The oil train came apart on the snowy tracks north of Bellingham shortly after the locomotive engineer got the mile-long chain of petroleum tanks on wheels under way.
Half a mile behind the locomotive where the engineer and conductor sat, two tanker cars lost their handshake-like grasp on the parts that held them together, shortly before noon on Dec. 22, 2020.
Their uncoupling should have triggered the emergency brakes. Instead, the 15,000-ton train’s two halves drifted apart without stopping, a KUOW investigation has learned.
Within minutes, the roughly 45 tanker cars bringing up the rear accelerated to twice the speed limit for a full load of hazardous material, then slammed into the front 60-some tankers.
Where they collided, 10 cars derailed. Three burst into oily flames.
There’s only one way the train could have derailed like that, according to the union representing the rail crew and a retired federal investigator of railroad accidents: sabotage.
“We know from the FBI investigation, from how trains operate, how trains work, how the couplers work, how the pin lifters work, that this incident was caused without a doubt by sabotage,” Korey McDaniel with the union’s safety team told BNSF Railway investigators, according to a hearing transcript obtained by KUOW.
McDaniel, who is with the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, was representing the train’s conductor in a BNSF internal disciplinary hearing. The rail company had accused the three-person crew of failing to detect that their train’s brakes had been compromised.
“Whoever did this had enough knowledge of railroad equipment to know what he’s doing and enough knowledge of an air-brake system to know what to do,” said Russell Quimby, a retired National Transportation Safety Board investigator contacted by KUOW as an independent expert.
A driver reported seeing two young men emerge from the tracks several minutes before the train derailed, but otherwise, the FBI has not revealed if it has any suspects.
Federal investigations into December’s disaster continue, and its causes won’t be officially declared until the FBI, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the National Transportation Safety Board finish their inquiries.
Still, public records, internal BNSF documents, and interviews with rail experts, public officials, witnesses, and neighbors have allowed KUOW to piece together how a train with its head locomotive going just 7 miles per hour could suddenly turn into a toxic inferno.
Read part 1 of this KUOW investigation: ‘The train is on fire’: tense moments after an oil train derailed
Disclosure: BNSF Railway is a financial supporter of KUOW. The station’s financial supporters have no say in our news coverage.