Only minutes before a fiery derailment poured burning hydrocarbon into the Kanawha River, Montgomery (WV) Fire Department Deputy Chief Benny Filiaggi took note of the 109-tank car train traveling through the snowy town in route to a refinery in Yorktown, VA.
“Ordinarily, I would have been off for the President’s Day holiday,” Filiaggi said. “But we had a bad snowstorm going so I was working at the fire station, just in case something happened.”
As luck would have it, half a dozen volunteers decided to kill time at the station that miserable day. Montgomery, with a population of more than 1,600, is home to two colleges that keep the combination fire department stocked with young, aggressive firefighters, Filiaggi said.
Suddenly, the volunteers burst into the dayroom to find Filiaggi. First reports of the derailment were coming in by radio. Filiaggi quickly realized it was the same train he had seen earlier.
“I thought to myself, ‘Oh, my God – it’s crude.”
On February 16, 2015, 28 tank cars loaded with Bakken Crude from North Dakota derailed near Mount Carbon, WV, an unincorporated community 25 miles southeast of Charleston. Fire together with a series of explosions consumed 19 of the toppled tank cars over the next four days.
The engine that Filiaggi drove to the scene would not return to the station in Montgomery until February 25. His department and nearby Armstrong Creek would be on duty in alternating teams 24/7 until the accident site was declared safe.
A series of fiery derailments tied to development of North Dakota oil and gas reserves have grabbed headlines in the last two years. Worst of these was the July 2013 derailment and fire in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people. (See IFW, Winter 2014) Alabama, Illinois, North Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia and, in Canada, Ontario, have also seen fiery rail disasters during this period.
Fortunately, the Montgomery FD took action to get ahead of the curve in the tracks on this type of emergency.
“When the long crude trains started traveling through here, I got together with the fire coordinator for Kanawha County,” Filiaggi said. “The railroads have been tremendous in giving us information and offering training that set the footprint for what we did in Mount Carbon.”
Nestled among the Allegheny Mountains in south central West Virginia, Montgomery is home to the West Virginia University Institute of Technology and the Bridge Valley Community and Technical College – Montgomery Campus. Being an educational center, Montgomery also boasts its own Amtrak covers Filiaggi’s salary.
“Our members train to the NFPA 1001 standard,” Filaggi said. “We have Firefighter I and II, Hazardous Materials Operations, the core rescue courses such as auto extrication and the specialized rescue disciplines such as high angle and confined space.”
Only three miles down Route 61 in the Kanawha River bottoms is the unincorporated community of Mount Carbon, home of the Adena Village housing development. It is also where Filaggi lives.
“My house was only about 2,500 feet away from the fire,” he said. The next nearest fire department to Mount Carbon is Armstrong Creek, only six miles away. Fire Chief Shannon Estep, who works full-time at DuPont in Belle, WV, happened to be an eyewitness to the derailment at about 1:30 p.m., Filaggi said.
“He was driving home when he heard the wreck, looked over to his left and saw the tank cars piling up,” Filaggi said. “As soon as he could get to safety, he called in the emergency.”
Having someone with Estep’s background on hand first was a great confidence builder for Filaggi.
“On one hand, there was a sense of urgency,” Filaggi said. “But there was also a sense of ease. I have a lot of confidence in Shannon due to his experience and what he does for a living.”
Upon the first word from Estep, Filaggi and six certified volunteers were en route. One volunteer yet to qualify had to stay behind.
“It was the right decision to make,” Filaggi said. “We let him go out on a few minor calls to keep his interest up, but this was a major incident.”
Despite the short distance, reaching Mount Carbon was anything but easy. The worst winter weather in decades had settled on the region.
“The snowstorm was expected to dump up to 14 inches on us,” Filaggi said. “It had been snowing since 8 a.m., and I mean heavy.”
Route 61 runs parallel to the railroad tracks and the river. Between the driving snowfall and spreading smoke, visibility was so poor that Filaggi and his firefighters remained blissfully ignorant of the fire’s true intensity until they were as close as half a mile.
“I could see a silhouette of something through the snow, but we were in Mount Carbon before it became relevant how big the fire was,” he said. “Shannon had to direct us in because we couldn’t even tell if the road ahead was blocked by debris.”
Somewhere in the distance a train horn repeatedly sounded a warning.
“The train derailed right at the first tank car,” Filaggi said. “The engine and the buffer car managed to stay on the tracks. The engineer got a safe distance away from the fire and just leaned on his horn.”
