‘Creaking, crunching’: Train derails in Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo and Battle Creek

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A freight train derailed in Kalamazoo Tuesday morning, blocking some roads during the morning commute and causing some damage to a nearby building.

The damage was limited, however, and no one was hurt.

“Really, this is the best-case scenario for something like this,” Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety Chief Karianne Thomas said.

Shortly before 7 a.m., about 15 cars fell off the tracks alongside Porter Street between Kalamazoo Avenue and Willard Street. The cause of the derailment is not yet known.

“(The train cars) come around the corner of the building and I heard a big thud like they hit the breaks, and there was another, louder one,” Mark Miniat, who works nearby and saw the derailment, told 24 Hour News 8. “It was just a bunch of loud crunching. It’s just creaking, crunching, that’s about it. It did that for about 15 minutes. You could still hear them. They were still moving.”

Kalamazoo City Manager Jim Ritsema said he was told the cars that tipped were empty. One of the cars fell into a building, causing some structural damage, but nobody was inside.

The derailment caused a short power outage at area businesses in the morning, but service was back on by the afternoon.

In the afternoon, KDPS said the cleanup process was going well, but qualified that it was “involved and time-consuming.” In the end, it was nearly 15 hours before the last car was righted around 9:30 p.m. That beat earlier projections that cleanup would continue into the morning hours. All nearby roads reopened around 10 p.m.

The National Transportation Safety Board has been notified of the derailment.

—24 Hour News 8’s Brady Gillum contributed to this report.

LOCAL BUSINESSES BLOCKED OFF

The mess forced some nearby businesses to close.

The Ferguson plumbing store off Kalamazoo Avenue was blocked off by caution tape all day. It stayed open, but missed out on a lot of business.

“You got about 20 billable days a month, so if you lose one, do the math,” Phil Qualls, who manages the store, said. “We just got to work a little harder the next day, I guess.”

Both Bell’s Brewery Eccentric Cafe and the Old Dog Tavern are also stuck behind the tape and were forced to close all day.

Sean Smith, who owns the Old Dog Tavern, took a 24 Hour News 8 crew up on the building’s roof to check out the scene: a line of train cars on their sides, workers assessing the situation and police cars keeping drivers away.

“It’s kind of like the wild, wild west in Kalamazoo,” Smith described.

>>App users: Tap here to view a photo gallery of the Kalamazoo train derailment

Smith didn’t like losing out on a day’s worth of customers, but with the overturned cars just yards away from his bar, he said he feels like he narrowly dodged a disaster.

“We would’ve had an issue. We’d have been calling the adjuster,” Smith joked. “We’re lucky.”

Old Dog Tavern and Bell’s Brewery Eccentric Cafe will also be closed Wednesday for the holiday and so work crews can finish cleaning up.

Some nearby businesses, like HopCat, were outside the taped-off zone and were able to stay open.

—24 Hour News 8’s Evan Dean

RAIL LINE’S SAFETY HISTORY

Grand Elk Railroad was operating the train that derailed. Online documents from the Federal Railroad Administration show the rail line recorded previous seven incidents in Michigan in the last 10 years.

Those seven incidents included four other derailments, one of which happened in Kalamazoo. In 2015, three covered hopper cars derailed at the Gearhart Yard when a train failed to negotiate a curve.

Two of the other derailments happened in 2011 and 2012 in Three Rivers and were both caused by defective roller bearings. The final derailment happened earlier this year in metro Grand Rapids, when heavy rain mixed with snowmelt washed out a rail bed.

Only one of the seven incidents resulted in a death. In that case, which happened in White Pigeon in 2014, a semi-truck driver didn’t stop at a railroad crossing, collided with a train and was killed.

When 24 Hour News 8 went to Grand Elk’s offices Tuesday, no one was available for comment.

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