Amid the sounds of wrenching metal and crackling fire, the hissing whine signaled that one of the overturned tank cars was doing its job.
Flames licked the tanker just outside the state fairgrounds on July 11, 2012. Thousands of gallons of ethanol heated up inside the car. As pressure mounted, the intense heat weakened its shell, less than an inch thick.
But it found relief, escaping through a valve system meant to keep tanker cars from exploding.
Firefighters who responded that early morning took caution. Another car had exploded, sending a fireball mushrooming hundreds of feet above the derailment. The hissing could have been the precursor to another explosion.
Minutes earlier, the 100-car train carrying grain, corn, ethanol and styrene had rolled without incident through Weinland Park and was about to cross Fields Avenue.
Then something went terribly wrong.
“It was just … a large boom and yeah, the ball of fire, mushroom cloud, you know, a lot of heat,” Columbus Fire Battalion Chief Sean Moore told federal investigators. “A blast of heat came through, and once I got my windows down in the car, I’m like, ‘Whew, boy.'”
Moore told investigators that Columbus was fortunate. The Norfolk Southern train had derailed in the right place at the right time.
Few people were out at 2:04 a.m. when the first 911 calls about a plane crash or a trash fire were reported. The Ohio State Fair wouldn’t begin for a month, and the nearby Central Ohio Transit Authority garage was quiet.
Trains carrying hazardous materials — from chlorine and hydrochloric acid to ethanol and crude oil — roll through neighborhoods and business districts nationwide every day.
Most of them go unnoticed, and nearly all reach their final destination without incident.
But when they crash, the consequences can be dire. About 1.4 million Ohioans live within a half-mile of rail lines where Bakken crude is transported.
State officials say they have no specific plans to handle derailments of trains carrying Bakken crude oil. First responders in small, remote towns sometimes aren’t equipped to handle toxic spills and explosions. And big-city fire departments aren’t always trained to handle the most-dangerous chemicals.
The boom in domestic oil production and a too-small pipeline network have pushed most of the crude oil drilled in the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Montana onto the nation’s rail network, where it’s shipped through small towns and big cities to coastal refineries.
A Dispatch analysis of Federal Railroad Administration data found that problems with worn-down tracks and mistakes made by train operators and others plague U.S. railroads.
Track problems and human error account for about two-thirds of all train incidents nationally over the past 20 years. And experts say that longer, heavier trains toting crude oil in tankers are wearing out tracks.
Investigators blamed a broken rail for the 2012 ethanol derailment in Columbus that caused $1.2 million in damage and injured three bystanders.
A broken rail also was to blame for a Bakken crude-oil derailment this year in Mount Carbon, W.Va., near a bend in the Kanawha River, which incinerated a house, forced about 1,100 people out of their homes and tested first responders.
Inspections two months before the Mount Carbon derailment revealed a track defect that was not repaired before it broke under the weight of the 107-car CSX train that had earlier rolled through Downtown Columbus.
Some of the firefighters who rushed to the derailment site had been trained in how to deal with crude-oil derailments: Just five months earlier, firefighters from the nearby Montgomery Fire Department had undergone CSX training on Bakken crude oil.
But that didn’t make it any easier. Smoke and fire blocked one major road, making it impossible for some firefighters to reach the scene.
Those who did make it through the heavy snow and thick, toxic smoke had another problem: Oil fires must be treated with foam, and this fire was huge.
“The amount of foam we’d have needed — there’s not enough in West Virginia,” said Benny Filiaggi, assistant chief of the Montgomery Fire Department, one of a number of departments to respond.
It was 10 days before all of the nearby residents were allowed to return to their houses. Local fire departments kept one manned fire engine on the scene for two weeks.
Mount Carbon was fortunate in a way. No one was killed.
— — –In July 2013, a runaway train carrying Bakken crude barreled off tracks and through downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, a town of about 6,000 residents just across the Maine border.
The crash killed 47 people.
The resulting explosions and fires flattened buildings and engulfed the town, which has yet to fully recover, and the disaster has become the poster child for a worst-case scenario that first responders could face on rails.
At a recent meeting of Columbus’ Chemical Emergency Preparedness Advisory Council, members watched a video explaining how fire officials had shut down the engine on an unattended train in Lac-Megantic that had caught fire, extinguished the blaze and then left.
But with the engine turned off, the train’s brakes could no longer hold pressure and the train began to move. It ultimately derailed in a fiery blaze downtown. People used to come downtown for groceries or a dental appointment, said Marilaine Savard, a Lac-Megantic resident who has spoken at train-safety conferences across the United States.
