On a cloudy spring morning, Ethan Ritter sat behind the wheel of a dump truck, lost in the maze of oil rigs northeast of Williston, N.D. Ritter, then 21, was hauling a load of gravel for his brother, who was doing road construction. He made a full stop at the tracks; there were no boom gates, only a crossing sign. His CB radio was off and all was quiet. Ritter looked both ways, then eased on the gas and headed into the crossing.
Next thing he knew, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe engine was shoving his truck down the track sideways at more than 40 miles an hour. “It was crazier than any roller coaster you can find, I’ll tell you that!” he recalls. “All I know is I got hit by the train. And that I was still kicking.”
In the past four years, the intersection -- the only access point to a handful of oil wells -- has seen four train-truck accidents, one of them fatal. Nationwide, collisions of trains and motor vehicles have dropped by 32 percent since 2006, but in North Dakota they’re up 67 percent.
Fracking relies on trucks. In its lifetime, a single well requires some 1,500 trips by semis, tankers, and pickups -- oil out; water, sand, and chemicals in. This is especially true in places like the Bakken Shale, where pipelines are scarce. On Williston’s crumbling roads, mud-caked semis jostle for space like massive bumper cars. Rush-hour backups can stretch for miles.
Vehicle accidents are the top danger to oil and gas workers, who are killed on the job at a rate nearly eight times the national average, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. As the number of rigs increases, fatalities increase in tandem.