CASPER — A freight train hit a large boulder in Wind River Canyon on Wednesday afternoon and slid down a 50-foot embankment into the river, spilling some diesel but causing no injuries.
The train’s two-man crew was able to escape and swim to safety, BNSF Railway spokesman Gus Melonas said.
Containment crews were using booms Wednesday afternoon in an attempt to keep contaminated water out of the Thermopolis water supply.
The southbound train derailed around 12:30 p.m. while traveling on the single mainline track in the scenic canyon. The incident occurred about six miles south of Thermopolis, at the north end of the canyon.
The train was traveling at an estimated 30 mph when it hit the pickup-truck-sized boulder, Melonas said.
Wyoming Highway Patrol officials said a trooper patrolling U.S. Highway 20/Wyoming Highway 789 in the canyon witnessed the collision and derailment from the road across the river.
The train included two locomotives in front, 62 cars and a rear locomotive, Melonas said. The train originated in Laurel and was hauling general freight, including paper products and lumber, to Denver. He said 45 of its cars were loaded and 17 were empty.
One car filled with aggregate rock and bentonite also derailed, along with two other empty cars. Some of the rock also spilled into the river.
The lead locomotive wound up partially submerged in the river while the second locomotive stopped on the face of the embankment, Melonas said.
The crew members were on the river bank “walking and talking” after escaping through the locomotive’s engineer’s door, Melonas said. The pair were taken to a local hospital for observation. He said both crew members are from Greybull, but he couldn’t release their names.
The accident followed a heavy spring storm in the area Tuesday night and Wednesday morning that dropped about 10 inches of snow in the mountains around Thermopolis, according to the National Weather Service.
Melonas said the railroad had been running patrols for the previous 48 hours on the canyon rail line using high-rail vehicles — a truck with special wheels allowing it to run on the track — watching for rock slides.
“Apparently, a high-rail vehicle had just passed through and conditions then showed the rock had not come down at that point,” he said.
Melonas said the company was moving cleanup equipment to the site. “We’re developing a plan to cable up the locomotives back onto the track and a removal plan once that’s done,” he said.
“We have no estimate of how much track was damaged at this point, and no estimate when the line might reopen,” he said.
Melonas said some diesel fuel spilled from the tank of the locomotive that overturned on the embankment. The engine carries 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
“We are digging trenches both on the bank and below the fuel tank to contain the product and keep it from migrating into the river,” he said.
“There was also a visible sheen on the river ... and we’re utilizing BNSF hazardous material equipment, along with local hazmat emergency environmental response material and personnel, to clean that up,” Melonas said.
“There are booms being placed around the water supply at Thermopolis and also down river ... and we’re developing a remediation plan” for the diesel spill, he said.
He said other train traffic scheduled to come through the canyon Wednesday was rerouted with little problem.
Hot Springs County Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Gordon said the town of Thermopolis had shut down its municipal water system intakes from the river because of the diesel spill.
The Highway Patrol said in a media release that Trooper Sam Donahue was traveling on the highway in the canyon when he noticed the huge rock resting on the rail line. Donahue estimated the rock to be about 8 feet across and 6 feet high.
Donahue said he notified dispatchers, who in turn were on the phone notifying railroad officials when the southbound train struck the rock.