Waverly, Tennessee, tank car explosion
|Date||February 22–24, 1978|
|Operator||Louisville and Nashville Railroad|
|Type of incident||Derailment, tank car explosion|
|Cause||Tank car BLEVE two days following a derailment|
|Damage||US$1,800,000 (equivalent to $6,069,326 in 2017)|
The Waverly tank car explosion was an explosion that occurred at approximately 2:58 p.m. on Friday, February 24, 1978, in Waverly, Tennessee, following a train derailment incident days earlier. A tank car containing liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) exploded as a result of cleanup related to this derailment.
At about 10:30 p.m. on February 22, twenty-four cars of a Louisville and Nashville Railroad freight train derailed in the downtown area of Waverly. Initially, local emergency services handled the accident, including inspecting the wreck for signs of any hazardous material leaks. The responding team assumed the LPG tank car was a double-wall tank car; however, it was a single-wall car.
Response to derailment
At 5:10 a.m. on February 23, after a previous miscommunication regarding hazardous material being present, the Tennessee Office of Civil Defense (now the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency) sent out a hazmat team to assess the situation. They concurred with the local officials' decision to keep the tank cars cool by spraying them with streams of water, and the decision was made to evacuate a 1⁄4-mile (0.40 km) area around the derailment zone, with gas and electric service to the area shut off.
By this time, Louisville and Nashville wreck crews were beginning to clear debris. The tank car that would eventually explode, owned by Union Tank Car Company and numbered UTLX 83013, was buried by debris. Crews removed the wrecked cars and UTLX 83013 was moved to clear the tracks, and the rail line partially reopened at about 8 p.m. on February 23. A tanker truck and a crew specializing in LPG cleanup arrived about 1 p.m. on February 24.
Tank car explodes
Temperatures during the previous two days of the incident had remained in the mid-20s Fahrenheit (around -3.5 °C) and light snow was on the ground, but by mid-day on February 24 the temperature had risen to the mid-50s Fahrenheit (around 12.5 °C) and the sun was showing through clear skies.
About 20 minutes before the LPG removal was to begin, the area was tested with dedicated gas detection equipment and no leaks were found. The Waverly police and fire chiefs were on the scene and the hazmat crew was moving its equipment to start the transfer when at 2:58 p.m. vapor was discovered leaking from the tank car. Before any action could be taken, a BLEVE (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion) occurred.
The blast was felt for hundreds of feet and seen for miles, and disabled most of the fire-fighting equipment at the site. One piece of the tank car was launched over 330 feet (100 m), landing in front of a house. The explosion started numerous fires in nearby buildings and torched a number of road vehicles and other rail cars.
Response to explosion
Over the next several hours over 250 emergency vehicles converged on the blast site, some from as far as Nashville and Memphis. Air ambulances from Fort Campbell Army Post were dispatched to the site and the worst burn victims were moved to Nashville for initial treatment. A number of these were then transported to burn centers in Louisville, Kentucky, Birmingham, Alabama and Cincinnati, Ohio late on February 25. The evacuation radius was moved out to 1 mile (1.6 km) in case a second tanker exploded.
By 7:00 p.m. the fires were under control, and a search for additional casualties was begun. It was later called off because of visibility problems, but restarted at 5:30 a.m. on February 25. A car loaded with paper products reignited at about 3:15 p.m., but was quickly put out. A second LPG car was emptied by 10:30 p.m. Local residents were allowed to return home at 8:30 a.m. on February 26.
A total of sixteen people died as a result of the blast and the aftermath; six were killed instantly. Those lost included Waverly's fire chief Wilbur York and police chief Guy Barnett, TOCD state investigator Mark Belyew, members of the L&N wreck crew, and several residents of the area. 43 others were injured to various degrees.
Sixteen structures in Waverly were destroyed, and another 20 seriously damaged. Both of Waverly's fire trucks were destroyed. In 1979, the total property damage was estimated at US$1,800,000 (equivalent to $6,069,326 in 2017).
The National Transportation Safety Board eventually blamed the blast on the car itself, as a crack had developed when the car was damaged by the derailment. It is believed that this crack expanded when the car was moved off the tracks, eventually causing overpressurization in the tank, causing the single wall to give out. The NTSB commended the town of Waverly on its preparedness for such an emergency, but also exposed the need for all people involved in accident cleanups to be trained in how to handle hazardous materials.
The Waverly explosion, along with several other accidents involving railroad derailments and hazardous materials (the most famous being the train derailment in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada on November 10, 1979) resulted in a major rework of how authorities deal with such emergencies. Tennessee and the TOCD created a set of standards and the Tennessee Hazardous Materials Institute in 1980 for the training of hazmat responders, and since the institute's formation, there have been no fatalities of Tennessee emergency responders at hazmat sites.
- "The Waverly Explosion". Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. 2001. Archived from the original on May 16, 2006.
- Alligood, Leon (February 22, 2008). "Lessons linger from '78 explosion in Tenn. town". USA Today. Archived from the original on July 7, 2012.
- Walter Cronkite (News anchor) (February 24, 1978). Tennessee Tank Car Explosion (Videotape). New York, NY: CBS Evening News. Retrieved August 30, 2006.