Nearly five hours after a train derailment and explosion devastated the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, the intensity of the black smoke still rising from the burning buildings left Farmington, ME, Fire Chief Terry Bell amazed.
“You ride that distance and say, ‘Ah, they’ll probably have it out before we get there,’” Bell said. “But it wasn’t. The smoke was still coming up over the houses.”
At about 1:14 a.m., July 6, 2013, a runaway freight train consisting of 72 crude oil tank cars careened unattended through the center of the city of 6,000 people located 22 miles northeast of the U.S. border. Only nine tank cars survived the subsequent disaster intact.
Officially, the death toll stands at 42 with five still missing who are presumed dead. The disaster destroyed more than 30 buildings, including the town’s library, assorted businesses and a bar that was open when the blast occurred.
In the explosion’s wake, Bell and Franklin County Emergency Management Director Tim Hardy mustered a contingent of nearly 30 U.S. firefighters and apparatus from seven towns to travel to Lac-Mégantic and offer assistance. However, both responders credited their Canadian colleagues with the lion’s share of the fire fighting done.
“For what they were dealt in the middle of the night with no warning, those folks did a fantastic job saving as much life and property as they did,” Bell said.
Fire Begets Fire
A preliminary report released by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada succinctly encapsulates the events preceding the call for emergency assistance. At about 11 p.m. on July 5, 2013, a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) freight train heading east from Montreal, Quebec, to Saint John, New Brunswick, stopped at a crew change point in Nantes, QC, about seven and a half miles northwest of Lac-Mégantic.
At Nantes, the engineer secured the train and departed for the evening, leaving the lead locomotive idling, unlocked and unattended. The train was comprised of five head-end locomotives, one loaded box car used as a buffer and 72 non-pressure dangerous goods tank cars loaded with crude oil categorized as Class 3, UN 1267.
The train also included a rehabbed caboose with remote control equipment that enabled a lone engineer to operate the entire train single handed.
Shortly before midnight, a local resident called 911 to report that fire had broken out aboard the lead locomotive. Firefighters and MMA personnel responded. In keeping with standard practice, the locomotive was shut down and the fire extinguished. Then the train was again left unattended.
Nantes stands on a 1.2 percent grade above Lac-Mégantic. Shortly before 1 a.m., the 4,701-feet long, 10,287-ton train started to move, gathering speed as it rolled uncontrolled down the descending mainline track. Since no signals or track circuits were in place, the rail traffic controller was unaware of that movement.
Travelling well in excess of the authorized speed, a majority of the train derailed near the center of Lac-Mégantic, the TSB report states. Fuel spilling from 63 derailed tank cars ignited, engulfing the regional tourist destination in flames.
About two hours later, a cell phone call awoke Hardy at his fishing camp on Clear Water Lake near Farmington. The county’s emergency dispatcher patched through an inspector with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“He said there had been a major derailment in Lac-Mégantic involving crude oil rail cars resulting in a large fire,” Hardy said. “There was no power and no direct phone communications with the town.”
Based on the available information, Hardy’s first effort was to locate as much Class B foam for flammable liquid fire fighting as possible. Fortunately, the Maine Emergency Management Agency maintains caches of such foam throughout the state. The closest to Farmington was 8,000 gallons of concentrate in Portland, 95 miles south.
Waiting for a return call from MEMA to confirm the availability of that foam, Hardy got a second call from U.S. Customs. The priorities in Lac-Mégantic had changed.
“Better communications had been established,” Hardy said. “What they were asking for is fire apparatus, particularly aerial devices, firefighters and Class A foam to protect structural exposures. So we coordinated and facilitated that.”
Next, Hardy, who is also a deputy chief with the Town of Farmington Fire Department, called Bell.
“They were afraid they were going to lose the town,” Bell said. “They were requesting all the apparatus they could get from Franklin County.”
The request was unprecedented in Bell’s 36 years with the 25-member department protecting a 7,700 person community. No formal mutual aid agreement exists with fire departments north of the border.
“There are departments in the state that go across the border quite often, but we never had,” Bell said.
Farmington is the county seat of Franklin County, population 30,700. In less than 90 minutes, Hardy received commitments for firefighters and apparatus from seven Franklin County fire departments, including Chesterville, Eustis, New Vineyard, Phillips and Rangeley. Farmington and Rangeley each sent 100-foot aerials.
Other than the chiefs of Farmington and Rangeley, who are full-time paid firefighters, the rest of the Franklin County contingent were paid-on-call volunteers.
“There were a lot more people who would have liked to come but we couldn’t let them,” Bell said. “You can’t strip the town.”
