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Train and Truck Carrying Molten Aluminum Collide Near Spokane

April 30, 1990

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) _ Members of a train crew chased more than 100 runaway cars but were unable to prevent derailments, a spectacular fire and a collision with a truck carrying molten aluminum, authorities said.

The four-man crew was relieved of duty pending an investigation into Sunday night’s accident about five miles east of Spokane, said Howard Kallio, Burlington Northern Railroad spokesman in Seattle.

The crew was undergoing urinalysis tests for drugs, he said Monday.

No serious injuries were reported in the accidents, which caused an estimated $218,000 damage to railroad equipment and signals, Kallio said.

″We’re chalking it up to human error,″ Kallio said. ″It looks like the crew made an error in not properly fitting the brakes on that train.″

Failure to properly set brakes while uncoupling three locomotives from a 101-car train let the cars roll free on a 2 1/2 -mile westbound runaway.

One of the locomotives chased the runaway cars but struck a Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Co. truck at a crossing and derailed, Kallio said.

He said the truck was carrying two 15,000-pound crucibles of molten aluminum.

The containers, carrying its load from Kaiser’s Mead smelter to its Trentwood rolling mill, remained intact, spokeswoman Susan Ashe said. To save energy costs, the company has been hauling molten metal from its smelter to its rolling plant since 1971 without a major incident, Ms. Ashe said.

The runaway cars continued westbound, striking an eastbound Montana Rail Link train, derailing its locomotive and 16 cars of the runaway train. The derailments ignited a 1,000-gallon propane tank, said West Valley Fire Chief Rod Tedrow.

The tank’s blast was loud enough to trigger burglar alarms in nearby homes.

″I heard these two loud explosions that rattled my windows,″ said Tara Havers. ″Then I looked out my kitchen window and I saw this big fireball.″

The tank held fuel for switch heaters, which are used to keep track switches from freezing during winter, Kallio and Tedrow said.

The blaze was extinguished before midnight, Tedrow said.

Tedrow said the Spokane rail yard was not notified that the cars were running loose so that safety signals and switches could be thrown.

Kallio said he did not know how fast any of the cars or the locomotive were traveling at the time of the collisions.

″There were cars popping off the track here and there all along″ the route after the two trains collided, Tedrow said.

The railroad’s main line east of the city was closed while repair crews removed wreckage, Kallio said.

Several trains, including Amtrak passenger trains, were rerouted to Union Pacific tracks between Spokane and Sandpoint, Idaho, about 75 miles to the northeast, without significant delay, Kallio said.

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