When the North Platte Fire Department responded to a fiery explosion at Bailey Yard on Thursday, they were directed to the north side, downwind of the fire.
When the first responders arrived at the meeting place where UP sent them — the former Taft schoolhouse on U.S. Highway 30 — they realized that firefighters needed to approach from the other side of the yard.
Lincoln County Emergency Manager Brandon Myers and Battalion Chief Jason Trimble were the first to arrive at the Taft building. Trimble told the fire and rescue units that were on their way to take Front St. to the south side of the yard.
That was one of several challenges that firefighters faced in fighting the blaze, Myers said Monday in a report to the Lincoln County Commissioners. He also updated and clarified some of the information Tuesday in an interview with the Bulletin.
Lincoln County Sheriff Jerome Kramer joined the discussion Monday at the commissioners’ meeting.
Firefighters decided to come into the yard from the west end of the yard and travel east to reach the fire. Coming in that way allowed them access to a fire hydrant, in addition to the water on the fire trucks. When they arrived, they faced another challenge. Another set of cars blocked their path to the car that was burning.
As Myers described the events of the day, he referred to the logs of 911 dispatch.
Someone from Union Pacific called 911 to report the fire at 12:04 p.m. A caller at 12:06 p.m. reported the explosion. Myers and Trimble arrived at the old Taft school at 12:09 p.m.
It was nearly a half hour before the responders knew what was burning. Myers said 911 dispatch was told at 12:32 p.m. that the container contained perchloric acid. Just a minute later at 12:33 p.m., another caller told a 911 operator that the container was loaded with batteries.
As it turned out, the shipping container contained 50 barrels of perchloric acid. Each barrel held 55 gallons. But those facts weren’t known for another 90 minutes.
Perchloric acid is an ingredient used in explosives, pesticides and other substances. Commissioner Chris Bruns, who was on the scene that afternoon with Myers, said perchloric acid becomes flammable if it contacts organic matter. He suspects that one of the barrels leaked, acid dripped on a shipping pallet, a fire started and the container exploded.
He said residents who lived more than a half-mile north of the scene said the noise sounded like a sonic boom. It shook windows and rattled walls.
The container was one of two that were stacked on a flatbed car. The acid was held in the bottom container. The fire was so hot that it consumed the entire bottom container and the top container dropped into what was left. The fire burned for five hours.
Bruns said firefighters learned that the bottom car contained 50 barrels of perchloric acid at 3:03 p.m.
Kramer said he couldn’t find out what was in the top car. A UP special agent at the scene told him that the UP office in Cheyenne would have the shipping manifest listing the contents. When Kramer reached them, he was told that the container had a mix of products that were not listed.
The explosion caused a grass fire that had to be extinguished before firefighters could get closer to the fire to begin to determine what to do. To help firefighters get situated, Myers put a drone in the air to provide live video.
People within a half-mile or more in every direction from the blaze were evacuated, a precaution that is called for in an Emergency Response Guide from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, Myers said.
Around 3:30 p.m., a UP crewman used remote controls to connect a locomotive to the set of cars that were between firefighters and the fire and push them out of the way.
Firefighters poured water on the blaze then, and didn’t let up. If they would have stopped, there was a good chance that the fire would reignite, Myers said. That is the nature of the chemical.
Myers said the fire was out at 5:02 p.m. Areas reopened that had been closed or evacuated — primarily U.S. Highway 30 and a six-square mile rural area.
Commissioner Michaela Wuehler said she’d heard from residents north of the fire who said they realized what was happening when they tasted something foul in the air. “That’s a concern,” she said.
There were other troublesome aspects.
Bruns said the container cars should not have been “humped” – rolled down a hill onto a set of tracks to be connected to other cars – but he was told that the cars were. A no-humping restriction guards against jarring the contents and causing a leak. Kramer said the car was humped around 5:30 a.m. that morning.
Bruns noted that UP did not sound an alarm through the yard, as required.
He said the Federal Railroad Administration would have a full report at some point but he called for the county to conduct its own inquiry to be sure everyone involved – Union Pacific management, employees, federal inspectors and first responders — understand what happened and take steps to move forward together.
“It would be easy to say it was ‘just a fire on a car,’ but we don’t have that luxury,” Bruns said. “In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen reports that cause concern… (including) a report from the FRA of twice the number of average deficiencies on rolling stock, and … the discrepancies that led up to the Gothenburg derailment. I think we owe it to the citizens of Lincoln County and really, the state, to push in on this and get some answers.”
Bruns said commissioners should ask tough questions and find out what steps are being taken by Union Pacific to prevent it from happening again.
Myers agreed. So did the other commissioners.
Chairman Jerry Woodruff appointed Bruns and long-time Commissioner Joe Hewgley to work with Myers on the investigation. Bruns and Hewgley said they would be glad to.
Bruns said law enforcement, first responders and the national weather service in North Platte all did an excellent job of responding, organizing the evacuation, preparing for a change in the winds, containing and extinguishing the fire.
Virtually everyone at the meeting said it was extremely fortunate that the car was located where it was and the wind was blowing from the south. The car was near the northwest corner of Bailey Yard, less than a half-mile from the west end of the yard, in a relatively remote area. The fire was 1.8 miles from the Golden Spike tower, which is across the road from the main parking lot and the superintendent’s offices. Myers said.
Myers said officials prepared to evacuate the south side of the yard and adjoining area if the wind would have shifted direction and started blowing from the north. The weather service had advised them that could happen.
But the wind continued to blow out of the south and by 5 p.m. the chemical had fully dissipated, he said. By then the white smoke that was rising from the ashes was only steam.
(This report was updated at 1 p.m. Tuesday, further clarifying information about the initial meeting place at the former Taft school. Additional photos were posted later Tuesday. -Editor)
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