Hazmat Studies:Tennessee Propane Blast: A Turning Point for Hazmat

The deadly train derailment and ultimate propane explosion that occurred in Waverly, TN, 35 years ago this month was a watershed event in hazardous materials incidents in the U.S. Sixteen people, including four active emergency responders, died from the...


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Tragic consequences

One possible contributing factor to the incident indicated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was an increase in pressure in the tank. Ambient temperature increases can cause the pressure in a tank to increase. Also unknown at the time was that a portion of car 83013 had been damaged and weakened by the derailment. Tank cars that are piled up on each other or banged into each other may sustain damage. Moving them before off-loading the product can lead to further damage or catastrophic tank failure, which occurred in Waverly. The combination of the two factors may have resulted in the BLEVE involving tank 83013.

Monitoring of the air with combustible gas indicators revealed no leaks or propane in the area. The evacuation was relaxed and Waverly was back to business as usual by the time the off-loading was to begin. The fire chief, police chief a fire crew, and two representatives of the state civil defense were on scene, along with L&N workers and personnel from the Liquid Transport Co. involved in the off-loading.

Nearly 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 a half-hour of the explosion. Fortunately, the ambulance director, 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 off-loading procedures. Following the initial evacuation when the derailment first occurred, everyone was allowed to return home or to their businesses. Many unnecessary people were allowed into the danger zone of the derailment and became victims as a result.

Prior to initiation of the off-loading process, at 2:58 P.M., someone noticed propane vapors leaking from car 83013. Before anyone could react to the leak, a BLEVE occurred. The resulting fires and explosion killed five people instantly and severely burned the Waverly fire chief (he later died at a hospital). The hoselines that had been left in place were shredded by the explosion. Parts of the tank car, burning propane and debris were scattered over a wide area. One piece of the tank car was propelled 330 feet by the explosion. Noise and blast pressure from the explosion were felt several blocks away. Numerous large buildings, vehicles and railcars were set on fire by heat from the fireball. A second propane tank car was set on fire by the explosion, but did not BLEVE.

After several BLEVEs of this type in the 1970s, the railroad industry began to retrofit all tank cars carrying liquefied flammable gases by adding thermal protection, which guards 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.

Today, the population in Waverly is 4,186. Fire protection is provided by the Waverly Police Department with 12 officers who double as firefighters when called on, along with three full-time city employees from other departments who receive a firefighting pay supplement and 12 volunteers who are paid on call. Firefighters operate three engine companies and a hazmat trailer donated by the CSX Railroad and operate out of two fire stations.

The Waverly Fire Department has an Insurance Service Offices (ISO) rating of 4. EMS is provided by a private company contracted by Humphries County, although Waverly police vehicles carry automated external defibrillators (AEDs) and officers are trained in CPR.