Officials confirm heavy rains washed out sections of track, leading to train derailment

CEDAR CITY — A freight train derailment in a remote part of Iron County late Thursday night was caused by a heavy rainstorm that washed away the ground beneath large sections of track, officials confirmed Friday afternoon.

Weather map showing storm surge over the area of the train derailment. July 16, 2021 | Image courtesy of National Weather Service, St. George News

Iron County Sheriff’s Lt. Del Schlosser provided an update on the situation at a news conference. Earlier that morning, Schlosser had ridden in a helicopter to get an aerial view of the derailment site, just a few miles north of the tiny community of Lund.

A report from the National Weather Service said heavy rainfall was concentrated in the area north of Lund between 6-10 p.m. Thursday night, with an estimated 4 to 5 inches falling during that four-hour time frame, an average of more than 1 inch per hour. Some areas were hit by as much as 4 inches of rain per hour during the peak of the storm, the post said.

Schlosser said that during his helicopter ride, he could see where the water was funneled into a canyon area and from there into the path of the railroad tracks.

“We estimated that the wall of water was approximately a quarter-mile wide when it started to get to the tracks,” he said.

The three-man crew aboard the train saw the water rushing over the tracks but were unable to stop the train in time to keep it from derailing. The train was traveling northbound at a speed of approximately 60 mph when the crash occurred, Schlosser said.

Iron County Sheriff’s Lt. Del Schlosser speaks to members of the media during a news conference about train derailment near Lund, July 16, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Out of the train’s 96 cars, only about a dozen actually derailed, with six or seven of those tipping over, including the locomotives at the front end of the train, Schlosser said.

“The train had multiple different types of cargo on it, which is pretty typical,” he added.

Crews were alerted to the possibility that some of the cars may have contained explosive or other hazardous materials, but Schlosser said there has not yet been any confirmation of that. An undetermined quantity of red-dyed diesel fuel did spill from the locomotives and onto the ground, he added.

Although they were injured when the locomotives tipped over, the three crewmen were able to exit the train and climb up onto the side of one of the locomotives, where they waited for help to arrive amid the floodwaters.

It wasn’t until nearly three hours later, just before 1 a.m., when rescuers were finally able to reach the men and begin working on getting them off the train.

The rescue effort was a coordinated response involving personnel from several agencies, Schlosser noted.

When help first arrived, two of the men were reportedly doing very well, but a third man, who’d sustained a bleeding head wound during the crash, was more seriously injured, Schlosser said.

Aerial view of the scene of a railroad train derailment near Lund, Utah, July 16, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Iron County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News / Cedar City News

“He was in good condition, but we were concerned due to the time frame he’d been out in the weather,” he said.

All three men have since been treated at area hospitals and are recovering, Schlosser added.

Meanwhile, access to the site continues to be restricted due to the significant amounts of mud and silt that have covered roads in the area. In addition, there are multiple washed-out sections on the railway itself.

“There’s extensive track damage in that area,” Schlosser said. “I don’t have an estimate of when that will be back up, but we’re asking the public to remain out of the area.”

“Union Pacific is actively cleaning up the area,” he added. “There is a fuel spill from the locomotives that is being addressed. The other cars are being dealt with. And the NTSB has also been advised and they are working together.”

This report is based on information provided by law enforcement and may not contain the full scope of findings. 

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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