UPDATE: Residents return to homes after train derailment near Raymond, MN

A freight train derailed in a fiery crash near Raymond, Minnesota early Thursday, forcing residents to evacuate as a precaution.

The incident was reported at around 1:00am, when 22 cars hauling ethanol and corn syrup went off the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) tracks and caught fire. Raymond is in the southwestern part of Kandiyohi County, with a population of less than 800.

“At this time, there are no reported injuries,” said Governor Tim Walz during a press conference update Thursday afternoon. The Governor arrived in Raymond Thursday morning. “No toxic exposures. And I think on a timeline you’ll hear from Burlington Northern, a relatively tight timeline. We can get you back in your homes, get this thing cleared up and get with business as usual.”

A half-mile evacuation radius was established around the derailment site. Residents within the designated area “were instructed to leave their homes,” while those “with nowhere to go” were sent to a school in the nearby town of Prinsburg, according to the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office.

“I can’t imagine having your door pounded on by one of our deputies or firemen saying, ‘hey, it’s time to leave,'” shared Sheriff Eric Tollefson, speaking to the overall response of residents in the early morning hours. “It’s just typical of a small town response. I mean, that’s all it was, you know. Everything from people taking off out of their houses, getting down to the school, realizing that, well, we can’t be at the school very much longer and kids are going to show up. So opening the doors to the church here, cooking breakfast. I mean, it’s just there is no other word other than awesome.”

The fire at the derailment site “is being contained” and members of the public are advised against traveling to Raymond in the meantime, the Sheriff’s Office said.

“Safety of the community is our utmost priority,” said Vice President of BNSF, Matt Garland. “It’s going to be a few days to clean this up. We’re in consultation with the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board. Their team will or should arrive this evening. Our process to start restoring the track and restoring this area is going to be highly involved with the local agencies and the NTSB as well.”

BNSF is taking full responsibility for the derailment.

“We will continue to work with the National Transportation Safety Board, the FAA,” shared President and CEO of BNSF, Katie Farmer. “We will also work with the sheriff. This is his town, your town. So we will continue to support in any way possible that we can do that.”

The Minnesota Red Cross is also responding to the incident.

No travel is advised within Raymond as firefighters. Highway 23 is also closed between 160th Avenue Southeast and 128th Street Southwest and will remain closed until tomorrow at 11:59pm, according to MnDOT.

The U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg released the following statement on the incident:

“When I was getting reports on this early on and we were hearing it directly from the Secretary of Transportation in Washington, D.C., about what the cars were, what they were like,” said the Governor. “I said, certainly all of us since the situation in Ohio are very concerned, what are we breathing? What’s in the car? Tell us this.”

“This is not new for us,” said Farmer in reference to the overall safety of their railways. “We have a very active plan for safety when it comes to all of our freight, not just hazardous commodities… 99.99% of all hazardous commodities get to destination without incident. So we are very safe. We are a very effective movement of hazardous commodities as well as all commodities.”

BNSF says once the NTSB has completed their investigation, their crews will be able to go in and assess what caused the derailment.

“Best described as when you have almost a campfire and you want to roll the cars away or the logs to put the fire out, that’s about the approach,” explained Farmer. “We’ll go out and that’s when we’ll do the foaming, the spray to put the fire out.”

Because the train cars contained ethanol, the flames cannot be put out with water. Instead, crews will be using a fire retardant foam.

“Burlington Northern has already made the assessment on this. This will be foam that doesn’t contain PFAS the forever chemicals you hear about and the potential carcinogens. This will not be that type of foam,” explained Gov. Walz.

A number of years ago, Congress made a change to the way these tanker cars were built, to avoid a catastrophic situation should an incident like this happen.

“If we’re going to carry ethanol. And these are the kind of encapsulated cars that are basically triple whole that they won’t explode when they if they’re hit. If something like this happens, you don’t have a massive fireball,” shared Walz, who served in Congress from 2007 to 2019. “Burlington Northern made the decision to replace all their cars, not retrofit with the newest J models. And I can’t speak to the investigators. Well, it’s my guess that that’s probably why this contained a little bit more.”

More details will be made available when the NSTB finishes their initial investigation, and when BNSF can begin theirs.