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Kyle Potter, Published January 09 2014

Crew member who thought train in crash carried ethanol was on board train carrying soybeans

CASSELTON, N.D. – The crew member who thought the cars engulfed in flames after a train wreck here last week was hauling ethanol – not crude oil – was on board the other train carrying soybeans, a BNSF official says.

The confusion stemmed from audio recordings of emergency calls after one train struck a derailed train just west of Casselton on Dec. 30. The recordings were released by the Cass County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday.

In one recording, a man who identified himself as a crew member told dispatchers ethanol was inside the cars on fire.

BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said that crew member was on the train hauling soybeans west, “and therefore wouldn’t have known what was on the other train.”

Sgt. Tara Morris with the Cass County Sheriff’s Office said the first law enforcement officers to arrive on scene were under the impression crude oil was burning inside the cars.

McBeth said each BNSF crew member knows the contents of every car in their train thanks to a document on board each train with an inventory list.

Train safety expert Robert Halstead said crew members “should know pretty much everything” about what they’re hauling in case hazardous materials become unstable, and so they can relay information to first responders.

Halstead, who is president of the National Association of Railroad Safety Contractors and Investigators, said a train conductors’ first responsibility after an accident is to hand over the inventory document, called a consist, to officials from fire departments or hazardous materials teams on site.

Leon Schlafmann, Fargo’s emergency services coordinator, said some tankers are marked with their contents. If not, responders will get the consist to determine what’s inside in order to lay out their emergency response: perimeters, evacuations, what extinguishing agent to use and more.

“They’re going to do a lot more investigating than just pulling up on scene and shooting from the hip,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502