By HEATHER NELLIS
Recorder News Staff
TOWN OF MOHAWK — Officials are working to determine how an east-bound train collided with a west-bound train on the CSX railroad just west of Fonda at roughly 8 a.m. Thursday, but they say it will take some time before a cause is established.
By late Thursday afternoon, on-site officials estimated 45 cars from both freights were derailed in the crash, including one that stretched onto Route 5.
The roadway is closed from Route 10 in Palatine Bridge to Route 334 in Fonda, and will likely be closed between three to four days to assess damage and make repairs, said state Department of Transportation Spokesman James Piccola.
“We’re not sure what’s happened to the pavement,” Piccola said. “Depending on the equipment [CSX] will use to remove the cars, we’re not sure what damage that could do, either.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a five-minute appearance at the scene around 5 p.m. Thursday. His staff reported he was in the area for visit in Utica, and wanted to take a gander at the wreckage. Though he deemed the cleanup a "private function" on the CSX-owned track, he said the state will oversee it.
"It's amazing how they look like toy trains when they're piled up," Cuomo said. "Thank God no one was seriously injured.
Though a conductor and engineer from one of the trains were transported to St. Mary’s Hospital for evaluation, GAVAC Operations Manager Mickey Swartz said they weren’t injured beyond bumps and bruises.
“It was such a violent crash, and they aren’t restrained in the engine,” Swartz said, “so we wanted to make sure they were OK.”
One rail car overturned at the intersection of Route 5 and Martin Road was gouged open, said county Emergency Management Director Adam Schwabrow. But the plastic pellets that spilled from the car onto the roadway and surrounding scene are non-hazardous.
“We went door-to-door along Martin Road to tell the residents what was going on, and to stay away from the area,” said Amato.
Amato said there was one car which contained a hazardous material; fortunately, it didn't overturn. He said officials also checked the trains' manifests to review the cargo, and nothing else raised a red flag.
There was concern, however, about the diesel fuel that spilled from the trio of engines that led one of the trains, Schwabrow said. The leading engines derailed, somehow, officials said, and slammed into a ditch off Route 5, sending a swampy mud bath across the roadway.
Schwabrow said the Montgomery and Fulton Counties’ HazMat Team placed absorbant booms around the scene to ensure the diesel fuel didn’t seep into the Mohawk River. There is no environmental impact expected.
“The substance on the roadway is just mud from the impact,” Schwabrow said.
Swartz said the aforementioned conductor and engineer were soaked in diesel fuel, so before they were evaluated, they had to be decontaminated.
When Swartz arrived on the scene, he saw the men crawl from the engine.
“The engineer was really upset,” Swartz said.
Swartz said because the other train’s engine was farther ahead, those train operators were not injured.
Amato said officials have received conflicting reports about what might have caused the crash. The first theory was the trains hit one another in a head-on collision, but that appears to have been dispelled, said Undersheriff Jeffery T. Smith.
The other theory, Amato said, is the eastbound train ran a red light, while the westbound train was changing tracks, causing the trains to sideswipe, but that’s not confirmed.
“CSX and the [Federal Railroad Administration] will likely examine every car while they search for a cause,” Smith said. “They probably won’t be able to confirm a cause until they remove and examine every car. But we have no idea what caused the first car to jump from its tracks.”
A long line of flatbed trucks carrying equipment that will remove the trains from the tracks arrived on the scene about 11 a.m.
"It could be a day of clean up," said Amato. "The biggest concern is how long they will need to use the roadway, so we're not sure how long it will stay closed."
The sheriff said the last major train derailment occurred in 2007 near Tribes Hill, and before that, in 1998 near Palatine.
Additional authorities which responded include volunteer firemen from the town of Mohawk, Canajoharie and Hagaman, plus State Police, state fire investigators, and the state Emergency Management Office, and Berkshire was on standby.
Click here for a gallery of photos from the scene of the derailment.