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Aerial view of the derailment that caused the 1992 benzene spill. At bottom is the Nemadji River with a tanker car in it. (1992 file / News Tribune)

20 years later, benzene spill still stings in Duluth-Superior memories

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Former Duluth Police Chief Scott Lyons was six months into his job when the "high point" of his career played out in a matter of 15 hours on June 30, 1992.

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Somehow, officials in Superior and Duluth scrambled to evacuate more than 30,000 people after an early morning train derailment left the area under a vapor cloud 20 miles long and 5 miles wide. It was the Twin Ports' infamous benzene scare that took place 20 years ago today.

"It was a big day, a huge day," Lyons said Friday, immediately remembering even the smallest details from what he called a shining moment in emergency management for the region.

"There was this ugly, yellowish, orange-ish cloud," he said.

Police got ill on Park Point as they alerted residents there at sunrise. No one knew what was causing the haze, Lyons said. It had moved over Lake Superior and up the shore about five miles.

But weather forecasters were predicting that whatever was in the cloud would move back over the Twin Ports as the wind shifted.

"Our problem was," Lyons said, "what was in that cloud?"

At 2:50 a.m., Burlington Northern freight train No. 01-142-30 passed over a curve in the rail line just before the Nemadji River, about eight miles south of Superior.

Curve 12A, as the National Transportation Safety Board would call it in later reports, had been inspected a month before. Burlington Northern experts found cracking in the rails, but deemed it safe under Federal Railroad Administration standards. To make sure, they performed an ultrasound of the rails. Nothing was found.

As the train neared the bridge, its four-man crew felt a tug and then realized part of the train had derailed. The NTSB later determined that the rails were damaged out of sight, inside the steel. The surface cracking had masked the ultrasound view.

Of the 14 cars that fell 71 feet into the river and on its banks, three contained hazardous materials.

"I'll never forget what it said on the side of one of the cars," Lyons said. "Aromatic chemicals."

It was a flammable liquid mixture that was 45 percent benzene, which, splashing into the river, created the cloud.

Another car had liquefied petroleum gas, which made cleanup extremely difficult and dangerous. Another contained crude butadiene, a compound used to make synthetic rubber and also dangerous to handle.

But in Superior and Duluth, no one knew any of this.

At command headquarters at Duluth City Hall, Lyons' staff was having a difficult time getting answers.

"Communication was the hardest thing," he said. "You had an incident in another state."

Finally, frustrated, a team went to the site. A call was made to Canada and the manufacturer of the benzene. More than 21,800 gallons of it had spilled through a foot-wide gash in the tank. Officials wanted to know what it was and what health dangers it possessed.

"They were evasive," Lyons said of the manufacturer. "Either they didn't want to tell or they didn't know."

The command center certainly knew it was an irritant, given the reaction of the officers on Park Point as the cloud passed over. Lightheadedness, flushed faces.

Finally, chief deputy Bob Larson made it plain, Lyons said. He asked the company representative what he'd do if his family was in Duluth with the cloud looming.

"He said he'd get them the heck out of there," Lyons said.

Now, an extensive evacuation was on.

"It was a movement of 30,000 people with one sentence," Lyons said, still praising Larson, who died last year.

Residents in Superior and those below the hill in Duluth up to 12th Street were asked to leave.

Booms were put on the Nemadji to hold the chemical, but the damage had been done. Thousands of fish died and rose to the surface, only to be eaten by birds and other animals.

Richard Pukema was a captain in the Superior Police Department at the time and on the local emergency planning committee. He also had been helping plan the area's hazardous material response team.

The stories about how Duluth and Superior officials got information that day run parallel because there wasn't a unified command across the state line, Pukema said.

"We didn't have a joint effort."

So while Pukema had a team at the derailment site within an hour, news about the spill wouldn't get out until daybreak.

He said the danger at the time was seen in a zone a mile from the Nemadji River. While Duluth evacuated Park Point and other low areas, the Wisconsin evacuation never went beyond the zone set up that morning, Pukema said.

Later, the NTSB said benzene posed no immediate threat and no long-term risk.

Pukema was in Washington when the accident was sliced and diced among agencies there. He realized through the bureaucracy that no one agreed on what happened with the chemicals that day.

"They called it a meteorological phenomenon," Pukema said. They insisted that benzene couldn't have created the cloud, he said.

"I told them that they didn't have any idea what happened that day," he said. He felt the rawness in his throat and still wonders what the exact chemical mixture was that filled the air.

Lyons said there was some heat put on from those who wondered why there was an evacuation if the benzene wasn't a risk. The majority understood the need, he said.

By 6 p.m., the threat was over. The cloud went to the south, over western Duluth and Oliver, Wis., and dissipated over Carlton County.

"I still marvel at that day," Lyons said.

He remembered the tight strum of the 15 hours and, unwinding, how odd it felt to take an interview from a Twin Cities-area television news reporter under a helicopter at Central High School, one of the evacuation centers.

"I thought, 'What the hell just happened here?' " he said with a laugh.

The NTSB demanded in its accident report that the types of cracks found on rails where the derailment happened be immediately replaced because it probably is a sign of hidden interior damage.

Lyons said that despite the troubles with communicating to all emergency groups, the incident led to a more in-tune regional response to hazardous material spills and cooperation among agencies.

"This was before Sept. 11, remember," he said.

"We pulled together," he said. "Just like during the floods today."

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