DERAILED AND OUT
Residents of Ellendale got an early morning wake-up call Friday that proved to be anything but normal and took on the appearance of part terror and uncertainty.
After emergency workers went door-to-door ordering residents to leave their homes shortly after 6 a.m., some went to a disaster shelter at United Methodist Church on the west edge of town while many others simply left town. The community quickly took on the appearance of a ghost town with only police officers and firefighters blocking every street throughout town.
“It’s a little surreal to have everyone displaced,” said Stephanie Kibler, who was one of the 691 residents told to get out of their homes and serves on the Ellendale City Council. “The fear factor comes in where you throw your shoes on and run out the door. It’s kind of scary.”
Laura Elvebak, administrator with Steele County, who acted as the county’s public information officer throughout the disaster, said Ellendale was under a “forced evacuation” in which residents had no decision about staying in their homes. “We want to get the situation resolved and get people back into their homes in a way that protects the community and the environment.”
Within two hours, the entire community had been evacuated, according to Sheriff Lon Thiele, who coordinated the county’s disaster response.
School was cancelled at the NRHEG Elementary in Ellendale as the district posted a message on its website, “there is no way to get to the elementary building.”
The scare that created tense hours within the community was a 146-car Union Pacific train that derailed about a half mile south of Ellendale near 158th Street at about 5:43 a.m. In the tangled mess of the derailment were two cars that contained hazardous materials, including propane and butane.
Throughout the morning, air space within a two-mile radius had been restricted.
More than 100 emergency workers from three counties and Rochester quickly descended on the community in an effort to keep the situation from becoming worse. The Methodist church became the incident command center for all the emergency responders. The American Red Cross responded to the area with its disaster team.
Rebecca Lassahn, who lives on the south end of Ellendale, had just begun her daycare operation when she got the word to flee her house. She grabbed one of her daycare children and went to the disaster shelter at the church.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It’s scary stuff.”
Lassahn said she heard loud banging prior to receiving the order to evacuate. “I wasn’t sure what was happening,” she said. “I just thought they were switching (rail) cars,” she added.
She was not upset at all about leaving her home behind even without knowing for sure when she would be able to return. “Just so we’re safe. That’s all that matters,” Lassahn said.
While residents took cover at the church shelter and elsewhere, emergency workers diligently worked to contain the hazardous spill caused by the derailment.
Steele County Emergency Management Director Mike Johnson said the biggest concern was one of the cars that had been punctured and was heaped up on the tracks. He said the Rochester Chemical Assessment Team utilized a computer simulation to assess and monitor the spill.
Johnson said the concern was the gas igniting into a ball of fire. “If it has an ignition source, we could end up with a fire,” he said. “As a safety precaution, we evacuated people out of there.”
Sheriff Thiele said members of the CAT team began approaching the scene around 10 a.m. “They have to be very cautious,” he said. “This takes time and it takes patience.”
Authorities later confirmed that one car containing liquid petroleum gas had a 12-by-5-inch hole in the side. Thiele said by 12 p.m., the plume of evaporating gas had mostly dissipated.
At a press briefing shortly after noon, Thiele delivered good news noting that the immediate danger had subsided and residents would be allowed to return home.
“The plan at this time is to let it exhaust itself to a point, and then they’re going to assess it again to see if they need to offload it,” he said. “It’s basically turned into a slush, and according to them its an auto-refrigeration process, so it has slowed down to leaking almost zero now.”
Even after people were allowed to go back home, authorities maintained a “hot zone” of 400 feet around the derailment. “There is no threat to the public outside of the hot zone,” Thiele said.
The sheriff’s office, Ellendale Fire and the CAT team remained on the scene throughout much of the day working with railroad officials on the response. The incident was turned over to Union Pacific officials by 1:30 p.m. The railroad was responsible for the removal and clean-up of the derailment as well as track restoration.
On Saturday at about 3:40 a.m., a controlled vent and burn took place at the site of the derailment. Rail cars identified as carrying hazardous materials were strategically punctured to release pressure and drain contents and then subsequently burned in a controlled setting, according to Elvebak.
There were reports of an explosion and flames shooting as high as 200 feet into the air during the controlled burn. The controlled burn was under the command of railroad officials and local emergency teams.
Union Pacific said it decided the safest way to remove LP gas from the two derailed cars was to “vent and burn” the liquid. That involved puncturing the hull of the cars, releasing the liquid into a pit and burning it.
“Throughout the entire incident, the safety of responders and the public remained the top priority,” Elvebak said.
Officials determined there was no risk of groundwater contamination or any other environmental concerns from the spill.
No injuries were reported during the derailment and evacuation.
Railroads have a rich history in Ellendale, which was platted in 1900. The community was named for Ellen Dale Ives, the wife of the president of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railroad. The first business in the city was a train depot.