Plan for the Worst

The Tiskilwa ethanol tank car fire demonstrates the need for preparedness and cooperation between local fire crews and ethanol plants
By Kris Bevill | November 15, 2011

In the early hours of Oct. 7, 26 cars on a 131-car train destined for the East Coast derailed in northwest Illinois just outside the tiny village of Tiskilwa, Ill., jolting the town’s residents awake as tank cars filled with 30,000 gallons of ethanol exploded into flames. Some said it sounded like bombs going off as the rail cars caught fire. The fire was so bright it looked like the sun was rising from the south, according to one first responder.

Needless to say, the initial response to the incident was a bit chaotic. Law enforcement officials were the first to arrive and identified the source of the fire as ethanol after reading placards on the cars from a distance. But, it was difficult to immediately tell how many cars were involved and just exactly how first responders should deal with the situation. Local fire crews responded to the call immediately, but as in many rural areas, fire departments there are small and staffed mostly by volunteers. This would be the largest fire many of them had ever responded to. Supporting units from towns near Tiskilwa got there as fast as they could, but many had 20-minute drive times to get to the scene due not only to the distance between towns but also detours they were forced to take because of the train’s derailment.

At 2:21 a.m., Princeton Fire Department, located just about seven miles north of Tiskilwa, received a call for a train derailment and fire near Tiskilwa. By the time the PFD unit arrived, Tiskilwa firefighters were in the process of forming an evacuation plan for some of the town’s 745 residents. Princeton fire chief, John Petrakis, a 15-year firefighting veteran trained in hazmat response, requested to take a closer look at the fire and then grabbed his camera and headed off for a better view of the situation. “You could hear the containers hissing and the roar of the flames,” he says. “We saw a great big ball of fire coming from where the engine had disconnected. Right off the bat, I think it was safe to say this was way over our heads. There’s not many of us in the area that have a lot of exposure to this.”

Because of the ferocity of the fire, crews could only survey the situation from the south side of the railroad tracks and the pitch black of the predawn hours made it difficult to get a visual on the condition of the cars. However, a manifest obtained from the train engineer helped responders estimate that between seven and nine ethanol cars were involved. The remaining derailed cars carried distillers grains which, according to Petrakis, were “completely lost,” their contents having been strewn across the tracks, adding more potential fuel for the fire. “What was going through our minds at that point was: ‘What’s the plan here?’” Petrakis says.

Being Prepared

Ethanol derailments are not common. Out of more than 300,000 ethanol shipments hauled via rail in 2010, only 50 tank cars were involved in incidents, according to the Federal Railroad Administration and the Association of American Railroads. The number of ethanol shipments has likely increased substantially since then, with more ethanol being produced and greater emphasis being placed on unit trains as the preferred method of transport. “Ethanol is the largest volume hazardous material transported by rail today, with approximately 75 percent of all ethanol produced in the U.S. moving by rail,” the Renewable Fuels Association said in a statement following the Tiskilwa incident. “We encourage all first responders and those in the ethanol and fuel business to take this unfortunate incident as a reminder to ensure they have the proper safety planning, training and materials in place to respond effectively to an ethanol-related emergency.”

It is unclear how many of the more than 50 firefighters who worked the weekend-long Tiskilwa incident had received ethanol safety training prior to the derailment. A number of ethanol-related courses are offered through the Illinois Fire Service Institute’s Hazardous Materials Program, including an online awareness course, a course dedicated to specialized foam applications, and even one designed specifically to train ethanol plant personnel on fire awareness and hazmat rescue. None of the courses, however, are mandatory requirements for fire fighters. The state fire marshal would have to take action to make ethanol awareness courses mandatory and that is not likely to happen, according to Ray Palczynski, director of special operations training programs at the Illinois Fire Service Institute. He says that because so much ethanol moves around the country without incident, it can be difficult to generate interest for ethanol safety training among fire fighters. “This will probably spike [interest] again,” he says. “Just like when somebody falls off a ladder, we get calls for ladder training. If somebody has a line advancement issue, that’s the new big ticket issue. I expect we’ll be getting calls from folks asking for a refresher course after this.”

Petrakis and his crew had received ethanol training—it’s a mandatory requirement at his station—so they entered the situation somewhat prepared, but none of them had responded to a real-time ethanol incident until that night. And as important as training is, every incident is unique and brings with it its own set of challenges. In this case, establishing a chain of command was the first struggle. “The fire was far enough away that the likelihood of a container failure was low,” Petrakis says. “Our biggest need was a strategy.”

