Fire still burning in Gogama, questions about derailment still unanswered

Investigators hope to get their first good look Monday at the wreckage of a fiery train derailment near Gogama; volunteer fire chief recounts being first responder on scene.

'What I can do is pledge that CN will be fully transparent': Company spokesperson

Train carrying crude oil derailed Saturday in northern Ontario, the third derailment in the region within the last month 2:09

Investigators hope to get their first good look today at the wreckage of a fiery train derailment near Gogama, Ont.

For the past two days, the heat of the flames has kept officials from better understanding why the cars jumped the tracks and how much oil was spilled.

It all started on Saturday morning. A train carrying 94 cars of Alberta crude oil, rolled through Gogama and then about four kilometres away, 35 cars jumped the tracks and caught on fire.

Volunteer fire chief Mike Benson thought he was being woken up for a false alarm at 2:30 a.m.

He drove out alone to the CN tracks and saw a mass of rolling flames.

"Well, of course, 'Oh my God,'" Benson said of his first thoughts. "Second thing was, I looked up and the plume was heading away from town and it was 'Oh God, thank you.'"
A photo from the scene at the Gogama train derailment Saturday morning. (courtesy of the OPP)

Benson then called various officials, who responded to the fire quickly. The 17-member volunteer fire brigade from Gogama, as well as firefighters from nearby Mattagami First Nation have pitched in from the beginning

While tensions were running high in town at first with concerns about air quality and drinking water contamination, those are fading away.

But Benson said he can't help thinking about what would have happened if those oil cars had derailed a few minutes earlier, when it passed right through Gogama, just steps away from homes and businesses.   

"Few minutes earlier could have been bad," he said. "We're very lucky and if it's going to happen, that's a good place for it to happen."

Gogama volunteer fire chief Mike Benson was the first person on the scene of the derailment fire. (Erik White/CBC)

CN Rail was already in the area cleaning up from a similar derailment involving oil tankers and a subsequent fire that happened last month, about 40 km from Gogama.

"We've pledged to bring in every resource that we need to from wherever in order to deal with this situation and make it right," said CN Rail spokesperson Jim Feeny.

Once the fire is out, the focus will turn to why those 35 oil tankers left the track and how much damage the five cars that ended up in the water are doing to the Mattagami River system. 

But one of the lasting affects of these two derailments could be on the people of Gogama, who have always lived with trains.

"There's no doubt that every time you see a train, especially a train with tanker cars, it's there in the back of our minds. I'd be lying to you if I said no," said Gerry Talbot, a lifelong Gogama resident and long-time community organizer.

CN Rail director of public and government affairs Jim Feeny (Nael Shiab/Radio-Canada)

Feeny from CN Rail said he's not sure whether these two fiery derailments in Gogama will change the ongoing national debate on rail safety and the transportation of oil.

"I can't predict how people will react. Whether that be the regulatory agencies, whether that be the government, whether that be the public," said Feeny, whose company has apologized to the people of Gogama for this "disruption."

"What I can do is pledge that CN will be fully transparent and that we will make every effort to communicate to the public what we see, what we find and what we're doing."

Long-time community organizer Gerry Talbot chats with neighours outside the Gogama Community Centre, which has become the command centre for emergency crews responding to the derailmen (Erik White/CBC)

Feeny said the oil cars on this train do meet the new standard brought in after the Lac Megantic disaster, but so did the ones from the first Gogama derailment three weeks ago. 

Investigators from the Transportation Safety Board say in that Feb. 14 crash, the oil tankers behaved similarly to the ones that crashed and exploded in Lac Megantic.


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