RIVULET – Forgotten but not gone, those airplane fuselages so unceremoniously dumped onto the side of the Clark Fork River west of Alberton on July 3 remain at Rivulet in varying states of dismemberment.
A crew from Pacific Steel and Recycling in Missoula worked Thursday morning amid cranes, trains, planes and rain to dismantle what was left of the six blue-green Boeing 737 bodies.
Montana Rail Link crews did what they could to salvage the valuable flatcar carriers mangled when 19 cars skipped the tracks on a 93-degree day three weeks earlier and several miles above.
The damaged fuselages were loaded up after the wreck and moved to the nearest siding at Rivulet, where they’ve been sitting for the past couple of weeks.
The demo crews arrived on Monday and three days later were working on their last two aircraft bodies, said Justin Bay, who lives with his family, horses and bees at the siding.
“It honestly hasn’t been bad,” Bay said. “They’ve had a water truck there to keep the dust down. They don’t start until after 8 (a.m.) and they leave about 5 (p.m.).”
The Bays own 3 acres on Garcia Loop and also lease MRL property. The lease specifies that the railroad has 75 feet from the tracks “to do what they need to do,” Bay said. That’s where the scrapping, shredding and baling is taking place.
The fuselages were westbound from the Spirit AeroSystems fabrication plant in Wichita, Kansas, to Renton, Washington, for final assembly. Boeing has used the rail route through Montana for years and recently bumped up its order for the body shells to a record 42 a month.
Three of the fuselages slid down the 200-foot embankment roughly a mile above the mouth of Fish Creek, and two of them dipped their tails into the river. They were winched up the bank one by one on three subsequent days. All three appeared to suffer at least minor damage and one had a major gash in it, as shown by the many images posted online by floaters and curiosity seekers.
Of the three fuselages that didn’t go over the bank, one’s carrier lost its back wheels and another had its tail ripped off, according to one eyewitness.
Boeing still wasn’t commenting on the damage to the multi-million dollar fuselages on Thursday.
Spokesman Larry Wilson said a team of experts from Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems is “continuing to assess damage.”
Assemblies for a Boeing 777 and a 747 were also involved in the derailment. They appeared to be undamaged and were shipped to Boeing’s final assembly plant in Everett, Washington. Wilson said there was no disruption to the production schedule for either the 777 or the 747 program.
The cause of the derailment remains under investigation, according to Lynda Frost of MRL.
“We’ve possibly made some progress but we’re not there yet,” she said.
The Missoula-based short-line railroad, which operates track from the Billings area to Spokane, hired a consultant to help with the investigation.
“There are so many variables involved that it’s difficult to say how long it may take,” Frost said.
The Bays have noticed one subsequent shipment of Boeing fuselages in the three weeks since the derailment. Most of the time they come in groups of three, so the six that were derailed was out of the ordinary, Justin Bay said.
Wilson said transport of new fuselages from Wichita continues, and he assumed it was along the same route. Frost said she hadn’t heard of anything to indicate the Boeing cargo on MRL tracks have changed.