PLATTSBURGH — Lisa Cumm still remembers the screeching that resonated through her home on the morning of May 26, 2007.
That Memorial Day weekend, 11 of the 33 cars of Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. Freighter 251 derailed and squealed as they came to a stop along the railroad that runs beside her home in Essex.
“I came outside — I was drinking my coffee on the porch — and, all of a sudden, I saw all these (emergency vehicles) just flying down my driveway,” Cumm said.
They would be joined by members of the county HazMat response team when it was discovered that two of the toppled tankers contained chemicals: methylene chloride, a paint remover, and methyl bromide, an insecticide.
Though Cumm said it was later confirmed there had been no chemical leakage, her family and others in the area were still temporarily evacuated from their homes as a precaution.
Toxic chemicals are just a few of the possible dangers and complications that local responders face when handling a train derailment.
Over the past year, several tragic freight-train derailments sparked a national conversation on the safety of the communities that trains pass through.
Last July, a freight train hauling Bakken crude oil rolled off the tracks near Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and exploded, killing 42 people and leveling more than 30 buildings.
In November, another freight train derailed near Aliceville, Ala. No injuries were reported, but the fire caused by the explosion of the train’s crude-oil shipments took nearly 24 hours to burn out.
HELPFUL RAIL MAP
Essex County Emergency Services Director Don Jaquish said one of the county’s best resources when confronting a derailment is a map of the Essex County railway system developed by Emergency Services Battalion Coordinator Dan Benoit and distributed to county fire departments.
Quickly identifying and securing the area around a derailment fire is often more important than fighting the fire itself, Benoit said.
After they’re told the closest mile marker to the derailment, first-responders can use the map to see if the accident is in an isolated or populated area.
If the crash site is populated, emergency officials have agreed, evacuation will be the top priority. Once the area is secured, the conversation can begin about how to best handle the fire.
“We’re not forgetting about the firefighting aspect but trying to concentrate on getting the local chiefs aware of getting that initial setup going,” Benoit said.
Last year, fire departments across Essex and Clinton counties participated in state-sponsored ethanol training courses. Along with lecture-based lessons, the sessions featured hands-on training with controlled chemical fires.
Lt. Cory Crahan of the Plattsburgh City Fire Department attended one of the classes and said he appreciated the chance to refresh his memory on how to handle derailment situations before an actual accident occurred.
Strategies for extinguishing the fire can range from dousing it with alcohol-resistant foam to allowing it to burn out, if the location is remote enough.
Extinguishing can be a complicated process, Crahan said, that involves using formulas to determine exactly how much foam will be needed and how to spread it to be most effective.
“It might be a couple of hours before we even start to decide what we’re going to do,” he said.
AT THE READY
Beyond any specialized preparations, Eric Day, director of Clinton County Emergency Services, said the same principle applies to derailments as any other emergency: Be prepared for anything.
His office has been in contact with the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control for guidance, as well as working to make sure each fire department along the rail line is provided with the most current information in handling railroad accidents.
Railroads (operated by CSX Corp.) pass through only a small portion of Franklin County, and Deputy Director of County Emergency Services Jon Bashaw II said local departments are responsible for organizing their own training for derailment responses.
He said departments have communicated directly with rail companies to organize trainings and share information on how best to respond to railway emergencies.
Though Fort Covington Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tony Leroux said his department had not reached out to any rail companies for training sessions, he said local fire crews did participate in county hazmat training and that Fort Covington also held occasional in-house hazmat courses.
SHOCKED IT HAPPENED
Almost seven years after the Memorial Day derailment, Cumm said she still thinks the accident was a stroke of bad luck. She doesn’t think people living near railroads should be overly concerned about the recent headlines.
“Honestly, I’m shocked it even happened,” she said, “The chances of a derailment happening, I would say, are pretty slim.”
Dan Martin of Plattsburgh, whose Miller Street home sits directly beside the railway, agreed that the low probability of a train accident isn’t worth being afraid of it.
“If you worry about everything that could possibly happen, how can you ever live life?”
PRESS FOR ACTION
Yet that relaxed philosophy may have been the same mindset of those killed at the Lac-Mégantic accident, warned Essex resident Katharine Preston.
Along with making sure local emergency officials have proper training to respond to derailment accidents, Preston said, the danger of train accidents could be reduced by pushing to replace fossil fuels with safer alternative fuel sources.
Decreasing the use and transportation of crude oil would not only have financial and environmental benefits, she said, but would also help reduce the need to transport more volatile fuel sources.
Preston encouraged anyone concerned about the dangers of chemical rail shipping to voice their concerns to their local political leaders.
“As far as I’m concerned, we should all be working toward convincing Congress and everybody else that we need to move in a different direction,” she said.
TRAIN SAFETY SERIES
This is the first of two articles examining railroad safety in the North Country. Tomorrow: Safer tanker design urged.
In the event of an emergency, local officials may send out an alert for residents of affected areas through the NY-ALERT program. The program issues alerts and emergency instructions through text messages, phone calls, emails and Twitter. Registration for the program is free and available at www.nyalert.gov or by calling 1-888-697-6972.