Oil Tank Cars Derail in Pa.; 13 Depts. Fight 1/4-Mile Fire

Oil Tank Cars Derail in Pa.; 13 Depts. Fight 1/4-Mile Fire

Several homes along the tracks were exposed to the fire but were saved by fire fighters.

Photos by the author

A fire area almost a quarter-mile long and 500 feet wide resulted from a train derailment in Custer City, Pa. Sixteen tank cars carrying crude oil and eight other rail cars left the track. Many of the cars were punctured, and ignition was rapid.

The Bradford Township Volunteer Fire Department responded to the fire at 9:40 p.m. last Sept. 17 with 46 fire fighters on five pieces of apparatus: MT-151, MT-152, MT-153, MT-154 and MT-155. All equipment was moving within three minutes of the alarm.

Chief Howard Warfield immediately called for mutual aid when he arrived at 9:45. Twelve tank cars and four box cars were burning, but fortunately the box cars contained no additional hazardous materials according to the cargo manifest. All the tank cars, however, contained a total of over 250,000 gallons of crude oil. Before the incident was over 22 hours later, 250 fire fighters and 36 pieces of apparatus had responded from a wide area.

Evacuation started

One tank car 75 feet from the fire was carrying caustic soda. Warfield requested a call to CHEMTREC to determine proper handling for the car. Meanwhile, evacuation of nearby homes was started with the help of the police department.

Directly over the burning tank cars were high tension electric lines carrying 34,000 volts. An 8-inch-high pressure gas main was buried just under the tank cars. A call was placed to both utility companies to report to the scene. Before the electric company personnel arrived, the lines burned through and fell to the ground, posing another danger to fire fighters.

Although one of the Bradford Township stations was only a half-mile from the derailment, apparatus was blocked on East Warren Road by freight cars. MT-151, a 1250-gpm pumper, set up there and its crew laid a 1200-foot, 3-inch attack line down a dirt road on the low side of the fire. To supply the pumper, fire fighters placed two 300-gallon portable pumps in the creek, but they couldn’t supply enough water. Later, MT-151 would have to be shut down and repositioned on the bridge to draft from Tunungwant Creek.

To get water on the main body of fire, MT-153, a 1000-gallon tanker with a 250-gpm pump, responded south on US 219, crossed the tracks at Browntown to avoid becoming blocked with MT-151, and set up near the house at 936 High St. A 1 ½ -inch preconnected line was stretched to protect the house, which was only 15 feet from the fire.

Portable pump placed

MT-155, a 750-gpm pumper, responded north on US 219. It also crossed the tracks, back at Minard Run Road, to avoid being blocked. After the 1 ½-mile run, it set up near 922 High and stretched two 1 1/2-inch preconnected lines to protect homes from the main body of the fire. As the 1000 gallons of water from the booster tank were being used, other fire fighters carried a 300-gpm portable pump and hard suction up a hill to a nearby water storage tank.

When MT-155 used its water, it and MT-153 went back to the fire station in Custer City to refill. MT-152, a 750-gpm pumper, arrived at the fire and took over the position at 922 High. When MT-155 returned and set up at 938 High, it was supplied by MT-154, a 1250-gallon tanker, and MT-153.

For the 65 evacuated residents, the Salvation Army and the McKean County Emergency Management Agency set up an aid center at the Bradford Area Senior High School, 8 miles away. It was also staffed by the American Red Cross. School buses were obtained to stand by at the Hannum Memorial Rest Home, only a halfmile from the derailment, in case it was to be evacuated. It housed 40 semiinvalid persons.

The City of Bradford Fire Department, a full-time paid unit, responded, with two men on Engine 2, a 1250-gpm pumper with a 30-gallon high-expansion foam supply. An ambulance was also dispatched. Bradford Fire Chief Theodore Shay responded from his home. The city fire dispatcher called in eight off-duty fire fighters; four went to the fire and four remained at the station.

Refineries send help

Shay phoned William Woodring, safety manager for the Kendall Division of the Witco Chemical Corp., where the crude oil shipment was to be delivered. At Shay’s request, Woodring went to the refinery and called in his fire crew. He also called the United Refinery Co. in Warren, 33 miles away, and asked them to send their foam trailer. It carries 500 gallons of foam and a monitor gun. These refineries cooperate in a mutual aid fire fighting plan.

Other mutual aid companies were arriving. The Derrick City Volunteer Fire Department responded with two pumpers, a tanker and 46 men under the command of Chief William Kenlon. The Lewis Run Volunteer Fire Department responded with two pumpers, a tanker and a squad truck. Their MT-64 was a 1000-gpm pumper with 4-inch hose. Chief Irvine Swartz commanded 34 men.

