Kootenai County emergency workers shuddered as they watched news of the Montana train derailment.
They knew it could have been here instead.
Trains carrying hazardous cargos chug their way through North Idaho every day. The train that derailed in Montana early Thursday, forcing hundreds of people to flee a cloud of poisonous chlorine gas, was just one of them.
“It just gave me the shivers,” said Tawnda Bromley. She is the mayor of Rathdrum, a town through which thousands of train cars full of dangerous materials pass each year.
The Montana wreck is even more eerie because it is almost exactly the same emergency situation Kootenai County officials have been training for.
Two years ago, Kootenai County Disaster Services developed a training scenario that goes like this: A train carrying chlorine and propane crashes in downtown Rathdrum. The propane catches fire while a cloud of green chlorine gas floats above the community. The entire town of Rathdrum must be evacuated immediately. Thousands of people flee for their lives. Some die.
Emergency officials have already run three table-top exercises and later this summer plan to work through a full-scale mock disaster following that scenario.
They hope it will help them prepare for the day the train wrecks in Idaho instead of Montana.
“It’s not designed to scare anybody,” said Bill Schwartz, director of Disaster Services. “We all hope like heck it never happens here but we have to look at the worst-case scenario. This is a possibility.”
Two main train lines pass through Kootenai County - Burlington Northern and Union Pacific. Both pass either directly through or near Rathdrum and Athol.
The Burlington Northern train that derailed in Montana Thursday started its journey in Pasco. It wound its way to Spokane and into Idaho. It passed through downtown Rathdrum before heading into Montana and crashing.
From February 1994 to January 1995, 25,250 rail cars full of hazardous materials rumbled through downtown Rathdrum on the Burlington Northern line, Schwartz said. A few miles south on the Union Pacific line, 4,316 cars of hazardous materials passed through Kootenai County during 1995.
Between the two railroads, 673 train cars carried chlorine gas while 50 cars were filled with explosives and blasting agents.
More than 1,000 carried propane, a gas that can explode in a deadly fireball if the train car should crash and catch on fire. Almost 2,000 rail cars were carrying anhydrous ammonia, an agent that is deadly to breathe, Schwartz said.
Schwartz fears what would happen if one of those trains should wreck and release its deadly cargo.
“It’s not impossible that downtown Rathdrum could be totally annihilated,” he said.
If chlorine and propane were involved - as in their mock scenario - Schwartz anticipates evacuating more than 3,000 people. City Hall, the police department and school children would be most vulnerable - all sit no more than a block away from the downtown tracks.
North Idaho is no stranger to train derailments.
In June 1994, a Burlington Northern train tumbled off the tracks north of Rathdrum. Although a load of lumber caught fire, five cars carrying molten sulphur did not rupture.
A short time later, another train derailed near the Priest River. The engine’s fuel tank ruptured, spilling diesel.
Rathdrum Fire Chief Wayne Nowacki remembers a train derailing and leaking liquid asphalt in the early 1980s. In another incident, a logging truck and a train collided, knocked the train off the tracks, he said.
Bromley has written a letter to the governor asking to have crossing arms put in more quickly at two train crossings in downtown Rathdrum. Several trains and cars have collided there.
She also is campaigning to have the trains pass through Rathdrum at slower speeds.
Despite the concerns, Burlington Northern officials say that trains remain the safest way to transport hazardous materials.
“In 1995, 99.99 percent of all the hazardous materials moved on our network made it to their destinations without a release of product,” said spokesman Gus Melonas.
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