All photos courtesy of Jamie Miller.
BULLS GAP — Rescuers dodged a big bullet Tuesday night when a Southern Railroad train derailed in Bulls Gap, and the only cars that didn’t tip over were at the back of the line including four carrying 28,000 gallons of propane each.
The accident occurred around 10:20 p.m. as some cars were being pulled through a spur at Seminole Gas. Apparently a middle car came off the track, which caused chain reaction, tipping all cars in front of it including the engine.
The biggest cleanup was for diesel fuel that leaked out of the engine. Two men were on the train at the time of the derailment, including the engineer who suffered a head injury and other bumps and bruises when the engine tipped over.
The engineer was treated for injuries but returned to the accident site early Wednesday morning. as of noon Wednesday the cars were back upright and cleanup was continuing.
Hazardous material enters Hawkins County on the Southern Railroad through Bulls Gap on a daily basis, most of which is on its way to Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport.
For years Hawkins County emergency responders have been planning and training for a train derailment of this nature, and Tuesday night that plan was put into action.
In this case, however, it wasn’t a pass-through “Eastman” train that derailed, but some cars that were being picked up for transfer to the exchange yard in Bulls Gap.
Route 66-S, which runs parallel to the tracks, was closed from the Rt. 113 intersection near Cherokee High School to the 11-E intersection in Bulls gap for about an hour until the situation was assessed and it was determined that no hazardous material had spilled or was in danger of spilling.
Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency director Gary Murrell said Southern Railroad was investigating the cause of the derailment Wednesday afternoon.
“It was a switch engine pulling out of Seminole Gas,” Murrell said. “They had pulled in to pick up four loaded (propane) tank cars to take to Bulls Gap yard so the regular train could pick them up and take them to where they’re going. They were coming out of the yard on the switch track and they don’t know how it happened, but somewhere in the middle of that train something happened and it started pulling cars off the track. It just pulled off everything from that (middle) car forward. It turned everything over including the engine.”
There were some empty tankers behind the engine.
The first emergency responders found the badly shaken engineer laying on the ground outside the train, and initially it wasn’t know that those first tankers were empty.
Aside from the four propane tanks at the rear of the train, there were some cars carrying scrap metal and some carrying plastic pellets. Some of the pellets also spilled.
Hepaco Environmental and American Environmental cleanup companies were both called to assist with the cleanup.
“Hepaco said they would be there for days for the diesel,” Murrell said. “The diesel is going to be the biggest thing. We’ve had EPA there. All the diesel was confined to one side of the railroad tracks, and they’re digging everything up to get the diesel out of the ground.”
Murrell said the emergency services from Hawkins and Greene counties that responded deserved to be commended for working together to put the emergency plan into action while the situation was being assessed.
“This is why we put in so many hours of training,” Murrell said. “If it had turned out to be a major disaster, we had the highway blocked already. That way if there was an evacuation we only had to worry about getting people out, and not new people coming in. There are a lot worse things than propane moving up and down that line, and it’s good to know everybody (in emergency services) is on the same page if something major does happen.”