The Corydon Township Volunteer Fire Department responded with 15 men under the command of Chief Pat Cobb. They operated two pumpers, a tanker and a brush truck. Another two pumpers, a tanker and 15 men came with Chief Ron Dixon of the Lafayette Township Volunteer Fire Department.

High-expansion foam

After conferring, with Warfield, Shay took command of fire fighting operations on the north side of the fire, along High St. Bradford’s Engine 2 went in at 916 High and attached a high-expansion foam eductor to a 150-foot 1 1/2-inch preconnected line. Fire fighters held back the burning crude oil there, although it was then only 10 feet from the house.

With another 100 feet of hose attached to their line, the Engine 2 crew advanced south to a position behind 922 High. But as water was being applied to the burning tank cars, the runoff was flowing north—carrying burning crude oil with it and washing the foam blanket from the houses. The line was used off and on for about an hour as needed to protect the houses.

The line earlier set up from the storage tank on the hill supplied Engine 2 through 200 feet of 2 ½-inch hose. MT-113, a 1000-gpm pumper from Derrick, came in behind Engine 2 and took off two 1 1/2-inch preconnects to protect the house at 922 High. A 385-gpm portable pump from MT-113 drafted from a 16,000-gallon swimming pool at 912 High, pumping about 7000 gallons through a 3-inch supply line to MT-113. A problem developed when the pool liner was sucked into the strainer.

Extreme heat broke the basement windows at 922 High and ignited some contents, but a Derrick City crew with a 1 ½-inch line went in and put the fire out.

Lewis Run fire apparatus set up at 938 High while Warfield and Swartz examined the rail car containing the caustic soda. It was not in the fire area and there were no ruptures in the tank, but it was becoming hot from the radiant heat. Fire fighters from Lewis Run and Bradford Township took a 1 ½ -inch line and attempted to cool the north end of the car. These fire fighters wore full protective gear and SCBA. A 50-foot 2 ½-inch line from MT-61, a 500-gpm pumper, began to supply MT-64.

At this time a call back from CHEMTREC personnel, who apparently misunderstood that the caustic soda car was leaking, advised fire fighters not to apply water to the car. About 1500 gallons had already been used but the line was shut down as advised and the crew was removed.

If the car had been ruptured and water put on caustic soda, corrosive fumes would have required evacuation within a half-mile radius. Fire fighting would have been suspended also because of insufficient breathing air supply. The closest air compressor was 20 miles away.

Warfield decided that two major water supplies would be needed to cool the tank cars and to supply the 1000gpm foam pumper from Witco.


MT-151 was repositioned to Tunungwant Creek, where it drafted through 30 feet of 6-inch-diameter hard suction hose. While this was being arranged, MT-64 was moved back to the intersection of High St. and East Warren Road, from which 500 feet of 4-inch supply line was hand-laid to MT-151. Three 50-foot 3-inch lines fed into the 4-inch line.

Corydon Township’s 1100-gallon portable tank was set up at the intersection on High and was filled through a 2 ½-inch line from MT-64, which also supplied 150 feet of preconnected 1 ½-inch line to cool an aboveground gas meter on the high-pressure gas main. A 400-foot-long 2 ½-inch attack line was stretched to 936 High to cool the tank cars there.

Two pumpers from Lafayette Township were positioned on East Warren to protect houses there if the fire spread that way. The 2100-gallon Lafayette tanker went north on High St. to help supply the Derrick pumpers.

MT-191, one of Corydon’s 500-gpm pumpers, drafted from the portable tank and supplied MT-155 through 300 feet of 2 1/2-inch line while MT-152, MT-153, MT-154 and MT-63, Lewis Run’s 1000-gallon tanker, helped keep the tank full. The tankers had to keep water coming because the 4-inch line from MT-151, across the tracks, had to be broken down at various times to allow railroad cars to be moved out. As this was done, MT-64 shut down and MT191 again pumped from the portable tank.

MT-155, supplied from MT-64 and MT-191, operated four 1 1/2-inch lines protecting 936 High, one 2 ½-inch line and one 3-inch line cooling the tank cars. Despite a constant application of water to the house at 936 High, it did ignite. Bradford Township fire fighters entered the structure and extinguished the fire in the attic and rear.

