As oil train burned, firefighters waited 2 hours for critical details

Repost from McClatchyDC

As oil train burned, firefighters waited 2 hours for critical details

By Curtis Tate, August 21, 2015

HIGHLIGHTS
•  Oil train burned for 2 hours before railroad official arrived
•  Firefighters lacked key details about train and its cargo
•  Incident led railroads to offer more information, training

Contract workers begin cleaning up the site of an oil train derailment in Lynchburg, Va., on May 1, 2014.
Contract workers begin cleaning up the site of an oil train derailment in Lynchburg, Va., on May 1, 2014. Curtis Tate – McClatchy

Newly released documents show that firefighters responding to an oil train derailment and fire last year in Lynchburg, Va., waited more than two hours for critical details about the train and what was on it.

The Lynchburg Fire Department’s battalion chief, Robert Lipscomb, told investigators that it took multiple calls to get a representative from the correct railroad to come to the scene, according to an interview transcript published Friday by the National Transportation Safety Board. And by the time someone arrived, the massive fire had almost burned out.

The April 30, 2014, derailment of a CSX train released more than 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil into the James River and led to the evacuation of about 350 people. No one was injured.

Because of Lynchburg and other oil train derailments, railroads, including CSX, have improved their lines of communication with local emergency responders and offered them more training opportunities.

Rob Doolittle, a CSX spokesman, said Friday that safety was the company’s highest priority and that it “looks forward to reviewing the NTSB’s findings and recommendations when its investigation into this incident is complete.”

NTSB investigators interviewed Lipscomb, who led the response to the derailment, the next day. He told them his department probably wouldn’t have changed how it handled the incident if they’d had more information from the start.

“We did it the way we did it because that’s what we were looking at,” he said.

However, he expressed frustration that it took railroad officials more than two hours to arrive.

We really wanted to know what was on that train. Robert Lipscomb, battalion chief, Lynchburg Fire Department

“We really wanted to know what was on that train,” Lipscomb told investigators.

The confusion even included not knowing what railroad to call. Norfolk Southern also operates trains through downtown Lynchburg parallel to the CSX tracks.

Lipscomb said both railroads were notified, and officials from Norfolk Southern arrived within 45 minutes of the derailment. However, they determined quickly that it was not one of the railroad’s trains.

“They did stay on scene to kind of, I guess, be of some assistance, but they weren’t able to help us at all really because it wasn’t their train,” Lipscomb said.

Other issues Lipscomb identified: The paperwork identifying the train’s cargo was in the locomotive, but firefighters didn’t know where to find it. They also couldn’t find the train crew.

Firefighters knew from the red hazardous materials placards on the tank cars that the train was carrying crude oil. But they didn’t know how much was on the train or what kind of oil it was.

Lipscomb said he kept looking at his watch and proposed “taking it to the next level” by calling the state’s deputy secretary of public safety if a CSX representative didn’t arrive by five minutes past 4 p.m., more than two hours since the derailment.

“I’m like, ‘I’ve got to know; we’ve got to have someone here,’” Lipscomb said, “and before my time ran out, he showed up.”

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