But the downtown has remained gated while crews clean oil from the site, level ruined buildings and clear away rubble.
Officials have said the soil and water now are clean, and work crews have put down sod.
“People are not having a lot of money here, a lot of people are leaving. … It was already a poor region,” Savard said.
“And what I see is that people want to be proud to rebuild in memories of people who died and in memories of our downtown. … We don’t have any landmarks that we had.”
— — –Ohio hasn’t had a major crude-oil derailment, but millions of gallons of Bakken oil come through the state every week.
Of the 45 million to 137 million gallons that roll through the state each week, much creeps along the northern reaches, through Toledo and Cleveland and several smaller cities in between.
As much as 25 million gallons come through Franklin County each week.
“Day to day, the general public is not acutely aware of the volumes that travel through their community,” said Russell C. Rife, state coordinator for the Ohio Fire Chiefs Association’s Emergency Response System.
It’s up to local emergency responders to prepare for the worst-case scenario. The fire chiefs association maintains an inventory of equipment that fire departments use to fight hazmat situations.
While state legislatures in Minnesota, California and Oregon have made attempts to address rail shipments of crude oil, Ohio’s legislature has remained relatively silent.
Rep. Terry Boose and Sen. Gayle Manning, both Republicans, lead the state legislature’s transportation committees.
In a statement, Manning said the Ohio Senate’s public-utilities committee is considering a bill that would require freight-transportation companies to provide extra crew members on trains carrying freight through Ohio. Boose did not return calls seeking an interview.
The Ohio Emergency Management Agency has general plans for how to deal with hazardous-materials spills or large fires, but no specific plan for a large-scale Bakken train derailment.
The state EMA did not respond to a question about whether Ohio has studied emergency preparedness for crude-oil-train derailments.
Other states have focused on this issue. Minnesota, for example, conducted a study that looked at how well emergency responders were prepared to deal with train derailments.
— — –Painesville Fire Chief Mark Mlachak still has the photos plastered on his office wall of a 2007 ethanol train that derailed between a housing development and a chemical plant.
“It’s not like there’s a train derailment class, but you learn from little bits and pieces of how hazmat cars behave, how different chemicals burn, what you’ve got to do to protect your residents from air contamination,” he said.
Mlachak called in help from 56 fire departments to handle the disaster, which caused more than $8 million in damage and forced everyone within a half-mile of the crash to leave the area.
The CSX freighter, which carried a mix of materials, including ethanol, liquefied petroleum gas and phthalic anhydride acid, hit a broken section of rail that had been held together by a temporary joint.
The CSX track inspector who repaired the rail used the wrong type of joint bar, federal investigators found.
“You ever play with a toy train? Take that train and push on it from both ends and you end up with this mangled group of cars,” Mlachak said. “Throw in a fuse in the middle of it, and that’s what we had.”
The fire burned for nearly four days.
Steve Gallagher, assistant chief of the Chillicothe Fire Department, said there is only so much a small agency can do.
“Primarily, what we’re looking at is a minimalist response initially. Basically, we’re looking to isolate, evacuate when necessary and try to contain,” he said.
Like Columbus, Chillicothe is situated along the crude-by-rail route.
Gallagher said Chillicothe has several firefighters trained to work with hazardous materials, but that the department mostly would focus on containing any derailment until additional firefighters showed up to help.
“We’re as prepared as we can be,” he said.
— — –Railroads and federal regulators say they have made strides in making tracks safer and improving outdated tank cars.
Railroads agreed to voluntary measures to reduce speeds of Bakken-crude trains traveling through heavily populated areas and perform more inspections in 2014.
In the past three years, the U.S. Department of Transportation has tightened oil-sampling standards, forced railroads to disclose to states which routes carry at least 1 million gallons of Bakken crude each week, and issued new tank-car design standards.
Critics, though, say it isn’t enough to reduce the 10 crude-oil derailments the Transportation Department predicts will occur every year at a cost of $4 billion and hundreds of deaths over the next two decades.
“They put these huge, long, heavy trains out on the rail tracks very abruptly without any preparation,” said Fred Millar, a Virginia-based rail-safety advocate. “The result is we’ve been getting these huge number of accidents that are unexpected, unanticipated and (that we are) unprepared for.”
The existing stock of tank cars can continue to carry Bakken through 2018 and ethanol through 2023. Cars hauling other flammable liquids must be phased out or retrofitted by 2025.
New cars must have an outer shell, a thermal lining, be made of thicker steel and use improved safety valves.
“It sounds all well and good, but we’re still going to have problems,” said Rick Hoffman, a hazardous-materials instructor for the University of Findlay.
Hoffman said training is available for first responders, but many don’t participate.
