I count it a lucky day when I see a train crossing the trestle over the South Fork River in Cramerton.
It’s an impressive sight, especially just before dawn, when the cars seem to merge into a dark mass sliding by with a bright, unblinking eye.
It’s all such a smooth and seamless operation; you never think about the possibilities of a train ever running off the track.
But that’s what happened in Cramerton on Aug. 6. It was the town’s first train derailment in decades and, fortunately, nobody got hurt and no homes or businesses were damaged;.
According to folks at Norfolk Southern Railway, 31 cars derailed; about nine or so actually overturned and for a while it looked like there might be dangerous chemicals inside some.
As a precaution, nearby homes were evacuated until emergency crews could assess the situation.
The derailment happened around 4:30 p.m. By 8 p.m., most of the evacuees were back home.
Cleanup began, and by 6:20 a.m. the next day, one track had been cleared for train traffic. Now, things are more or less back to normal. Officials say it will be a while before they figure out the cause.
But the incident serves as a reminder that however smooth and seamless things might appear the track we’re riding in every day life is thin and fragile.
Doing things better
It’s a subject I recently raised with Maj. Clyde Cantrell, who supervises training at Gaston Emergency Medical Services and Tommy Almond, Gaston County emergency management administrator. They both worked the freight-train derailment and agreed that it had the potential for a real disaster.
Almond described train’s route through Gaston County: over the Catawba River bridge, Belmont, across the South Fork, into Cramerton, Lowell, Gastonia, over Interstate 85.
It could have derailed anywhere on that path. The cars could have plunged into the Catawba or South Fork or onto the interstate.
But that particular spot in Cramerton “was the best place on the track to derail,” Almond said.
There were several reasons why. The site wasn’t elevated; instead, it was in a little valley and when the cars came off the track they plunged into an embankment.
Emergency crews had easy access to the wreckage, and “we didn’t have to worry about runoff (into the river),” Almond said.
The last derailment Almond recalls was about three years ago near Mount Holly. That involved a CSX coal train, with five or six cars leaving the track around 11 p.m. one night
Both the CSX and Norfolk Southern lines that run through Gaston County are major thoroughfares – rail versions of Interstate 85. And there’s a third rail player: the reactivated Piedmont & Northern line.
Along with the railroads, Gaston also has three major gas pipelines carrying product from Gulf Coast refineries. Almond didn’t recall any major incidents with these trunk lines.
When considering the possibilities for emergencies, I forget that Gaston is sandwiched between two nuclear power plants – McGuire and Catawba.
Include ice storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, rescue operations on the Crowders Mountain or in the Catawba River – throw in every type of emergency you can think of and keep this in mind: Gaston has a plan and the equipment to deal with it.
You can check it out online at www.gastoncoungtyeoc.com.
So how did the plan work in the derailment?
All the many players in the incident will be sitting down together soon to critique the response and talk about things they can do better next time.
Cramerton Mayor Ronnie Worley told me the town departments will be doing the same thing. All in all, he thought the response went well. But if there are ways to improve he hopes they’ll surface at the discussions.
A Cramerton native, Worley doesn’t remember any train derailments. He’s heard relatives talk about them, though. And on the walls at the newly renovated Town Hall are photos of train wrecks from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.
Even though derailments are rare, they can happen. So can a lot of other emergencies. There’s no need to panic. No need to worry ourselves sick or lose sleep. But what took place in Cramerton should inspire us to get a little more familiar with our surroundings and up-to-date on the county’s emergency plan.
Someday, it could come in handy.