Farmington’s firefighters and apparatus making the 93 mile trip to Lac-Mégantic left at 5 a.m. with Bell and Hardy taking the lead in a pickup truck. Since 2009, Americans entering Canada must have passports. No such requirement hindered the Franklin County responders.
“They knew we were coming,” Hardy said. “The gates were raised, and there were people waiting. We didn’t even come to a complete stop. They just asked if we were going to Lac-Megantic, then flagged us through.”
Bell said he thought the question alone was funny.
“This was a very small border crossing,” Bell said. “Our sirens were off but the emergency lights were going. We’ve got this great big 100-foot aerial truck. Where else would we have been going?”
Firefighters had no new information about what to expect when they reached Lac-Mégantic. Because the morning was overcast, responders did not sight the heavy plumes of smoke until cresting a hill at the edge of town.
“When we pulled onto Main Street, we could see significant fire and many buildings that were devastated,” Hardy said.
Bell said the destruction reminded him of World War II photographs.
“The trees had been reduced to little blackened toothpicks sticking up,” Bell said. “You had a few bricks or a set of stairs where there used to be a building. Usually after a structure fire there is always lumber lying around. Everything like that was gone.”
Another thing immediately noticed was that all the manhole covers had been blown off, Hardy said.
“We did see open manholes with fire shooting out four to five feet high because burning oil had gotten into the storm drain system,” he said.
Heat from the fire had been so intense that the highway blacktop beneath the vehicles had been turned to sand, Bell said.
“It was still smooth but you could tell the petroleum had been burned right out of it,” he said.
Only half a mile from the derailment, Lac-Mégantic’s untouched fire station served as incident command center. One significant barrier to communications became immediately apparent when Hardy and Bell reported for assignment. Quebec is predominately a French speaking population.
None of the American firefighters spoke French.
“You could tell an incident command system was in place,” Bell said. “They had their EMS people in one part of the room and the fire and police working together in another area. But no one was wearing a vest that would designate who was in charge.”
At one point most of the people suddenly emptied out of the IC, leaving the Americans further confused.
“It turned out the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) had arrived with a helicopter,” Bell said. “The incident commander and his team were taking an aerial tour of the fire scene to get a better grasp of the situation.”
It took the Americans a few minutes to locate some bilingual Quebecers translate. However, since none of them were available to leave the IC, the Americans were placed on standby until further notice, Bell said.
“The firefighters from Rangeley actually got up on some roofs and cut holes, but only for a few minutes,” he said. “The rest of us just waited.”
With time on their hands, the Franklin County responders observed the continuing fire operations at close hand. For example, Quebec firefighters chose to bypass city hydrants in favor of drafting straight from Lake Mégantic, a 10-square-mile reservoir that eventually drains into the St. Lawrence River.
“The firefighters from Eusits were a lot closer to Lac-Mégantic and got there before us,” Bell said. “Their pumper was one of those set up down on the lake. The pumpers drafted out of the lake and relayed the water to the fire fighting.”
Burning crude potentially threatened that effort. It flowed freely into the lake, polluting the water and setting the surface ablaze. The oil even threatened to reach a lake outlet feeding drinking water to Quebec City downstream, Bell said.
“The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency monitored that closely,” Bell said. “They even had a vacuum truck that was trying to suck the petroleum off the lake.”
Finally, about 10 a.m., an assignment came through for the Franklin County team. For the next nine hours, the firefighters labored to cool derailed tank cars still intact but threatened by flame impingement.
“They found a lieutenant who spoke pretty good English and could stay with us,” Bell said.
Responders moved their own pumpers into place on the lake shore near the city’s marina, stretching 3,000 feet of large diameter hose to the aerial devices at the scene of the assignment.
“Every once in a while the pumper would have to shut down because the oil film and other stuff that would get into the hose line,” Bell said. “When they picked up the suction hose, the stuff coating it remind-ed you of those animals caught in the big Gulf oil spill.”
Each surviving tank car contained nearly 30,000 gallons of crude, he said.
“These cars were well past where the derailment occurred,” Bell said. “They were probably a thousand feet away, maybe more, but there was still fire all around.”
None of the Franklin County firefighters had dealt with a hazardous materials emergency of this magnitude before, Hardy said.
“We all had many years worth of hazmat training under our belts,” Hardy said. “You are made aware of scenarios like BLEVEs (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion) and those sorts of things.”
After six wearying hours of protecting the tank cars, an unsettling event occurred. The relief valve suddenly vented first on one tank car and then another. The shattering, shrill sound is unmistakable.
