Hazmat Studies: Lessons Learned from Anhydrous Ammonia Incident

April 1, 2017
Robert Burke describes how the shelter in place tactic saved lives following a 1969 train derailment and NH3 leak.

Feb. 18, 1969, set up as a “perfect storm” for a train derailment in Crete, NE, a small college town of approximately 4,500 people. The temperature was 4 degrees F, the wind was calm, relative humidity was 90 percent, there was approximately 14 inches of snow on the ground, a temperature inversion was in place and ground fog was present. 

At 6:30 a.m., Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (CB&Q) Train #64, consisting of three locomotive units and 95 cars, was entering town at 52 mph on the single main line track. Eleven boxcars were standing on a siding south of the main line. Train #824 with one locomotive and 49 cars was standing on a siding north of the main line. It contained three tank cars of anhydrous ammonia.

As Train #64 passed the turnout leading to the Old Wymore main siding, the spread closure allowed the wheels of the 28th car to derail. The wheels struck and broke the guardrail, then derailed, and the car and train continued. The 72nd car derailed at the “frog” (switch) toward the side where the broken guardrail was located, and a total of 19 cars of this train derailed.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) later attributed the cause of the derailment to “movement of rail at the turnout due to lateral forces of the locomotive caused by surface deficiencies of track. The track was not maintained for 50 mph operation according to standards, and irregularities contributed to the increase of lateral forces.” In other words, Train #64 was speeding. The speed limit for the area conditions was 35 mph.

Some railcars on Train #64 struck two of Train #824’s anhydrous ammonia tank cars, causing them to derail and overturn, releasing the contents. Tank car SOU263210, an ammonia car, split into two pieces, releasing 29,200 gallons of ammonia almost instantly. The top 16 feet landed 200 feet over Highway 33 in the front yard of a residence at 1109 Highway 33. The rest of the tank with the sill intact was propelled 140 feet onto Unona Avenue. Tank car GATX 18120 (DOT112A) shattered completely, releasing 29,200 gallons of liquid ammonia, which almost immediately turned into ammonia gas. One gallon of ammonia liquid produces 877 gallons of gas volume.

Portions of the shattered tank traveled to the yards of residences located north of the derailment at 813, 905 and 907 13th Street. The NTSB reported that the shattering was caused by a heavy blow delivered to the head of the tank car by the coupler of another car and the brittleness of the metal at a very cold temperature, 4 degrees F. 

The derailment site completely blocked Unona Avenue between Nebraska Highway 33 and 13th streets, leaving eastbound 13th Street as the only direct response route to the injured people and the only evacuation route out of the area.


It appears the highest and ultimately lethal concentrations of ammonia were located on the west end of 13th Street on the south side of the street. All of the victims were in that area when the impact occurred. Three Crete residents died during the accident, and three died later in the hospital. Three unidentified transients riding the train were killed by trauma during the derailment.

Injury reports varied, however, the NTSB reported 53 in its final report. Of the injured were two train crewmembers. One, the train’s conductor, fell approximately 18 feet as he stepped from the train, going over a bridge west of the derailment. He was later transferred to Lincoln, NE, for treatment.

Following is a summary of some of the causalities:

  • Ron Hatchett, his wife, Ethelene, and their 4-year-old daughter, Gloria, ran out of their house following the derailment. Ron and Gloria died. Ethelene survived, possibly because she was found face down, which might of limited the amount of inhaled ammonia she received.
  • Louis Erdman and his wife, Maxine, fled their home after it was punctured by debris. Louis made it between approximately 30 feet before falling to the place where he was found dead. Maxine made it to a neighbor’s home and was later found dead.
  • The home of Lyle and Sonya Safranek was closest to the impact. Firefighters found Lyle deceased in the street. Sonya and their 1-year-old son were found in a snow bank a short distance from the front of the house. Rescue worker Clarence Busboom said, “We had come past this place maybe 15 minutes earlier, but because of the thick gas hadn't been able to see anything.” They were hospitalized and survived.
  • The Kovar home was struck by parts of the train cars. Robert Kovar went out to the porch to investigate what happened and collapsed outside. He was taken to the hospital by rescuers and later died. His daughter, Roberta, 19, heard the crash, covered herself with bed covers and was rescued about an hour later.

Fire department response

Information on the Crete Fire Department response was provided directly from firefighters Everett Weilange, Chuck Henning, Arnold Henning, Loren Henning and Chuck Vyhniek, all of whom responded to the incident in 1969. Note: Fourteen Crete firefighters who responded to the incident are still living at the time of this article. 

First reports coming into Crete emergency responders indicated that a propane tank had exploded. Firefighters and Fire Chief Don Henning were alerted by the outdoor fire sirens and Plectron alert radios.

Crete firefighters Loren Henning and Chuck Vyhniek were on the first fire apparatus responding to the call, which was just a few blocks west of the fire station. (The 1946 American LaFrance open-cab pumper in which they responded is still in the department inventory and used as a public relations apparatus.)

At the time of the incident, Crete fire apparatus did not have radio communications in the apparatus, so information initially had to be passed person to person. With the very limited visibility created by the fog and anhydrous ammonia vapors, it was difficult to get a grasp of the scope of the incident in order to coordinate the response. As the incident progressed, radios from the Sheriff’s Office were pressed into duty, which improved communications.

Turnout gear was limited, as were SCBA. Henning and Vyhniek indicated that the mixture did not move and just hung low in the air. They did not know what the fog was, but some firefighters indicated that there was a smell of ammonia in the air. (Anhydrous ammonia is heavier than air and tends to pool in low places and on the ground.)

Henning and Vyhniek approached the site from the east. When they arrived on scene, they smelled something but didn't know what it was, so they backed out and approached from a dirt road along the tracks from the north. They smelled something there as well.

They then drove by Douglas Manufacturing and stopped just west. Henning jumped from the apparatus at 17th and Main streets and started evacuating people from the area. Henning went door to door with SCBA and several other firefighters on 13th Street. Firefighters evacuated residents on the south and west sides of town.

Firefighters encountered bodies and injured people as they made their search. Exposed skin on victims exhibited deterioration, likely from contact with ammonia or vapors. Firefighter Arnold Henning reported driving his apparatus into the cloud and finding body parts that were later determined to be from transients. Firefighter Chuck Henning worked for Wanek’s Furniture Store in Crete and used a furniture delivery truck to take bodies to the mortuary.

While searching, firefighters located a car that had stalled due to a lack of oxygen, which had been displaced by the ammonia gas. Alvin Rozdalousky got out of the car and ran five blocks east to Main Street for safety. Firefighter Weilange used his own vehicle to alert people in the south side of Crete and move many from harm's way.

All of the firefighters I talked with indicated that their first priority was to evacuate people to safety and isolate the scene. Between 200 and 300 people were evacuated from the area. Crete firefighters had previously trained and participated in tabletop exercises for disasters. This preparation likely helped them as they responded to the train derailment.

Four firefighters were injured in the incident from ammonia exposure and were treated and released.


Following evacuation, some people went to be with relatives, others to Doane College in Crete, the Armory and even the fire station. Food was brought in by residents and businesses and supported by the Red Cross. The Nebraska National Guard from Lincoln assisted in a secondary search to determine if all had been rescued and evacuated.

A helicopter was brought in and helped to disperse the gas fumes with its whirling blades.

Firefighters remained on scene for three days. According to Wally Barnett, assistant state fire marshal, “If there had been a west wind and it had been a clear day, that cloud of gas could have made a clean sweep of the town.” Assistance from other towns’ fire and police came from Lincoln, Malcolm, York, Seward, Milford, Hallam, Friend, Beatrice, Fairbury, Wilbur and the Southeast Rural District in Lincoln.

During the week after the derailment, the Crete Fire Department was dispatched to a fire at Doane College Merrill Hall for a fire. Firefighters laid hoselines and began to fight the fire when the hoses started to leak from exposure to ammonia at the derailment. One firefighter commented that the hose looked like a soaker hose with all the leaks. 

