeks.

But for most, it was a simple process. Gail and Todd Richter were in and out in less than 15 minutes. The pair were reimbursed for their trip to her parents’ house in Grand Forks for the night, plus a meal.

“We knew to keep our receipts and anything,” Gail Richter said, though they didn’t necessarily expect BNSF to cover their costs – it was just instinct. “I’m an accountant.”

With his $50 in hand, McKenzie said the town is beginning to settle down after a crazy few days.

“I don’t know that it’s ever going to be normal again looking at [the trains],” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502