On Outdoors: Police video of 2009 train derailment sheds little light on fault, fishing future begins

By Jim Hagerty
Staff Writer

The Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department has released a squad car video that shows the condition of the stretch of Canadian National Railroad track moments before a 114-car train derailed at the site last June.

The Mulford Road accident included 14 cars carrying 420,000 gallons of ethanol that exploded, killing a Rockford woman and injuring about a dozen others.

Monumental fish kill

After the explosion, approximately 60,000 gallons of ethanol were washed into a nearby Kishwaukee River tributary.

The Kishwaukee River flows into the Rock River in the southern part of Rockford.

A few days later, and what some still called a coincidence, dead fish started to emerge along the shores of the Rock River. Officials later scooped up truckloads of big carp, catfish, bass, northern pike and other species some 30 miles down-river near the town of Grand Detour, Ill.

Dead fish were found as far south as Dixon, Ill., and in the Quad Cities near Iowa. Some were recovered still alive, gasping for air.

While dead fish, which eventually totaled about 72,000, continued to float south, water samples were tested for ethanol, but showed no signs of the fuel.

Some of those close to the investigation continue to claim the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) did not respond in time and only tested surface water taken from the tributary near the derailment.

After an investigation, however, the IEPA announced Canadian National Railway was responsible for the derailment and likely to blame for the largest fish kill in Illinois history.

Thursday, June 18, and Friday, June 19, 2009, the Rockford area was hammered with about 3 inches of rain. Runoff washed out the tracks at Mulford Road and caused tributary and Kishwaukee River water to rise rapidly.

Officials said the Kishwaukee was flowing about three times its normal speed as the ethanol leaked into the water. By the time it reached the Rock River, the fuel made its way to the bottom quickly, scorching the gills of thousands of fish.

Because of the rapid flow of both rivers, dead fish near Rockford did not surface until they reached calmer waters south of the city. Not until fish reached Grand Detour, Dixon and the Quad Cities was the full impact of the carnage unveiled.

Initially, Canadian National was accused of not alerting police soon enough when the tracks were discovered to be washed out.

The railway argued that Winnebago County Sheriff’s deputies were lax in responding to 911 calls and failing to stop the train from reaching the flooded area.

A slew of lawsuits have been filed against Canadian National, including one by the family of the woman burned to death at the scene. A reported gag order, however, has halted attempts to obtain updated information.

The Illinois Attorney General’s office has been involved in the case since last year, while Canadian National is expected to ante-up and cover damages.

The railway voluntarily reimbursed hundreds of displaced families, forced to remain out of their homes for more than a week.

There is no word whether it will be forced to pay for massive fish re-stocking efforts done in weeks following the spill.

Future fishing

With the number of record-size catfish, carp and other game fish now gone from the rivers, time will only tell what future fishing might be like in the region. Some of the dead catfish were 20-, 30- and 40-pounders. These are old and sought-after fish, many taking up to 10 or more years to mature and reach optimum size.

The IDNR released more than 50,000 smallmouth bass into the Rock River since the kill was declared over by biologists last year.

More than 3,500 young northern pike also were restocked.

It was originally announced DNR officials were taking a pass on restocking musky, relying on more to make their way south from Minnesota and Wisconsin. Public pressure subsequently prompted officials to release a supply of the popular game fish in the Rock.

According to documents, the total cost to restock the river reached $272,000.

The accident is still under investigation by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office and the National Transportation Safety Board.

The video, first made public by the daily, can be seen on YouTube.

Outdoors news and photos can be sent directly to Jim Hagerty at jim.hagerty@rockrivertimes.com. Glossies and hard-copy press kits can be mailed or delivered to The Rock River Times’ office at 128 N. Church St., Rockford, IL 61101. Jim can be reached at (815) 964-9767.

From the April 14-20, 2010 issue

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