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FRA mum on cause of Scotland train derailment from a year ago

SCOTLAND -- One year after a fiery train derailment near Scotland, federal investigators are still working to determine its cause. In the early morning hours of Sept. 19, 2015, seven cars of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad train derailed ...

One year after a 98-car train derailed near Scotland, officials have not determined its cause. (Republic file photo)
One year after a 98-car train derailed near Scotland, officials have not determined its cause. (Republic file photo)

SCOTLAND - One year after a fiery train derailment near Scotland, federal investigators are still working to determine its cause.

In the early morning hours of Sept. 19, 2015, seven cars of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad train derailed in rural Scotland and three leaked ethanol onto a pasture, causing a fire to spread along an adjacent creek bed.

The incident destroyed a bridge and caused the rail line to close for a short time.

Initially, officials said an investigation would take up to a year, but more than 365 days later, the Federal Railroad Administration remains tight-lipped on what caused the 98-car train to derail, and did not have a timeline for when the investigation might be completed.

According to Amy McBeth, spokesperson for BNSF in South Dakota, BNSF's initial investigation, which is separate from the FRA's, found that the derailment was the result of a broken rail.

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"We submit our findings to the FRA within a certain time after an incident, which is typically the end of the month following the month that the incident happened," McBeth said. "We submitted our findings according to that timeline and they came in and launched their investigation."

According to information from the FRA, there have been 113 train derailments in South Dakota since 2002, six of which occurred in 2015. The average number of derailments per year in that time was eight, but 2004 and 2005 recorded 16 and 15 derailments, respectively, while 2014 saw only two.

Scotland Fire Chief Mike Mehrer, who was also incident commander when the derailment occurred, said most people have forgotten about the incident and he doesn't think about it often, either, so the lack of an official cause is a non-issue. But Mehrer, along with his department, learned lessons that day they have carried with them throughout the year.

For Mehrer, the biggest lesson came simply from being in charge of the scene. He said, originally, he assumed when BNSF officials arrived, they would take over the scene, but was quickly proven wrong.

But, Mehrer said, it was easy to work with BNSF, as well as everyone who arrived on scene that day and in the days following.

If he had to do the situation over, Mehrer said he would keep better track of personnel on scene, citing the system used during a Sept. 5 storm in Springfield as an example, where officials had every person who entered town sign in, receive a badge and sign out prior to leaving. Also, Mehrer said he might lock down the scene a bit better and try to improve at informing people exactly what they needed and where they needed to be. With a year of pondering under his belt, Mehrer said if another derailment were to occur in the Scotland area, officials "would be a little more prepared" but truly believes officials did the best possible job at the time.

And, ultimately, the situation led to stronger bonds between Scotland and neighboring towns.

On average, the Scotland Fire Department responds to approximately 20 calls per year, most of which are small, Mehrer said, and the training members complete each month help prepare for all events - big or small, because any situation has the potential to escalate.

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Overall, Mehrer said he believes the situation was handled correctly, with the fire department allowing the fire to burn out, and departments across the country have affirmed his beliefs.

Shortly after the derailment, Mehrer said he received calls from people in Denver, Colorado, who had heard about it and said, because nobody was injured and it was a contained situation, officials handled it well. And receiving feedback from people so far away was a shock to Mehrer.

"I didn't realize how big of a deal it was at the time," Mehrer said. "It was on a gravel road, nobody got hurt, these things are on fire and we can't put them out, and we just assume insurance is going to take care of it and life goes on. We felt like we didn't do too much, but people told us, 'You did a lot because nobody got hurt.' "

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