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

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.

Assistant Chief Brian Kannas, who also functions as the Adams County Emergency Management coordinator, arrived on scene and took over as incident commander. Neither the county or the Corning Fire Department had a disaster plan for a train wreck, but they did have a disaster plan for tornadoes that had been rehearsed in tabletop exercises. Kannas found the tabletop training invaluable in organizing the incident and was able to adapt the tornado plan to the needs of the Amtrak wreck.

Because of the location and access routes to the incident, Kannas divided it into east and west sectors. Each sector had its own staging area and operations officer who in turn assigned an officer to take charge of operations at each car.

With life safety the first priority at any incident, and there being no need for fire control or mitigation of a fuel spill, operations quickly centered on rescue and accountability.

"Once we set up lights, people just started appearing out of the darkness," Willett said. "The lights acted like a magnet and drew them to us. They were all calm, there was no panic."

The lack of panic was attributed to the efforts of Amtrak car supervisors. Each car has a supervisor, and in an emergency situation, that person takes care of passenger accountability.

An initial primary search was conducted for each car to prioritize victims for rescue. Once victims were removed, a secondary assessment was done to make certain no one was missed. "All Clear" was then spray-painted on the car.

Unusual Obstacles

The biggest obstacle to rescue encountered by firefighters was the jumble of strewn materials inside the cars. The doors of the cars were the only access points necessary to affect rescue. Attempts to gain entrance to the cars using rescue equipment failed.

"The reinforced stainless steel in an Amtrak train is a major detriment to most traditional rescue tools," Candenquist explained. "The cars are designed to withstand critical forces of impact by using reinforced stainless steel with Lexan windows. Lexan is 250 times stronger than safety glass. If you hit one with an axe, the axe will bounce back at you. The only sophisticated equipment you need to gain entrance to an Amtrak car is a screwdriver and pry bar like a halligan tool. The preferred method to get into cars is by using door openings. The second choice is to use tools and gain entrance by prying open windows."

Candenquist said each Amtrak car also has four collision posts, one at each corner of the car, that can withstand 800,000 pounds of impact force. The posts keep the cars from telescoping in a wreck - something that caused hundreds of fatalities in past train wrecks. Instead, with the collision posts, the cars will deflect upon impact and fold up around each other in an accordion fashion just like they did in the Corning incident. This kind of construction is standard in United States passenger trains, but not in Europe.

As it turned out, in addition to basic hand tools and prying tools, the biggest equipment demand was ladders and ropes.

Injured victims were removed by ambulance to one of four hospitals at Corning, Creston, Clarinda and Red Oak, the farthest being 25 miles away.

One woman was killed and 96 people were injured and. Forty-three of the injured were treated at the Alegent Health Mercy Hospital in Corning. Patients arrived at the hospital by ambulance, police car, and in the end via a school bus. Three who were seriously injured were air lifted to hospitals in Des Moines and Omaha.

Alegent Health Mercy Hospital Administrative Assistant Carol Shuler classified most of the injured that were received in Corning as "walking wounded," with only one being admitted overnight in Corning. Seven people, including the three who were airlifted, were hospitalized.

Shuler said that the hospital received notice at midnight that there had been an Amtrak derailment. The hospital immediately implemented its disaster plan by activating a recall of all available nurses and employees. The 22-bed hospital has a staff of 115. A triage system was established both at the scene and at the hospital.

Within four hours after the wreck occurred, the Corning Fire Department and all other emergency response agencies had returned to quarters. Buses and personal vehicles were used to transport non-injured passengers to the community of Nodaway (population 132) three miles from the wreck. There, they waited in the community center until buses dispatched to the incident by Amtrak arrived to take them to other destinations.

Lessons Learned

Two post-incident critiques involving every emergency response agency involved in the incident were held. Integral to the success of operations was use of the incident command system and a working knowledge of the system by all non-fire and emergency personnel. Another key factor was the success of Amtrak employees in managing passengers and keeping hysteria from overtaking the situation.

Problems noted include:

  1. Traffic control was not established early enough and when it was set up it was to close to the scene. This contributed to further problems of congestion in the limited access to the scene.
  2. Willett noted that in an incident with access problems such as this one had, it would be better to shuttle emergency responders and any necessary equipment to the scene rather than trying to get them and their vehicles to the scene.
  3. Amtrak officials need to identify themselves to emergency response officials immediately.
  4. "Communications was a zoo," noted Willett, observing the most common problem of all major incidents. "The IC had to use two different radios in order to accommodate all of the radio frequencies of the different agencies that responded."

Adams County Sheriff Merlin Dixon was quick to point out that one thing that was on the emergency responders side was the speed at which the train was traveling. If the train had been going full speed, the incident would have been much more severe.

Willett said that in his 33 years with the department, this was the most serious incident in terms of resources committed. The department had previously assisted the nearby Creston Fire Department with a freight train derailment and three years ago Corning was hit by a severe tornado. The tornado incident involved a more long-term commitment of resources, but not on the scale of the Amtrak derailment.

Kannas observed that another component of successful operations at the incident is the interaction of the three Adams County fire and ambulance departments in Corning, Prescott and Nodaway. Firefighters and emergency medical personnel routinely participate in joint training sessions. "We know what everyone needs to do when we mutual aid together to an incident like this," Kannas said. "It really paid off in this incident."

Dixon carried the observation further by saying, "It doesn't matter how well trained and prepared you are, though, there's always something like this that is outside the scope of your preparations."

"That's why we're a believer in general operational guidelines rather than standard operational procedures," Willett explained. "We believe in written policies and procedures, but we make them broad enough that they can be adapted to the situation at hand. On this incident they worked."

The response and actions of fire and emergency service personnel to this incident are testimony that training and use of incident management principles along with proper planning will function to great advantage when small departments respond to incidents that would challenge even the largest jurisdictions.

Agencies involved in this incident, in addition to the Corning Fire Department, were:

Adams County Emergency Management
Adams County Rescue
Adams County Sheriff's Office
Alegent Mercy Hospital
Bedford Ambulance
Clarinda Fire & Rescue
Corning Community School
Corning Police Department
Creston Fire Department
Greater Community Hospital
Hamburg Rescue
Iowa Department of Public Health/EMS
Iowa Emergency Management
Lenox Fire & Rescue
New Market Fire
Nodaway Fire Department
Prescott Fire & Rescue
Sidney Fire & Rescue
Red Oak Fire Department
Taylor County Sheriff
Vilisca Fire & Rescue

Steve Meyer, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department 20 years, serving as chief since 1985. He is past president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association. Meyer is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program and is a contract instructor for leadership and administration with the NFA. In 1988, he was presented the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.