Diesel cranes rise against a cloud-riddled sky, their low groans echoing past warehouses and open fields. One by one, they are righting freight cars that stretch like dead insects along the downtown rails, wheels dangling midair or sunk in the trackside mud.
It is Friday, July 12, and as Union Pacific workers methodically clear the remnants of this eight-car wreck at 16th Street and Toole Avenue, disturbing questions linger about risks to Tucsonans who work or dwell near the city's heart, where a web of tracks has remained in place for more than a century.
I'm assured this was a minor mishap, as such calamities go. In an email to the Tucson Weekly, Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt describes it as a "small derailment" in which "eight hopper cars derailed. There were not tank cars involved in the incident and no hazmat."
In other words, none of those toppled cars carried the deadly chemicals that routinely rumble within feet of our downtown neighborhoods—such toxic delights as anhydrous ammonia, hydrochloric acid and chlorine.
According to Capt. Barrett Baker of the Tucson Fire Department, things turned out well, all things considered. "From a Fire Department perspective," he says, "it was actually good news in that nobody was injured, and the eight cars that derailed were empty."
Had it gone differently, many of us might have died in ignorance. Citing potential terrorism, neither the government nor rail companies inform citizens about the toxins coming through town. "What commodities or hazardous materials are inside rail cars traveling through communities is not typically public information for security reasons," says Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington, D.C. "But the railroads are obligated under our rules to provide that information to localities. So your fire chief or police commander could ask the railroad for a list of the top 25 hazmat materials that travel through their community on an annual basis."
Such vagaries are a recipe for disaster, says John Deans, a Denver-based toxics specialist with Greenpeace. He calls it "disaster roulette that happens with a scary frequency. And it's only a matter of time before it involves a rail car carrying extremely hazardous materials derails."
In fact, recent years have seen a slew of horrid derailments, including the Quebec incident on July 6, when 72 oil-filled tank cars careened off the tracks and incinerated the tiny town of Lac-Mégantic, leaving at least 15 dead and 37 unaccounted for. Or the May 28 train wreck near Baltimore that resulted in a 10-hour, toxics-laden inferno.
Thirteen years ago, six cars carrying sulfuric acid derailed at the very same spot in Tucson that saw last week's wreck. Luckily, no acid spilled in that vandalism-caused accident. "The risk was for it to be something a whole lot worse," said Mike Furtney, a Union Pacific spokesman at the time. "We were fortunate it was only what it was," he said. "You don't want that stuff spilling in the city."
Another derailment occurred in 2002 near Wilmot Road and Interstate 10; several tankers carrying hazardous cargo remained intact. In 2004, another 22 cars ran off the track near the tiny town of Bowie, and five cars—including an empty chlorine tanker—crashed northwest of Tucson in 2006.
The odds are not in our favor. According to a study by the Arizona State Emergency Response Commission, in a single year Union Pacific shipped nearly 1,000 tanker loads of deadly anhydrous ammonia through Tucson, and another 629 cars of fiercely toxic chlorine.
But in his email, Hunt contends that more than 99.9 percent of hazardous rail shipments safely reach their destinations. Besides, he writes, railroads have little choice in the matter. "The federal government's common carrier obligation requires Union Pacific and other major railroads to transport hazardous materials whether we want to or not. At Union Pacific we take this obligation very seriously and recognize that rail is the safest option for above-ground hazmat transport. In fact, trucks are 16 times more likely than trains to have a hazmat accident."
He goes on to peg traffic through Tucson at about 44 trains each day, with another four traveling daily between Tucson and Nogales.
That's a lot of traffic, much of it carrying hazardous materials. In fact, the sheer volume of toxic cargo coursing through town was one reason the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ranked us among the nation's 45 "high threat" areas for terrorism.
For Tucsonans, that threat endures. If just one car carrying a deadly chemical such as chlorine had been among those that wrecked on Friday, it could have prompted evacuation of the entire downtown area, including all residents within a 5.6-mile radius.
When accidents do occur, deadly cargoes can create a guessing-game for emergency response teams, unless they receive timely information from railroad officials, or get close enough to the cars to read placards detailing the contents.
In the meantime, crucial minutes can be lost.
"We don't have to be notified as to what is being transported through the city," says Capt. Baker. "But the placarding has to be in place—that's the only thing the railroads have to do to let us know what they're transporting.
"It is scary, because if chlorine gas is released, our No. 1 thing at that point is getting all the help we can. En route (to the accident) we're getting updates on wind conditions, direction, speed. All of that is given to us as we're approaching, and we always approach from an upwind side.
"It's not a good thing when those things have happened in other parts of the country," he says. "But you just try to get there as quickly as possible, and do as much as possible as safely as possible."
But as the Quebec tragedy demonstrates, it only takes one accident to devastate a community. And that's just one among many grim possibilities. "The impacts of an explosion and a massive fire are not to be ignored," says Deans of Greenpeace. "But when you match that to a tanker of chlorine or hydrogen fluoride, those can actually spread as a ground-level fog for miles, carried by the wind and kill people instantly."
Back at the latest crash site, cranes are still moaning among the discombobulated cars. Orange-vested Union Pacific workers cluster around the wreckage; one of them squints toward the tracks and jots on a clipboard. Behind me, another lunches in his pickup truck, parked just beyond the yellow flurry of emergency tape. As I raise my camera, he gazes my way. "Just don't get too close," he says, before biting into his sandwich.
I assure him that I won't. Though, like many Tucsonans, I really have little choice in the matter.