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Hazardous local train cargo

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06/02/2014 - Thirteen miles per hour may not seem fast enough to cause a fatal accident, but when dealing with a 4,791-ton freight train more than a mile long, 13 miles per hour can have catastrophic results. Thus was the case on Nov. 15, 2011, when two trains collided near Clarkston, killing two crew members of one train, injuring two others, and forcing the evacuation of dozens of businesses, two schools and hundreds of residents.

It was just before 6 a.m on that day in 2011 when the conductor of a southbound train pulled off the main track near Clarkston to allow another train to pass. However, operations went terribly wrong when the conductor of the diverted train fell asleep and re-entered the track, colliding with an oncoming train on the main track, killing the two crew members on the northbound train and seriously injuring two crew members on the southbound train.

The crash also led to a fire and derailment of some of the train cars. Firefighters were able to rescue two crew members trapped inside a locomotive, but were unable to determine the contents of some of the breached tank cars. The fire and release of unknown materials caused emergency responders to evacuate all of the people within a half-mile radius of the crash site, as well as those up to a mile downwind of the train.

O akland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard recalls the crash and trying to get a better view of the burning rail cars in order to determine what, if any, hazardous materials might have leaked or caught fire during the accident.

"We wanted to get a better eye on it, but didn't want to get our aviation unit over it because we didn't know what it was, and we didn't want them flying into any kind of toxic air plume," Bouchard said. "That helped me determine that we should have some unmanned capability for emergencies."

When the smoke cleared, more than 1,570 people, 38 businesses and two schools had been evacuated for nearly four hours. Costs for the damage from the crash was estimated at $1.4 million.

Bouchard said the county's response team has since expanded some of its capabilities, one of which was adding an unmanned drone. The unit is essentially a small quad-copter equipped with a camera. The small remote unit gives authorities a way to inspect incidents without putting officers in danger.

For many emergency responders, the first step in reacting to a train crash is trying to determine what, if any, hazardous cargo is on the train and has been released as a result of the crash. Each year, millions of gallons of toxic chemicals, radioactive material, commercial explosives, flammable liquids, corrosives and other hazardous materials are transported across the country by train. Yet, first responders have little to no information about the types or quantities of materials being transported along local railways, or the frequency of the shipments.

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