Derailed train cars can be seen along a stretch of train tracks north of the 600 block of Woodward Avenue in El Centro on Tuesday morning, Feb. 2. Some 31 train cars went off the railroad tracks around 11 p.m. Monday, Feb. 1. | JULIO MORALES PHOTO
(UPDATED: 11:45 a.m. Feb. 3) EL CENTRO — When El Centro resident Maria Camacho moved into her apartment on Seventh Street north of Woodward Avenue three months ago, she grew accustomed to the noise and rumbling of the nearby passing trains.
Yet the derailment of 31 Union Pacific rail cars late Monday night, Feb. 1, was something else entirely.
“It shook so much I thought it was an earthquake,” Camacho said.
A line of empty gas tanker and hopper cars nearly a mile long from just east of Sixth Street to Imperial Avenue became dislodged from the railroad tracks and tipped onto their sides just before 11 p.m., cutting off north-south access through the city at Sixth Street, Eighth Street, and partially, Imperial Avenue, as first responders rushed to the scene to ensure no one was injured and no hazardous materials were found in the tipped tanker cars.
Initial reports were that the derailment was a hazardous materials situation, as it was feared the tankers were filled with liquid petroleum gas, but railroad officials informed El Centro Fire Department personnel fairly early that the tanks were empty, according to scanner traffic during the incident.
Still, some 50 homes between the 500 and 700 blocks of Woodward Avenue were evacuated as a precaution, and a shelter was established at the Martin Luther King Jr. Sports Pavilion on Adams Avenue for evacuees, according to El Centro fire Battalion Chief Cedric Ceseña. He reported that the local chapter of the American Red Cross assisted about 50 residents and evacuation orders and warnings were lifted at 2:50 a.m. Feb. 2.
El Centro fire, with the assistance of several local agencies, did their own check of the derailed cars, even sending a drone above the scene to check for possible leaks, according to radio reports.
Among the evacuated was Camacho, who said an El Centro police officer knocked on her door about 11:30 p.m. to advise her household to evacuate. That’s when she grabbed her medications and headed to the MLK Sports Pavilion, where she remained for a brief period until a friend invited Camacho to spend the night at their residence.
Camacho returned to her apartment about 8:30 a.m. Feb. 2 without knowing whether she would be allowed to enter her home. Once back home, Camacho encountered an elderly neighbor who said they had not been made aware of the derailment until the following morning, even though they were awake at the time it occurred.
The incident left Camacho somewhat shaken and longing for the tranquility of the senior apartments at which she had previously resided.
“I’m regretting having moved here,” Camacho said.
Meanwhile, clean-up efforts continued Wednesday, Feb. 3, with a Union Pacific spokesperson saying the cause of the derailment is still under investigation, but offering little in the way of details, other than a recap of what has already been reported.
“Union Pacific apologizes for the inconvenience. Clean-up operations are underway. The derailment’s cause is under investigation,” said Tim McHahan of UP’s corporate relations in an emailed statement on Feb. 2.
A day later, on Feb. 3, McHahan said in a telephone interview that Union Pacific would not be revealing a cause of the derailment; rather, the railroad operator will file a report with the Federal Railroad Administration, which can take up to a year to determine a cause of the incident.
Battalion Chief Ceseña added on Feb. 3 that the Fire Department has not been given any information from Union Pacific regarding the possible cause of the derailment and was in no position to make such a determination on its own.
The derailed cars had been cleared from certain access points, including at Imperial Avenue and Eighth Street early Feb. 2, but Ceseña said that Sixth Street was still blocked as of the morning of Feb 3.
All the derailed train cars had been set upright and secured for salvage, Ceseña added.
To that end, McHahan issued an additional statement Wednesday morning:
“Union Pacific crews completed rerailing the rail cars at the El Centro derailment at around midnight last night (Feb. 2) using side booms and skip loaders as part of the operation. The rail cars should be cleared of the track sometime this afternoon (Feb. 3), resulting in the reopening of any blocked streets.”
In the aftermath, broken axles dislodged from beneath overturned railcars lay on the tracks, and at least one automated railroad crossing could be seen crushed under the weight of a tipped tanker at Sixth Street.
Dozens of onlookers milled about the derailment site around 8 a.m. Tuesday morning, taking their own photos, while what looked to be Union Pacific personnel surveyed the scene.
Reports came in to El Centro dispatchers on Tuesday afternoon that individuals were seen climbing among the tipped rail cars, but police officers found no one upon arrival.
Nearby, Jose Flores said on the morning of Feb. 2 that he was grateful the derailed train cars fell to the north of the tracks. He said that side did not have the same cluster of residences as it does to the south of the tracks.
Flores said he was drowsing off at the time of the derailment and heard the typical rumbling and squealing of a passing train. Those sounds and sensations soon intensified to the point where his house, located on Seventh Street north of Woodward Avenue, started shaking.
“It was way different than what it normally is,” Flores said.
Soon after, his household of five was told to evacuate. Flores and his family ended up spending the night at his brother-in-law’s home in El Centro and returned the morning of Feb. 2, after they became aware that the train cars were empty and likely didn’t pose any health or safety hazard, Flores said.
El Centro first responders were alerted to the derailment at 10:56 p.m., when the first of a series of 911 calls started coming into El Centro police and fire dispatchers, reporting the tipped train cars, according to Ceseña in his Feb. 2 report.
The first El Centro fire engine company arrived on scene at 11:03 p.m., that’s when fire personnel sounded a second alarm, calling in additional El Centro units and assistance from the Calexico, Holtville, and Imperial County fire departments, Ceseña wrote in a press release.
At one point, Calexico fire crews were asked to oversee El Centro fire station No. 1 while evacuation efforts were taking place, according to scanner traffic.
As the event progressed, as many as 29 firefighters from various agencies assisted, along with Red Cross, AMR Ambulance, the Imperial Irrigation District, El Centro Public Works Department, El Centro Parks and Recreation, Union Pacific Railroad, and the El Centro Police Department, according to Ceseña.
El Centro fire crews left the scene by 6 a.m. Feb. 2, he added.
The site of the derailment was about eight-tenths of a mile long, starting at Imperial Avenue and extending to the railroad tracks that move from an east-west direction into a sweeping northwesterly curve just east of Sixth Street, behind McClure’s Trailer Park off North Sixth Street. That was the location of the last derailed car, according to scanner reports.
An early medical-aid request was called off after “no visible injuries” were seen at the derailment site, according to radio reports.
Union Pacific Railroad officials were reportedly on scene and moving sections of the train just after midnight after the derailment had occurred.