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Railroad mishap rattles nerves in Sewickley area

‘We got lucky'

Emergency crews from more than a dozen agencies worked to bring a fire that included about 6,000 gallons of diesel fuel under control July 2 after two trains collided near the Sewickley and Edgeworth border.

“We got lucky,” Cochran Hose Co. Chief Jeff Neff said, noting that the situation could have become more dangerous since 80 of 82 cars on one train were empty ethanol tankers that could have caused an explosion.

Five firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion, Neff said, on a day where the temperature reached 86 degrees and the humidity soared, according to data from the National Weather Service in Moon. The high temperature was reached at 2:52 p.m. — about 70 minutes after the collision and derailment.

Neff said the incident could have been worse.

“The cars stayed upright and were contained to near the track,” he said. “For a derailment, that was probably the best scenario we could ask for.

“The guys performed really well,” Neff said of Sewickley's fire department. “They were calm. They did a great job when you consider the amount of fuel involved.”

It was the first train derailment Neff said he's been part of as a firefighter.

“None of us on the department have had a train derailment,” he said. “We've talked about it before. Those cars haul a lot more than a box truck on a road, so you never know what you're dealing with.”

Wednesday, July 9, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Up to 70 trains travel daily through the Sewickley Valley, passing underneath the Sewickley Bridge; traveling by playgrounds and ball fields, along rivers, past businesses, next to schools and beyond the backyards of many homes.

Most often those trains pass without much notice from locals, except maybe a railroad enthusiast or driver stuck at a crossing.

But on July 2, two of three engines from a Norfolk Southern train burst into flames when they slammed into the back of a second train near the border of Sewickley and Edgeworth, which forced evacuations from nearby homes, businesses and the Sewickley Community Center on Chadwick Street.

The two locomotives spilled 6,000 gallons of diesel fuel when one engine flipped on its side, Allegheny County Emergency Services Chief Alvin Henderson said.

The train that caught fire was pulling 82 cars, 80 of which were empty ethanol tankers that emergency officials said could have caused an explosion because they likely contained residual ethanol and fumes, which are flammable.

The slower-moving train was carrying 56 empty intermodal cars, which are flat beds that typically carry stacked shipping containers. An engineer and conductor aboard the train were treated at a Pittsburgh hospital and released, a Norfolk Southern spokesman said.

The Federal Railroad Administration is investigating the cause of the incident, spokesman Michael Cole said in an email.

“Safety is our No. 1 priority,” he said. “Once completed, our investigation will identify the root cause of the accident, and we will take all appropriate enforcement actions.”

The railway is one of the busiest in the country and connects New York to Chicago, Norfolk Southern spokesman Rudy Husband said.

The collision and safety of nearby neighborhoods is a concern the region and nation faces, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said.

“When you see something like this, it could obviously have been a lot worse,” Fitzgerald said. “It could have been a train that rolled the other way into the residential area or rolled into the river. We've got a lot of water treatment plants that take their intakes along the river. Luckily, nobody downstream on the Ohio River is going to be impacted.

“Carrying any materials through a community, what would be the impact if there is a derailment, what could happen? It's something you got to continue to look at.”

With an infrastructure built more than a century ago, it's impossible to relocate the rails, Fitzgerald said.

“Our rail systems pretty much run along our rivers, not just here in Pittsburgh, but nationally,” he said. “It's something to be concerned about. There's no way to move the tracks off river.”

Bobby Cherry is an associate editor for Trib Total Media. Reach him at 412-324-1408 or

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