Train derailment near De Soto, WI also closes highway ...

Crawford County, WI officials received a report of derailment of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) train on the banks of the Mississippi River just to the south of De Soto, WI at approximately 12:15 p.m. Thursday, April 27. As pictured in the surrounding photos provided courtesy of Amy Ping Knutson of De Soto, WI, a freight train traveling southbound derailed off the tracks, causing two of the three locomotives and a reported number of 10 railroad cars to veer off the tracks, with most of those derailed vessels ending up on the banks of the elevated railway or in the ditch area (filled with water at the time due to flooding) between the railroad tracks and Wisconsin Hwy. 35.

Within the cargo being carried by the train were some hazardous materials that included lithium batteries, paint and oxygen tanks, but Crawford County Emergency Management reported those materials were secured and presented no immediate hazard. Two transport containers (one of which is pictured in the photo at center) broke free from their rail car and began floating downriver following the derailment, but they were both captured and secured to the shoreline until they could be removed as part of the clean-up process.

More than two dozen emergency responder units initially converged on the scene, including law enforcement, fire departments, medical services and hazardous materials units, to assess the situation and ensure the safety of the surrounding area. Four members of the railroad crew involved in the incident were reported as being transported to nearby hospitals, where they were treated for injuries and released.

Wisconsin Hwy. 35 adjacent to the railroad tracks was closed to traffic immediately following the incident and has been closed ever since to allow for the clean-up process to continue with the required large equipment involved. Truck loads of gravel were also dumped into the ditch area between Hwy. 35 and the railroad tracks to enable access to the tracks and wreckage for clean-up purposes. That segment of Wisconsin Hwy. 35 roadway south of De Soto will remain closed for an undetermined amount of time, according to Wisconsin Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesperson Michael Bie as of press deadline Tuesday morning, May 2.

“WIS 35 remains closed to traffic for railroad recovery/restoration efforts and assessment of pavement damages due to heavy machinery used for rail car recovery,” Bie relayed. “Tentatively, pavement repairs are expected to be needed prior to re-opening the roadway. Roadway inspections are ongoing, with the scope of repair work to be determined. Traffic is detoured via WIS 171, WIS 27 and WIS 56.”

Included in the emergency response was a call put out to the Harpers Ferry Fire Department for use of its large rescue boat. Harpers Ferry Fire Chief Dave Cota said his department was called upon for possible use of its larger-sized, flat-bottom rescue boat to help deploy the railroad company’s large absorption/containment boom that would have been implemented from shore into the water to try and contain any diesel fuel from the derailed locomotives or other hazardous materials. Cota said a crew of four Harpers Ferry firefighters responded with the boat but remained only on stand-by throughout the entire couple hours they were on scene because the locomotives did not leak fuel directly into the Mississippi River as officials in charge of the derailment scene had initially anticipated could possibly happen.

Cota said the greatest challenge for his department was getting to the actual derailment scene with the boat, as the flooding Mississippi River water levels did not allow for navigation of the closed Lock 9 between Harpers Ferry and the derailment scene and Cota said “shooting the spillway” with the boat was not a safe option with the high water and river current. Further challenges of trailering the boat to the derailment scene were presented by closure of the Black Hawk Bridge and Wisconsin Hwy. 82 (the dike road) between Iowa and Wisconsin, in addition to closure of the Great River Road near Lansing and State Highway 76 to the south near Effigy Mounds due to the high river levels covering portions of those roadways. The Harpers Ferry crew, instead, trailered the boat to Lansing’s riverfront via Lansing Harpers Road and was able to launch the vessel at the Brennan Landing/Old Fish Market Landing along Front Street in Lansing before navigating the boat up the main channel of the Mississippi River to the derailment scene. Allamakee County Emergency Management Coordinator Corey Snitker said neither his agency nor any other Allamakee County officials were called into action for the derailment but were made aware of the situation by Wisconsin authorities and were prepared to respond, if needed.

The cause of the derailment is currently unknown and remains under investigation. Officials from the Federal Railroad Administration are leading that investigation process.

Crawford County Emergency Management says there currently remains no threat of harm to the community or environment. The De Soto, WI Fire Department continues to work with BNSF Railroad staff throughout this clean-up process to prepare for any unknown hazards that may arise.