Fire chief says force’s response saved lives

Published 9:48 am Wednesday, March 26, 2014

WASHINGTON — The fire chief of an eastern North Dakota town said Tuesday that “about everything went right” with his force’s response to a fiery train derailment because they had properly planned for disasters.

Casselton Fire Chief Tim McLean said the Dec. 30 derailment could have been a deadly incident were it not for the right response. He told a Senate subcommittee that proper training and federal financial support was needed to make sure that small towns could respond to potential disasters.

“The reality is that we couldn’t have been successful without federal homeland security grant dollars,” he told a subcommittee of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, adding, “They keep us current.”

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An oil train collided with a grain car outside of Casselton on Dec. 30. The collision and a subsequent derailment sparked massive explosions, a fiery blaze and a smoke plume that hung over the town of about 2,400 residents. There were no injuries, but about 1,400 people voluntarily evacuated.

Since then, many have expressed concerns about what would happen if a similar accident occurred in a more populated area. The mayor of Casselton, Ed McConnell, said the town “dodged a bullet” because the accident happened outside of town.

Local and federal officials, including Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, say they want to make sure small towns are properly equipped to deal with a disaster.

McLean said the incident should “put all of us on notice. Because of the growing oil industry and the likelihood that oil will continue to be shipped via rail, we must continue to train and plan for these types of incidents.”

But simply classifying Casselton as lucky is unfair and does not properly credit the swift response of local officials, the fire chief said.

“You might think we were just lucky,” McLean said. “Even the mayor of Casselton said we dodged a bullet, but in reality the success of this entire incident is that everyone did their jobs, stayed in their lanes, relied on their training, and got the job done and we did it well. We had no injuries or fatalities and that is what it is all about.”

Heitkamp, who led the subcommittee hearing, said the incident underlined how important getting federal resources and training to small towns will be as North Dakota’s oil industry continues to grow.

She said the Federal Emergency Management Agency should “continue to look beyond what you’re hearing from the local folks and think about the consequences of this product moving along the rails and how we can create a greater opportunity for training.”