UPDATE: Gainford-area residents can return home; highway partially open

EDMONTON – Gainford-area residents are being allowed to return to their homes after being displaced by the derailment of 13 cars on a CN freight train carrying dangerous goods early Saturday morning.

“We got back in, took a look last night,” said Travis Hjelmaland, who lives in a house across from the derailment site. “It was a little bit of a shock.”

“We knew how bad it was,” added Jeanette Hall.

Hjelmaland and Hall didn’t expect their home would be left standing after the controlled burns.

“We knew they were going to be blowing up the tankers… We didn’t really have much hope,” admitted Hall.

However, their home sustained minimal damage, including some melted siding and a flooded basement. The fire crews used water from a nearby lake to pump a constant stream of water on their home.

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“Everybody involved, like Parkland, Yellowhead, all the emergency crews, they’ve been really good,” said Hjelmaland. “They told us when we came in Sunday, they were going to do the best of their ability to save the house, and they did. It’s still there.”

“Inside, it looks way better than the outside.”

Hall is also incredibly grateful to the fire crews.

“It is just stuff, but there’s a lot of memories in that house, and that they were able to save it for us and they risked their lives to do it, that’s huge. Yellowhead County and Parkland County fire department went above and beyond, we owe them so much… They don’t know any of us, but I tried to hug them all.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Parkland County Mayor Rod Shaigec announced residents could return to their homes after a four-day evacuation.

“The residents of Parkland County from around the hamlet of Gainford are on their way home,” said Shaigec at a news conference attended by CN and provincial officials.

The mandatory evacuation notice was lifted at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, 82 hours after being put in place.

“After an event of this size we simply can’t just open the doors and say ‘Welcome Home,’” Shaigec explained. “We had to do surveillance of the area outside the derailment site to ensure there were no additional hazards or issues that could impact the return of our residents.”

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The all-clear comes after crews used water to help the flames burn out faster; officials said Tuesday afternoon the fires were out.

On Wednesday, the westbound lanes of the Yellowhead Highway in the area were reopened to accommodate one lane of traffic in each direction.

Trains were running again and the damaged train cars were removed.

According to Environment Minister Diana McQueen, no water bodies were affected by the incident and air quality has remained good.

CN says it will continue its thorough investigation, and will co-operate with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada investigation.

“CN will remediate any damage that was done,” said Warren Chandler with CN.

The cause of the derailment is still not being revealed, but in regards to CN’s safety record, Chandler added: ”As hard as we work to make CN safe, and in spite of all the progress that we’ve made, accidents still happen from time to time. When they do, CN has the ability and the resources to respond promptly and effectively as we believe we have done over the last four days.”

WATCH: Full news conference on situation in Gainford

According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, the 134-car CN train “experienced an undesired emergency brake application” after the incident.  Of the 13 rail cars that ended up on their side, three were carrying liquefied petroleum gas, commonly known as propane, and caught fire; four were carrying crude and didn’t break open. CN said those units have been removed from the scene.

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CN performed three controlled burns at the site — one on Sunday and two on Monday — to try and get rid of any remaining propane in pressurized tank cars so that residents can return home.

An update from Parkland County Tuesday morning said that when it was noticed that a propane tank car was flaring just before 9 p.m. Monday, a decision was made to have “fire crews flow water into the tank, causing propane to rise to the top of the tank and burn off at a quicker rate. This procedure was determined as the safest option available to remove the remaining propane.”

The process, which began in the early hours of the morning, continued through the night.

With files from The Canadian Press

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