Vintage: 50 years ago: Derailment and six propane rail car BLEVEs in Crescent City, Illinois, US
On 21 June 1970 (Father’s Day), 16 cars of the 109 car eastbound Toledo, Peoria and Western Railroad Company's Train No 20 derailed in the centre, Crescent City in Illinois, US, at approximately 6h30am resulting in six boiling liquid expanding vapour explosions (BLEVEs) in this tiny farming community and a fire that levelled its entire business district. 10 of the cars each contained 34 000gal of liquid propane. Two additional propane tanks remained on the tracks. Fire Chief Orvel Carlson was awake at the time of the derailment and felt the heat of the explosion from his home three blocks away. Carlson and the 20-man volunteer fire department responded quickly with their two pieces of fire apparatus. Fire fighters arrived and tried to contain the fire, which was burning intensely. The first BLEVE occurred at 07h33am, nearly an hour after the derailment and injured several fire fighters and bystanders and damaged some fire equipment. Five more BLEVEs followed with about 10 minutes from each other. Parts of tank cars were propelled in all directions from about 200 feet to 850 feet, setting fires and damaging structures. Fire fighting efforts were hampered by a lack of electricity that was knocked out by the derailment that prevented the city's water pumps from functioning. Fire fighters took water directly from the city water tower to fight the fire. Fire companies from 32 surrounding towns appeared with 53 pieces of equipment and 234 fire fighters on the scene.
An Illinois State Police Sergeant located at Watseka, Illinois about 6,3 miles East of Crescent City was notified of the derailment shortly after it happened and proceeded immediately to the scene. He arrived at approximately 6h45am and sized up the situation. When he determined that a tank car was being heated by the fire and contained propane, he notified police officers in the area to evacuate the town and warned fire fighters to move back to a safer location to fight the fires. His actions may very well have prevented serious injury and loss of life of fire fighters, police officers and residents of the community.
Ten of the railcars involved in the derailment each contained 34 000 gallons of liquid propane. Two additional propane railcars remained on the tracks. As a result of the derailment, one of the propane tank cars was punctured by a coupler of another car, causing a leak that ignited almost immediately, engulfing the other nine derailed propane cars. Flame impingement on the uninsulated tank cars caused an increase in pressure inside the tank cars from impingement on the liquid space. Impingement on the vapour space caused weakening of the steel that resulted in the BLEVEs that occurred.
Chief Carlson felt the heat from the initial explosion at his home three blocks away. Fire fighter Bill Dirks, awakened by the explosion, said, "It took 10 years off my life." Dirks, who had been on the department for three years at the time of the derailment, is still an active fire fighter in Crescent City, 40 years after the derailment.
Carlson and the 20-member Crescent City Volunteer Fire Department, two members were out of town at the time, responded quickly with their two pieces of fire apparatus, 1956 and 1961 International Harvester front-mounted, 500-gpm pumpers (in service today as brush fire units). The Crescent City fire fighters initially tried to contain the fire burning intensely around the railcars but were hampered by a lack of electricity after power was knocked out by the derailment, preventing the city's water pumps from functioning. Fire fighters took water directly from the city water tower to fight the fire until help arrived from other communities. Water was hauled by privately owned tractor-trailers from surrounding towns and other fire departments also responded with tankers.
Calls for assistance went out to several area fire departments and many other departments responded to the scene on their own. Ultimately, fire companies from 33 towns, some from as far away as Indiana, appeared with 58 pieces of equipment and 250 fire fighters. There were no radio communications between fire departments at the time of the derailment or between fire and police departments. Apparatus did not have radios and no portable communications equipment existed for fire department use. Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul sent a foam truck. They informed the local fire fighters that water would be unable to contain such a fire that included burning propane.
Flames from the first punctured tank car reached several hundred feet into the air, dwarfing the Crescent City water tower and impinging on the other propane tank cars. A nearby house and business were set on fire by radiant heat, injuring several residents. Crescent City was evacuated.
Relief valves on the other tank cars began to open as the pressure built up from the surrounding fires. The first BLEVE occurred at 07h33am, nearly an hour after the derailment. The first blast injured several fire fighters and bystanders and damaged some fire equipment. Additional explosions occurred at about 09h20, 09h30, 09h45, 09h55 and 10h10. The remaining propane tanks were allowed to burn, which lasted for 56 hours. Parts of tank cars were propelled in all directions, setting fires and damaging structures. In all, 10 large pieces of railcars rocketed from 200 feet to 850 feet from the derailment site. There were no serious injuries to civilians initially from the explosions because of a quick evacuation after the derailment; 66 people including fire, police and media representative were injured by the explosions and 11 required hospitalisation but there were no fatalities. Some civilians were injured when they returned to town to watch the fire.
Few of the responding fire fighters had any training in dealing with propane fires. Some of the injured fire fighters were not wearing their personal protective clothing. Others sustained burns to their hands and heads when helmets were blown off by the force of the explosions. Fire fighters had no hand protection and their plastic helmets had no ear protection or chin straps. It was reported that the force of one of the later explosions blew out building fires on Main Street but as oxygen returned, the fires reignited.
Twenty-five homes and 16 businesses were destroyed by fire and three destroyed by ‘flying’ tank cars; numerous other homes received damage. St Joseph's Church sustained extensive damage. More than $2 million in property damage occurred as a result of the derailment, fires and explosions. Six fire trucks were damaged by the explosions and fires, along with 3 050 feet of 2½-inch fire hose, 500 feet of 1½-inch hose, several ladders, nine fire fighter coats and seven fire fighter helmets. Warning lights on Crescent City pumpers melted and apparatus had to be repainted. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), overheating caused the breaking of the L-4 Journal of the 20th car in the train. The exact cause of the overheating was not determined but a motorist spotted smoke coming from one of the railcars when the train was approximately 10 miles west of Crescent City.
After several BLEVEs of this type occurred in the 1970s, the railroad industry retrofitted all tank cars carrying liquefied flammable gases by adding thermal protection, which protects 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. Since these retrofits were completed in 1980, there have been no BLEVEs of railroad tank cars in the United States.
In the 1970s, organised hazardous materials response by fire departments and other agencies began to develop. Significant incidents involving railroad tank cars in Waverly in Tennessee and Kingman in Arizona, as well as the incident in Crescent City resulted in changes in tank car safety, hazmat transportation markings and regulation at the federal level. Organisation of hazmat response teams soon followed, with many established by fire departments. Much was learned nationwide by responders as a result of the derailment in Crescent City. The actions of the responders in the Crescent City incident may have led to saving of lives in other future derailments that have occurred.
Crescent City has much the same population today as it did in 1970 — 681 people. The fire department is a part of the Crescent/Iroquois Fire Protection District and has 26 active members. Current fire apparatus in service spans six decades — 1956, 1961, 1979, 1981, 1994 and 2004. They are all International Harvester vehicles. Crescent City firefighters respond to 35 to 40 calls per year for accidents and fires. Fire Chief Richard Gocken, a local business owner, recently retired as chief after 21 years. He is still active and is the assistant chief. Dean Storm has taken over as fire chief.
Sources: Hazardous Materials Facebook Page; Robert Burke, US National Fire Academy; Benjamin Light