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Lessons Linger from '78 Tenn. Rail Explosion

Thirty years ago today, a freight train bound for Memphis derailed in rural Waverly, Tenn., 65 miles west of Nashville.

Two days later, one of the derailed cars, a tanker containing 28,000 gallons of liquid petroleum gasoline, exploded as a crew prepared to offload the fuel.

Sixteen people, including the town's police chief and fire chief, died. Forty-three others were treated for serious burns.

In the history of hazardous-material rail transport, this small town has an asterisk by its name as the place where safety reforms, talked about for decades, finally gained national attention and led to a new era of emergency-response strategies, as well as the construction of safer tank cars.

It was also one of the events that a National Governors Association study says helped push the establishment of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), created by President Jimmy Carter's executive order in 1979.

"It's unfortunate that we have to wait until a disaster to learn something, but that's what happened after Waverly, that's true enough," said Mark Aldrich, professor of economics at Smith College in Massachusetts and a former senior economist at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"The lessons learned in Waverly have never been forgotten," added Cecil Whaley, director of operations at the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA).

The Louisville and Nashville freight train, 92 cars long, derailed near downtown Waverly late on the bitter cold evening of Feb. 22, 1978. A federal report later blamed the derailment on a cracked wheel damaged by a hand brake left on by mistake by the rail crew.

About two dozen cars left the tracks, including two LP gas tankers. First responders assumed there was no problem because they didn't smell gas, according to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The assumption was incorrect.

On the afternoon of Feb. 24, the temperature rose into the mid-50s as a crew prepared to transfer the fuel to a tanker truck. At 2:58 p.m., one of the fuel cars exploded with an intense flash that destroyed 16 buildings and numerous vehicles, according to the NTSB report.

"I saw the blast go skyward. I knew what had happened," said Buddy Frazier, who was a rookie policeman in 1978. Frazier, now city manager, had been sent on an errand by Police Chief Guy Barnett only minutes before the explosion.

NTSB investigators later discovered a shallow surface crack that widened either when the tank was righted or when rising temperatures caused the contents to expand.

The federal investigation concluded "there was no one at the scene ... who could properly assess the mechanical damage to the tank." The report cited a need for trained groups of hazmat experts who could be dispatched to such incidents.

"Today, that's exactly what we have on so many different levels," noted Whaley, who, at the beginning of his state career, was sent to assess the Waverly damage two hours after the explosion.

"The railroad companies themselves have strike teams now. They are the best in the world," Whaley said.

That's important, he said, because, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, about 18% of the nation's rail car fleet (about 240,000) are tankers. They carry most of the hazardous materials transported by railroads today.

Following the Waverly explosion, Tennessee created the Tennessee Hazardous Materials Institute and TEMA. Then, separate federal disaster-related agencies were merged into the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

For all the organizational and logistical problems that surfaced with its response to Hurricane Katrina, FEMA "still has done a good job at what they do," said C.W. "Charlie" Hall a senior inspector with the Bureau of Explosives, a 101-year-old railroad-sponsored agency promoting safety in transportation of hazardous materials. The Waverly incident "has been used to train more firefighters in the U.S. than anything else."

Changes occurred on the rail car level, too. Two months after the Waverly explosion, the NTSB convened a public hearing. A plan to require tank cars be retrofitted with couplers, designed to remain engaged during a derailment, was sped up.

The use of placards to indicate what's being carried in a car was an improvement, too. Immediately after the Waverly derailment, local officials didn't know for sure what was in all the rail cars that were off the tracks.

"It's important to remember the people who paid the price," Frazier said. "It's also important what we teach our police officers and firefighters today. There's no telling how many lives have been saved in the last 30 years as a result of what we learned here."

Alligood writes for The Tennessean in Nashville

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