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UPDATE: Train derails in Sibley, Iowa; evacuation ordered

Train was transporting ammonium nitrate, an explosive chemical compound

SIBLEY, Iowa — When a train carrying potential explosive chemicals derailed Sunday afternoon, a plume of black smoke couldn’t be missed by anyone in the Osceola County community.

Citlali Ortiz saw it, but didn’t give it much thought at first.

“I got off work around 2 o’clock and was then driving out toward the golf course when I saw the black smoke,” Ortiz explained Monday afternoon. “I thought it must be pretty close to town because it was prominent.”

As likely was the case with many others, Ortiz didn’t think much of the smoke, though, as she went home and got ready to attend the Sibley-Ocheyedan High School commencement ceremony. Soon after she arrived there, she got a call from her boyfriend, whose uncle belongs to a fire department.

“I answered the phone and he said, ‘Where are you?” I said, ‘I’m at the graduation,’ she said, “He said, ‘You need to leave,’ and I was like, ‘What?’”

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About 10 minutes later, she saw multiple EMT and fire department members come out of the school, a sure sign that the fire was something quite serious.

Evacuation of a five-mile radius around Sibley ultimately took place Sunday afternoon because of the nature of the chemicals being transported by the Union Pacific train, authorities reported. A Union Pacific spokesperson reported 47 rail cars had left the tracks, many of which were containing potentially explosive material.

Remarkably, there were no injuries or fatalities.

Iowa State Rep. John Willis, R-Spirit Lake, offered additional details Monday morning in a Facebook post, explaining that he had received a briefing on the derailment.

“We know the impacted cars were carrying hydrochloric acid, potassium hydroxide and asphalt,” Willis said. “This is a worst-case scenario for our professional volunteer fire department and our emergency services. It has been determined that the best thing to do is allow the fire to burn itself out, and that could be 12 hours or it could be two days.”

Willis added that firefighters at the site have been “pumping 10,000 gallons of water per minute to keep the fire cooler,” and commended those at the scene for their efforts.

“I am so proud of the first responders — firefighters, EMS, sheriff’s office — who have responded professionally,” he said. “Union Pacific Railroad, whose train derailed, has high praise for all the people working on the accident site. … The threat (of) explosion has been nullified.”

Willis also addressed a bit of misinformation that had been reported by the New York Daily News, among others, stating that a bridge did not collapse and cause the crash, as was rumored.

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As for Ortiz, she and her father ended up assisting in evacuation Sunday afternoon. Her dad would later develop a headache, she said, so they stopped. They ultimately spent the night in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and were among the many who had to find alternative places to sleep for at least one night; much of the town was reopened by Monday morning with the exception of a small area in the western part of the community.

“My brother and sister were back in school this morning,” Ortiz said Monday. By Monday night, all Sibley residents had been given the go-ahead to return to their homes.

Emergency personnel at the scene benefited from multiple donations of food and water. Among the businesses that provided assistance was Jackrabbit Junction, located right off of Iowa 60’s Exit 51.
“I got a call at some point in the situation and we determined that we would send some water,” said Rachel Sirola, a regional manager at Jackrabbit Junction who oversees six stores. Two shipments of 10 cases of water each were authorized, she said, along with nine bags of charcoal for meat provided by 1015 Steakhouse and grilled by Radio Works.

Sirola added that Jackrabbit Junction did brisk business into late Sunday evening, as traffic stopped near the store to watch what was going on from afar.

“It was a little nutsy, but it was a good thing,” she said.

Brian Dreesen, general manager and CEO of Cooperative Energy Co., which owns Jackrabbit Junction, said the business hoped to accomplish two things Sunday night — help emergency workers and do what it could to keep the general public calm.

“There were people panicking because they didn’t know when they were going to get into their houses,” Dreessen said. “Our focus was on how we could help the first responders and what could we do to assist them, and to also keep the public from pushing the panic button too much.

We said we weren’t going to close … but were going to be here to support them.”

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Additionally, Union Pacific also reportedly set up an account at McDonald’s and Hy-Vee in Sheldon that assisted with free meals for individuals who live in the impacted area.

As firefighters and others remained at the scene late Monday afternoon, Sibley Fire Department Chief Ken Huls expressed gratitude for how the community came together.

“Every time we have a major incident … we have people coming out of the woodwork to help us out,” said Huls, referencing the 2010 tornado that came through Sibley.

Huls noted that organizations from Sheldon and Sanborn, Iowa, contributed food (“We have enough food here for a week,” he added), and also credited the Sibley FD Ladies Auxiliary for “really knocking it out of the park on this one.” Osceola County Emergency Management Dan Bechler, also a member of the fire department, was also an important asset, Huls said.

Huls also offered further elaboration about the materials being transported by the train. Of the 47 cars that derailed, he said, there were only five cars to be very concerned about. Two contained gasoline, another a form of asphalt, and the others hydrochloric acid and potassium hydroxide, respectively, which Huls described as “very reactive to water.”

One of the cars, he noted, had been carrying liquid ammonia nitrate but was empty at the time of the derailment. There was likely residue inside, however.

The plan at this point was to let the significantly subsided fire burn itself out. Numerous Union Pacific personnel were also on the scene, Huls said. Boom had also been deployed into Otter Creek in an effort to keep materials from the water body.

Among the fire departments responding to the derailment Sunday were crews from Ashton, Sheldon, Ocheyedan, Melvin and Paullina, and a Hudson, Iowa firefighter here for the S-O graduation ceremony also assisted. The Sioux City Fire Department Hazardous Material Emergency Response Team (“We call them Hammer, for short,”) was also on the scene for at least eight hours, Huls said.

“We get nothing but good support — I can’t ask for a better response from everyone involved,” he stated.

Related Topics: FIRES
Ryan McGaughey arrived in Worthington in April 2001 as sports editor of The Daily Globe, and first joined Forum Communications Co. upon his hiring as a sports reporter at The Dickinson (North Dakota) Press in November 1998. McGaughey became news editor in Worthington in November 2002 and editor in August 2006.
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