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'I have never seen anything more terrifying': Gogama fire chief recalls derailment

Mike Benson said thinking about accident makes his hair stand up

It's been almost two years since the Canadian National Railway (CN) train carrying crude oil from Alberta oil sands derailed just outside the town of Gogama, spilling an estimated 1 million litres of crude oil.

Gogama fire Chief Mike Benson was the first responder on the night of the derailment on March 7, 2015, and in command of the scene for the first 11 days.

In a recent interview, Benson candidly spoke about what that evening was like.

Mike, can you talk about what happened the night of the spill?

At 2:57 a.m. on the morning of the spill, dispatch had gotten a 9-1-1 call from the rail operator saying there was a train derailment three kilometres outside of Gogama. I was at home (in Gogama) when I got the phone call. The way our paging system works is they call me and if it’s outside the town of I determine whether to dispatch the rest of our team or not. I was going to take a drive down to the railway crossing where I suspected it was. I went out to my truck and before I could go anywhere I was sure it was something catastrophic. It was like daylight outside. Apparently, the incident happened at 2:55 a.m. and I was outside by 2:58 a.m. and there was already exploding and shooting flames into the sky. The wall of flames was already 150 feet high and 600 feet wide. I couldn’t see the flames from my house but the sky was lit up bright orange. As soon as I got in my truck I called the dispatch back and told her to page the entire team and make sure everyone was responding and then drove out to the scene.

When you arrived on scene what did you see?

As I was driving up it got brighter and brighter. I got on-site about seven minutes after the crash happened. I parked my vehicle approximately 300 meters away and started walking towards the scene. My captain, Mark Constantine, is an employee of CN and he attended about 30 seconds after I got there. He explained to me that this was a ‘unit train’ carrying bitumen oil. The rail cars were blowing up; torching 300 feet into the sky. Those were new oil cars with enhanced fancy end caps that they thought were going to replace older DOT-111 cars and prevent a spill if a derailment happens. The ends of these cars were blowing off like tin cans. We heard seven cars blow off in like an hour. When they blew it was the loudest noise you heard in your life. It was accompanied by heavy, heavy black smoke. It was such a catastrophic thing.

It was very noisy, Mark and I had to put our heads together and yell at each other to talk. The very strong hot gaseous smell was incredible. Seven Gogama fire department men arrived on scene. Everyone (of the firefighting team) put on their self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBA) right away. We went to the road bridge, approximately 60 meters from the derailment, and watched the cars explode and we saw very thick oil on top of the ice on fire with the flames coming towards us. There were at least two cars in the river and we saw, what we estimated at the time, to be ten to twelve full rail cars on fire. The oil ran down into the ice and was burning at the same time, which is surreal to actually see and it was really hot. It was scary to see how close it was getting to the road bridge, which is a very important bridge to this community. It ended up that the bridge wasn’t damaged at all but those flames were within 100 feet of it.

There was so much going on. The fire and smoke around the burning cars themselves were creating their own weather system so the wind was calm where the fire was but everything else was very windy there. It got very hot very quickly. Just the visual of this 600 foot 150-footoot high wall of flame. It wasn’t just like a campfire it was a rolling flame and you could see a burst and you could see the gas burning and then the flames going down then another shot of gas going up and it exploding in the sky again. It was that bad for about 10-12 hours and then it subsided and, after the cars had all exploded, for the last two days, it was just burning off the fuel that was left inside the cars.

What did you do to put out the fire?

In the end we didn’t fight any of the fire on scene. The decision was made with CN to let it burn because the weather was such that the smoke and particulates in the air were blowing away from populated areas and that it was better to let the oil burn rather then run into the river.

You told me that you often still think about that day.

I still dream of it on a semi regular basis. Whenever I smell the bitumen (the oil smell on site) I get a bit of fear or panic and I get flashbacks. The hair stands up on my neck. Immediately I go back to that night just for a split second and I can see in my mind’s eye what was going on at three o’clock in the morning there. I have woken up in the middle of the night with cold sweats with what I saw there. I can tell you that in all my life experience I have never seen anything more terrifying than those moments standing on the bridge. I had a million things running through my mind. I felt safe myself but I was worried of course about my firefighters. Some of them didn’t have my SCBA on so I was worried about any aftereffects. But I think my biggest concern was the smoke billowing. As a firefighter I absolutely understand that smoke kills and carbon smoke kills quicker and worse than anything else. I was worried about the townsfolk. This derailment site is three kilometres down the road from Gogama but it’s less than a kilometre from town on the straight track.

(The interview with Mike Benson was synthesized from several conversations that took place over a few months and was edited for clarity and length)