Wednesday morning started with what felt like an earthquake to some, with darkness for others, and with no school for students at Althoff Catholic High School.
Eleven coal cars went off the Norfolk Southern rails at 1:48 a.m. Wednesday, piling up like giant bricks and leaving the rail bent in a permanent wave. Power lines along the tracks were tangled and electricity was cut to 500 customers. Three major road arteries were blocked. Coal was spilled all around the tracks just west of Frank Scott Parkway and between West Main Street and Foley Drive.
Yet despite the chaos, no one was hurt.
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Bonnie Isler, who owns a nail salon on South 59th Street, said there were “booms of light, a lot of shaking” when the train went off the tracks. Isler was not hurt, but said part of her property was “totally ripped out.”
“At the end, when all of these cars were hitting together, they just made the most unbelievable, loud sound. You can see all the metal, and then the poles really started sparking, big-time,” Isler said. “It almost sounded like an unbelievable thunderstorm and lightning, but it was far worse than that.”
Frankie Blackmon said the train woke him up. He also lives on South 59th Street.
“It felt like an earthquake,” he said. “And all you saw was all the power go ‘boom.’ We had no idea what happened until we saw the train off the tracks.”
Despite the dark start to the morning, Ameren Illinois by noon restored service to most customers. And even with all the mess, crews expected to have two of the roads reopened by 7 p.m. Wednesday. Frank Scott Parkway between West Main and North Belt West, and North Belt at the Freedom Drive rail crossing were all closed for much of Wednesday. Foley Drive was expected to remain closed Thursday as the clean-up continues.
About a block from the derailment, Althoff canceled classes because the school had no power. Just down Frank Scott Parkway, Memorial Hospital had to temporarily run on backup power.
Ameren started with more than 500 customers without power, reduced that to 65 by early afternoon and the last customer’s power was expected to be restored by 6 p.m., said Bryan Whitaker with St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency.
Whitaker said officials were still investigating the cause of the derailment as of Wednesday afternoon.
Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay said 11 coal cars derailed, damaging utility poles and power lines. The train included 125 coal cars plus three locomotives. Terpay said Ameren workers made sure power lines were not live before the railroad could begin putting the cars back on the tracks.
Whitaker said railroad officials repaired and replaced the track, and that railroad service to that line was restored by 3 p.m. Coal spilled during the derailment was expected to be cleared by 7 p.m. Wednesday.
The Belleville Fire Department said there were no injuries. Firefighters and officers from the Belleville Police Department and St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office, along with members of the St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency, were working at the derailment.
Officials asked the public to avoid the area as a safety precaution, and said it could take up to 48 hours to clean up the debris along the railroad line.
At the scene Wednesday morning, the derailed coal cars were stacked up perpendicular to each other and the rails, while other cars were upended. The derailment was in the middle of the train. The train separated and the front of the train was about 100 yards from the derailed cars, but the final coal car in that string was also off the rails.
The rails at the site of the accident were twisted like ribbon, while workers from R J Corman derailment services brought in large, Caterpillar tractors to right the derailed cars and remove them.
The train was heading toward the central area of Belleville when it derailed.
A parking lot at a nearby business, Negwer Materials, was being used as a staging area for emergency teams from Ameren, the rail company and rescue workers. The derailment was right next to the business, which was formerly Hill-Behan Lumber Co.
Other nearby schools were open for classes Wednesday, including Our Lady Queen of Peace parochial school and schools in the Harmony-Emge District 175. Power outages did not impact them.
In Illinois, St. Clair County has had the second-highest number of train accidents from October 2011 through July 2016, the most recent data from the Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Safety Analysis. Norfolk Southern was responsible for one of the 60 accidents during that period.
In the past five years, Illinois had 833 train accidents, 60 of which were in St. Clair County. Nearly half of the 833 were in Cook County. The federal data excludes highway-crossing accidents.
Of the accidents in St. Clair County, 41 were train derailments, six were collisions and 13 were classified as other types. No one was injured or killed.
A train derailment is any time a train comes off of the tracks, Terpay said. It could be a large crash or a much smaller incident in which the wheels come off the tracks but the car does not tip over.
The total reported damage from train accidents in Illinois in the past five years was nearly $90 million, of which $3.8 million was in St. Clair County.
Norfolk Southern has had 53 total accidents in Illinois since 2013, according to data. Only one previous Norfolk Southern accident was in St. Clair County, in 2014. Cook County was the site of 17 of those accidents, and Macon County, where Decatur is, was the site of 19.