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Sheriff’s View #16 for April 12 to 16, 2010
Sheriff’s View #16 for April 12 to 16, 2010

Sheriff J.B. King
Welcome aboard one more time for another trip around Pulaski County with the deputies of the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office. We had a busy week this past week and I shall devote a lot of space to one major incident in this column.

On Tuesday of last week at 9:25 a.m. we had a westbound BNSF train derail in Swedeborg. Approximately 17 cars were damaged or off the tracks. Many had overturned down the railway embankment. This incident had the potential to be an extremely serious incident.

Over the past 40 years of my law enforcement career, I have had to go through many training classes and exercises that dealt with truck wrecks on I-44 and train derailments that involved hazardous materials. I think I would swear that at least every other class that I ever attended started out with more or less the following brief as to what we faced for the training exercise:

“Gentlemen, today we have a train derailment (or overturned tanker truck) right in the middle of the town. We have several tanker cars of anhydrous involved and overturned. We have a leak and our current wind speed is 25 mph. The wind is blowing toward a populated section of town. The main road through town is blocked by the derailment. How do we handle this hazardous incident today?”

With all the past training in mind, what do I find when I arrive on the scene in Swedeborg? Well surprise, surprise, we had an overturned train full of tanker cars right smack in the middle of Swedeborg.

Even before we could find the train engineer with his load manifest, I could not help but notice a tanker car of anhydrous that was off the rails but still upright. It was also located about seventy yards from the Crocker Fire Department station in Swedeborg. The railroad crossing on Route T was completely blocked by the rest of the train and that immediately limited our ability to respond and take effective action. The rest of the tanker cars were spilled down over the railway embankment and had landed right next to the main east/west roadway in Swedeborg. Of course, that limited our ability to respond or evacuate people. It only took a short glance at the large trees swaying in the wind to know that we were in the 20 mph wind speed range. In short we had the perfect training exercise, but unfortunately, this one was for real.

Since this was a hazardous materials/possible fire scene, under the National Incident Management System (NIMS) that put the Crocker fire chief in command. As I started around the fire station on foot, I saw that the firemen were already scoping out the wreck with their binoculars and the hazmat reference books were in their hands. It only took a few seconds to see that these firefighters had been well-drilled in the correct response procedures.

The radio traffic told me that both the Waynesville Rural Fire Department and the Richland Tri-County Fire Department were also responding. The evacuation of the Swedeborg residents in the wind path was already underway. We quickly cut off the flow of vehicle traffic into Swedeborg.

The initial scan of the wreck from the distance revealed no vapor clouds or smoke. The next step was to send two Crocker firemen into the wreckage for a close range visual examination. The Crocker firemen donned their hazardous materials suits and moved in to inspect. As usual, it was hard to understand them over the radio due to the fully enclosed suits but they soon returned and after they were hosed down to remove any chemicals they were able to remove the suits and talk.

They had found no sign of any vapor leak, no fire, and just one small spill of a yellow powder from one rail car. Over the next hour or so, we located the train engineer, studied his load manifest, and verified the position of all the cars and their contents. We established staging areas for the train derailment crews that were headed our way. By 1 p.m. Swedeborg residents were returning to their homes and the emergency phase of the incident was over.

We lucked out in a very big way on this derailment. There were no injuries in the accident. The anhydrous tanker never did leak. The overturned tanker cars were either filled with corn syrup or were empty petroleum tankers. The yellow powder spill turned out to be yellow corn meal. Yes, we were extremely fortunate because this incident could have been far worse in terms of hazardous materials or injury to the residents of Swedeborg.

The citizens of Pulaski County are very well-blessed by the presence of several very well trained fire departments that are manned by people with good judgment and skill sets for the firefighting field. While all of us in the emergency response field routinely train for incidents such as a train derailment, we seldom if ever have to actually work such an incident. The fire departments in particular spend a lot of time and resources in order to keep up their training for such incidents.

We have train tracks running across the entire northern side of Pulaski County and I-44 running right down the middle of the county. We also have the presence of four major state highways and a railroad spur line going into Fort Leonard Wood on the southeast side of Pulaski County. Our odds for a hazardous material truck accident/ train derailment incident are good, so the presence of well trained firemen and other first responders is a very good thing for our county. I repeat: we have been blessed.

Since I am well over on the word count, I need to close. I hope everyone understands that I left a lot of information about the train incident out of the column as I tried to make the train incident fit into my usual space. I hope I did not leave out anything that was critical. We will see you next week. The jail lights are on!

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