Man outruns train derailment: ‘The house was blowing up behind me’

The Charleston Gazette | February 18, 2015 | Column by Ryan Quinn

BOOMER — It’s rare a man can say he’s glad his wife is in the hospital, but it’s also not every day a train destroys his home.

Heavy equipment has been moved around crude-oil tanker cars, some of which were still upright Wednesday at the derailment site in Fayette County.

Morris Bounds said his wife was supposed to come home over the weekend, but she stayed hospitalized Monday after her open-heart surgery involving four major bypasses. He’s also thankful that 15 loved ones, including grandsons, had left his Adena Village home in Fayette County the day before.

Bounds had been cleaning in anticipation of his wife’s return when, for some reason the shaken man can’t recall, he decided to go into the kitchen. He’s also glad for that, because he had a straight shot out the door when he heard a loud noise, “knew something was wrong” and looked out the window to see CSX tanker cars barreling toward him.

“I had to run out in my sock feet, no belongings whatsoever,” the 68-year-old, who’s now staying at his brother Homer’s house in Ansted, said in a phone interview.

If he were in any other room, Bounds believes, he would’ve died.

“I’ve got a bad back and bad knees and, sometimes, I can’t even walk,” Bounds said, “but the good Lord gave me strength.”

Many details about the train derailment, which occurred at edge of the Kanawha River on Monday afternoon, remain unclear, including the cause of the incident and how long it might take to clean up the area. CSX spokeswoman Melanie Cost said 27 tank cars, each carrying a possible 30,000 gallons of Bakken Shale crude oil, went off the tracks. The other cars in the more than 109-car train have been moved away.

Cost said the company hoped on Wednesday to begin placing eight of the derailed cars back on the tracks and inspecting them to see if they’re OK. The other 19 have either been punctured, caught fire or were near the fire and possibly affected by it, although she said she couldn’t describe exactly how many tankers were affected in each way because CSX is still waiting for the fires in the area to go out.

“That’s the safest thing for the community and the responders themselves,” she said of letting the fires burn. She said CSX chose not to try to fight the fires with a water/foam mixture for fear that would send oil into waterways and further contaminate the environment.

Bounds said he doesn’t know if it was a tank car, as some reports have stated, that smashed his home of 25 years or the large piece of rail that now lies where the house once stood. He said tankers did crash into his garage.

He said most of his yard was engulfed in flames when he ran out but that there was a path through the snow to safety. He said he probably made it 10 feet out the house before it exploded.

“The house was blowing up behind me,” he said. “The walls were coming in.”

Carl Rose said he saw Bounds run out of his home, barely missing the flames and tank cars, which were still derailing as he fled. He said spilled oil formed a horseshoe of fire around the house.

“The cars were still shooting off the track as he was running out his front door,” Rose said.

Rose, 41, of Cincinnati, Ohio, grew up in the nearby community of Gauley Bridge and was visiting his mother, Shirley, in Boomer Bottom, on the day of the crash.

Shirley Rose, 75, lives across the Kanawha from the derailment site, where reporters haven’t been allowed. From her porch on Wednesday, the family could see workers move about as some plumes of black and gray smoke still rose above charred trees, about the same color as the cluster of tanker cars.

The snow — which on Wednesday ranged from light flurries to whiteout downfalls — dusted the pile of black tankers, some of which tilted over the slope of the hill. A piece of track was bent down the incline toward the river, much of which was covered in ice and snow like the surrounding mountains.

Yellow containment booms were set in the river as a precaution, Cost said. She said it’s unclear how much oil might have leaked and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has not indicated that any oil made it into the river or connecting Armstrong Creek. Contrary to prior reports, she said no tank cars entered either the river or the creek.

Vacuum trucks were recovering oil from the scene Wednesday.

Carl Rose, his mother, his 8-year-old daughter, Maddie, and a nephew, Louis, were looking out the windows on the frigid Monday afternoon of the incident at the ice floes in the Kanawha. They saw the train coming and disappear into a patch of woods.

“I said, ‘I can’t see it coming out of those trees,’ ” Rose recalled. “And, of course, it wasn’t.”

Instead, he saw the cars coming off the tracks as trees shook and snow flew.

It’s unclear how many people were displaced by the incident, which witnesses said caused explosions throughout Monday night. Cost said CSX is aware of 100-125 people evacuated who aren’t yet allowed to return to their homes. Although shelters initially had been opened, she said the evacuees are all now in hotel rooms that CSX is renting for them. They’re also being provided with food, medicine, pet care and other resources.

Boomer volunteer firefighter Tyler Holcomb, who also lives in Boomer Bottom and said the fire plume was taller than the mountain behind it, said there also was a temporary evacuation of the more than 100 residents of Boomer Bottom. He said most people returned home Tuesday.

Cost said water has been restored to all residents in the area now that West Virginia American Water has reopened the water intake for its Montgomery treatment plant, which serves 2,000 customers. She expected the routine boil-water advisory to be lifted as of Wednesday afternoon.

Bounds said he didn’t know so many people had “good hearts” until the derailment and fire took almost everything from him. People have been offering him help, he said.

“Not a thing left. Not one thing,” Bounds said. “Just the clothes on my back and sock feet.”

Reach Ryan Quinn at [email protected], 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.