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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Relief valves on the other tank cars began to open as the pressure built up from the surrounding fires. The first BLEVE occurred at 7:33 A.M., nearly an hour after the derailment. The first blast injured several firefighters and bystanders and damaged some fire equipment. Additional explosions occurred at about 9:20, 9:30, 9:45, 9:55 and 10:10. The remaining propane tanks were allowed to burn, which lasted for 56 hours. Parts of tank cars were propelled in all directions, setting fires and damaging structures. In all, 10 large pieces of railcars rocketed from 200 feet to 850 feet from the derailment site. There were no serious injuries to civilians initially from the explosions, because of a quick evacuation after the derailment; 66 people (fire, police and press personnel) were injured by the explosions and 11 required hospitalization, but there were no fatalities. Some civilians were injured when they returned to town to watch the fire.

Few of the responding firefighters had any training in dealing with propane fires. Some of the injured firefighters were not wearing their personal protective clothing. Others sustained burns to their hands and heads when helmets were blown off by the force of the explosions. Firefighters had no hand protection and their plastic helmets had no ear protection or chin straps. It was reported that the force of one of the later explosions blew out building fires on Main Street, but as oxygen returned, the fires reignited.

Twenty-five homes and 16 businesses were destroyed by fire and three destroyed by "flying" tank cars; numerous other homes received damage. St. Joseph's Church sustained extensive damage. More than $2 million in property damage occurred as a result of the derailment, fires and explosions. Six fire trucks were damaged by the explosions and fires, along with 3,050 feet of 2½-inch fire hose, 500 feet of 1½-inch hose, several ladders, nine firefighter coats and seven firefighter helmets. Warning lights on Crescent City pumpers melted and apparatus had to be repainted. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), overheating caused the breaking of the L-4 Journal of the 20th car in the train. The exact cause of the overheating was not determined, but a motorist spotted smoke coming from one of the railcars when the train was approximately 10 miles west of Crescent City.

After several BLEVEs of this type occurred in the 1970s, the railroad industry retrofitted all tank cars carrying liquefied flammable gases by adding thermal protection, which protects against high temperatures that can weaken metal. Shelf couplers were developed to prevent cars from uncoupling vertically and head shields were fitted to protect against punctures from the couplers. Since these retrofits were completed in 1980, there have been no BLEVEs of railroad tank cars in the United States.

In the 1970s, organized hazardous materials response by fire departments and other agencies began to develop. Significant incidents involving railroad tank cars in Waverly, TN, and Kingman, AZ, as well as Crescent City resulted in changes in tank car safety, hazmat transportation markings and regulation at the federal level. Organization of hazmat response teams soon followed, with many established by fire departments. Much was learned nationwide by responders as a result of the derailment in Crescent City. The actions of responders in Crescent City may have led to saving of lives in other future derailments that have occurred.

Crescent City Today

Crescent City has much the same population today as it did in 1970 — 681 people. The fire department is a part of the Crescent/Iroquois Fire Protection District and has 26 active members. Current fire apparatus in service spans six decades — 1956, 1961, 1979, 1981, 1994 and 2004. They are all International Harvester vehicles. Crescent City firefighters respond to 35 to 40 calls per year for accidents and fires. Fire Chief Richard Gocken, a local business owner, recently retired as chief after 21 years. When I visited Crescent City, he was very helpful with information about the derailment and department history. He is still active and is the assistant chief. Dean Storm has taken over as fire chief.

Following the 1970 disaster, a monument was erected on the approximate site of the derailment on Main Street. Photos of the incident give visitors to the site a sense of the extent of the devastation that took place during the derailment and resulting explosions.

Every five years, on the anniversary of the disaster, the community holds a "Fireball Festival" to commemorate and remember the good fortune that no lives were lost and there were no serious injuries during the incident. Numerous events are staged during the festival, including games, races, a variety show, basketball tournament, softball tournament, craft show, flea market and parade. Additional information and a souvenir section are available at www.fireballfestival.com.