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Anatomy of two near misses: Rail cars carry lethal loadsTell North Platte what you think
 
Photo by Hays Daily News
Pouring water on the July 16 locomotive fire in Hays, Kan. from the top of a 100-foot ladder.
Photo by George Lauby
Loaded chlorine car on its side in North Platte, April 22. Mainline tracks are at left.
Courtesy Photo­Image

Flames shot as high as 40 feet in the air in a railroad wreck in Hays, Kan., after a freight train was switched onto the wrong track for some reason and hit a parked train.

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Diesel fuel in two of the three main line locomotives caught fire, the Hays Daily News reported.

It happened at 1:25 a.m. July 16.

The Hays County Fire Department responded promptly. Surrounding departments came as soon as they could. Together, they battled the blaze for nearly 12 hours, pouring up to 5,000 gallons of water per minute onto the white-hot flames, working from the top of a 100-foot tall ladder -- as close as they could get -- during the height of the battle.

The neighborhood was evacuated.

The supreme efforts of firefighters kept the fire from spreading to other freight cars, including a third locomotive and 20 cars loaded with low-grade ethanol that were connected to the train.

Thankfully, the crew of the Salina-to-Denver freight train somehow managed to escape injuries. The wreck happened in as good a place as possible in the town of Hays, the fire chief told the Hays Daily.

The city's water reserves were depleted, but thankfully, no one was injured.

But, the fiery crash reminded North Platte residents again of the hazardous, potentially deadly cargo carried on railroads. The crash in Hays, as well as one about the same time in North Texas, brought back memories of a loaded rail car that mysteriously derailed in late April in a residential area of North Platte.

That derailment prompted a series of meetings that are still underway, advising the community to be prepared to hunker down in the event of a terrible train wreck.

(The official advisory of how to "shelter in place" is posted elsewhere on this website.)


On April 22 in North Platte, a big black railroad tank car rolled down the track by itself, carrying a hazardous cargo of liquid chlorine.

It rolled east in the pre-dawn under its own momentum, covering three miles on track that had a slight down-slope.

The car had somehow come loose at the railroad yard, the biggest classification yard in the world, two miles west of North Platte's city limits.

It rolled out of the heart of the busy yard, past fields and open countryside. It came alongside Front Road and entered the city. It rolled past the intersection of Front and Bare Ave., where houses line the streets, and it kept going.

It rolled another half-mile or so, beneath the overpass at Buffalo Bill Ave., the main north-south arterial avenue on the west side of town.

A few hundred feet further, the big heavy car hit an automatic derail device that keeps runaway cars, should they get loose, from rolling further -- either into town on a side track, or from shifting over onto the main lines.

When the car hit the derail device, it tipped over, plowing a trench a foot-and-a-half deep in the dirt as it came to a stop.

Thankfully, it did not leak.

The car was manufactured in 2012, Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said later, which meant it was nearly new, in top shape.

Nevertheless, as the sun rose, the concerns of North Platte residents increased.

Officials stressed that the car was not leaking, but that did not alleviate concerns. Sirens in Bailey Yard sounded and the derailment sent emergency responders scrambling to the site.

Bailey Yard workers two miles away were confined inside buildings and train traffic to-and-from the yard stopped for nearly two hours while the danger was assessed. Workers stayed inside buildings until about 8:15 a.m.

The Buffalo Bill overpass was closed for a short time and Front St. was closed to traffic for most of the morning, Lincoln County Emergency Manager Dan Guenthner said.

Eventually, the car was set upright, but it took most of the day for cranes to lift the heavy, potentially deadly car, and set it upright.


How much danger?

Chlorine is toxic. In a worst case accident, it is lethal.

In January 2005, a chlorine spill killed nine people in an infamous American rail disaster in Graniteville, S.C.

In that disaster, at about 2:30 a.m. Jan. 6, three 90-ton chlorine rail cars were involved in an accident at a crossing siding. The resulting chlorine gas leak sent more than 350 people to the hospital for chlorine inhalation.

About 5,400 people were evacuated within a one-mile radius of the crash.

Eight people in the immediate area were later found dead, including a trucker in the sleeper of his cab and an office worker, who died near his desk.

Even if the gas doesn't kill immediately, its effects often linger. In Graniteville, one man died in April, four months after the wreck. He had driven through a portion of the chlorine gas cloud when the leak happened, and his health deteriorated from there.

And, those deaths and injuries were caused by a relatively small leak. The next day, investigators learned that only one car of the three leaked. It only had a fist-sized hole.

Three days later a temporary patch was placed on the tank. An estimated 30 tons of chlorine still remained in the tank, meaning it was one-third full.

If the top of a tank of chlorine gas has a leak, gas will escaped for several days, and the escaping gas is deadly, because it is heavier than air. It hugs the ground. In mild doses, chlorine gas irritates the respiratory system. In heavier concentrations, it will react with water in the mucosa of the lungs to form hydrochloric acid, an irritant that can be lethal.


How it got loose

In the lingo of Bailey Yard, the car was “humped at the east yard” according to several sources.

Translated, that means the car rolled down the man-made hill, similar to an overpass, on the west end of the classification yard where eastbound trains are put together.

Individual rail cars roll down that hill (or hump). Solely on their own momentum, they pass through “retarders” near the bottom of the hump – big brake-like clamps that hug the sides of the wheels. The retarders are designed to slow the car’s speed to an easy gait as it rolls along.

At the bottom of the hill, the car is switched onto any one of several tracks, put with other cars heading to the same general destination.

