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Preparedness is key to West Virginia derailment response

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Emergency personnel responding to an oil train derailment in West Virginia on Feb. 16 applied lessons learned from a rail disaster more than three decades ago, and likely prevented a bad situation from becoming much worse.

Last week marked 37 years since a deadly explosion in Waverly, Tenn. On Feb. 24, 1978, a derailed tank car carrying liquid propane violently ruptured, killing 16 people, including the small town’s police and fire chiefs.

Emergency response and training has changed dramatically in decades since the tragedy.

Buddy Frazier, the city manager of Waverly, about 65 miles west of Nashville, was a young police officer when he witnessed the 1978 explosion. He said that emergency responders are better trained and better equipped today. Still, he understands the challenges they face.

“Anytime there’s an incident anywhere in the country,” he said, “I think about what happened here and how similar it is.”

After a CSX train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire near Mount Carbon, W.Va., on Feb. 16, local firefighters could have sprayed water and foam on the blaze like they would any other.

But they didn’t do that. Instead, they evacuated residents, kept a safe distance and let the fire burn out, which took four days. This counterintuitive move likely prevented contamination of the Kanawha River, a local source of drinking water.

It also may have saved the lives of residents and first responders alike. In spite of several powerful explosions of tank cars, no one was killed and only one resident suffered minor injuries.

“One of the real points of progress over the past few years is the training of local first responders on how to deal with these events,” said Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Part of the improvement in emergency response has come from the railroads themselves, which have become more engaged with emergency responders. A lack of communication between the railroad and the police and fire departments in Waverly, as well as inadequate training and equipment, contributed to the deadly outcome in 1978, investigators concluded.

Though the Tennessee accident happened many years before railroads began moving massive quantities of crude oil and ethanol, communication and training remain critical to an effective emergency response.

In October, CSX held a three-day training class at its rail yard in South Charleston, W.Va. Many of the fire departments that responded to the recent derailment attended.

Those departments included Kanawha County, Charleston, South Charleston and Montgomery, which lies a few miles west of the derailment site.

CSX brought its “Safety Train” to 19 cities last year, including many on oil train routes. Included on the tour were Buffalo, Albany, Rochester and Syracuse; Erie, Pa.; and Cleveland.

The train features a classroom, different types of tank cars, and instructors who help first responders become familiar with railroad equipment.

C.W. Sigman, fire coordinator for Kanawha County, said that local first responders were well-prepared. Sigman, a 44-year firefighter, said he began an email exchange last summer with the deputy fire chief in Montgomery about the crude oil trains, which began operating through West Virginia in December 2013.

The deputy chief participated in the October CSX training, Sigman said. The Montgomery Fire Department faces the railroad tracks, and the deputy chief watched the oil train roll through town more than a week ago, a few minutes before the derailment.

“He already knew what it was when the call came in,” Sigman said. “He was ready to go.”

The rail industry is providing additional training for emergency responders specifically for oil train fires. Last year, 1,500 first responders participated in a new class at the rail industry’s testing center in Pueblo, Colo. The course features a realistic simulation of a train fire, and first responders fight it with equipment they would use in a real situation.

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