Sabotage caused Washington oil-train disaster, rail union says
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.
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.
fter leaving the BNSF railyard in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood around 1 a.m., according to the BNSF hearing transcript, the oil train was close to finishing its six-day journey from the drilling fields of North Dakota. It stopped outside the tiny town of Custer, 80 miles north of Seattle.
The small crew was about to hit the federal 12-hour workday limit after the overnight shift. They had to let a new crew take over for the final leg to the Phillips 66 refinery in Ferndale.
For nearly two hours on the morning of Dec. 22, the fully loaded train and its cargo of 3 million gallons of highly flammable Bakken crude sat unattended on the rural tracks before a new engineer, conductor, and brakeman arrived.
It is legal to leave trains full of explosive fuel unattended beyond a 10-mile radius around Seattle and Bellevue, which is considered a “high-threat urban area” by the Transportation Security Administration.
The new crew prepped the train to roll the last nine miles to the seaside refinery. Engineer Delonte Hutchins got the flashing signal to proceed and grabbed the throttle lever. Two locomotives at the front began to pull, and two at the back began to push the long line of 106 tank cars and two buffer cars – inserted to distance the train's crew and its diesel engines from its explosive cargo – into motion.
Unbeknownst to the engineer or to conductor Nathan Morris sitting next to him, a gap opened about 60 cars back as the train chugged forward.
“The train split apart and was operating in two different portions while traversing north,” Kyle Kitchens, a BNSF foreman and investigator, testified in the internal hearing.
Two railcars, normally locked together by the heavy steel coupling mechanism between them, had come apart. Such separations don’t come easily, according to rail workers.
“You have to force a lever to pull a pin out to allow cars to separate,” said Jeremy Ferguson, president of the transportation division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.
The front locomotives pulled the cars ahead of the gap, while the remote-controlled locomotives at the rear kept pushing the back half.
Normally, two cars separating would trigger the train’s emergency braking and force it to a sudden stop.
“It's very difficult to get a train to come into two pieces like this [without stopping],” Ferguson said. “It takes a deliberate action,” he said.
To avoid giving a tutorial on how to sabotage a train, KUOW is withholding key details of the methods the union believes were used that morning.
Trains have air brakes – their loud hiss is often audible when a train goes by – connected by a pressurized pipe that runs the length of the train. The brakes are designed to be fail-safe: If the pipe comes apart or loses pressure for any reason, the brakes engage, and the wheels slow or stop.
On each railcar, the brake pipe has two valves, each of them acting like the faucet on a garden hose, known in the odd lingo of railroading as “angle cocks.”
If a closed angle cock or something else blocks the brake pipe, it can “bottle up” the pressurized air and prevent brakes from activating.
That’s what happened to the oil train outside Custer, BNSF and union officials agree, though no one from BNSF has stated publicly why the brake pipe was bottled up.
Union officials claim someone at least partially closed angle cocks on two cars and pulled a coupling pin while the train sat on the tracks that morning.
“There were turned angle cocks; there was pulled pins,” union safety representative McDaniel said, according to the BNSF hearing transcript.
The brake-pipe valves have self-locking mechanisms to prevent them from being knocked or bounced off their desired settings.
“I've never heard of an angle cock turning on its own,” said Quimby, who was a National Transportation Safety Board investigator for 22 years.
atellite-connected transponders on the front and rear locomotives informed BNSF headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, almost immediately that the train had come apart on the tracks.
The gap between the train’s independently moving halves lengthened to about 800 feet, said one person familiar with the incident, who asked not to be named since the FBI and BNSF have both given instructions not to discuss it.
The engineer’s control panel on the front locomotive would have shown that the train had apparently lengthened by 800 feet.
Quimby likens a freight train to a giant slinky that can expand and contract somewhat as it accelerates and brakes around curves and over hills. An engineer would expect this 6,600-foot train’s length to vary at times up to 80 feet, not 800.
“He might not even be looking at or even paying attention to [it] because nobody expects their train to all of a sudden grow on them like that,” Quimby said.
According to downloads from the train’s GPS system, the front half continued north and accelerated. As it approached a curving left turn toward Whatcom County’s two oil refineries, it slowed and was clocked at 7 miles an hour, about the pace of a jogger.
Between the push of the rear engines and the pull of gravity, the back half gradually sped up to 21 miles an hour, three times the speed of the cars in front of it and twice the 10 mile per hour speed limit for oil trains on that stretch of track.
