Downtown Hays dodged a bullet, to be sure. It is difficult to conclude anything else after no injuries or fatalities resulted from a Union Pacific freight train striking a stationary train early Tuesday morning.
The collision took place at about 1:25 a.m. Tuesday when a westbound train with three locomotives and 79 cars was diverted from the main track onto a side rail near Eighth and Vine. The train's planned trek to Denver was abruptly terminated when it struck another train parked in the railyard.
Eighteen cars derailed: 10 from the westbound train, four from the stationary one, and four more from yet another train sitting on an adjacent track in the yard. The locomotives caught fire, shooting flames some 40 feet into the air.
The three crew members onboard -- an engineer, conductor and switchman -- were uninjured.
So were the quick-responding local safety personnel. On the scene were representatives from the Hays Fire Department, Ellis County Rural Fire Department, Victoria Fire Department, Ellis Fire Department, Hays Police Department, Ellis County Sheriff's Office and Ellis County EMS.
"This was a very large incident for the city of Hays to manage," said Hays Fire Chief Gary Brown, who was the incident commander on the scene. "Quite frankly, all the key players came together to manage it effectively."
Using foam and lots of water, firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze by 8:30 that morning. Throughout the night, they also prevented flames from reaching 20 cars full of low-grade ethanol at the rear of the westbound train. Pooling water mixed with diesel fuel was kept away from Chetolah Creek and residents from Parkview Mobile Home Park and adjacent apartments were temporarily relocated to a shelter at Holy Family Elementary School.
Serendipity was in full effect for at least the Hays Fire and Police departments. Five days earlier, personnel had conducted a drill on how to handle a train accident involving a fire at the crossing near Eighth and Vine.
Other factors in play helped minimize the disaster potential.
"No. 1, with night time, less traffic to deal with," said Hays Police Chief Don Scheibler. "If the accident was a little farther to the west, (it could have) set downtown on fire."
Rail traffic was restored to the main line that same day. Union Pacific crews and contractors have refurbished the damaged side rail as well. At this point, all that remains of the accident are a few rail cars lying on their sides. And pending results from the investigations underway by both Union Pacific and the National Transportation Safety Board.
"Naturally, the investigation is why that train (that was supposed) to stay on the main line ... was diverted into the rail yard," said UP spokesman Mark Davis. "That's the focus."
Mistakes happen in every industry. As the switch is operated manually, the investigation likely will assign blame to some individual. Explanations for the derailment are in the hands of Union Pacific and the NTSB.
Hays residents need only be thankful we're not dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy. It could have been much worse.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry