The teaser on a cable news channel caught my attention because my mind flashed back to one of the most memorable events in my 56-year writing career – the Weyauwega derailment and evacuation.
The story about a train derailing and exploding near the Ohio State Fairgrounds in Columbus last week was slightly longer than the teaser. Details needed to be gleaned from a search of the Internet.
That incident eerily mirrored the Weyauwega derailment early on the morning of March 4, 1996.
A Norfolk Southern train with two locomotives and 98 cars of mixed freight derailed about 2:05 a.m. July 11. The train was a little more than a mile long and was carrying 12,219 tons of material including ethanol, styrene nomomer, grain and corn syrup. A one-mile radius was evacuated after a car of ethanol exploded.
Sixteen years earlier, an 81-car Wisconsin Central train traveling 48 mph entered Weyauwega. The first 16 cars passed a switch without incident, after which 37 cars behind them derailed at the location of the switch at 5:49 a.m. The derailed cars included seven tank cars of liquid petroleum gas, seven cars of propane and two tank cars of sodium hydroxide. When local fire crews arrived at the scene five minutes after the derailment, fireballs were exploding up to 300 feet high.
In Weyauwega, the evacuation involved the entire city and lasted 18 days.
It was a hallmark event as local, regional, state and even federal agencies were involved and virtually no plan existed at the time requiring that type cooperation and management of a disaster.
The assessment of the Weyauwega derailment showed the need for comprehensive emergency management response plans.
As a result FEMA – Federal Emergency Management Agency – has grown to prominence or notoriety in dealing with natural disasters.
The seed for FEMA was planted Nov. 23, 1988, with passage of the Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. On March 3, 2003 FEMA became part of the Department of Homeland Security,
Emergency response plans are now common and required from the bottom to the top of government. Emergency response begins at the local level and works its way up the chain, making it essential that local officials are prepared and have an outline in responding to emergencies – both natural and manmade.
No other story in my career with The Post-Crescent required the intense management of the Weyauwega derailment. It is the type of story that gives a news person a shot of adrenalin.
My involvement began with the daily call from the “scanner lady” who spent nights listening to emergency broadcasts. About midway through her list, she paused and said a general alert had just been made by the Waupaca Sheriff’s department.
I asked her to listen for some details: “Explosion! Derailment!”
That was enough to know this was special.
I called the New London Police Department, which I visited daily on my way to Appleton. The officer said a “fire ball” was seen by people on County X between New London and Weyauwega, about a dozen miles apart.
Less than five minutes after learning about the incident from the scanner lady, I had Waupaca area residents Dan Wilson and Ed Culhane responding to the scene. I phoned photo department chief Dewey Nale to get a photographer on the way to Weyauwega.
Finally, I called News Editor Bill Knutson about the people responding to the scene.
Dan Powers was dispatched to the scene by Nale. He stopped at the office to pick up the new computer camera which enabled on-the-scene photos that could be sent to the computer based in the office.
Steve Wideman and Andy Thompson were added to the pool of writers covering the story, which had already picked up John Lee. Lee, Wilson, Culhane and Thompson all began with The Post-Crescent working with me and were familiar with the people and area. This was a definite advantage in attaining information and comments when covering a story.
Our crew was responsible for breaking news in the ever changing story. It was Wideman who first brought to light the danger of a BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion) that turned tank cars into potential Molotov cocktails.
No deaths or major injuries resulted. A feed mill and storage shed adjacent to the railroad were destroyed. Most claims to recover losses involved housing and damage from broken pipes from freezing in evacuated buildings.
Among procedures resulting from that event was removal of pets and a need to take essential medicines along with evacuees.
The length of a sidetrack was extended in response to the incident and related problems with long traffic interruptions on State 110 at the affected crossing site.
Plans to double track along the entire system never materialized beyond the talking and planning stage.
The length of trains seems to have increased with several in excess of 100 cars.
The recent derailment in Ohio is most similar to that in Weyauwega. Reports show the experience of that event 16 years earlier aided in the response last week.