The Waverly Propane Explosion 25th Anniversary: What Has Changed?

The propane explosion that occurred in Waverly, TN, on Feb. 24, 1978, was the high-water mark of hazardous materials incidents in the United States. In terms of loss of life to emergency responders and civilians resulting from train derailments, this...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required

First On The Scene

Waverly Fire Department volunteers along with the Waverly Police Department were first on the scene of the derailment. Responders did not have monitoring devices to check for leaks and relied on their sense of smell to determine there was no immediate danger. (Propane has an odor threshold of 1,800 mg/cuM. Using the human senses is not recommended as a means of detection for hazardous materials because of the potential danger to response personnel. Without monitoring equipment, there is no way to know what amount of vapor is present. Responders could become asphyxiated by propane or other gases without proper respiratory protection. They could find themselves in the middle of the flammable range without a meter to determine the amount of vapor/air mixture that is present. This could lead to serious injury or death if ignition occurs.)

2_03_hazmat3.jpg
Photo courtesy of Waverly Fire Department
The explosion and fires killed five people instantly. The Waverly fire chief was burned severely and later died at a hospital. The fire chief’s station wagon car is visible at the center of the photo, next to the large truck.

Following the initial scene survey, a nearby single-family residence and custodial care facility were evacuated as a precaution. Tennessee Civil Defense was notified the next morning, Feb. 23, of the derailment. Initial reports to the agency indicated no hazardous materials were involved. It was not until 5:10 A.M. the following day that Civil Defense authorities were told that hazardous materials were in some of the derailed train cars. With that information in hand, a state hazardous materials team was dispatched to the scene and arrived at 6:30 A.M. Once the hazmat team was on scene, an additional evacuation distance of a quarter-mile was implemented and all electrical and natural gas sources were shut off in the hazard area.

By then, firefighters had already put heavy hose streams in place to cool the derailed tank cars. (A footnote here: Remember that the boiling point of propane is -43.67F. Applying water to tanks that are not on fire can cause the liquid propane to boil faster, increasing the pressure inside the tanks. If the water in the hoselines was just at 32F, the freezing point of water, for example, that is 75 degrees above the boiling point of the liquid propane. In many cases the temperature of the water will be much higher. Water from booster tanks that was in heated fire stations can be in the 70s or higher.)

Tracks Cleared

Railroad personnel began clearing the right-of-way to get rail traffic moving again as soon as possible. They complained the mud created by the "cooling" efforts of emergency responders was making it difficult for their workers, so the hoselines were shut down, but left in place.

2_03_hazmat4.jpg
Photo courtesy of Waverly Fire Department
A piece of railroad tank car 83013. Pieces of the tank car were rocketed 330 feet by the explosion.

By 2:15 P.M., the tracks had been cleared of all derailed cars. One derailed tank car, number 83013, had been moved some 12 feet from its original resting point under several other rail cars. The L&N line was reopened to limited rail traffic at 8 P.M. Up to that point, no efforts had been made to deal with the liquid propane still in the tank cars.

At the direction of the L&N Railroad, crews were dispatched to offload the propane tank cars. They arrived on scene at about 1 P.M. the next day, Feb. 24.

Before the off loading process was to begin, air monitoring of the area with combustible gas indicators revealed no leaks or propane in the area. Because of the lack of catastrophic events surrounding the derailment, the evacuation was relaxed and Waverly was pretty much back to business as usual by the time the off loading was to begin. In fact, people were observed smoking in the area of the derailed propane tank cars. The fire chief, police chief, a fire crew and two representatives of Tennessee Civil Defense were on scene along with railroad workers and personnel from a private contractor.