The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 29, 2013

Resident living near tracks recounts Friday’s derailment

Cleanup continues; track opens

By Bill Archer
For The Register-Herald

VIVIAN — Fred Hardee was looking out the back window of his Vivian Bottom home Friday morning when he heard something odd about the eastbound Norfolk Southern mixed freight train that was on the other side of Elkhorn Creek from his home.

“I said to my wife, Lynn, that it looked like he had come off the tracks,” Hardee, 65, said. “Then it all came off. That was a heck of a ride up there.”

Hardee has lived by the tracks his entire life, and even witnessed another major train derailment in the same general vicinity about 25 or 30 years ago. “I ran straight up to the front locomotive to check on the engineer,” he said. “When I saw the tar coming out of the car and heading into the creek, I called 911 and told them about the derailment.”

Hardee said the engineer told him that the tank car contained asphalt tar. “I felt a little better about it then,” he said. “We don’t need anything else going into this stream than what’s already in there.

“It scared me at first,” he said. “I remember wondering if the cars were going to roll into the creek and cause us to have another flood down here. We already lived through two floods in 10 months during 2001 and 2002. As I was watching the train, I wondered: ‘Is he going to stay on that side of the creek, roll into the creek or come over here?’ I didn’t know how it was going to work out.”

In recent years, the Kanawha Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited has worked with local volunteers to make great strides in cleaning up Elkhorn Creek and its tributaries in McDowell County. “I have some monster trout in the stream near my house, 21 or 22 inches,” Hardee said. “I don’t know how they’ll be after this.”

Hardee reported that the railroad workers worked through the night to clear and repair the tracks. While some of the Vivian Bottom residents didn’t care for all the noise, Hardee saw it differently.

“All night was a treat,” he said. “They had the whole bottom lit up like it was daytime. I’ve lived here for 65 years and I’ve never seen anything like it. It was really something to see. They said they were going to get it open by 3 p.m. I was up in Bluefield earlier today and saw a double-decker train with J.B. Hunt trailers on it sitting in the Bluefield yard. Right now, I see that same train moving west past my house and it’s 3:09 p.m. That’s about as close as they could be.”

NS spokesman Robin Chapman said that NS sent a westbound train over the tracks at 1 p.m.  Saturday. He said that the other mainline track would be re-opened at 10 p.m. Saturday night. The seven tanker cars involved in the derailment are off the tracks, well out of the way of mainline traffic, and are secure. Chapman said NS will bid out contracts for recovery and reclamation of the wrecked rail cars and contents.

“We have put out booms and all of the spill has been contained,” Chapman said. “Some of the asphalt that spilled has been reclaimed already. It’s quite an operation to get it this far, but as you know, this line is a big priority for us. It’s important for us to make sure it’s safe and to get it re-opened to train traffic.”

Nick Parker, who lives in the upper end of Vivian Bottom, said that at first, he thought the derailment was just cars coming together when a train stops. “That’s a bad place up there,” he said. “I sure hope that they have this spill contained. I’ve caught some big trout in there.”

Other Vivian Bottom residents were saying the same thing about the trout. “They’re all native trout,” Shannon Hardee, Fred Hardee’s daughter-in-law, said. “They look beautiful in the stream.”

NS and contractor crews were active throughout the derailment site. The line of vehicles participating in the recovery, clearing and track repair effort extended from the place where the 16 rail cars derailed all the way to the grade crossing at Landgraff. Four low-boy heavy equipment truck and trailer units were parked on U.S. 52 across from Kimball Elementary School, while NS and contractor equipment was staged throughout the area.

“It was noisy all night,” one Vivian Bottom resident said.

— Bill Archer is a reporter for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph