Wreck dumps 16 cars of coal

Steve Boswell was watching television in his North Lawrence home Wednesday night when he heard the sound of a passing train — followed by a series of crashes.

“My whole house started shaking,” said Boswell, 53. “I hit the door and came out and saw these (train) cars still sliding. I was looking for a tanker car.”

There were no tankers and no hazardous materials aboard, but 16 coal cars on a 138-car Union Pacific train derailed in the 400 block of Locust Street. The commotion sent neighbors into the streets to see what was going on.

What they saw, about 50 yards from some of their homes and directly across the street from a North Lawrence restaurant, were cars flipped onto their sides and stacked like a collapsed accordion.

No one was injured in the derailment, which occurred about 8:25 p.m., said Mark Davis, spokesman for the Union Pacific in Omaha, Neb. The cars that derailed were near the front of the train, but the engine, with a crew of two, stayed upright, he said.

Owen Cox was working the cash register in La Tropicana restaurant, 434 Locust St., when he heard the sound of a train in trouble. The track is just across Locust Street from the establishment.

“I went to the door and looked out, and I saw this car shaking and starting to turn over,” said Cox, 21. “I heard the other cars start piling up. I’ve never seen anything like this happen.”

In the residence on the floor above the restaurant, Angelo Del Campo went to the nearest window to see what happened.

“It (train) just started wobbling, and the cars scattered. It looked like slow motion,” said Del Campo, 17. “This is something you don’t see every day.”

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical firefighters inspect the wreckage of a Union Pacific train's coal cars. Sixteen cars derailed Wednesday evening on the tracks in North Lawrence. No injuries were reported. Crews worked through the night to clean up the coal and wreckage.

Lawrence Police and Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical crews responded to the crash. They determined there were no hazardous materials involved in the derailment and no one was injured.

“This is an area of the Union Pacific railroad yard that I think will allow them easy cleanup,” Deputy Fire Chief Mark Bradford said. “It will probably be late tonight or early morning when they get things cleaned up. I’m sure they want to get the line back open as soon as they can.”

Railroad workers and some heavy equipment were arriving at the scene before midnight and getting to work.

“Crews will be working through the night to remove the derailed cars and make repairs to the track,” Davis said.

Private contractors will probably be called in to assist railroad crews in the cleanup, which would typically involve about 100 workers, Davis said. Other train traffic scheduled to pass through the railyard on the busy line was rerouted, he said.

The train was eastbound through Lawrence from Wyoming, Davis said. It was to have passed through the Kansas City area and head south to Texas.

The National Transportation Safety Board typically won’t investigate a train derailment unless there are injuries or hazardous material is involved, Davis said. In this case, Union Pacific will conduct its own investigation and file a report as required with the Federal Railroad Administration.

Davis said he didn’t know how many trains pass through the North Lawrence railyard, but area residents said there were many.

“There are a lot of hazardous materials that go through,” said Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Assn. “We talk about that all the time at our meetings. We’re not overly concerned about it, but we keep an eye on it.”

Boyle, who lives at 310 Elm St., about a block from the site of the derailment, said his house shook when the train cars left the track.

“I thought we were having an earthquake,” he said.

Kansas was ranked ninth among states by the number of train accidents between 1995 and 2001, according to the railroad administration. There were 556 accidents in the state during that period. Texas has the No. 1 spot with 1,805.

In 2002, there were a total of 138 train derailments and collisions in Kansas, statistics prepared by the Kansas Department of Transportation showed.