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I-Team: East Aurora train contained flammable, explosive materials

Rail company refuses to divulge cargo
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Posted at 1:06 PM, May 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-22 21:13:02-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Since Monday’s train derailment in East Aurora sparked fears of “bomb trains” carrying toxic substances, the Genesee & Wyoming Railroad has sought to downplay the danger of the crash, stressing that no one was hurt and damage was limited.

But 7 Eyewitness News has learned that despite the company’s refusal to provide a complete accounting of the train’s contents, dozens of railcars that were pulled by the derailed engine were filled with flammable and explosive materials.

And since the railroad opened back up Thursday, even more cars carrying crude oil and propane have quietly rolled through.

“This was really a best-case scenario,” said East Aurora Fire Chief Roger LeBlanc said of Monday’s derailment. “It should have flopped onto Main Street. There should be a crater in the village.”

LeBlanc said the train conductor soon after the derailment approached him with a manifest of the cargo.

“He showed it to me,” LeBlanc said. “He didn’t give it to me. He had a death grip on that thing.”

The fire chief said the conductor told him the cargo included 19 propane tankers, between 8 to 10 tankers of crude oil -- which has caused devastating explosions like the 2013 derailment in Quebec, Canada that killed 47 people -- and at least one tanker of butane.

The conductor had “great concern” on his face when mentioning the propane, LeBlanc said.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, this thing’s gonna go,’” LeBlanc said, adding that thankfully, there were no explosions because the conductor said multiple cars behind the derailed engine were empty.

A railroad spokesman on Thursday said 66 railcars were empty, including 15 of the 17 derailed cars. But 32 railcars were “loaded with a variety of commodities,” according to Michael E. Williams, vice president of corporate communications for Genesee & Wyoming Railroad Services, which runs the Buffalo & Pittsburgh rail line.

Williams repeatedly declined to answer questions about the contents of the 32 cars, other than to say that two of the cars were carrying lumber.

“Railroads do not share train manifests with the general public for security reasons,” Williams wrote in an email. “The train was carrying what was properly tendered to the railroad to transport under its common-carrier obligation. It is safe for your viewers to assume that the loaded cars in the train were carrying commodities that are integral to modern life.”

Williams stated that the train’s manifest was provided “to the incident commander on site, per standard protocol,” but both LeBlanc and Police Chief Shane Krieger said they did not receive copies of the manifest.

First responders like LeBlanc and Krieger said they came away from the experience thankful that East Aurora, with many wood-frame buildings and 19th century historic structures, did not have to deal with a major explosion.

“If it would have hit any of the buildings or the restaurant, it could have been an ignition point,” LeBlanc said. “There’s a lot of things that could have happened.”

Williams stressed that railroads are “by far the safest means of ground freight transportation – much safer than trucks, which are the alternative.”

Still, the transport of flammable cargo appears to be occurring on a regular basis in East Aurora and other small towns lining the tracks from Salamanca to Buffalo.

Just after 11 p.m. Thursday -- hours after Genesee & Wyoming announced the re-opening of the track -- 7 Eyewitness News witnessed a string of train cars roll above Main Street through the village.

The tanker cars carried the red hazardous material placards for propane and crude oil.