More mutual aid

Meanwhile, the water relay at the north end of the fire could not be completed until more apparatus arrived. Warfield requested additional mutual aid. He was concerned about a possible BLEVE, and there was also the chance of the fire spreading to the four derailed tanks cars not already burning, to nearby crude oil bulk storage tanks, and to the caustic soda car.

Broken wheel which caused the derailment, according to fire officials.The fire started after the coupler of tank car 6 punctured car 7 and released the oil.

The Rew Volunteer Fire Department responded with two pumpers, a tanker and 25 men under the command of Chief Greg Burkhouse. Chief Jerry Okerlund of the Hilltop Volunteer Fire Department brought 20 men on three pieces of apparatus. From 26 miles away came Kane Volunteer Fire Department’s Chief Dale Fogel and 10 men with a rescue truck and 35 gallons of foam. From 25 miles Chief Lester Himes brought eight men on a pumper and a rescue squad from the Hamlin Township Volunteer Fire Department. Seventeen men with Chief Harold Carter came 20 miles from the Smethport Volunteer Fire Department on two trucks. They brought 40 gallons of AFFF.

Assigned to standby duty at the Custer City station were units from the Port Allegany Volunteer Fire Department under the command of Chief Larry Brundage. Eighteen men were ready to operate four pieces of apparatus.

Rew’s MT-81, a 1500-gpm pumper, went south of 922 High and laid off a 1 1/2-inch preconnect 150 feet to protect the house. Another Rew pumper and tanker supplied MT-81.

Hilltop’s 1200-gallon portable tank was placed in front of 936 High and MT-74, Hilltop’s 2000-gallon tanker filled it. MT-72, a Hilltop 500-gpm pumper, drafted from the tank and supplied a 2 ½-inch line to MT-71, Hilltop’s high-pressure truck, and two 1 1/2-inch lines to protect the house at 936 High. MT-71 then operated two lines on the box cars, while MT-74 began shuttling water from the Custer City station.

Hamlin Township’s 500-gpm pumper, MT-202, went to the intersection of High and East Warren and got water from a 50-foot length of 2 1/2-inch line from MT-64. A 2 ½-inch attack line from MT-202 was used on the box cars.

A bulge in the tank car

As MT-81 continued to pump at 922 High, a nearby tank car (number 6 on the map) was developing a bulge in its top, a sign of a possible BLEVE. MT-81 was ordered to shut down and move to a protected area. The driver retreated, dragging the 1 1/2-inch line until it caught on a tree and broke the discharge gate off the pump. Out of service, MT-81 returned to its station.

At the north end of the derailment, Smethport’s MT-24, a 750-gpm front-mount pumper, set up a part of the next water relay operation from the Minard Run Creek. But it proved impossible for a pumper to draft from the creek. Smethport placed its 1500-gallon portable tank near the creek and used four portable pumps with a total capacity of 1220 gpm to fill the tank. Smethport’s 750-gpm pumper, MT-24, drafted from the tank and supplied three 600-footlong 1 ½-inch lines to another portable tank. Another portable pump in the creek fed directly into MT-24.

Smethport and Derrick City had incompatible fittings, but the relay continued by using Lafayette Township’s 3000-gallon portable tank beside MT114, a 1000-gpm Derrick pumper. MT-114 drafted out of the tank and supplied a 2½ -inch line and a 3-inch line, both 600 feet long, to the next pumper in the relay, MT-113, which had backed up to 912 High.

The next part of the relay had MT113 pump through another 600 feet of 2 1/2-inch and 3-inch hose to Engine 2. From there, Fire fighters hand-laid two 2 ½-inch lines 600 more feet from Engine 2 to 936 High. The deck gun was removed from Engine 2 and used to cool the tank cars. A 2 ½-inch attack line also was used to cool the tank car with the bulge. After the relay was set up, Smethport fire fighters operated a 1 1/2-inch line from MT-155 and applied 40 gallons of AFFF to the burning box cars.

With so many departments committed at the fire scene, the McKean County Fire Control Center in Smethport activated a countywide alert which put nine more departments on standby. Otto Township Volunteer Fire Department covered Rew with a pumper and 13 men. Eldred Township Volunteer Fire Department covered Otto Township with a similar crew. Norwich Township Volunteer Fire Department went to Hilltop with a pumper and eight men. Other departments standing by with crews in other areas included those from Roulette, Coudersport, Ludlow, Eldred Boro, Clermont, and Mt. Jewett.

More foam

Witco’s foam truck arrived around 11 p.m. with a stake truck carrying an additional 500 gallons of foam concentrate in 5-gallon containers. A squad van carried protective gear and entry suits.