Beside the river, flames rose from overturned tank cars crushed together like a giant accordion, he said. A coating of burning oil spilling from the tank cars extended into the water.
Several members of Estep’s department living near Adena Village had started evacuating people closest to the fire. Meanwhile, firefighters from the Smithers, Boomer and Gauley Bridge fire departments started an evacuation in the Boomer community on the opposite side of the river.
On Filaggi’s side of the tracks, flames had already engulfed one home.
“This gentleman had a little piece of property maybe 50 feet from the tracks,” Filaggi said. “Apparently some of the burning oil set the structure on fire. The owner, who was home alone, heard the commotion outside and took off running.”
Filaggi and his responders joined in the effort to evacuate other homes as soon as possible. Again, the weather was no great help with snow six inches deep on the ground.
“We went door-to-door in freezing temperatures and driving snow,” Filaggi said. “We wanted to get everyone at least 1,000 feet away.”
Responders commandeered private vehicles to get residents away as soon as possible. Some of those evacuated were wheelchair bound, Filaggi said.
“Luckily, we got everybody out before the first explosion,” he said.
Twenty-five minutes after the derailment, an explosion formed a gigantic rising fireball above the burning tank cars. Eight more shattering blasts resounded within the next 90 minutes.
Filaggi established a command center outside the evacuation zone. An action plan was developed to extend hose lines to unmanned monitors as a precaution in the event the fire continued to spread. Drafting operations would have been set up to draw water from the river.
Other than that, the sheer size of the disaster limited any effective action the firefighters could take. The decision was made to let the fire burn itself out, Filaggi said. Applying water risked spreading the spilling oil further.
“Fortunately, the river had a frozen crust that was helping absorb some of the oil along the shoreline,” Filaggi said.
Other help started to arrive. Filaggi called Kanawha County Emergency Management Director C.W. Sigman and Fayette County Fire Coordinator Joe Crist while in route to the fire.
“Sigman is a former fire chief in South Charleston and was a great second pair of eyes,” Filaggi said. “The South Charleston chief, John Taylor, lives in the next community over and showed up too. Meanwhile, Shannon took the role of liaison with the railroad. He and one of my officers worked from out on the highway.”
Montgomery Fire Department Assistant Chief Freddie Perdue arrived on the scene and began working on logistics, setting up shelters for the people evacuated. Montgomery Fire Chief Brent Musick coordinated further efforts from the fire station.
“No one else could respond from home because the fire now blocked access to the scene,” Filaggi said.
To avoid radio confusion, Filaggi instructed responders on opposite sides of the river to use different tactical channels. Kanawha County ordered its mobile incident command vehicle to respond to the Boomer side of the river. Meanwhile, Filaggi continued to operate from a command center near his home in Mount Carbon.
“It was one of the tightest command posts we’ve ever operated,” Filaggi said. “We were documenting every action we took on any scrape of paper we could find in our apparatus.”
Government agencies that responded included the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Representatives of the railroad were also on scene to assist.
“Their environmental people were more stringent than the local government agencies,” Filaggi said. “I know they wanted to get this mess cleaned up and get their trains running, but they couldn’t have been more apologetic about what happened.”
Training provided by Amtrak and the two leading freight railroads in the region helped the departments prepare for an eventuality that had come true, he said. One railroad brought a special train outfitted for safety training to Charleston for the benefit of area responders.
“They always told us that if it’s on their property and burning, don’t take any chances,” Filaggi said. “Make sure everyone is a safe distance away and let it burn.”
Water systems drawing from the river were temporarily shut down until water sampling was done, he said. Runoff from any attempt to fight the fire could have made the pollution problem worse for those water systems.
“The fact that the oil reaching the river was on fire turned out to be a good thing,” Filaggi said.
After dark that evening, a final large explosion illuminated the night sky. Smaller blasts that Filaggi attributed to small pockets of gas igniting continued through Thursday.
Responders contended with snow and frigid temperatures the rest of the week. Then a second snowstorm moved in February 20.
“It didn’t put down much snow but it was enough to screw up all the roads again,” Filaggi said.
Only once in a lifetime does a firefighter respond to an event as spectacular at the derailment in Mount Carbon – “hopefully,” Filaggi said. The young firefighters of the Montgomery FD proved themselves up to the challenge.
“I am so proud of this department,” Filaggi said. “I like to call them my guys.”