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Minot Derailment


On this day in 2002, at about 1:45 am, a catastrophic train derailment occurred on the western edge of Minot, with tragic and long-term consequences for nearby residents and still mounting liabilities for the Canadian Pacific Railway and insurance companies.

There is hardly a quieter quiet than an early January morning in North Dakota, with sub-zero temperatures, and snow falling on snow. Nor cleaner, fresher air. Freight trains and aircraft in Minot routinely interrupt such conditions, but on this particular morning an earth-shaking explosion shattered the quiet and the fresh air was displaced by an unprecedented release of foul fumes.

Most people slept through the familiar sound of locomotives laboring to pull 112 loaded railcars. It was a routine run from Edmonton, Alberta to St. Paul for train CP292-16. The conductor and engineer detected the first hint of a malfunction as they felt the locomotive’s wheels rolling over a rough spot. Wheel after wheel hitting the spot made it seem like they were going “over a washboard.”

They knew immediately something was wrong, and applied the brakes. Seconds later the middle part of the train left the tracks and all hell broke loose. About 30 cars derailed and crashed into each other, pivoting at their connections and folding like a carpenter’s rule. The momentum of the rest of the train caused some of the massive cars to be hurled hundreds of feet through the air.

Fifteen of the derailed cars were tankers, each carrying about 30,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia, a hazardous chemical commonly used on farms as fertilizer. Any farmer knows how carefully it must be handled, and how damaging it can be to human tissues, especially lungs and eyes, in the event of a leak. Seven of the fifteen tankers were ripped open, instantly releasing more than 200,000 gallons of ammonia.

Within minutes the liquid vaporized and a massive toxic cloud began drifting into the nearby neighborhoods of Minot.

What followed was a cold, dark, choking, confusing, horrible nightmare for those who lived there. To make matters worse, the wreck took out power lines, cutting electricity to homes. Outside, the dense cloud reduced visibility to zero. Some thought a plane had crashed. Others thought there’d been a terrorist attack. They had no choice but to stay put. Death resulted for one person who tried to flee.

Thousands of 911 calls were recorded that awful night. It took hours for the toxic cloud to dissipate and for all to reach needed medical treatment. In the end, hundreds were injured from exposure to the ammonia, some severely. The death toll would have been higher without the heroic efforts of neighbors, strangers, and emergency workers.

The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the train wreck, and found it was caused by inadequate track maintenance and inspections. Specifically, there was a crack in a joint between sections of rail that wasn’t noticed by inspectors, and the joint failed. Canadian Pacific officials disagreed with the safety board’s finding that maintenance was inadequate, but conceded the derailment and hazardous spill was unprecedented.

Following the incident, numerous lawsuits were filed in attempt to recover medical costs and other losses. On the fourth anniversary of the tragedy, some lawsuits brought by injured parties have been settled out of court, and others are still pending.