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Mutual aid at derailment.

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ON FRIDAY, JUNE 19, 2009, A weather front moved through the northern Illinois area, dumping more than four inches (over 10cm) of rain on Cherry Valley and Rockford, causing flash flooding throughout the region. Cherry Valley fire companies, a boat, two Advanced Life Support (ALS) ambulances and one Battalion Chief were rescuing motorists from vehicles caught in the flooding when, at 20:38hrs, the Cherry Valley Fire Protection District was dispatched to a train derailment and explosions in the area of Mulford Road and Sandy Hollow Road. Just prior to the incident, calls to the Winnebago County 911 centre reported that the rail tracks at 3400 S Mulford Road were washed out. The incident bordered both Cherry Valley and Rockford, meaning numerous people – giving different locations – had called to report it. Alongside Cherry Valley, the city of Rockford dispatched: Two engines; one ladder; two quints (quintuple combination pumper: a piece of apparatus combining engine and ladder features); one HazMat unit; two ARFF trucks; two ALS ambulances; and two District Chiefs.


Unknown Products. 


On arrival, the author noted a train derailment involving multiple tank cars and a major fire involving unknown products. Many pressure relief valves could be heard operating. The incident was at a crossing with Mulford Road, a heavily used north-south highway, and was blocking the road. The next closest crossings were approximately three miles (4.8km) east and west. The author assumed command of the incident, locating the command post on the north side of the derailment. Battalion Chief LeFevre was assigned as the Chief’s aid.

Command advised that Rockford District Chief Preiss should assume the south sector until the arrival of Cherry Valley Deputy Chief Hayes at approximately 21:30hrs, who then took over with Battalion Chief Geeser as his aid. The fi rst ambulances arrived and were advised 
immediately that they were too close to the blaze and were to reverse back to the command post. Both locations were approximately 1,320 feet (402m) from the burning tank containers. Both the Cherry Valley and Rockford ambulances advised they had burns victims, two with critical burns and one fatality, and three to four victims on the north side, with minor to moderate burns. Command advised all ambulances they were to pull back to a safe area to treat victims. Bystanders were initially a problem, with many trying to take pictures on cell phones. Fire units used their vehicles’ loud speakers to clear the area, but needed police action to make onlookers leave. Command called mutual aid using the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) and requested Cherry Valley MABAS card 11 to the second alarm, which consisted of: Six engines; two ladders; two heavy rescues; four chiefs; and one ambulance from area departments. Staging areas and Rapid Intervention Teams were established on both sides of the derailment. North of the derailment, both sides of Mulford Road are heavily populated residential areas, consisting of approximately 700 homes, many within 150 yards (137m) of the burning tanks.

