At 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, July 11, 1998, a clear, sunny day, the Rockland County Fire Control Center (44 Control) received a report that a Conrail freight train had derailed and that a brush fire was in progress. The Stony Point, New York, fire, EMS, and police departments were dispatched to the scene. Size-up confirmed that there had been a train derailment.

An incident command system was instituted. The Rockland County Office of Fire & Emergency Services (OFES) and Rockland County Health Department also responded to the scene. All that was known at this point was that the Conrail train left Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was en route to Selkirk, New York. It consisted of 142 cars, 27 of which had derailed. OFES requested that the Rockland County Helicopter (Chopper 1) respond to the scene to perform visual surveillance.

An aerial assessment revealed that three of the train cars were in the Hudson River. On further investigation, we learned that the cars in the water held sodium hydroxide, a component of bleach. Sodium hydroxide has a Department of Transportation (DOT) placard number of 1823. Both the DOT North American Emergency Response Guidebook (page 37) and the NIOSH Guide to Chemical Hazards stated that sodium hydroxide can be water-reactive.

Since river water was involved in this derailment, the U.S. Coast Guard was notified. The local electric utility company, Conrail, and a representative from New York State Environmental Conservation also responded to the scene.

The train, which had just passed through a densely populated area, now sat in a remote location, making access by emergency vehicles difficult.

During the derailment, the train had damaged an electric pole with a major electric transmission line attached. Before any operations could begin, the electric utility had to shut off all electric power to the lines.

Representatives of all agencies that constituted the unified incident command system were fully briefed. Responding agencies included the Stony Point (NY) Fire Department, Stony Point (NY) Police Department, Stony Point (NY) Ambulance, Town of Stony Point Paramedics, Town of Stony Point Government Officials, Rockland County Office of Fire & Emergency Services, Rockland County Haz-Mat Team, Rockland County Helicopter (Chopper 1), Rockland County Health Department, Rockland County Sheriff`s Department, New York State Emergency Management Office, New York State Encon Police (Environment Conservation), New York State Park Police, Thiells (NY) Fire Department, Verplank (NY) Fire Depart-ment, U.S. Coast Guard, Orange & Rockland Electric Utilities, Conrail, and cleanup crews (Conrail and outside contractors).


The Rockland County Hazardous Materials Response Team–50 volunteers trained to a minimum level of New York State Hazardous Materials Technicians–was activated. The derailment site was declared unsafe, and the town supervisor declared a local state of emergency. One reason for this action was that surface vegetation was starting to discolor. The discoloration later was attributed to the rock salt that was in most of the cars.

A fax request for a material safety data sheet (MSDS) on sodium hydroxide was sent to Chemtrec from the County Command Van, which had initially been requested by the incident commander and which arrived on-scene 30 minutes later.

Weather reports were updated periodically, and a local cleanup contractor was called.

The County Haz Mat Team was briefed on the status of the situation and was instructed to respond to the scene. A hot zone of one-quarter of a mile was established. Eight members of the haz-mat team underwent medical evaluations and then dressed into level B suits. Four members entered the hot zone for the purpose of recon; the other four backed up the original team. Each member had an SCBA containing 45 minutes of air. At this point, the recon team`s primary function was to observe the situation and take air and water samplings. All readings taken were within normal limits.

After consultation with the unified incident command system positions, it was agreed that the first 26 cars would be moved forward (north) to allow responders access to the derailment. Conrail asked and received permission to start to pull the wrecked cars out of the way. Heavy machinery arrived, and the cleanup began. The scene was declared safe, was secured, and was turned over to Conrail.


On Sunday, July 12, 1998, during cleanup and the re-railing of the cars by the Conrail crews, it was noticed that one of the cars, which was underneath other cars in the wreckage and not at all visible, had affixed to it a placard that read DOT number “1017,” which we learned was chlorine. The printed manifest submitted by Conrail on Saturday did not indicate the presence of a chlorine car in the derailed section.

This discovery prompted the redeployment of the County Haz Mat Team as well as all the other agencies that responded on Saturday. Chemtrec was notified and provided an MSDS on chlorine, which is a poison inhalation hazard, meaning that its gases can be toxic if inhaled (page 18, DOT E.R.G.; page 58, NIOSH reference book). The event was reclassified as an emergency operation.

Fire boats from the Stony Point, Thiells, and Verplank Fire Departments were called to the scene to assist New York State Park Police and Coast Guard boats in closing down traffic in this section of the Hudson River. Haz-mat team members were briefed on chlorine and instructed to use their chlorine “C” kit. Chlorine kits come in three types: A, B, and C. Kit A is used for chlorine cylinders up to 150 pounds. Kit B is used for cylinders up to one ton. Kit C is used for railroad or truck tank cars. Placing equipment from the C kit over the relief valve contains the product and stops the leak.

Again, eight members were given medical checks and then suited up in level B suits. A survey of conditions was made, and air and water tests were taken. All new readings were within normal ranges. Visual inspection revealed that the chlorine tank had not ruptured and was not leaking. One indication that no chlorine was leaking was the presence of frogs near the tank car. Had chlorine been leaking, the frogs certainly would have become victims.

Haz-mat members dressed out, and the cleanup contractor continued monitoring the air throughout the operation.


After an extensive investigation, the cause of the derailment was attributed to an overheated roller bearing, which led to metal fatigue and journal failure. The journal is the metal housing for the train wheel bearings. While en route, the particular journal was scanned by a heat sensor (commonly referred to as a hot box detector) within 15 miles of the site of the failure without any evidence of being outside of normal limits. Within the next 15 miles, the metal failed in what is known as a “quick burn,” just 312 miles short of the next detector check.


Several days after the incident, a critique was conducted with all responding agencies present. The following observations were noted:

Cooperation among all the responding agencies was outstanding.

A larger command van would have been more efficient. This incident quickly outgrew the van`s capacity. It was suggested that a tent or trailer be used in addition to the van.

The incident command system grew immensely, as it should have. All components of the system–including planning, logistics, and finance–should be established as soon as practical.

Having another individual available in the command van to take notes and create a step-by-step chronology would have been of great help to the dispatcher, who was also involved in communications and scribing.

It was suggested that better identification of the individuals in command and of the hot, warm, and cold zones would have been helpful.

The mislabeling of the rail cars and the misinformation on the rail company`s shipping papers (waybills) must be addressed with railroads. Although more than half of the cars (76) were empty, unless the tank has been cleaned of all residue from its previous use and purged, it is not considered empty. The other cars were carrying rock salt and wood pulp.

There were no injuries as a result of the operation–a feat that speaks for itself when considering its size and scope. n

Aerial view of train derailment; close-up view of train cars in the Hudson River. (Photos by author.)

n GARY SIEGEL recently retired from the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), where he served for 24 years, the past five as an instructor at the FDNY Fire Academy. He is presently an instructor at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York; a New York State Supplemental Fire & Rescue Instructor; and a member of the Rockland County Haz-Mat Team.

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