On The Job - Iowa: Iowa Volunteers Face Remote Amtrak Derailment

Steve Meyer reports on the emergency response and mitigation of a passenger train accident.


CORNING FIRE DEPARTMENT Chief Don Willett Personnel: 30 volunteer firefighters Apparatus: Three engines, one water tender, one wildland firefighting rig Population: 4,000 Area: 227 square miles It was supposed to be an evening of socializing and enjoyment for Corning, IA, volunteer...


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CORNING FIRE DEPARTMENT
Chief Don Willett
Personnel: 30 volunteer firefighters
Apparatus: Three engines, one water tender, one wildland firefighting rig
Population: 4,000
Area: 227 square miles

It was supposed to be an evening of socializing and enjoyment for Corning, IA, volunteer firefighters who were enjoying themselves at the department's annual Fireman's Ball on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 2001.

The gaiety of the event was disrupted at 11:45 P.M., when the department was dispatched to a train derailment in a remote area eight miles away.

While members were enroute to the incident, the department was notified that the accident did not involve a freight train, but the California Zephyr Amtrak passenger train.

The train destined for Emeryville, CA, was carrying 195 passengers and a crew of 15. Five cars of the 12-car train had derailed. All of them were passenger cars, none were sleepers and two of the cars were on their side. The wreckage was strewn across a quarter-mile stretch of muddy embankment amid a snarl of twisted rails and splintered ties.

"The train just shook, then shook again," recalled passenger Sheheda Ula, 47, of Laramie, WY, from her hospital bed at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, where she was being treated for a broken hip sustained in the wreck.

Local resident Jim Anderson, who lives less than a mile from the crash site, said he thought his furnace had blown up. He was in bed and heard a grinding sound followed by a large boom. His dog jumped out of bed and started howling.

The wreck occurred when the engineer said he felt a tug on the train, then started applying the brakes. The train was traveling at 52 mph, well below the posted speed of 79 mph. A National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation later centered on a rail that was presumed to have failed due to an internal fissure.

Mutual Aid Requested

Upon learning it was an Amtrak train that had derailed, Fire Chief Don Willett immediately began requesting the assistance of neighboring fire, rescue and ambulance departments - some from as far as 70 miles away. By the time operations were concluded at the incident, 22 fire and emergency service jurisdictions and 150 emergency responders became involved.

"Initially, my vision was that there would be fire and all kinds of rescue situations to deal with," Willett said. "As it turned out, rescue and access to the wreck were our biggest challenges."

Much of the assistance Willett requested was for rescue equipment such as hydraulic rescue tools and air bags - equipment that emergency responders would soon find was of no use on Amtrak train cars. Another item Willett specifically had in mind when requesting assistance was thermal imaging cameras to help locate victims trapped in the wreckage.

The section of track where the derailment occurred had originally been a double set of tracks. One section of tracks had been removed, allowing a narrow access route to the derailment from both directions.

Once Willett arrived on scene, he was approached by the train's conductor, who had completed an assessment of the incident. He informed Willett there was no fire or fuel leaks, but there were multiple casualties.

Art Candenquist, manager of Emergency Preparedness for Amtrak, explained that it is the train conductor's responsibility to act as a liaison to emergency responders, just as he did at the Corning incident. Additionally, all Amtrak crews are trained in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and they have received an introduction to the incident command system, so they have some idea of what emergency responders are doing. Candenquist has 39 years of experience with the Amisville, VA, Volunteer Fire Department.

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