Command ordered an evacuation area of half a mile radius (800m), which is the US Department of Transportation Emergency Response Guide’s recommended distance in such incidents. The massive blaze, wreckage and darkness meant that the products and the types of tank wagons involved, and whether they were pressurised, could not be determined. The south sector advised it had a parking lot where crews could set up a ladder pipe operation to put water on a line of uninvolved tankers still on the
track, to try to prevent the flames spreading to them. Command advised that once this system was set up it would have to be left unmanned. At 22:00hrs a large area still needed to be evacuated and command requested that MABAS box 11 be upgraded to the sixth alarm to help police in their door-to-door evacuation. This consisted of: 12 more engines; three ladders; two heavy rescues; and eight chiefs from departments in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. Staging for these units was at the Cherry Vale Mall (4.8km away), chosen for its large parking area and lighting. Ethanol The train crew was located and brought to the command post. The engine and forward portion of the train had come to a stop approximately two miles (3.2km) to the east of the derailment and the crew was walking back towards the scene, setting brakes on the wagons when they were located. The train manifest showed all its wagons contained ethanol, each carrying approximately 28,800 gallons (131,040 litres). Command met with HazMat personnel from Cherry Valley Fire, Rockford Fire and Canadian National Railroad to plan the best course of action. Fire Department units had 400 gallons (1,514l) of Alcohol-Resistant Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AR-AFFF) on scene and the railroad had 900 gallons (3,407l) en route. It appeared the fire could involve up to 15 tanker wagons, containing up to 500,000 gallons (1.8 million litres) of ethanol mixed with three per cent gasoline. It was concluded that there was not enough foam available, nor was it safe for firefighters to get close enough to the fire to apply it. Many pressure relief valves were operating at a high pitch and some wagons had already failed. Command decided to let the fires burn down. The command post was moved into the Illinois Emergency Management Agency Unified Command vehicle when it arrived. Deputy Chief Hayes was moved to the command post as the logistics officer with Battalion Chief Geeser, and Win-Bur-Sew Fire Chief Martin was tasked with writing an incident action plan for the next day and preparing for a multi-day event. Battalion Chief Le Fevre remained at the initial command post to assist North Park Fire Department Chief Pearson, who was assigned as the operations chief.Extinguishment. At 02:30hrs, command was advised that evacuation was complete. Command decided to leave two alarms of units in the north and south staging areas, in case of any unforeseen event, but mutual aid companies were released. The west side fires began to burn down to a level where command and railroad personnel felt they could be extinguished safely using two unmanned monitors on the north side, each flowing 750 gallons per minute (2,839lpm) per minute. The fire was extinguished and water flow was maintained for one hour to cool the tanks. Command advised ‘all fires extinguished’ at 17:00hrs on June 20, at which point the mutual aid companies were released. At 12:00hrs command felt it was safe for crews on the south side to approach and remove the body of an adult female killed while trying to flee her vehicle. That same day evacuees were allowed to return to their homes and all move-up companies were released, when command was transferred to Battalion Chief Le Fevre for the overnight hours. Mulford Road command, assumed by Chief Wilt, was terminated on June 21 at 16:00hrs. It is felt the entire incident went very well and smoothly. Command decided at the start that once the rescues were made and evacuations completed, firefighter safety would not be risked. This was the largest incident in the history of the Cherry Valley Fire Protection District and, as bad as it was, it could have been much worse. The train’s wheels had slipped as it was going up an incline on wet tracks coming out of Rockford and the engineer backed off on the throttle. At the time of the derailment the train was just starting to pick up speed at 34mph; had it been going 50mph, it is likely that there would have been no survivors from the vehicles at the crossing. On the afternoon of June 20, it was discovered that the truck and wheels from one tank wagon penetrated the dirt next to the road to a depth of 10 feet (3.05m), striking and damaging the outer casing of a 16 inch (40.6cm) natural gas distribution line operating at 288 pounds per square inch. Had the train been going faster, it is believed the inner pipe would have been damaged, causing a high pressure natural gas-fed fire in the middle of the derailment and impinging on the tank cars. The single fatality – a 41-year-old woman – died at the scene from burns. Her mini-van was first in line at the crossing. She was with her 40-year-old husband and 17-year-old daughter, who was five months pregnant – both were critically burned and the unborn child did not survive. Five people who were in vehicles on the north side of the crossing received minor to moderate injuries and all were treated and released that night or the next day. Mutual aid The train was 6,940 feet long (2,115m) with 114 rail wagons, 74 of which contained ethanol. Nineteen wagons of ethanol derailed, with 15 wagons involved in the fire, burning burned 323,963 gallons (1,222.7l). Equipment from 33 fire departments from northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin responded, with approximately 150 firefighters at the scene or covering Cherry Valley Fire Stations. The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army provided food and water to firefighters. The police activated their mutual aid system and officers from over 20 agencies helped with traffic and crowd control. All evacuated persons were given the option to report to a church north of the incident, where buses were waiting to take them to shelters, should they have nowhere to go. An incident of this size could not have been handled effectively had it not been for the MABAS that brought help in with little effort. 


Author Chief Craig Wilt is the Chief for Cherry Valley Fire Protection District, USA. He joined Cherry Valley FPD in 1972, holding positions of firefighter, Lieutenant, Captain and Deputy Chief, before being promoted to Chief in 2001. 


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