Rail bridge burns, collapses near International Falls

Cars on fire on a Canadian National Railway train.
It's not yet known what caused cars on a Canadian National Railway to end up on fire on a nearly collapsed bridge near Ericsburg early Wednesday, May 27, 2015.
Laurel Beager | International Falls Journal

Updated: 3:30 p.m. | Posted: 2: 15 p.m.

A wooden rail bridge in Koochiching County burned and collapsed early Wednesday, sending three train cars into a river and crippling a busy train route from Canada to Chicago.

The bridge, owned by Canadian National, typically carries more than 20 freight trains over the Rat Root River every day. The trains run through the border town of Ranier, just east of International Falls, which has become the second busiest rail border crossing in the country.

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Just after midnight, the conductor of a southbound train noticed the 150-foot timber bridge was on fire and pulled the emergency brake.

Koochiching County Sheriff Perryn Hedlund arrived at 1 a.m. and said the train had come to a stop halfway across the river, with five cars perched on the burning bridge.

"He [the conductor] did what anyone would have done if they came around the corner and saw the bridge on fire," Hedlund said.

The International Falls Fire Department detached sections of train on either side of the bridge and hauled them clear of the flames.

Firefighters used boats and hoses to put fire out.
Firefighters used boats and hoses to spray water and foam from land and the Rat Root River to extinguish the fire, May 27, 2015.
Laurel Beager | International Falls Journal

Several train cars carrying potash, an agricultural fertilizer, were left on the burning bridge. When the structure collapsed, the cars fell with it into the Rat Root River. Officials with the Canadian National Railway said in an email that the cars were still intact.

Jim Biersach, owner of Border Boatworks in the nearby community of Ericsburg, said that sirens and flashing lights woke him in the early morning. He described clouds of smoke over the bridge and fire crews rushing past his business. Police officers knocked on doors, he said, telling people to stay in their homes.

Since then, Biersach said, Ericsburg has been unusually quiet.

The tracks curve as they pass through Ericsburg, which means all 20 trains a day blow their horns on approach. Biersach said he couldn't remember a time when townspeople went more than a few hours without hearing that sound.

"It's kind of peaceful," he said.

Railroad engineers are already working on a temporary bridge to get trains rolling again.

Canadian National didn't comment on repair plans. Sheriff Hedland said the crews he's talked to planned to finish the new bridge in a week.

His office will investigate the cause of the fire.

Map: Railroad border crossings by state

Minnesota has the most rail border crossing traffic in the country.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Transportation, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, based on data from the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Office of Field Operations.