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...


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Diagram by Robert Burke
Diagram of downtown Waverly showing the derailment and fire after the explosion.

In spite of these and other widely publicized incidents, we as responders have been slow to learn the lessons from them. Two firefighters died fighting fires in stationary propane tanks in each incident involving an exploding tank in Warwick, Quebec in 1993; Carthage, IL, in 1997; and Albert City, IA, in 1998.

One of the major problems identified by many on the scene of the Waverly derailment was the lack of a person in charge; an incident commander. No one had seemed to be designated for the position and no one seemed interested in taking charge of the scene. Almost all recommendations put forth by the fire department to provide safeguards were overruled by the railroad.

Numerous pleas by the director of the local private ambulance service for safety measures fell on deaf ears. One such plea, the last, occurred within 30 minutes of the explosion. Fortunately, the ambulance director, who was a 30-year veteran of emergency response, saw the potential hazard and withdrew his personnel to a safe location and the explosion did not affect them.

Another problem identified, which undoubtedly contributed to increased loss of life and injuries, was the lack of scene security and lack of evacuation of the public during the potentially dangerous cleanup and offloading procedures. Following the initial evacuation when the derailment first occurred, everyone was allowed to return to his or her homes and businesses.

Many unnecessary people were allowed into the danger zone of the derailment and became victims as a result. When the Weyuwega, WI, derailment occurred, there was no BLEVE. The entire community had been evacuated and remained so for 21 days until all the tank cars had been rendered safe.

Learning From History

It is easy to look at incidents like Waverly and play "Monday-morning quarterback." But the fact remains that hazardous materials are dangerous if not handled properly. We need to study past incidents and identify the lessons that can be learned. Incident commanders, fire officers and firefighters must be aware of the dangers of propane and other hazardous materials and make sure they conduct a risk-benefit analysis before determining tactical options that commit response personnel to harm's way.

Let's take steps to help ensure that those who lost their lives in Waverly and at other hazmat incidents did not do so in vain. Let's not be so slow to respond to the lessons learned from previous incidents.


Robert Burke, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the fire marshal for the University of Maryland. He is a Certified Fire Protection Specialist (CFSP), Fire Inspector II, Fire Inspector III, Fire Investigator and Hazardous Materials Specialist, and has served on state and county hazardous materials response teams. Burke is a veteran of 24 years in fire and emergency services, with experience in career and volunteer departments. He has attained the rank of lieutenant, assistant chief and deputy state fire marshal. Burke is an adjunct instructor at the National Fire Academy and the Community College of Baltimore, Catonsville Campus, and the author of the textbooks Hazardous Materials Chemistry for Emergency Responders and Counter-Terrorism for Emergency Responders. He can be reached in the Internet at robert.burke@att.net.