At 11:45 am on Tuesday, a BNSF train derailed and caught fire north of Bellingham, WA. The disaster resembles what alleged terrorists have been attempting and arrested for in Washington state since earlier in the year.
The incident occurred in the Custer area near the 7500 block of Portal Way. Officials closed Grandview Road at Portal Way and Main Street. The fire was so intense that residents and visitors were ordered to evacuate a half mile radius from the incident and I-5 was closed in both directions through the area for about an hour.
A BNSF Railway spokeswoman said that the train was comprised of "around 108 cars" was carrying crude oil to the Phillips 66 refinery in Ferndale when seven cars derailed. Two of the cars caught fire and spewed black smoke into the air.
Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said as of 4 pm, the fire was still burning but was under control. Multiple agencies arrived on the scene including the FBI, Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission, Washington State Patrol, Whatcom County Emergency Management, the Department of Ecology and local fire agencies, including fire brigades from Phillips 66 and BP refineries nearby.
The evacuation order was lifted at approximately 4:45 pm. It is not yet known how many people were forced to evacuate. Residents returning to their homes were asked to proof of residency and are being asked to shelter in place. Washington State Patrol Trooper Heather Axtman said during a press conference that the air in the area was extremely toxic, and those who are not at home in the Custer area should stay wherever they are.
BNSF spokesperson Courtney Wallace said, "The cause of this incident is under investigation. BNSF will work closely with authorities as the investigation proceeds." Two people were on board the train but no injuries have been reported.
The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has been investigating the placement of "shunts" on the BNSF tracks since January. US Attorney Brian Moran said, "…since January there have been 41 incidents of shunts placed on the BNSF tracks in Whatcom and Skagit counties—causing crossing guards to malfunction, interfering with automatic braking systems, and, in one case, causing the near-derailment of tanks of hazardous chemicals."
The town of Custer where the derailment occurred is located just north of Bellingham near the Washington state and Canadian border. On Nov. 28, two women from Bellingham, Samantha Frances Brooks, 27, and Ellen Brennan Reiche, 23, were arrested and charged with terrorism after an attack on BNSF railroad by allegedly placing a "shunt" on the tracks which disrupts the low-level electrical current on the tracks and can disable the train’s safety features.
According to the Justice Department, the device is comprised of magnets and wires that are stretched between the tracks. On a now-deleted LinkedIn page, Reiche was previously employed as a Deputy Field Organizer for Washington State Democrats.
In the criminal complaint, the Justice Department noted a potential connection between the alleged terrorists and anarchist groups. Claims of responsibility for the attacks as well as mentions of train sabotage were posted by the Puget Sound Anarchists on It's Going Down, a popular anarchist website which regularly engages in "doxxing" and harassment of Trump supporters and right-wing groups. The site lauded praise on the 'autonomous zones' in the Pacific Northwest and other anarchist actions and events.
"Following the initial shunting incidents on January 19, 2020, a claim of responsibility was published on the anarchist website itsgoingdown.org on January 22, 2020. This claim of responsibility stated that the shunting activity was carried out in solidarity with Native American tribes in Canada seeking to prevent the construction of an oil pipeline across British Columbia, and with the express goal of disrupting BNSF operations and supplies for the pipeline."
The case is being investigated by the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, which includes agents from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in connection with the BNSF Railway Police and the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office.
On October 11 and 12, multiple shunts were placed in three different locations in Whatcom and Skagit Counties. The shunts triggered the automatic braking system of a train that was transporting hazardous and combustible material. The emergency braking caused a portion of the train to decouple from the engine. Decoupling has the potential to cause a derailment, similar to what happened in Custer.
The terrorist activity from earlier in the year has not been linked to Tuesday's derailment.
Officials refused to comment when asked about a possible connection during today's press conference. FBI Seattle issued a statement in response to the speculation connecting the incidents. "Investigators are on the scene assisting local partners to determine the facts of what happened. At this point, it would be speculative to connect other events with this incident. FBI Seattle encourages anyone with knowledge of the train derailment to contact tips.fbi.gov"
Grandview at Portal Way and Main Street at Portal Way near Custer remain closed until further notice. Anyone with more information on the derailment or who need information are being asked to call the BNSF Railway’s hotline number at 1-866-243-4784.