Cleanup continues after Middlebury train derailment

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(Host) Clean up efforts are continuing in Middlebury after a freight train derailment spilled gasoline and caused hundreds to be evacuated on Monday.

As VPR’s Nina Keck reports, railroad officials think they know what caused the accident.

(Keck) David Wulfson is President of The Vermont Railway, the company that operates and maintains the trains and tracks that run through Middlebury.

(Wulfon) "We’re still investigating what has caused it but at this point it – seems that a broken rail has caused this mess. That needs to be verified but at this point that is where it’s at."

(Keck) Wulfson says the tracks were electronically inspected last year and – ironically – he says they were scheduled to be inspected again this week.

(Wulfson) "Now that sounds a little ridiculous. But the sperry car – which is what we call it – did test from Rutland to Whitehall on Monday and tested from Rutland to Bellows Falls on Tuesday – so it was scheduled to happen."

(Keck) He says broken rails are usually caused by structural defects and can be hard to detect. Wulfson says Monday’s train – which was traveling from Albany to Burlington – was pulling about 25 cars – 15 of which were carrying gasoline.

Minutes before the accident, Susanne Lahaie was cutting hair at Bud’s Barbarshop, located just over the tracks in Middlebury.

(Lahaie) "We knew something was wrong because the train was going by fast. And it never does – it usually goes by really slow. And we could hear something really sounding strange and it was very loud and rattling the barbershop really strongly and then all of a sudden we heard this big boom and so I looked out the window and saw it was all derailing."

(Keck) Lahaie says she called 911, finished cutting her clients hair and evacuated with hundreds of others in town.

David Wulfson of the Vermont Railway says trains, like airplanes, contain little black boxes to record important data in the event of an accident. He says speed wasn’t a factor in yesterday’s derailment.

(Wulfson) "The speed recorder on the locomotive showed the train was going at 10 miles an hour which was the posted speed at the time."

(Keck) That was fast enough, however, to send rail cars toppling. Each of the 15 gasoline tankers carried 26,000 gallons of fuel. Chris Herrick, Chief of the state’s hazardous response team, says they’ve been working nonstop to contain the spill.

(Herrick) "We had a very small amount that hit the ground. We had one car I think the highest rate was one gallon a minute. But we’re containing it."

(Keck) Herrick says they will continue to test both the air and nearby water for contaminants.

(Herrick) " I had my meter down there I got no readings on it, so I personally wouldn’t have advocated for bringing people back home if I wasn’t sure it was safe and it is."

(Keck) While cleanup efforts continue, gasoline from the train has been reloaded onto tanker trucks and then driven to Burlington. Once all the gasoline is removed, large equipment will be moved in to hoist and set the rail cars back on the tracks. If repairs and cleanup efforts all go as planned, David Wulfson says they hope to have trains once again running through Middlebury by Thursday.

For VPR news, I’m Nina Keck in Middlebury.


AP Photo/Toby Talbot

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