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Railroad inferno

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Noxious fumes, explosion danger close I-40

LUPTON, Ariz. — A BNSF train carrying liquid petroleum gas (propane) derailed, creating an explosion at the Arizona/New Mexico border April 26. Flames from the two railcars nearly engulfed the eastbound lanes of Interstate 40 shortly before 1 pm.

McKinley County Sheriff James Maiorano III said the highway was shut down for 54 hours, causing traffic delays and bottleneck traffic along rural byways.

The westbound train derailed on both sides of the border, bringing together a multitude of law enforcement agencies and firefighters. No injuries were reported.

Dramatic photos of the incident flooded social media channels, and one man from Pennsylvania, who was crossing into New Mexico along eastbound I-40, caught the explosion with his dash cam. Flames from the fireball licked the side of the RV the man was towing, causing some minor damages. The I-40 bridge he was crossing over didn’t sustain damages, Maiorano said.



According to a McKinley County Fire Rescue press release, 35 railcars carrying mixed freight derailed, six of which contained propane.

A hazardous and toxic materials team arrived on the scene shortly after the explosion and had the job of determining the level of the danger posed to the public by the fumes emitting from the burning railcars, plastic, and other debris.

Additionally, there was the possibility of another explosion occurring at the site.

To keep the team organized as best as possible, an “emergency operation center” was formed at and headed by McKinley County Fire Chief Lawrence Montoya, Jr.

“We yielded to the professional opinion, not having any experts who could tell us anything different,” Maiorano said. “We thought that there may be danger to the motoring public, so the decision at the emergency operation center was to keep the interstate closed until someone could say that the tankers were not subject to explosion.”

Another concern for law enforcement was the possibility of an explosion occurring at Speedy’s gas station, north of the interstate, along with the neighboring refinery, Maiorano noted.

The next morning, outward flames died out in both railcars, leaving a twisted mess of smoldering, blackened metal. But looks are deceiving, the remaining propane left in the tanks continued to burn for a while.

To mitigate existing conditions, and for the safety of the surrounding community, evacuations were issued for residents within a two-mile radius of the derailment site. BNSF worked directly with displaced residents to provide necessary lodging and accommodations, a press release stated.

Maiorano added that about 50 people had to be evacuated from the area.

Once the area was considered no longer a threat to residents, businesses and first responders, the cleanup project commenced shortly after the reopening of the I-40 April 28. Westbound I-40  reopened around 10 am, and eastbound lanes reopened a few hours later at about 1:45 pm.

Maiorano praised officials involved with the hazardous emergency and initial cleanup.

“It was definitely not an MCSO thing,” he said. “We obviously participated, but none of that could’ve been pulled off without the help of all of those agencies providing personnel. The BNSF handled things well, I thought, at least for now.”

The BNSF hazmat team arrived within the first couple of hours of the derailment, Maiorano said, and they were quick to provide food, drinks and accommodations for people who were temporarily displaced from their homes.

At press time BNSF was still working at the area, with MCSO helping direct traffic. Maiorano said the company is expected to be done by the end of May 3.

The cause of the derailment remains under investigation.

Staff Reports