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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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Truck driver dies in crash with train in Portland

Crash caused large fire; smoke visible for miles

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
4 Photos
Crews respond to a fire caused by a fatal crash between a tractor-trailer and a train this morning.
Crews respond to a fire caused by a fatal crash between a tractor-trailer and a train this morning. (Photo courtesy of the Portland Police Bureau) Photo Gallery

A crash Sunday between a tractor-trailer and a train in Northwest Portland killed the truck’s driver and sparked a fire that sent up plumes of black smoke that were visible for miles, including from Clark County.

The crash occurred in an industrial area along Highway 30 and the Willamette River, south of the St. Johns Bridge, at about 9 a.m., according to the Portland Police Bureau. A tractor-trailer carrying flammable fuel struck several train cars, and fuel from the big rig ignited, causing a fire with flames as high as 70 feet, police said.

The highway and the bridge were closed while crews — including hazardous-materials and marine-response teams, as well as firefighters from the Vancouver Fire Department — battled the blaze.

Portland police said that, initially, emergency crews were unable to assess the crash scene because of the fire. After firefighters got the fire under control, they found that the driver of the tractor-trailer had died.

No other injuries were reported, police said.

Eight train cars were damaged in the crash. The cars, which were carrying hot asphalt, did not leak or catch fire during the incident, the police bureau said.

As firefighters knocked down the flames, nearby businesses were evacuated and residents were asked to stay in their homes to avoid the noxious smoke. Photos posted on social media sites showed a large plume of black smoke in the St. Johns area.

Neighbor Josh Golden said he was awakened by sirens. When they continued coming, he went outside and saw large plumes of black smoke.

“You could see them just billowing up before the bridge,” Golden said.

Clark County resident Tom Knappenberger said he could see the smoke from his backyard, which is just east of Vancouver Lake and overlooks the Columbia River at a distance. Knappenberger said he is used to seeing the smoke plume from a nearby industrial plant, “but this huge black plume at 9 a.m. was shocking,” he wrote in an email.

The train struck by the tractor-trailer had been idling on a Portland & Western Railroad line at the time of the crash, said Gus Melonas, spokesman for BNSF Railway.

“Although this was not a BNSF train, BNSF response personnel, upon notification, were on scene to assist,” Melonas said. “There was no rail impact beyond car damage from the semi (truck).”

Portland & Western Railroad did not expect any customers to be affected, Mike Williams, a spokesman for parent company Genesee & Wyoming Inc., said in an email.

The tank cars “appear to have done their job in preventing any release,” Williams said.

Even so, opponents of a proposed oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver were quick to release a statement Sunday about the crash.

“While this is the first crash of this type I can recall in the harbor area, the result of this truck/train crash sheds light on some of the potential dangers related to our fossil fuel infrastructure — specifically nearby tanks — and its relationship to the river health, and the safety of our communities,” Travis Williams of Willamette Riverkeeper said in a joint statement with Columbia Riverkeeper.

A spokesperson for Vancouver Energy,  the Tesoro Corp. and Savage Cos. effort to build the oil terminal in Vancouver,  could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The Portland Police Bureau’s major crash team is investigating the incident along with Portland Fire & Rescue investigators, the police bureau said. The investigation closed Highway 30 for several hours, but the St. Johns Bridge reopened to traffic shortly after the fire was extinguished, police said.

The Associated Press and Columbian Metro Editor Craig Brown contributed to this report.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com; twitter.com/StevieMathieu

Columbian Assistant Metro Editor