Davis won’t comment on how the car got loose, but like all the cars that go over the hump, the chlorine car would have been destined to become part of an eastbound train.

The car rolled into an completely empty track in the bowl, either because it was the first car of a new set, or by mistake.

With no other cars on the track, it kept rolling, pushed by the momentum of its 90 ton load. On the east end of the classification tracks, “crowders” and/or stops -- somewhat similar to the retarders at the other end of the bowl -- are supposed to slow the speed or stop the car. But this car rolled right on through the crowders.

It rolled onto a “running track” that runs along the south side of the tracks.

Davis said the cause is under investigation. He said the investigation is thorough, and will even study the car itself, but he would not discuss what must have happened that morning in Bailey Yard.

An old railroad hand from Bailey Yard said sometimes, if conditions are just right and the car’s wheels are greasy, the retarders at the hump are much less effective than intended.

A big loaded car has a lot of powerful momentum, he noted.


Response

In his initial interview with the Bulletin when the car derailed, Davis said the derailment occurred at 6:20 a.m.

A railroad official in Omaha called the North Platte 911 center at 6:46.05 a.m. -- 26 minutes after it occurred, according to Lt. Steve Reeves, the 911 center commander. The UP caller told the North Platte dispatch center that a chlorine tank car had overturned and was not leaking. He did not request help.

A few minutes later, another call came at 6:51.23 a.m. from the UP office in Omaha. This time, they asked the hazardous materials team of the North Platte Fire Department to respond.

In one minute, 11 seconds, at 6:52.34 a.m., the 911 dispatcher relayed the message to the fire department. The fire trucks scrambled to the scene, arriving six minutes later, at 6:58 a.m., Reeves said.

There, the haz mat team studied the situation and agreed that the car wasn’t leaking.

Sirens sounded in Bailey Yard. Train traffic to-and-from the yard stopped for nearly two hours while the danger was assessed. Workers stayed inside buildings until about 8:15 a.m.

The area was cordoned off for several blocks. The Buffalo Bill overpass was closed for a short time and Front St., the nearest street, was closed for most of the morning, Guenthner said.

Crews stood by while UP figured out a plan to set the car upright and take it back to Bailey Yard.

If the car had leaked, a series of other events would have taken place. Residents would have been contacted to take shelter in their homes and advised to tune into the news media, and/or evacuate, Guenthner said.

Guenthner said the city’s sirens were never sounded because the car did not leak, even though the railroad set off their sirens and locked down employees.

“That may be their (UP's) process, but that doesn’t mean I should call for a lock down of the city,” Guenthner said. “The situation didn’t call for that.”

Guenthner said that city and railroad sirens can all be activated at the 911 Center, but UP can also set off only their sirens in Bailey Yard. But if the city sirens are turned on, so are the sirens in Bailey Yard.


Dangerous notice

If there would have been a leak, Code Red telephone calls would have been made to residents. Such calls can be targeted to specific sections of town, or a wide radius around the leak, or even in the area in the path of a plume of gas, Reeves said.

The fire department has computer software that measures temperature, wind, precipitation, humidity, rate of release of the chemical and the type of chemical. The software can produce a map that shows the concentration of the chemical in different areas and shows how the toxic chemical plume is likely to move.

That analysis gives emergency workers an idea of who needs to evacuate or take shelter.

The first question that emergency crews answered was -- was there a release, Guenthner said. If there was, the next question would be -- was it a small release or a large release?

Guenthner said officials would determine if a 200-foot area was endangered or, say, everything in a 500-feet radius.

However, in a real incident, responders rarely have all the necessary information required to do gas dispersion modeling, so reasonable guesses must be made, according to Dr. John Nordin, PhD, a scientist who conducted a study and report for a company called PEAC Aristatek, which makes software to analyze the intensity of a chemical spill.


Hunker down

To be as safe as possible, Guenthner recommends home and business owners be prepared to take shelter in their building. They should have a package of supplies ready.

Sheets of plastic should be cut in sizes that fit completely over windows and doors. Residents should be ready to put up the sheets of plastic promptly and seal them with duct tape.

Guenthner said residents should immediately shut off heating and air conditioning. Wait it out, he said.

A person in a completely sealed house can survive for up to six hours before a build-up of carbon monoxide becomes any concern, Guenthner said.

“If it’s leaking and in the danger path, that’s what you need to do,” he said.

Guenthner also advises residents sign up for the city's automated Code Red system and stay alert for updates and advisories on radio, TV or Internet.

"Rest assured we are going to get the information out to the media and we will ask for tag lines at the bottom of the TV screen, or announcements every five minutes or so," he said. "Someone, a police or fireman, will likely be coming to the door too.”

Guenthner said the chlorine car rollover was a good learning process, and he is happy that things went according to plans and processes, and there was no leak.

Guenthner said city emergency workers not only plan how to handle a chemical spill, they routine practice what they would do.

“We work in fully functional exercises most every year to exercise the plans,” Guenthner said. “We will have one in September. In the Bailey Yard exercise, we will make it as realistic as possible. We will do it in ‘real time’ on one day.”


Later

The chlorine car was badly bent around the ends, but unbroken, by cables that were used to lift it.

A week later, the crumpled chlorine car was finally emptied at Bailey Yard, with the chlorine transferred to another car. The process was long and carefully supervised, and completed around 6 a.m. May 1, Davis said.

Thankfully, there were no leaks.


The story of the mysterious chlorine tank car derailment in North Platte was first published in the May 1 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.


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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 7/29/2013
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