Evacuation ends after train cars derail, catch fire in western Minnesota

Aerial view of train cars piled up on the snow and vehicles passing by
Train cars piled up on the snow after the derailment early morning Thursday on the western edge of Raymond, Minn.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Updated 1 p.m.

A train derailment sent 22 cars carrying ethanol and corn syrup off the tracks early Thursday morning in western Minnesota, leading authorities to evacuate Raymond, a town of about 900 people some 90 miles west of the Twin Cities. 

No injuries were reported. Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad officials said it will take several days to clean up the site, including burning off the ethanol. Local officials said the town was safe. By noon, residents were being allowed to return home.

“We don’t know a lot at this point. We are working with the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) to get their go-ahead and begin to clean up and remediate and put out the fires,” BNSF CEO Katie Farmer told reporters during a midmorning briefing with Gov. Tim Walz and local officials in nearby Prinsburg, Minn.

“We apologize for this,” Farmer said. “We take full accountability for it, and we'll continue to be here until this is cleaned up.”

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Walz said the cars that derailed were “state-of-the-art” quality that while burning would not explode. The fire will need to be put out with extinguishing foam rather than water, he said, adding that the foam would not contain toxic PFAS, or per- and polyfluorinated substances, known as “forever chemicals.”

While ethanol has leaked, the governor noted the frozen ground could minimize seepage, and he expressed hope that it could be burned off.

911 call at 1 a.m.

The Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office said that its dispatch center got a 911 call about 1 a.m. reporting a Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight train had derailed on the western edge of town. Emergency crews responded and found what were described as multiple train cars off the tracks, with some on fire.

Mayor and assistant fire chief Ardell Tensen said the derailment was loud enough that some of the city’s firefighters heard the cars crashing together along the tracks on the western edge of town.

Tensen said the city summoned help from nearby towns and decided to evacuate Raymond residents. “Just smoke concern, and ethanol concern. We didn't know if they were going to blow up.”

Tensen told MPR News just after 6 a.m. Thursday that firefighters were letting some of the remaining ethanol burn out and much of the fire had been extinguished.

Minnesota Highway 23 — the main highway in Raymond, between Willmar and Clara City — remained closed.

‘Grandma’s OK’

Rose Day, 72, a Raymond resident who lives about five blocks from the railroad tracks, recalled getting an early morning phone call and then seeing flashing lights and first responders knocking on doors nearby.

“I hadn’t unpacked from getting home from having my knee replaced, so I threw the rest of the stuff together and had it ready, and then the fire department came and knocked on my door … but I didn’t have a ride,” she said.

A woman who drives a local ambulance picked her up and brought her to Prinsburg, which was was “lifesaver.” Day said she got there about 2:30 a.m.

She said she was doing OK. “I think I’ll be more scared when I see it on the news. I realize what it is and how dangerous it can be, and I have a stepson who's a firefighter, too, so I’m concerned about that,” she said.

She noted that she called her daughter and two young grandsons who live in the Twin Cities to let them know “grandma’s OK.”

Susan Spieker lives in Raymond about a block from the tracks and said her husband, an emergency medical technician in town, had just come home from two ambulance calls when they heard a huge crash nearby. She said her husband looked out the window, immediately alerted the town's firefighters and left.

“My daughter and I saw the flames,” she said. “They were quite high at that time, I would say more than 30 feet would be my guess. And then my husband called and said go to Prinsburg.”

The sheriff’s office said authorities ordered homes within a half-mile of the derailment evacuated and established an initial shelter at a school in Prinsburg. Local authorities said fire crews had been working at the scene for hours, but also reported no injuries. 

The derailment and fire happened at the edge of Raymond, far enough away from homes and businesses that firefighters didn’t have to keep any buildings wet to protect them from fire, said Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Tollefson, explaining why he felt it was safe for people to return home.

Walz came to Raymond along with Homeland Security interim director Kevin Reed, Public Safety Commissioner Bob Jacobson, and Transportation Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger.

The derailment comes about two months after a Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that has heightened concern about rail safety around the nation. That Ohio derailment sparked a massive fire fueled by hazardous materials and prompted evacuations.

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