Then, at 11:38 and 34 seconds a.m., according to the train’s data recorder, the crash.
The line of about 45 oil tankers rammed into the 60-odd tankers ahead of them.
Ten cars went off the rails just before crossing Custer’s Main Street. Three caught fire and spilled 29,000 gallons of oil, enough to fill one tanker car.
At the head of the train, Hutchins and Morris felt two hard jolts but didn’t know what had happened.
The conductor radioed, “Emergency, emergency, emergency.”
Another oil train to the north radioed and asked the crew if they were okay.
“I said, ‘Yes, why?’ And they responded that they saw a fireball,” Morris testified.
Brakeman Ryan McKernan, who had gone ahead to the refinery in a shuttle van to make sure the tracks and entrance gates were ready for the incoming cargo, saw the fireball erupt, too. He raced back to the train to help his crewmates separate undamaged cars from those on fire and prevent an explosive chain reaction.
911 calls poured in, followed shortly by first responders and heavily armed federal agents.
“Just a few seconds ago, something exploded. A huge explosion,” one 911 caller from Custer reported.
“There’s a tank car on fire,” another said. “We’re evacuating my house right now, grabbing animals, getting out right now.”
“I’m at Beacon Battery and I need to know if it’s safe for us to be here or if we need to close down the shop,” a woman called in. “Really, it’s flaming high, and we’re right here.”
“Holy crap, that’s crazy,” she said when told to evacuate.
Federal officials seemed to suspect sabotage almost as soon as the train derailed.
FBI agents treated the disaster site as a crime scene and told firefighters to try to avoid disturbing it.
“I was surprised to see that much law enforcement there that quickly, especially FBI and guys in tactical gear and weaponry and camo gear,” said one first responder, who asked not to be named.
“There were feds everywhere,” another said.
Three weeks earlier, two women, Ellen Reiche and Samantha Brooks, had been arrested late at night on BNSF’s tracks 10 miles to the south. Federal prosecutors charged the Bellingham women with “terrorist attack and other violence against a railroad carrier.”
They had allegedly placed wire “shunts” on the tracks. Shunts can interfere with rail signaling and force a train to halt to avoid a possible collision.
After the Custer train fire had been put out, and 120 townspeople allowed to return to their homes, FBI and Department of Homeland Security agents quizzed the crew members about the possible sabotage, including what role closed angle cocks might have played.
FBI agents also went door to door in the vicinity of the train’s morning parking spot. They obtained security camera footage from at least two businesses near the site of the suspected sabotage.
The Bonneville Power Administration, which has an electrical substation there, declined KUOW’s request for its footage because of the ongoing FBI investigation. Another business owner told KUOW he had already given all his footage to the FBI.
ormally, the word “terrorism” or even “sabotage” implies a motive. Trains are sometimes vandalized with no apparent motive.
No one has claimed responsibility or a motive for this train disaster.
Yet under federal terrorism statutes, tampering with critical infrastructure such as a rail line or a train is considered an act of terrorism.
The maximum sentence for sabotaging a train carrying hazardous materials is life in prison. (If anyone dies in an ensuing disaster, the crime is punishable by death.)
In January 2020, an anonymous author on an anarchist website claimed responsibility for sabotaging railroad tracks in Whatcom County and bragged that the actions were well-researched and methodical. The person said they were protesting the construction of a natural gas pipeline in British Columbia and called BNSF rail lines “a primo target.”
Since that January, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has investigated at least 41 incidents of wire shunts on BNSF tracks in Whatcom and Skagit counties.
Alleged track saboteurs Reiche and Brooks have their federal trial scheduled for Aug. 30.
Reiche, through her attorney, declined to comment, and Brooks’ attorney did not respond to interview requests.
There is no indication that either woman is considered a suspect in the Custer crash, or whether the FBI has any suspects.
While the train was ablaze, one Custer resident called 911 to report something he saw just before the fire erupted.
Richard Metzger told the operator he had been driving on Portal Way, a rural road that parallels the BNSF rail line.
“I did see something that made me suspicious after the last things that have happened on the train tracks,” he told the 911 operator.
“There was two young men coming from the train tracks just as that train was starting to move toward Custer,” he said.
The 10 tankers that would derail minutes later were parked where Metzger reported seeing the men.
The privately owned rail line on the back side of a rural business park sees few pedestrians.
“I’m sure their tracks are in the snow,” Metzger said.
Metzger declined to comment to KUOW.
