Just before dawn in the east-central Wisconsin farming community of Weyauwega, the early-morning quiet of March 4, 1996, was interrupted by the sounds of crashing metal and burning propane. Thirty-seven tank cars of a Wisconsin Central Railroad train had derailed near an industrial area at the north...
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Just before dawn in the east-central Wisconsin farming community of Weyauwega, the early-morning quiet of March 4, 1996, was interrupted by the sounds of crashing metal and burning propane. Thirty-seven tank cars of a Wisconsin Central Railroad train had derailed near an industrial area at the north end of town. It was the beginning of a hazardous materials incident that lasted 18 days, attracted nationwide attention and forced the entire town to be evacuated.
Among the derailed tank cars were seven transporting highly flammable liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), seven more carrying highly flammable liquefied propane gas and two with sodium hydroxide, a non-flammable corrosive material. Initially, three of the derailed cars opened up and the propane and LPG immediately caught fire.
Although characteristics of this incident were similar to widely known incidents that occurred in Waverly, TN, in 1978 and Crescent City, IL, in 1970 (see Firehouse®, December 1995), the outcomes were much different.
In the Waverly accident, in which 12 people were killed, a derailed propane tank car became involved in a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion (BLEVE). It was cold when the train derailed in Waverly, just as it was in Weyauwega; however, two days into the Waverly incident, the temperature started warming up. This caused the pressure to increase inside the damaged tank car until it exploded.
Crescent City's experience was similar to Weyauwega's in that several propane tank cars derailed in the center of town. Resulting fires impinging on the tanks caused the propane tanks to BLEVE, injuring response personnel and bystanders and causing widespread property damage. In Weyauwega, by contrast, no one was injured and property damage was limited.
The derailment in Weyauwega occurred at 5:55 A.M. The wind was calm and the temperature was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Twenty-four volunteer firefighters from the Weyauwega Fire Department were on the scene within five minutes, led by Assistant Chief Jim Baehnman Fire Chief Gary Hecker was away on vacation when the accident occurred; he returned the second week of the incident but left Baehnman in charge.
Upon arrival at the scene, Baehnman took command and immediately established the incident command system. The derailment had blocked the rail crossing on Mill Street, so it was difficult to determine what was happening on the north side of the tracks. Fires were burning, with large fireballs 200 to 300 feet high and visible at times 13 miles away.
It appeared that there were three separate fires. The first was a large fire fed by a damaged tank car at the intersection of Mill Street and the railroad crossing. The second fire involved a feedmill 75 yards east of the crossing. The third fire was 75 yards west of the crossing and involved a storage building. It is believed that the third fire was started by power lines downed by the derailment.
Sizing up the situation, Baehnman realized that the incident was beyond local capabilities and asked for assistance from neighboring communities, the state of Wisconsin and Region V of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Fire departments from Clintonville, Fremont, Iola, Manawa, Mukwa, Navarino, New London, Poysippi, Scandinavia, Tustin, Waupaca and West Bloomfield responded with apparatus and over 200 firefighters. (Several days into the incident, a rescue truck built by Pierce Fire Apparatus in Appleton, WI, and sold to the Glen Cove, NY, Volunteer Fire Department was sent to Weyauwega and allowed to be used in the operation, courtesy of the Glen Cove department.)
Many mutual aid personnel were used to man roadblocks and help staff the command center. Radio communications quickly became a problem because of the volume of traffic from all of the responding agencies. Additionally, agencies from the private sector as well as the state and federal governments responded, including Region V EPA from Chicago, IL, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), State Emergency Management, the governor's office, Wisconsin National Guard, state EPA, Federal Railroad Administration, American Red Cross and Salvation Army.