Woodring and Shay, in command of the foam operations, positioned the foam pumper along High St. where there was a break in the trees, so the deck gun could be used. A 3-inch line from MT-155 supplied water. Engine 2’s deck deluge gun was also shut down and the two 2 ½-inch lines were hooked to the foam pumper.

Rew’s 3500-gallon tanker, MT-83, was placed behind the foam pumper. MT-82 hooked on with hard suction and laid a 2 ½-inch line for a backup supply in case one of the relays had to shut down. A 1 ½-inch line was taken from MT-82, a 500-gpm pumper, to cool down the foam truck and crew. With the ends of several tank cars pointed directly at them, it was not a good position for men and equipment to be in.

Boxcars and tankers were strewn through the area. Resting in a pool of oil, the four boxcars were difficult to open for complete extinguishment.

The 200-foot reach of the deck gun could not cover the entire fire front, so water was continuously pumped on both ends of the fire as the foam was applied to the center. United Refinery’s foam trailer arrived and was set up in the yard between 916 and 912 High.

This unit was supplied by a 2 ½-inch line from Engine 2. But its deck gun could not reach the fire on the other side of the tracks, so a 2 1/2-inch hand line was taken off to extinguish tank car 5 and the lake of burning crude oil.

As the major portion of the fire was knocked down, the deck gun was shut down and two 150-foot 2 ½-inch hand lines were taken from the foam pumper so crews could move in to extinguish smaller fires around the tank cars. Officers had to be constantly aware of small spot fires reigniting as the foam blanket broke down. Foam was reapplied as needed.

Warfield declared the fire under control at 1:30 a.m. Thursday. All foam application was stopped at this time. Flare-ups did occur over the next two hours, and the two foam hand lines were used to extinguish them. United Refinery’s fire department picked up its equipment and returned to Warren at 2 a.m. The four burning box cars in a pool of crude oil posed the biggest threat at this time. Gaining access to the interiors of the cars was difficult because the doors and bulkheads were jammed. Fire fighters used circular saws and come-a-longs to open up the cars. Other fire fighters using three 1 ½-inch lines worked on extinguishing these cars from about 3 a.m. until 10 a.m. Then they were moved to the other side of the tracks by the railroad salvage company.

At 4 o’clock the next morning a locomotive was brought in on the south end of the derailment to remove the freight cars that were still on the tracks. Railroad officials attempted without success to pull the caustic soda car out of the derailment. The tank car completely derailed but it did not overturn. The car was left in this position until daylight, when cranes were used to set it back on the tracks.

All mutual aid departments except those in the relay had returned to their stations by 8 a.m. Water was pumped continuously all day Thursday in an effort to cool the tank cars so they could be moved safely. This was done with three 1 1/2-inch lines, four 2 ½-inch lines, one 3-inch line and the deck gun on the foam pumper. Fire fighters from various departments relieved each other on the hand lines. The relay from the north side was shut down at about 5 p.m. The other relay remained in use until 7:30 p.m., when the last tank car had been. removed from the tracks. All Bradford Township apparatus had returned to their stations by 8:30 p.m.

Starting at 6 a.m. on Friday, Bradford Township returned to the scene and remained another four hours after a box car reignited. The railroad salvage company used its bulldozers to pull the box cars apart and dump the contents on the ground so extinguishment could be completed.

Cause of derailment

According to fire and railroad officials, a broken wheel on the eighth car from the last locomotive caused the derailment. A motorist driving on High St. about 1 ½ miles south of the derailment saw flames shooting off one of the cars when it passed. When the cars derailed, the coupler on tank car 6 punctured the end of tank car 7. Spilling oil came in direct contact with the hot journal box, resulting in the fire. Other tank cars also ruptured.

Thirteen departments were involved in fire fighting operations, with an additional eight on standby. Nineteen pumpers, eight tankers and nine pieces of other apparatus were on the fireground. Over 2 miles of hose were used. The fire was extinguished with the use of 2045 gallons of protein foam concentrate, 40 gallons of AFFF and 30 gallons of high-expansion foam. Over 1,750,000 gallons of water were pumped onto the tank cars. Lost in the fire were 205,000 gallons of Ohio crude oil, but another 62,869 gallons were recovered.

Fatigue was a major problem for fire fighters. Some remained on the scene for about 22 hours. Radio communications were another problem. McKean County had only one frequency for all dispatching and fireground traffic. Since the derailment, a separate fireground frequency has been approved.

No posts to display