It’s of course possible the two men had done nothing worse than walk on a stretch of track where pedestrians stick out like a sore thumb.
xternally, BNSF has said little about the Custer incident, citing the ongoing federal investigations.
In incident reports filed with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, BNSF said the disaster did $855,000 in damage to the train and tracks. It estimated that the emergency response cost $500,000 and oil-spill cleanup another $250,000. The company reported losing $34,000 worth of crude oil.
BNSF, North America’s largest railroad company, reported to its regulators that the oil train was going 7 miles an hour but did not acknowledge that it had split in two, with the back half clocked at 21 miles an hour just before impact.
A year before they derailed, the Phillips 66-owned tanker cars had been retrofitted, under new federal safety regulations, to resist puncturing in head-on impacts of up to 17 miles an hour.
BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent declined KUOW’s interview requests for this story. The company and the rail workers’ union also declined to make crew members available for interviews.
Internally, BNSF has faulted the crew for not detecting the compromised brakes before departing.
The company accused the engineer, conductor, and brakeman of failing to do an electronic test known as a “train check” as they prepared for departure.
That diagnostic test indicates whether brakes are pressurized and functional for the full length of the train.
BNSF managers claimed the two-minute test would have prevented the disaster by detecting any disabled brakes and letting the engineer know the train was not in a safe condition to go anywhere.
Under BNSF’s train-handling rules, it is the railroad engineer’s job, not the conductor’s or brakeman’s, to do the brake test when the train is to be left unattended or before getting under way after a long stop.
According to the union, the company dropped its accusations against Morris and McKernan and put Hutchins, the engineer, on probation.
The union has appealed the decision, which could go to a federal arbitrator and take years to resolve.
Hutchins told BNSF investigators he had only worked as a rail engineer for “about one month” before he drove the Custer oil train. His union representative said the inexperienced engineer — who had only driven a lengthy oil train once in 2020 — was being scapegoated, unlike the previous engineer of the same train. Two hours before Hutchins climbed aboard, that engineer did not do a train check either, but BNSF let him off with a warning.
Union officials said the three crewmen should be hailed as heroes for preventing the rest of the sabotaged train from being engulfed in flames.
“They saved the surrounding community,” McDaniel told BNSF investigators.
BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent also declined to answer KUOW’s list of 16 detailed questions on the Custer crash and what, if anything, BNSF has done to prevent similar incidents from happening again.
In an email, Kent noted that railroads are required under federal law to transport oil and other hazardous commodities.
“Last year, we safely transported more than 10 million units of freight that make up the necessities for everyday life. In fact, 99.999 percent of all BNSF customer hazardous materials shipments are delivered without incident,” Kent wrote.
One of KUOW’s unanswered questions was whether BNSF is still parking hazardous materials trains unattended in places where they could be vulnerable to sabotage.
A Federal Railroad Administration official said in May that the agency is working with BNSF to update its hazardous-materials security plan “and specifically instances of parked trains.”
Union officials called for tighter security around trains carrying oil or other hazardous materials.
Whatcom County Councilmember Todd Donovan questioned the need for months of secrecy surrounding the incident.
“I understand their investigation might want to keep things quiet, but they’re potentially putting the public at risk,” he said. “Are we at risk?”
“We’ve never had a very open relationship with BNSF,” Donovan said. “They’re in their own world, and they don’t respond to queries from elected officials very readily.”
According to union officials, BNSF has kept its own employees in the dark on ongoing security risks as well.
“They were never informed that there was any kind of suspicious activities going on,” union president Ferguson said of the three crewmen.
Engineer Delonte Hutchins testified that he only learned of the dozens of incidents of track sabotage in Whatcom and Skagit counties from FBI officials when they questioned him about how his train could have been sabotaged.
t least three federal agencies have been involved in investigating the crash. Two of them, the Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board, say they expect to release their findings in June.
The safety board’s investigation is limited in scope. It only addresses how well tanker cars performed once they derailed.
The FBI launched its criminal investigation in December and became the lead agency looking into causes of the crash.
More recently, the secretive bureau has reverted to Department of Justice standard practice and neither confirms nor denies that any investigation exists.
Do you know something more about the Custer disaster? KUOW environment reporter John Ryan loves getting tips and documents. He can be reached at email@example.com, the encrypted firstname.lastname@example.org, or the encrypted Signal app at 1-401-405-1206 (whistleblowers, never do so from a work or government device, account, or location).