“When you’ve got tank cars stacked up like dominoes, you’re always going to be aware of your surrounding and what could possibly go wrong,” Hardy said. “It sounded like a jet plane was coming in.”
Other than two paper plants and a biomass plant, the Franklin County team had no experience with industrial fire fighting. Yet every one of them stood their ground, despite what Bell referred to as the “pucker factor.”
He credits that steadfast refusal to run to the firefighters’ real world experience.
“It was just like the relief valve on a propane tank,” Bell said. “We’ve run into that quite a bit. Everyone understood what was going on. Still, I wouldn’t have wanted to be any closer than we were.”
The Franklin County team refueled their vehicles at least four times during the course of operations, a fuel truck circulating one truck to the next. As for refueling the firefighters, the people in Lac-Mégantic were excellent hosts, providing plenty of food, Bell said.
“People were always thanking us, people you had never seen before and may never see again,” Bell said. “They were very appreciative.”
After three more hours of cooling and with most of the fire surrounding the vulnerable tank car extinguished, most of the Americans were sent home.
“Rangeley’s people had to stay longer because their pumper was committed to drafting from the lake,” Bell said. “They didn’t come home until the next afternoon.”
A preliminary report issued by the TSB states the obvious – “the braking force applied was insufficient to hold the train on the 1.2 percent descending slope between Nantes and Lac-Mégantic.”
Transport Canada, responsible for transportation regulation, requires that a sufficient number of hand brakes be applied to prevent a parked train from moving. Individual railroads are responsible for establishing the number of hand brakes necessary for the location and grade involved.
These special instructions to engineers cover general operating conditions, not specific conditions, the TSB report states.
“In many cases, it is left up to the operating employee to determine the number of hand brakes to apply,” the report states. “The employee must take into consideration the slope or grade of the track and the approximate tonnage of the equipment to be secured at that location.”
A previous TSB investigation found that the effectiveness of hand brake systems varied depending on design, condition, maintenance and the physical strength of the employee applying the brakes.
“Specifically, the torque applied by the operating employee may not be proportional to the effective brake shoe force actually applied,” the report states.
As a test, the rail car must be pushed or pulled slightly once the brake is applied. However, the TSB investigation “demonstrated that the push-pull test is not always a good indicator of whether an adequate number of hand brakes have been applied and not all hand brakes are effective even when properly applied.”
TSB also takes issue with the level of hazard posed by the crude oil being transported.
“Petroleum crude oil is classified as a Class 3 Dangerous Good (flammable liquid), and is further divided into packing groups (PG) to further categorize its hazards (PG I being most hazardous, to PG III being least hazardous),” a press release for a TSB advisory letter states.
Analysis of product from the intact rail cars identified it as having the characteristics of a Dangerous Good of Class 3, PG II product. To qualify for PG II, the product must have an initial boiling point of 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) at an absolute pressure of 101.3 kPa (14.6 pounds per square inch) and a flash point of less than 23 degrees C (73 degrees F).
Crude oil aboard the derailed train had been submitted for transport as a Class 3, PG III product, which represents a less volatile flammable liquid. The actual flash point of the crude explains in part why it ignited so quickly once the tank cars were breached, the press release states.
Bell said responders fighting the blaze were curious about why the crude burned so easily.
“Everybody asked, ‘What’s the ignition factor?’” he said. “Crude oil is supposed to be very hard to burn.”
Any contribution that Franklin County made to saving Lac-Mégantic was extremely limited, Bell said.
“Some people are making a lot out it,” Bell said. “I’ve heard some comments like, ‘Yeah, if we hadn’t come they wouldn’t have been able to save the town.’ We didn’t save the town by any means. I don’t think we did a lot.”
Strangely enough, a recent pump test conducted on Farmington’s aerial served as another reminder of the Lac-Mégantic adventure, Bell said.
“When they conducted the test, there was an oil sheen left behind,” Bell said. “Our trucks are going to be well lubricated, for a while anyway.”
On Sept. 11, the Franklin County firefighters dispatched to Quebec reunited in Rangeley with responders from Lac-Mégantic on hand to offer further thanks. The fellow firefighters swapped memorabilia and had a cook out, Hardy said.
He said he would not be surprised if a formal mutual aid agreement between U.S. and Canadian fire departments results.
“We haven’t had that discussion with Lac-Mégantic because they are still very much involved in recovering,” Hardy said. “It’s going to be a long process.”
What Hardy said he remembers most about the meet and greet was the undying gratitude of the Lac-Mégantic responders.
“I told them we didn’t do anything extraordinary,” Hardy said. “If you’re a firefighter and somebody needs assistance, that’s what you do, no matter what the magnitude of the situation.”