On The Job - Wisconsin

Robert Burke details a train derailment/hazmat incident that forced the evacuation of an entire town.


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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The first-responding firefighters found a tangled mass of railcars, broken rails and a large volume of fire. The derailment occurred near a feedmill and the spreading fire was already impinging on feedmill structures and several grain and propane vehicles. Initial efforts were focused on fighting the fire in the feedmill and protecting exposures. The firefighters were lucky to the extent that a fertilizer building across from the feedmill had not received its spring shipment of fertilizers and pesticides. A cheese factory a block south of the burning tank cars had anhydrous ammonia pipes on its roof. If a BLEVE had occurred, those pipes could have been damaged by flying tank parts, causing an ammonia leak.

Initially, the firefighters' view of the incident scene was obscured by the large volume of fire and darkness. They were unaware of the tank cars of hazardous materials that were involved in the derailment and subsequent fire. Reports from first-responding firefighters are conflicting as to the exact time it took to recognize that the burning tank cars contained propane and LPG; estimates range from 10 minutes to one hour. Wisconsin Central Railroad personnel advised the firefighters that the construction of the tank cars would allow them to withstand fire for approximately 11/2 hours. When this information was received, it was already one hour into the incident.

Once firefighters realized propane and LPG tanks were involved in the derailment, and on fire, a decision was made to pull back. Firefighters abandoned their hoselines in the streets when they realized the seriousness of the situation. (The abandoned hoselines were later damaged when they froze and were driven over by cleanup and restoration personnel.)

In addition to pulling back response personnel, Baehnman ordered the entire city evacuated. Fire, police, and EMS personnel made notifications of the evacuation by going door to door while the local radio station provided additional announcements. As each residence was evacuated it was marked with a yellow tag so that other emergency responders would know the building had been cleared. Approximately 1,700 people were evacuated from Weyauwega and another 600 from surrounding rural areas. Most people, once notified, evacuated in personal vehicles. Two nursing homes with over 200 total patients were evacuated and taken to a hospital and other nursing facilities in nearby communities. (A tractor-trailer driver who had parked his truck at a gasoline station less than 100 feet from the scene slept through the derailment and initial emergency response efforts. An attendant at the gas station had to awaken the truck driver to tell him to evacuate.) Once the city was completely evacuated, Baehnman made the decision that no emergency response personnel would enter the city.

Weyauwega residents displaced by the derailment and fires were directed to an evacuation center set up at a former gymnasium in Waupaca, seven miles away. Many of them, however, instead opted to stay with relatives or in hotels provided by the railroad. They would not be allowed to return home for 18 days. Pets were not considered in the initial evacuation but as the incident progressed, more and more citizens became concerned about the pets they had left behind. Baehnman felt that rescuing pets was not worth the risk to personnel and the public; however, he was later overruled by the governor. The National Guard was activated and one of its first jobs was to rescue pets in a small portion of the city farthest from the accident scene.

The air space within 10 miles of the derailment was restricted to reduce curiosity flights and to control the news media; the distance was reduced to five miles the fourth day of the incident. Helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft performed aerial surveillance to locate spot fires and determine the extent and effectiveness of the evacuation. For the first few days after the incident, aerial photographs were the only means of viewing the incident scene.

Initially, power was cut to about 15 to 20 percent of the homes in the area to control ignition sources immediately around the derailment. Natural gas service was also cut. As a result, up to 95 percent of the homes were without heat, which caused water pipes to freeze but only about a dozen homes were severely damaged. The main natural gas feeder line into the community ran directly under the derailment site next to Mill Street. Responders were concerned that the line may have been damaged as a result of the derailment, which prompted the decision to shut down the line.