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Derailment-caused fire destroys trestle between Midland and Philip

Calls to the Midland Fire Department started coming in around 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 15.

Marty Hansen, fire chief of the Philip Volunteer Fire Department, had seen two puffs of black smoke east from where he was. His cell phone call had Roger Williams, Cody Gartner and other Philip fire fighters heading out before other calls reached Philip.

In Midland, Bridget Schofield had answered the fire phone and set off the fire whistle. Fire unit radio traffic quickly reported that the fire was near Nowlin and it was the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad trestle over the Bad River 10 miles west of Midland. Twelve cars on the eastbound train had derailed.

Within 45 minutes, the Midland Volunteer Fire Department Chief, Reuben Vollmer, requested drinking water for the crew, a video camera, and an ambulance for safety measures.

The PVFD arrived with six trucks and 15-20 fire fighters. The Kadoka Volunteer Fire Department arrived with a tender and a brush rig. Ottumwa arrived with a truck and crew of three.

Hansen described the visibility as dark. There was work for the men everywhere. He estimated the access to the fire from the highway to be only a mile as the crow flies, but 6-7 miles by road and trail.

By the time Midland ambulance driver Jamie Schofield and photographer Bridget Schofield got down into Nowlin, they could really see the rolling smoke. They had just missed seeing three of the train cars falling through the tracks as the trestles burned underneath. “I did witness the trestles collapsing up to the bridge,” said Schofield.

Randy and Tyler Nemec, first on the scene, told Vollmer that when they got there it was like midnight trying to get in close to the fire. The trestle’s treated timbers and pylons burned too hot for firemen to originally get very close. The Midland crew was surprised at how relatively easily they contained the flames, considering how the wind was blowing. The firemen soon contained the fire to just the trestles. The crew requested a light set and a metal cutter, and when the chop saw arrived, they climbed on top of the cars to cut into them and cut the steel rail lines anchoring the steel bridge to the burning trestle.

One train car loaded with a particle board caught fire and continued burning into Sunday. Trucks from Philip returned Sunday to help extinguish that fire.

“It was Midlands fire so their fire chief ran the show. Reuben is really good to work with,” credited Hansen. “He had guys spread out on each side of the tracks and each side of the river. Luckily the grass had been mowed. The guys got the grass and tree fires knocked down right away.” Hansen estimated that 700 feet of pylons burned.

There were no injuries, thankfully, but there were smoke-filled eyes, sore muscles and a general need for sleep.

Lynn Anderson, vice president of marketing for DM&E, and other officials were at the scene assessing the damage. Late Sunday, Petoske Construction of Midland and O’Connell Construction of Philip were moving earth, and a rail restoration crew were at work repairing the railroad bed. Rail service will be restored as soon as possible; maybe even in a week’ time.

A fire truck and men from the Ottumwa Volunteer Fire Department remained at the scene Sunday night to stop any possible flare ups.