Two Die After Light Ignites Vapors During Train Derailment Cleanup
A flash fire in a crude oil tank car occurred three days after a train derailed in Bradford, Pa. Fumes ignited when a workman used a non-explosionproof light in an explosive atmosphere during the cleanup. Two cousins died and two other workmen were injured, one with third-degree burns.
During the emergency operations, fire fighters were hampered because the narrow opening into the tank car, where the cousins were trapped, restricted the use of SCBA. At least two fire fighters were overcome by fumes inside the car and were treated at a hospital. Two other fire fighters were also injured.
Mutual aid call
On Saturday, September 20 of last year, an emergency call at 5:45 p.m. reported an accident at the site of the train derailment that had occurred on Sept. 17. The City of Bradford Fire Department ambulance was dispatched with Fire Fighter/EMTs Ron Hogan and John Peterson. Also dispatched was the Bradford Township Volunteer Fire Department. It responded with a 1250-gpm pumper, two 750-gpm pumpers, a 1250-gallon tanker and 25 men. Chief Howard Warfield immediately called for mutual aid.
The City of Bradford responded with a 1250-gpm pumper and Chief Ted Shay. Off-duty city fire fighters were immediately called into Central Fire Station to cover for the crews that were in the township. The Lewis Run Volunteer Fire Department was also requested to respond, as was the Hilltop Volunteer Fire Department ambulance.
As emergency crews arrived on the scene, it was learned that the accident developed while crews from Winter Railroad Service, Inc., of North Collins, N.Y., were cleaning out a 24,000-gallon crude oil tank car that had been involved in the earlier derailment and fire.
One workman was inside and two others were on top of the tank car when the explosion occurred. Richard Brewster had been holding a light directed into the hatch so the workman inside could see. Brewster was severely burned when the fireball shot out of the hatch. He was taken away from the tank car by Philip Winter. By this time other men from the work crew had run to the tank car. Two workmen climbed onto the car, thinking the man inside was dead. As they neared the hatch they could hear him splashing around in the oil.
Photos by Jay K. Bradish, IFPA
No respiratory protection
Marvin Winter went into the tank car without respiratory protection and found Mark Winter lying down in the oil. Marvin sat Mark upright against the side of the tank but was being overcome by the fumes and had to leave the car.
Philip Winter returned and entered the tank car next, also without breathing protection. Philip became entangled in the piping inside the car and called for help but was overcome within a couple of minutes. Marvin entered the car again to secure a lifeline around Mark but had to climb out again when he started to lose consciousness.
First victim removed
At this time the city ambulance arrived and Peterson was lowered into the tank car with a lifeline but without SCBA. He attached the lifeline to Mark and pushed him through the hatch as workmen pulled on the lifeline. Then Peterson was overcome by fumes. He was immediately pulled out and transported to Bradford Hospital by a Bradford City police car.
Mark Winter was not breathing at this time. Warfield and other volunteer fire fighters started CPR on him; after about seven minutes he started breathing again and was transported to the hospital by the city fire department ambulance.
Philip Winter was still trapped inside the tank car. Bradford Township Fire Fighter Dan Burkhouse tried to enter the tank car wearing SCBA but could not fit through the 20-inch hatch opening. Workmen pushed him through but dislodged his facepiece. He, too, was overcome by fumes and also pulled from the tank car and transported to the hospital in a Bradford Township police car.
A member of the work crew then put on SCBA and was able to enter the tank car. He found Philip Winter and freed him from the piping. Philip was not breathing when he was removed from the tank car, so CPR was started. He and Brewster were transported to the hospital in the Hilltop Volunteer Fire Department ambulance. Philip Winter was dead on arrival at the hospital. The cause of his death was listed as asphyxiation.
Mark Winter, who was inside the tank car at the time of the explosion, died five days later of severe burns. Richard Brewster is recovering from third-degree burns. In addition to the fire fighters, four workmen were also injured in the rescue efforts.
Determining the cause
Investigators later arrived at the scene to enter the tank car—with lifeline and SCBA—in an attempt to determine the cause of the explosion. Inside they found a flashlight, a pair of glasses, a hardhat and a squeegee that was used to clean the crude oil off the sides of the tank car. Air and crude oil samples were taken from inside and laboratory tested. Tests eliminated the flashlight as a possible source of ignition because the mixture inside the tank car was too rich.
A quartz light was located and identified from descriptions given by workmen. This is the light that was being held by Brewster outside the hatch when the explosion occurred. It was a 1500-watt, 240-volt, single-phase quartz light fed by heavy-duty 14/3 wire. Markings were worn off the wire and it was found to be somewhat worn and brittle. Tests showed that there was no fault with current to the light. The General Electric Technical Manual shows this type of light has an operating temperature of 750°F.
The American Petroleum Institute classifies crude oil as a Class 1 flammable liquid. No flash point is given by them because of the many different types of crude oil. Ohio crude oil was being transported in this tank car. Flash point tests conducted by the Kendall Division of the Witco Chemical Corporation determined that Ohio crude oil has a flash point of 0°F.
The quartz light was listed as the official cause of the explosion. Brewster reported that he was holding the light within 20 inches of the hatch. There was enough heat being given off by the light to ignite the crude oil vapors escaping from the hatch. The tank car was lying on its side allowing a mixture of oxygen and fuel vapors to build up inside the car. A detailed inspection of the tank car showed there were no seam ruptures or holes in the car; therefore there was no useful ventilation.
With derailments and cleanup operations becoming more common, it is hoped that other departments can learn from our experiences. After spending over 20 hours at the site of this 24-car derailment and fire on Sept. 17 and 18, with no injuries to fire fighters or civilians, this later accident was very discouraging to all who were involved.