The horror of ‘What if?’

by John Tedesco
A Section

All content (c) San Antonio Express-News

If last week’s train derailment near downtown San Antonio had been anything like a June 2004 wreck that spewed toxic chlorine in rural Bexar County, rescuers would have been powerless to save everyone trapped in the vicinity, and hundreds of people could have died.

It’s a dire scenario that some might call alarmist. But federal records and interviews with safety officials show the intensity of chlorine vapors in the immediate area of a punctured tanker car gives residents only a few minutes to live and little hope of escape.

A cloud of pressurized chlorine reached searing levels of at least 85,000 parts per million in a 20-acre area near the site of a Union Pacific train wreck in sparsely populated southern Bexar County on June 28, 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

That’s thousands of times higher than fatal levels.

Federal officials concluded the corrosive fog was so intense that it simply was impossible for firefighters to save two women, Lois Koerber and Gene Hale. Their home stood 105 yards from the damaged tanker car.

Few residents lived near that crash site. But Tuesday, a Union Pacific train derailed in the heart of the city.

The Beacon Hill neighborhood is full of historic homes, apartments, churches, schools and businesses. The rhythm of life often is punctuated by the blaring horns of trains that thunder along a busy track.

Around 11 a.m., a train carrying no hazardous cargo lurched off the tracks and brought the neighborhood to a standstill. Train cars plowed into at least two houses, but no one was killed or injured.

County and city officials acknowledged that if a major chemical spill struck the neighborhood, no amount of planning could save many victims.

“Everybody who’s in the footprint of that burned chlorine area could very easily perish,” said Carl Mixon, chairman of the Local Emergency Planning Committee, an agency that plans for disasters, and who helped organize the emergency response to the 2004 wreck. “It could have been literally hundreds of people.”

Mixon and others are quick to offer caveats. In 2004, two trains had collided with enough force to punch a large hole in a reinforced tanker car. That kind of wreck is rare.

And in 2004, a lack of roads in a rural countryside hampered firefighters. Last week’s wreck occurred in a neighborhood with many ways out.

“If it happened in a residential area, yes, you’re going to have more (population) density. Yes, you’re going to have more fatalities,” said Deputy Chief Rodney Hitzfelder of the San Antonio Fire Department.

“But you’re going to have more roads, more escape routes. It’s two different scenarios.”

Few good options

Everyone agrees last week’s wreck highlights a grim reality: For those living near a chemical disaster, a rescue might be hours away.

A tenet of the city’s 2001 emergency management plan, which lays out how to handle disasters of all stripes, states that residents ultimately are responsible for their own safety.

“It is impossible for the city of San Antonio to do everything that is required to protect the lives and property of our population,” the document states.

The city’s rescue personnel are responsible for doing all they can to save lives. But in the end, it’s up to residents to prepare for the worst.

To deal with a catastrophe, firefighters near the scene will set up a command center. The incident commander on the front lines most likely will decide which residents should evacuate, and which should seek shelter inside their homes.

“It’s always a dilemma for the incident commander about which way to go,” Hitzfelder said.

A tricky evacuation

Depending on the chemical, evacuations might be possible only in areas upwind from a spill. If the wind changes direction, it can quickly put people in danger.

Hitzfelder recalled how in December 1994 a raging pesticide fire struck the B&G Chemical and Equipment plant at 214 Fredericksburg Road. Shifting winds created a dangerous situation.

“It was real early in the morning, and we had a south wind, and a norther that was supposed to blow through,” he said.

“The National Weather Service was telling us you got an hour before it blows through,” he added. “And damn if it wasn’t 15, 20 minutes later, the whole thing changes and it’s coming downtown.”

There are at least 160 schools located within a mile of the rail lines that cross Bexar County, according to an analysis by the San Antonio Express-News. Other vulnerable businesses, such as nursing homes, day-care centers and hospitals, would also complicate evacuations.

Also, evacuees might behave irrationally. Chlorine and other chemicals attack the lungs, which starves the brain of oxygen. Confused and fearful, victims might flee toward a wreck, not away from it.

Seeking shelter

The only other option is called “shelter in place.” Residents are instructed to seal their homes and wait until the danger has passed.

The chemical industry offers this method as the safest choice for people who are caught downwind.

But the lesson learned from the 2004 train wreck revealed that seeking shelter is hardly a cure-all, especially if air-conditioning units suck in fumes before residents realize the danger.

Koerber woke up, coughing and gagging, after chlorine already had filled her home, according to a recording of her desperate phone call to 911.

“There’s smoke out here, I cannot breathe,” she gasped.

