Crescent City Train Derailment: 40 Years Later

It was Father's Day, June 21, 1970, a peaceful Sunday in Crescent City, IL. At 6:30 A.M., a young girl delivered newspapers, Firefighter Bill Dirks was asleep in his apartment above stores on Main Street and Fire Chief Orvel Carlson was awake at his...


It was Father's Day, June 21, 1970, a peaceful Sunday in Crescent City, IL. At 6:30 A.M., a young girl delivered newspapers, Firefighter Bill Dirks was asleep in his apartment above stores on Main Street and Fire Chief Orvel Carlson was awake at his residence. Little did they know that a...


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It was Father's Day, June 21, 1970, a peaceful Sunday in Crescent City, IL. At 6:30 A.M., a young girl delivered newspapers, Firefighter Bill Dirks was asleep in his apartment above stores on Main Street and Fire Chief Orvel Carlson was awake at his residence. Little did they know that a derailment involving 16 cars of the 109-car eastbound Toledo, Peoria and Western Railroad Co. Train No. 20 was about to shatter their peace.

Ten of the railcars involved in the derailment each contained 34,000 gallons of liquid propane. Two additional propane railcars remained on the tracks. As a result of the derailment, one of the propane tank cars was punctured by a coupler of another car, causing a leak that ignited almost immediately, engulfing the other nine derailed propane cars. Flame impingement on the uninsulated tank cars caused an increase in pressure inside the tank cars from impingement on the liquid space. Impingement on the vapor space caused weakening of the steel that resulted in the BLEVEs (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosions) that occurred.

Carlson felt heat from the initial explosion at his home three blocks away. The girl delivering newspapers was burned by the heat. Dirks, awakened by the explosion, said, "It took 10 years off my life." Dirks, who had been on the department for three years at the time of the derailment, is still an active firefighter in Crescent City, 40 years after the derailment.

Carlson and the 20-member Crescent City Volunteer Fire Department (two members were out of town) responded quickly with their two pieces of fire apparatus, 1956 and 1961 International Harvester front-mounted, 500-gpm pumpers (in service today as brush fire units). The Crescent City firefighters initially tried to contain the fire burning intensely around the railcars, but were hampered by a lack of electricity after power was knocked out by the derailment, preventing the city's water pumps from functioning. Firefighters took water directly from the city water tower to fight the fire until help arrived from other communities. Water was hauled by privately owned tractor-trailers from surrounding towns and other fire departments also responded with tankers.

Calls for assistance went out to several area fire departments and many other departments responded to the scene on their own. Ultimately, fire companies from 33 towns (some from as far away as Indiana) appeared with 58 pieces of equipment and 250 firefighters. There were no radio communications between fire departments at the time of the derailment or between fire and police departments. Apparatus did not have radios and no portable communications equipment existed for fire department use. Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul sent a foam truck. They informed the local firefighters that water would be unable to contain such a fire that included burning propane.

An Illinois State Police sergeant in Watseka, about six miles east of Crescent City, was notified of the derailment shortly after it happened and proceeded immediately to the scene. He arrived at approximately 6:45 A.M. and sized up the situation. When he determined that a tank car was being heated by the fire and contained propane, he notified police officers in the area to evacuate the town and warned firefighters to move back to a safer location to fight the fires. His actions may have prevented serious injury and loss of life of firefighters, police officers and civilians when the propane tank cars started exploding.

Flames from the first punctured tank car reached several hundred feet into the air, dwarfing the Crescent City water tower and impinging on the other propane tank cars. A nearby house and business were set on fire by radiant heat, injuring several residents. Because of the dangers of the burning propane and tanks being heated by the fires, Crescent City was evacuated and people remained out of their homes and businesses for 36 hours.

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