The Fire Next Time - NTSB: Communication breakdown in fatal Illinois tank car derailment

The Fire Next Time - NTSB: Communication breakdown  in fatal Illinois tank car derailment

The National Transportation Safety Board issued a series of recommendations Feb. 14, 2012, in the wake of the derailment of a Canadian National Railway Company (CN) freight train at a highway grade crossing in Cherry Valley, Illinois, on June 19, 2009. The report was no valentine to industry, or federal or local governments but sounded a stern cautionary note to regions with a confluence of water, railways and tank cars transporting fuel or chemicals – a region like Southeast Texas.

Canadian National freight train U70691-18 consisted of two locomotives and 114 cars carrying a total of more than 2 million gallons of denatured fuel ethanol, a flammable liquid. The 19 cars that derailed were all tank cars carrying a full load of fuel. Thirteen of the derailed cars were breached or lost product and caught fire, sparking a massive blaze that burned for nearly a day.

A family sitting in their car at the rail crossing suffered grievous wounds. Zoila Tellez was killed in the fiery multi-car derailment; her husband Jose Tellez suffered second- and third-degree burns over 25 percent of his body. Their pregnant 19-year-old daughter, Adriana, suffered second- and third-degree burns to her face, chest, shoulder, arms and hands as well as the loss of her baby, Samara Ramirez-Tellez.

Unknown to them and to the CN engineers on the train, a fault in a drainage culvert near the accident site had damaged the rail bed. Torrential rains washed away the bedrock underneath the railroad tracks and the rail bridge itself at the intersection where the unsuspecting Tellez family sat.

The NTSB had strong words for the Canadian National Railway and the federal agencies that regulate transportation, railroads and pipelines, plus the state and local agencies responsible for storm water management detention ponds. But a heavy focus of the investigation centered on faulty communications between the train, local police and Canadian National’s dispatch center.

A timeline of the events shows a flood warning alert went out to CN’s control center in Homewood, but a staff member merely placed it on the controller’s desk and no one alerted the train’s crew as it approached Cherry Valley. This occurred at 6:30 p.m., only two hours and six minutes before the derailment. What followed was a not-funny comedy of errors and missed opportunities to prevent disaster.

Jefferson County Emergency Management Coordinator Greg Fountain reviewed the NTSB report and expressed dismay.

In an interview with the Business Journal, Fountain offered a careful assessment of the Cherry Valley derailment. “From the looks of this, they had everything they needed to make the right determination; they just didn’t follow through on it,” he said.

For example, at 7:35 p.m. the Rockford Police Department received a 911 call about the washout at Mulford Road. Five minutes later, the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department also received 911 calls about tracks washing away at Mulford Road.

But at 8:03 p.m., Winnebago County dispatchers determine the tracks are in the Rockford city limits. Learning city police have no one available to investigate, Winnebago County dispatchers send an officer of their own. The CN train with 119 tank cars is 33 minutes away from disaster.

While Winnebago County and Rockford officials attempt to sort out the jurisdiction issues, a call is received at the CN help desk in Montreal at 8:03 p.m. telling staff a “major storm” has gone through the area and their tracks are washed out. CN staff attempted to contact the control center in Homewood, but the phone lines are busy.

It is 8:23 p.m. before a Winnebago County sheriff’s deputy arrives at the scene and radios in that the tracks are indeed washed out.

Guiding their train through the heavy rains but unaware of imminent danger, the CN train crew alerts the Homewood control center about high water near Mulford Road at 8:35 p.m. One minute later, the train derails as it crosses South Mulford Road.

Fountain concurred with the NTSB finding that jurisdiction and communication issues played a major role in the failure to prevent the accident in the two hour-period between the first reports of trouble and the derailment that devastated the Tellez family. He insisted that Jefferson County and its counterparts in Hardin and Orange counties are minimizing chances for a similar incident.

“Here’s the difference,” said Fountain. “Because we do meet and work together so often, our dispatchers have it pretty much down pat. The incident (in Rockford) was a bridge, but our most common deal is going to be a (chemical) release of some sort where we have to, as first responders, rely on the responsible party or a passer-by in most cases to report it – and the clock is ticking before we have a chance to know it’s ticking.”

The jurisdiction issue is very much on the minds of Fountain, area first responders and plant safety personnel.

“That’s why we do exercises and drills,” he said. “One, because they’re mandated but two, through our Sabine-Neches Chiefs Association and knowing each other the way we do, say if Port Neches gets a call, the first thing they’re going to do is give me or the Sheriff”s Office a call and say, ‘We’re responding to this, but we actually think it’s your jurisdiction’.”

As an illustration, Fountain cited the recent incident where a pick-up truck loaded with small-diameter pipe overturned on the I-69 service road, spilling its contents on the pavement.

“Even though the dispatcher and a supervisor later came back and said that was the city of Nederland’s jurisdiction, it was an incident so the (sheriff’s) deputy continued on (to the scene) until the PD officer could arrive,” he said. “A lot of people refer to somebody (in law enforcement) ‘flickin’ the booger’ where ‘it’s not mine; here it’s yours,’ but we just haven’t seen that here in most cases. I’m not going to say it can’t happen because anything’s possible.”

Don’t mistake Fountain’s confidence for hubris, however. “We’ve had some hiccups here and there because you’ve got the human element, but we’ve been working on those hiccups — such as the person responsible normally in the chain of command for making the communication is also the guy with his hair on fire during an event. The industry is very open to our suggestions to have somebody who is less involved as the person who makes the notification as an extension of that person.”

The on-going efforts to disaster-proof the petrochemical complex run into situations that must be part of contingency planning.

“Sometimes the person who normally handles this is on vacation or out of the plant or out of the office. No matter what industry you’re in, that kind of thing can happen,” observed Fountain. “We said let’s simplify this – just call 9-1-1.” n