80-Hour Blaze in Tunnel After Freight Train Derails

80-Hour Blaze in Tunnel After Freight Train Derails

Smoke pours from one end of tunnel, partially obscuring car carrier after train derailment and fire in Congers,

N.Y.— photos by T. Brown

Volunteer fire fighters stretch lines into tunnel, which became like an oven as stone walls and ceiling retained heat from fire.

What began as a routine response to a “report of fire, type unknown,” became an 80-hour battle to extinguish burning wreckage of a freight train derailment in a tunnel in Congers, N.Y.

Responding to the alarm at 7:17 a.m. last June 6, a Thursday, men of the Congers Fire Department found that a 52-car Penn Central freight train had derailed and caught fire in a 1600-foot tunnel. Cars had not only left the track, but had uncoupled and turned almost at right angles to the rails, a fact which hampered attempts at extinguishment.

Before the incident ended, 15 fire departments and 30 pieces of equipment were involved either at the scene or on standby duty.

Manifest unavailable

Identification of what the cars were carrying was delayed because the injured conductor was taken to a hospital before the fire officer in charge could get the train manifest from him. As a precautionary measure, residents of the immediate area were evacuated, and calls were placed to CHEMTREC, American Cyanamid, Nyack Hospital, and the Dow Chemical Company, basing questions on the scant information on hand.

When the bill of lading was located, it revealed that the situation was perplexing, but not as serious as it might have been. Among the contents of the train were washing machines, shingles, cardboard, containers of plastic, alginate (an ice cream thickener), P tert butyl phenol (a nontoxic but offensive dry chemical), lionxin (an artificial flavor), hydroperoxide, and new autos. As the fire progressed, several small explosions resulted from the ignition of gasoline in auto tanks.

Aid summoned

Chief Harold Palmatier of Congers requested the Haverstraw Fire Department to respond to the north end of the tunnel and after further appraisal of the situation, requested that additional mutual aid departments be dispatched. Apparatus from Hillcrest, Letchworth Village, Nyack, and Blauvelt were assigned to cover vacated stations, while pumpers from Stony Point, West Haverstraw, Thiells, New City, Valley Cottage, and West Nyack responded to the scene.

A two-line relay was set up, as the nearest sources of water were almost 2 miles away. One line was supplied by a hydrant on Route 9W and the other from draft at the Hudson River.

Members began entering the tunnel in teams of four, each man wearing self-contained breathing apparatus. As no vertical ventilation was possible, products of combustion soon accumulated, causing dense smoke conditions. The interior walls, largely of natural stone, retained the heat and created an oven-like atmosphere.

Several men were treated for the effects of heat and smoke by the Rockland County medical examiner, who set up a first aid station at the scene. Some fire fighters were given doses of an antiacid and milk, while others were packed in ice to reduce their body temperatures.

Feeder line stretched

Due to the inaccessibility of the foreground, locomotives were used to carry men and equipment. Much of the hose used for hand lines was shuttled to the attack pumper whose bed had already been stripped.

On the southern end, Congers Fire Department units and a Spring Valley pumper laid a 4-inch feeder line from a hydrant on Old Haverstraw Road. Water supply was now sufficient to support master stream operation, and a deluge set was put into use. Many pockets of fire still remained untouched, however, because of the length of the tunnel and the great quantity of debris.

Darkness began to set in when the operation was 10 hours old, and additional apparatus was dispatched from Valley Cottage and Nyack to supply lights. High expansion foam was being applied in an effort to smother some of the low pockets of fire. Before this method of attack had a chance to prove its merit, large chunks of rock began falling from the roof, causing injuries to some members and prompting a withdrawal from the tunnel.

Tunnel causes concern

At one point, Route 9W, which passes directly overhead, was closed to traffic pending a report on structural conditions by a geologist and an engineer. It was later determined that hose lines directed against the heated rock had caused contraction which cracked the ceiling. After reviewing the situation, a decision was made to abandon the attack for the night and return in the morning.

On Friday, 24 hours after the initial call, operations were resumed. Valley Cottage and New City, which were both previously stationed on the north, were instructed to respond to the south end of the tunnel and lay a 3-inch supply line. This line fed a deluge set which had been placed on a flatcar by Congers volunteers and was being advanced into the tunnel. Later fire fighters operated lines from the lower level of a three-tier auto carrier, which was pushed by a locomotive. This afforded protection from falling rocks and improved access to the main body of fire.

Haverstraw again was positioned to the north, with units from Thiells, West Haverstraw, and later Rockland Lake supplying lines for the continuing foam application.

Pumpers relieved

It soon became apparent that in spite of the renewed offensive, the fire was continuing to burn. With the advent of darkness, preparations were made for an all-night operation.

American Red Cross and Salvation Army canteens were dispatched, and diesel pumpers from Nanuet, Hillcrest, and Nyack relieved the southern units. These engines hooked up to the existing lines and pumped until the original apparatus returned Saturday morning.

Cars were removed from the tunnel for overhaul on Saturday, and all equipment had returned to quarters by 3:35 p.m. Sunday, June 9. The fire fighting marathon was one of the largest mutual aid responses in Rockland County history. It is estimated that 1000 emergency service personnel were involved.

The tunnel derailment and fire was not the first confrontation with a train by Congers firemen. In March 1972, they covered a school bus-freight train collision in which five were killed. Ironically, both trains had the same engineer.

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