The railroads operate a training center in Pueblo, Colo., where they have trained more than 55,000 first responders since 1985.
They also provide training at local fire departments. The University of Findlay is developing a traveling course using a federal grant.
Capt. Bill Brobst of the Columbus Division of Fire said he has taken hazardous-materials training courses and was called in to help respond to the 2012 train derailment.
He said the city was fortunate that the train derailed in a relatively remote area of town. ” What if we get an incident involving the tunnel under the (Greater Columbus Convention Center)?”
— — –When lawmakers and industry officials talk about derailments, there is a debate over what is more important: what you do after a derailment or preventing one in the first place.
Independent federal investigators have made recommendations to address both.
Experts say there are solutions that could reduce derailments and damage. Some of the burden to prevent trains from derailing falls on regulators, but most of the solutions require an investment by railroad companies.
Among the solutions that experts, the rail industry and lawmakers have offered:
–Implementing a nationwide system that can stop a train if an operator makes a mistake.
–Tightening inspection standards for tracks, including more inspections using equipment that can detect internal defects.
–Federal and state inspectors prioritizing tracks, rail yards and sidings that carry crude oil.
–Installing electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.
–Rerouting crude-oil trains around major population centers.
–Developing emergency-response plans to deal with crude-oil derailments.
–Accelerating the phaseout of older tank cars and production of tank cars that follow a new federal standard.
“That early warning (and) being able to identify accidents before they happen is really where the industry needs to go next,” said Brigham McCown, former director of the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
McCown’s nonprofit group, the Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure, has pushed for sensors that can detect problems with tracks and the underlying ballast.
In a report this year, the alliance also advocated the use of specialized cars that monitor track alignment and curves, systems that measure how a track moves under a heavy load and equipment that can detect internal flaws.
Since 1969, the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent investigative body that issues safety recommendations to regulators and the industry, has been pushing for a nationwide system to stop trains.
The technology was mentioned in some form in about 20 percent of investigations the board has conducted on train incidents since 1995, according to a Dispatch review of agency investigations.
That kind of system could have prevented 145 crashes, 288 deaths and 6,574 injuries, according to the safety board.
It was supposed to be installed by the end of this year, but lawmakers granted an extension of two to four years when railroads threatened to shut down over the deadline.
Railroads have spent about $6 billion on the “positive train control” system, according to the Association of American Railroads, but finishing it will cost about $4 billion more.
Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said positive train control is a complicated technology and called the mandate unprecedented.
“There are a lot of different moving parts that are in place across the 140,000-mile rail system. Our focus is to make the network even safer,” he said. “The rail industry not only looks at the cause, but what led to the cause.”
The industry is studying ways to reduce derailments at its Transportation Technology Center in Colorado, Greenberg said. They include new technology that would detect problems with train wheels and track, improvements to rail cars and locomotives, and advancements in operational safety.
The center has a prototype of what it says would be the first laser-based rail-inspection system in the world and is testing a new ultrasonic system as well.
— — –The Norfolk Southern rail that caused the 2012 Columbus derailment showed evidence of wear and tear that could be detected with specialized equipment, National Transportation Safety Board investigators found.
The company did not respond to interview requests.
CSX spokesman Rob Doolittle would not comment on the Mount Carbon derailment, which investigators ruled was caused by a piece of broken track that inspectors knew about but did not fix.
Doolittle said that since the Mount Carbon derailment, CSX has asked its inspectors to compare new and old data to see how the rail lines might be changing.
“We are also looking at using a technique whereby the (inspection) car would run continuously over sections of our network, collecting data for a run-over-run analysis that would identify defects and alert operators to go back and inspect a particular section of rail in a short period of time,” he said.
The Columbus derailment shared similarities with a 2006 crash in New Brighton, Pa.
The train that crashed there also spilled ethanol after encountering a broken Norfolk Southern rail that showed fatigue, according to the safety board investigation.
The board issued recommendations at that time that would have helped identify the kind of wear and tear that caused the derailment, but those remained guidelines instead of rules, said Robert Hall, director of the safety board’s office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Investigations.
When the Federal Railroad Administration announced that a broken rail was to blame for a Bakken crude derailment in Mount Carbon, W.Va., this year, officials said they would look again at rail fatigue.
Hall said rules need to outline how often rails are inspected, what inspectors should look for and the threshold for which corrections must be made.
“You want to find the defects when they’re smaller and repair them before they’re a critical size,” Hall said.
Dispatch Library Director Julie Fulton contributed to this report.
This article was written by Rick Rouan & Laura Arenschield from The Columbus Dispatch and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.