Train wreck, fire under investigation
By RANDY GONZALES
In the chaotic first minutes after a Union Pacific freight train derailed early Tuesday morning, the first order of business for the Hays Fire Department was to determine what was contained in the 18 cars that were derailed.
A train bound for Denver from Salina with three locomotives and 79 cars was diverted off the main track and collided into the rear of a stationary train on a side track at approximately 1:25 a.m. at the rail yard near the railroad crossing at Eighth and Vine. Ten cars from the main train derailed, as did four cars from the sitting train and four cars located next to the sitting train on an adjacent spur.
"In the accident that happened, you have all these train cars derail, in a big pile -- what's in the pile? That's the key," said Hays Fire Chief Gary Brown. "We're sitting there in the dark, massive fire and black smoke, and a big pile of twisted rail car wreckage. What is in the pile that's burning? That's the question we try to answer."
Freight trains carry a list of the contents in the cars they are transporting, but in their haste to get out of the locomotive, the three crew members did not have that list. Not long after, however, Union Pacific faxed a list of contents.
The train contained 20 cars carrying ethanol -- a volatile, flammable liquid. None of those cars derailed, but the fire department wanted to contain the fire so it didn't spread to those cars, Brown said.
"If an ethanol car was leaking, it would probably have a running fire that would be difficult to contain and control," Brown said. "As the fuel came out, we would just try to prevent it from spreading to other things."
It was Brown's understanding the ethanol cars in Tuesday's derailment were full.
"If the car fails when it's full, it's called a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion," Brown said. "It'll fail, and that burning liquid will spread."
The Hays Fire Department, assisted by the Ellis County Rural Fire Department, the Ellis Fire Department and Victoria Fire Department, was able to prevent that from happening in Tuesday's accident. Firefighters poured 5,000 gallons of water per minute on the fire for an estimated five-and-a-half hours.
"The bottom line, if it's an ethanol car involved in a wreck, you want to keep it cool so it doesn't blow up," Brown said.
Hays Water Plant Superintendent Jim Cooper estimated 1,650,000 gallons of water was used to douse the blaze. He said it took about two days for the city to recover from the high water usage in fighting the fire.
"Most of that water came out of reserves," Cooper said. "We were flowing right at 300,000 gallons a minute, and even at that, we lowered our Sternberg tower by about 10 feet, probably took 4 feet or so out of the north tower, took a foot-and-a-half, 2 feet out of our reservoirs. That's where most of that water came from."
Initially, the fire department brought in the airport crash truck, which has the greatest foam-making capability. However, the truck couldn't get the foam to every place the fire was burning.
"Plan B was to keep everything cool, and let the fire burn itself out," Brown said.
The National Transportation Safety Board had three investigators on the scene Tuesday. A final report on what caused the accident could take as long as 18 months, said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway.
There will be several areas investigators will examine, including looking at the rail cars in the accident and their contents, inspecting the train rails, gathering dispatch information, and interviewing the crew.
"That's all part of what they do once they are on the scene," Holloway said.
The main rail line reopened Tuesday evening. Once NTSB clears the scene, Union Pacific can begin cleanup at the site, said UP spokesman Mark Davis.
"Cleanup-wise, could take up to several weeks," Davis said.
The city was fortunate in where the accident took place, Brown said.
"If there's a good place to have a train derailment and fire, this was probably a good place, because at that time of night there were very little people around; the businesses were not occupied, traffic was light," Brown said.
"Obviously, it would have been different if it had been further into the downtown area. There would have been a greater problem for us to deal with. So, that worked in our favor."