June 30, 1992: Twin Ports Evacuated after Train Derailment

On this day in Duluth and Superior in 1992, an estimated 50,000 people evacuated to escape a cloud of benzene gas spilled during a train derailment. At 2:30 a.m. fourteen Burlington Northern railroad cars derailed eight miles south of downtown Superior; one of the cars dropped 80 feet into the Nemadji River. A tanker car erupted and spilled 30,000 gallons of liquid gas into the river. This liquid later turned to vapor and was carried off, toward both cities, on the wind. Officials sent out word: either move to higher ground or get out of town. As early as 3:30 in the morning those near the spill had left their homes. A cloud of benzene rolled down the Nemadji River and into the Duluth-Superior Harbor. By 8:30, Duluth officials were telling Park Point residents to leave their homes. By 11 a.m., according to the Duluth News Tribune, “virtually all areas in or near Duluth along Lake Superior’s shore had been evacuated to areas away from the lake where the gas didn’t spread.” Duluth police chief Scott Lyons described the evacuation as “Amazingly calm,” adding that “Everybody can take credit for that.” The paper reported the spill sent dozens of people to hospitals with burning eyes and lungs. By 3:30 that afternoon, Minnesota officials gave the all clear; Superior was deemed safe at about 6 p.m.