An incident the size of the Tiskilwa derailment brought out a number of responding agencies, from various hazmat units to the state environmental protection agency and Homeland Security officials, to a specialized hazmat unit contracted through the railroad company. “The biggest thing we learned is that as large as these incidents become, more organizations are going to be involved and everyone needs to work together,” Petrakis says. “You don’t get the private and public interaction often and when people come together there’s always a chance for authority issues, but there was none of that.”

Crews also lacked one of the key components to fighting ethanol fires, a foam suppressant that many rural fire departments simply do not have the budget to keep on hand. But as luck would have it, some of Tiskilwa’s volunteer fire fighters are also ethanol plant employees, and as soon as they learned of the fire, they contacted officials at the 140 MMgy Marquis Energy LLC plant in Hennepin, located about 14 miles east of Tiskilwa, and the 110 MMgy Patriot Renewable Fuels LLC plant in Annawan, about 25 miles west of Tiskilwa, to request their foam supplies. Both plants readily offered their support and within a few hours fire crews had hundreds of gallons of foam suppressant at their disposal.

It would be several more hours before the foam could be used, but as day broke and Petrakis and other fire officials were able to survey the scene from a state police helicopter, it became clear that the mantra of letting the fire burn itself out was not going to be the best course of action and foam would be required to get the situation under control. Firefighters were able to negotiate the removal of most of the cars, but the ethanol tanks were piled on top of one another. The tipped grain cars also presented major hidden fire and heat build-up concerns. That, combined with 30 mile-per-hour wind gusts, prompted the responding units to move into a “defensive cooling operation,” using the suppression foam to cool down the railcars that weren’t yet burning. “We weren’t so worried about the tanks that were on fire,” Petrakis says. “We were more concerned about the rail cars that weren’t on fire.”

As hazardous as the situation was, the Tiskilwa incident ends as a success story. No one was injured, and while local fire departments were stretched to their limits—many had members on-site for more than 24 hours—by the following Monday, all of the village’s residents were back in their homes and fire fighters were discharged from the scene.

Petrakis says the blaze offered invaluable hands-on training for firefighters who spent their weekend working at the scene. “We see a lot of ethanol travel through here, but we don’t get a lot of ethanol incidents,” he says. “So it was a great learning experience.” He hopes that their experience will inspire other rural fire departments to check their equipment and update their training. “The fire service has become very demanding and training is sometimes unfunded, but be resourceful,” he advises. “I’ve never been turned down when I’ve asked people for help getting training. With ethanol, even though it’s a low frequency incident, it’s high impact.”

Plant Outreach

An ethanol plant can be a valuable partner in helping train the local fire department by inviting the fire fighters to the facility and encouraging an open dialogue with the fire chief. Often it is the case, as it was in Tiskilwa, that because of the ethanol plant’s rural location, some of the volunteer fire fighters are also ethanol plant employees. Matthew Hagrelius, general counsel and head of safety and environmental matters at Marquis Energy, says a strong working relationship between the ethanol plant and the local fire department is why firefighters knew they could count on Marquis’ help during the Oct. 7 firefight. “We have them out here on a pretty regular basis just to familiarize them with the facility,” he says. “They noticed our stores of foam and had asked if we would have some available if something arose out on the highways or anything. Of course we said ‘yes.’”

Palczynski says he’s found that most often the relationships between local fire departments and ethanol plants are good ones. “It’s either great or it’s nonexistent,” he says. “It depends who you’re dealing with. Having a relationship with an ethanol plant in your neighborhood seems to be an automatic, but that doesn’t always happen.” For ethanol plants, developing a relationship with the local fire department can make the difference between your assistance being welcomed or shunned in the case of a nearby incident, he says. In the case of Tiskilwa, because the local fire chiefs knew the ethanol plant operators, it wasn’t a stranger offering help, it was someone they knew and so they willingly received their assistance, he says.

While this incident involved a rail car fire, the chance always exists that the next incident will be at an ethanol facility. All the more reason to open the lines of communication, Palczynski says. He offers as an example a recent case of a small town fire department that requested ethanol training. In order for the class to be offered at no cost, the local fire chief needed to sign up at least 15 people from two or more departments to attend. Despite the fact that the fire department is within eyesight of an operating ethanol plant, the fire chief was unable to get any fire fighters from the nearby towns to attend the training. “I just gave it to the handful from that little department,” Palczynski says. “The fact that they’re smarter for having been there is great. But the fire chief was very disappointed that no one else came. I told him it’s going to take a problem before they realize they should have been here. And that’s how it goes.” 

Author: Kris Bevill
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
(701) 540-6846