But help was hours away. Shortly after hanging up, Koerber collapsed on her bed, where firefighters found her body.

Sixty tons of pressurized chlorine gushed from the Union Pacific tanker car before emergency workers were able to seal the leak. A deadly fog scorched plants and wildlife around the wreck.

After the air cleared that summer day, everything living looked like it had been stricken by frost. The land was drained of life.

“Even if we had people suited up right there, waiting for that train to derail, there was still no way we would have been able to get in there and rescue those two ladies who died,” Mixon said.

The chlorine killed three people, including a Union Pacific conductor, Heath Pape.

An elderly man living nearby, Robbie Whitworth, died nearly four months later from what his family described as complications from the chlorine exposure. Fifty people were hospitalized.

In Beacon Hill, many of the old houses aren’t as energy-efficient and airtight as modern homes. They were built at a time when houses were constructed to “breathe” and circulate air.

According to an Express-News review of Bexar County appraisal records, last week’s train wreck happened within 1,000 feet of 182 residential properties.

Records show that nine out of 10 of those homes were built before the end of World War II, suggesting that any airborne chemicals might seep easily inside.

Notification systems also are imperfect. Authorities must travel door to door or rely on radio and television broadcasts to alert residents and give them valuable information.

The agency that controls Bexar County’s 911 network can pinpoint an area near a chemical spill and contact nearby residents by phone with recorded instructions.

But in 2004, that notification system was quickly bogged down.

According to a review of the accident that was conducted by the EPA and released in February 2005, it would have taken eight hours to contact nearly 60,000 households that were considered to be at risk because of the chlorine plume.

County officials decided to abandon the notification, but they didn’t tell firefighters at the scene, who assumed the calls were being made, according to the federal review.

A lack of information

Union Pacific plays a vital role in helping authorities respond to chemical spills. But the company’s record of cooperating with local and federal officials appears to be mixed.

The EPA report alleges that 45 minutes after the June 2004 wreck, Union Pacific failed to report important details when it called the hot line at the U.S. National Response Center, an agency that collects information about chemical spills and notifies the proper authorities.

Jeff Beetham, a Union Pacific employee, called the response center and said it was unknown if any chemicals were spilled, or whether any cars had derailed.

Yet the company had told Bexar County dispatchers earlier that chlorine had been released, according to the federal review.

“That lack of information forced the EPA phone duty officer to expend valuable response time researching and collecting information already known to others,” states the EPA report.

The result: the EPA was slow to arrive and offer its assistance for one of the deadliest chemical leaks in recent history.

“There can be confusion in an emergency situation and we did our best to provide timely and accurate information,” Union Pacific spokesman Joe Arbona wrote in a message e-mailed to the Express-News on Saturday.

San Antonio firefighters who responded to the chlorine leak commended Union Pacific’s emergency contractors who risked their lives in hazmat suits as they attempted to seal the punctured tanker car.

But back at the command center about a mile from the wreck, there were clashes. Firefighters said they were pressured by Union Pacific to focus on identifying Pape’s body near the wreck instead of trying to rescue survivors who were believed to be trapped in a green Suburban.

The company got its wish, but the hazmat team that searched for Pape unexpectedly found the survivors, who had been suffering for hours from chlorine exposure.

Threatened with arrest

Once the tanker car was sealed, Union Pacific refused to cooperate with federal officials and demanded permission to clear the debris so trains could use the tracks again, according to Mixon and the EPA report.

“There was a pretty big standoff with UP,” Mixon said. “They said, ‘You’re costing us millions of dollars,’ this and that.”

Arbona said Union Pacific hasn’t reviewed the report’s allegations about a disagreement.

“It is possible that during an accident, there can be heated discussions due to differing opinions about how to best proceed,” Arbona’s statement read. “It is important to note that in this case the various responders, Union Pacific and EPA agreed upon and executed a successful response.”

Mixon and EPA coordinator Scott Harris were worried about relocating the chlorine tanker car, which had been sealed but still had 30 tons of pressurized chlorine inside.

It was night, and a heavy rain threatened to blind chemical sensors that had been set up to alert officials if any more chlorine escaped.

A Union Pacific executive, who was unidentified in the EPA report, told Harris at the command center that the company planned to move the chlorine tanker car without Harris’ permission.

The report says Harris advised the Union Pacific official that the company would be “forcibly” restrained from moving the tanker car. U.S. marshals would be called to arrest any Union Pacific employees who interfered, and the accident site would fall under direct control of the federal government.

According to the report, the company backed down — reluctantly.