Bonnie Isler had just finished building a stone wall around her garden in October 2016 when part of a coal train derailed and crashed into her Belleville salon’s backyard — taking out her small stone landscape.
One year later, Isler has finished rebuilding the stone wall — with her own two hands, like before — behind her shop, Natur-Al-Nail and Hair Salon, at 48 South 59th St.
“All the people in my business had watched me do it by myself,” said Isler, who has owned the salon since 1998. “Then when I finished it, a week later the train came and took it all out. I mean, you couldn’t do anything but laugh about it.”
The 129-car coal train was heading east at about 27 mph toward the central area of Belleville when 12 of its cars derailed just before 2 a.m. on Oct. 26, 2016. It left the tracks at Frank Scott Parkway West between Foley Drive and West Main Street, leaving cars perpendicular to the track and piled like bricks.
The derailment ended up causing about $734,000 in equipment and structural damage, according to a federal report filed by Norfolk Southern Railway Company with the Federal Railway Administration. That total broke down to about $616,000 in damage to the railroad company’s equipment and another $118,000 in track and structural damage.
The derailment was caused by an overheated wheel bearing — a component of the wheel that allows for smooth rotation — according to Susan Terpay, a spokeswoman for Norfolk Southern Railway.
Fire crews and Norfolk Southern Railway reported no one was injured during the crash.
“I had heard the train go by. I had woke up just a little bit,” Isler said of that night one year ago. “Then all of the sudden, the ground started shaking. It felt like an earthquake, but within 5 or 6 seconds you knew it wasn’t an earthquake because the ground was actually rolling. Then there were these huge booms, and all the arcing and the sparking from the electric (lines).”
I mean, you couldn’t do anything but laugh about it.
Boonie Isler, Natur-Al-Nail and Hair Salon owner
Isler said she got up and looked out her window after feeling the ground shake, but it was dark because there were no lights and the moon wasn’t out. She grabbed a flashlight, went outside and looked both ways down the track. She said she saw a man walking toward her who said the train had run off the tracks and told her to be careful walking because there were live electrical wires down.
“By the time the sun came up there were like 125 men out here, and the whole day, you never saw two of them standing around — at all,” she said. “They worked like crazy.”
Isler said since the train derailed, crews have put up concrete barriers at the end of the street.
“I’ve been told since then that if the train had been coming the other way, well, those cars would have come down the road and probably taken out these houses,” she said.
The fire crews responding first were stationed just a few blocks from the derailment.
Belleville Fire Chief Tom Pour and Battalion Chief Jesse Garnica both said the way it was reported to 911 — as a “possible” train derailment — put doubt in firefighters’ minds that cars had actually left the track.
Garnica, who was one of the first people on scene, said he thought it would end up being a car accident. He and his crews began walking, and that’s when they shined their flashlights on a pile of cars.
“The first words I heard on the radio were ‘the main pile is over here,’” Pour said. “In my opinion that’s when things stepped up a notch because all the other responding agencies knew there was a pile of train cars.”
Garnica noted last year’s train derailment was the first one he’d seen in his 18 years on the job. He said one of the first things he considers is what the train is carrying — if it’s a hazardous material, it’s a whole different scenario requiring a much larger response.
“That was probably one of the biggest concerns, not to mention right at that intersection is a large power grid with Ameren,” he said. “So now you’re throwing in electrical hazards. ... It could be a major fire of some sort if things connect — or a possible electrocution.”
Garnica met with the train conductor, who had all the information Garnica was seeking. Garnica noted the cars that derailed were so far down the train that the conductor didn’t know what had happened. He was alerted and stopped by sensors on the train.
The conductor had walked the length of about 90 cars to get to the site of the derailment. The federal report stated he was a little more than four hours into his shift.
Luckily for Garnica’s department, he said, all the cars were carrying coal. The power lines, however, were the biggest obstacle in the cleanup effort.
“It definitely wasn’t expected. It’s not something we deal with every day,” Garnica said. “But I mean, we were ready for it, and the night went pretty smooth. We were very fortunate there weren’t any casualties.”
Norfolk Southern Railway Company called in cleanup crews, and Ameren workers arrived to turn the power off, so the cars could be moved out of the way safely.
“We had to be cautious in how we were getting around the area,” Garnica said of the active electrical lines.
Trains were back running on the track by 6 p.m. the next day.
“I think it all went well. It seems as if everyone came together really well, everyone worked alongside each other and got it done,” Garnica said.
I think it all went well. It seems as if everyone came together really well, everyone worked alongside each other and got it done.
Belleville Fire Battalion Chief Jesse Garnica
Isler laughed and said if another train comes crashing through, there’s no way she’s building her garden wall again. But, even so, she holds a certain value in witnessing such an event.
“I feel like I might not be here, I’m 70, and I might not be here for the second coming of Christ,” she said. “But I feel like I kind of know what it’s going to be like — and it is amazing. The lightning show, and even just that one last burst, it lit up everything. It was just awesome, since no one was hurt. It is an evening I will never forget.”