Train service has resumed through Denair and a massive construction effort is quickly picking up the pieces of a multi-car freight train derailment that occurred Sunday evening — however, for witnesses, the event is still emblazoned in their memories.
Alan Bernikoff and a friend were stopped in a car at the railroad crossing gates on Main Street in Denair when they saw the train come "barreling through." Bernikoff said he witnessed the train — wheels and axles — leave the rails and begin bouncing and buckling.
"As it left the track, striking the rail bed, rocks, dirt and debris were everywhere as far as you could see," he said.
Bernikoff had to help his friend get her car in gear and far enough away from the tracks to avoid getting hit by flying debris.
"The sight is , truly, a once in a lifetime episode," he said.
Although the cause of the derailment is still under investigation, other witnesses also reported the train was traveling extremely fast prior to jumping its rails. Turlock High students Moriah Stevenson and Kiana Mavis were at a birthday party across the street from the Amtrak station in Denair when they saw the accident.
"We were sitting there in the backyard hitting the piñata and we saw the train getting faster and faster. My dad yelled 'get in the back' and there was dust everywhere," said Stevenson. "I was running for my life. There was lots of smoke and an axel rolled into someone's yard.
"We've always been kind of scared of [a train crash], then it happened."
While the train just missed hitting Denair Lumber Company, neighboring Denair Self Storage wasn't so lucky.
According to manager Stacy Trueblood, the train crashed into a building completely destroying three storage units and damaging at least five others.
Trueblood was alerted to the train derailment when the storage company's security service called about a fence alarm going off. When Trueblood finally arrived at the scene, she found much more than a breeched fence.
"It's a bad thing that happened, but it happened at the best time — on a hot afternoon when the storage was closed, Amtrak was empty and no one got injured," she said.
The multi-car freight train was mostly empty, with only three cars carrying materials that were not hazardous, according to Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department spokesperson Sgt. Anthony Bejaran.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway is conducting the investigation into the derailment.
The damaged track has already been repaired or replaced, said BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent, but the investigation could take weeks.
"Our priority is to get that line open for our customers," Kent said.
Along with freight service, Amtrak train service has been partially restored through Denair. Trains are not stopping in Denair due to platform damage, according to Amtrak, but other San Joaquin services are operating normally.