Norfolk Southern trains crash, derail in Sewickley; 2 conductors injured

| Wednesday, July 2, 2014, 2:29 p.m.

Two engines from a Norfolk Southern train burst into flames when they slammed into the back of a second train on a curve on Wednesday in Sewickley, sending plumes of thick, black smoke skyward and prompting authorities to evacuate nearby homes and businesses.

Three train engines derailed near Chadwick Street and ignited a fireball, sending the engineer to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, Norfolk Southern said. The conductor was treated and released. About 100 emergency personnel from local and county agencies responded to the crash, which occurred at 1:43 p.m.

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. The rear flat bed car derailed, Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay said. The cause of the crash is under investigation.

Allegheny County Emergency Services Chief Alvin Henderson said the train that was rear-ended was stopped or moving slowly.

“Why this one went slower or stopped versus the other train going faster and colliding, that's part of the investigation,” Henderson said. “Even though they're empty, they are still a concern. It still presents a potential for ignition for fire.”

Sharon Maher and Mona Smith were in the Sewickley Community Center pool when they heard a deafening boom.

“All of a sudden you heard the crash and saw this great ball of fire. It looked like it was coming right for us. It was heart attack city, and then (the flames) went away,” said Maher, 55, of Sewickley Heights. “I never saw a ball of fire like that. I could feel the heat. Then it was all black smoke.”

Smith, 58, said it was fortunate no one was killed.

“We're sitting in the pool, and it almost looked like the world was coming to an end,” Smith said. “Everyone just started jumping out of the pool.”

Jim Bouchard, CEO of Esmark, said the crash shook the steel services and oil and gas company's building on Hazel Lane in Edgeworth, near the site of the crash.

Police evacuated Esmark, the Sewickley Community Center, a Burger King and at least two homes.

“It could obviously have been a lot worse,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said.

Police initially discussed evacuating up to 50 homes in an area along Route 65 (Ohio River Boulevard) from White Avenue in Sewickley to Hazel Lane but decided not to do so because firefighters quickly extinguished the fire.

Henderson said 6,000 gallons of diesel spilled from two of the three crashed engines, one of which flipped onto its side. “Some of (the diesel) was consumed in the fire, the other part of it is in the (ground) next to the train tracks,” he said.

The accident didn't pose a serious environmental danger, said John Poister, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, and the railroad is left responsible for cleanup.

“There was concern that if the fire got any stronger, the empty ethanol containers might be in danger, but the fire was extinguished quickly,” Poister said.

Norfolk Southern placed a boom in the Ohio River in case any diesel made it into the water. None entered any waterways, Norfolk Southern said. The railroad company hired a contractor to help with the cleanup of the remaining diesel and contaminated soil.

Terpay said officials plan to inspect the rail cars and locomotives, and make repairs to the track. About 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, side winders — bulldozerlike vehicles with long crane arms — arrived to begin righting the engines. Work was to continue through the night.

Staff writer Tom Fontaine contributed. Bobby Kerlik and Bobby Cherry are staff writers for Trib Total Media.

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