Shelter in place

Crete's encounter with the train derailment and anhydrous ammonia occurred prior to the development of organized response to hazardous materials in the U.S. fire service. The Department of Transportation (DOT) did not have an Emergency Response Guidebook or a placard and labeling system in place. No markings of the dangerous chemicals in transportation were required on the tanks of anhydrous ammonia. Requirements did not come until the early 1970s. The DOT had also not yet coined today's term for chemicals in transportation, Dangerous Goods or Hazardous Materials as they are normally called.

The idea of sheltering people in place inside of buildings to protect against chemical exposure did not exist at this time. However, many people did in fact shelter themselves inside their homes, placed wet rags over their faces and some covered with blankets—actions that likely saved their lives. Not a single person who stayed inside the entire time of the emergency and took self-protective actions died or was seriously injured. Those who died had left their homes and were overcome by the ammonia vapors outside. Some died on their driveways and one on a street corner. Curiosity called them out to see what had happened and they paid the ultimate price.

Unknowingly, even before the concept of shelter in place had been developed, victims of the Crete derailment confirmed the effectiveness of this tactic when hazardous materials are released outside of buildings or a vapor cloud travels to populated areas, preventing an expeditious and safe evacuation.                  

Factors that helped

Had this incident happened at any other time of the year, it would have likely been much worse. In warmer weather, people would have had less clothing on, windows might have been opened in the dwellings, and more people may have gone outside to see what happened.

Liquid ammonia has a boiling point of -40 degrees F. Anhydrous means without water. Ammonia seeks water when released into the environment. However, at 4 degrees F, there wasn't much water in the area of the derailment that was not frozen. It is unlikely that people exposed to the ammonia were sweating; if they had been, ammonia could have reacted with the moisture on the skin, causing serious burns.

Even though the air temperature and items in the environment were above the boiling point of ammonia, warmer temperatures would have caused even more gas to be formed quicker by the spilled liquid ammonia. Not everyone who went outside died; however, no one who sheltered in place died. The snow on the ground may have someway created a barrier to the exposed skin and airways of those who survived. 

Current department      

The present-day Crete Volunteer Fire Department is under the leadership Tod Allen (also a fire apparatus operator at Station 1, Truck 1, Lincoln, NE). Their single station is located downtown, just southeast of the railroad tracks, near where the 1969 derailment occurred. Chief Allen and 35 volunteers provide fire/rescue and BLS EMS for a population of 6,960 Crete residents and to the surrounding rural, agricultural and industrial areas. 

In 2016, they responded to 925 calls for assistance: 795 were EMS-related, 109 were fire calls, 11 were vehicle fires, and 10 were hazmat calls. Crete firefighters operate one 75-foot Quint with a 1,250-gpm pump and 500 gallons of water; one engine with 1,500- gpm pump and 1,000 gallons water; one engine tanker with a 1,250-gpm pump, and 2,000 gallons water; three brush trucks; one tanker with 2,000 gallons of water; one rescue with a 500-gpm pump and 300 gallons water; and three BLS ambulances. Paramedics respond with the fire department from the Crete Hospital.

For additional information, please contact Chief Tod Allen, Crete Fire Department at [email protected] or (402) 826-3473.

Sidebar: One Firefighter’s Story

Firefighter Leonard Svarc lived three or four blocks northeast of the derailment site. He heard the fire whistle and responded to the firehouse. When he found out what had happened, he tried to get back to his family to make sure they were OK, but he could not get there. Meanwhile, according to his daughter, Judy, Leonard’s wife, Delma, along with Judy’s sister, brother and cousin were still in the home. Delma got rags and wetted them and had the children put them over their faces. They went out to the family car to try to escape. There was a strong smell of ammonia, and it burned their eyes. Once in the car, they tried to drive away, but got stuck. By that time, Leonard had returned and took them to the Armory. Judy shared with me that she believes the wet towels saved their lives. Judy and her mother were hospitalized for two days, her mother burned by the ammonia and Judy experiencing recurring bloody noses.

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