Mike Shorkey, a lieutenant with the Braidwood (Illinois) Volunteer Fire Department, responded in March 1999 when an Amtrak passenger train traveling through nearby Bourbonnais struck a flatbed tractor-trailer truck loaded with steel. He described the devastation as unbelievable.
"It just kind of short-circuited your senses when you looked at it," Shorkey said.
Shorkey is also the emergency response coordinator for the Stepan Company's Millsdale plant in Elwood, just one of many industrial responders who were onhand in their capacity as member of the Braidwood VFD. In addition, emergency response teams from various area industrial concerns contributed foam equipment and other apparatus to the firefighting effort.
Aboard the locomotive of Amtrak's City of New Orleans, the event recorder fixed the time of the accident at 9:47 p.m. on March 15. The train, traveling from Chicago to New Orleans, consisted of two locomotives and 14 cars. At a grade crossing equipped with gates and flashing lights, the train collided with a 48-foot-long flat bed semi-trailer carrying 37,000 pounds of 60-foot-long, one-inch-diameter steel reinforcing rods.
According to officials, the train was moving at 79 miles per hour, the maximum allowable speed, at the time of the crash. Twelve of the 14 cars derailed, and both locomotives turned on their sides. Of the 219 passengers and crew members aboard, 11 passengers, all located in a sleeper car near the front of the train, died. Another 117 passengers and crew were injured.
Responding to the scene with firefighting equipment were the Stepan Company and Mobil Oil's Joliet, Illinois, refinery. Eight Stepan industrial firefighters were onhand in their capacity as members of the Braidwood VFD and other local fire departments.
Capt. Ed St. Louis with the Bourbonnais Fire Department said the March 15 wreck dwarfs any other emergency in the department's history. Only mutual aidfrom other municipal department and industrial responders made it possible tocope with the incident.
"It is certainly a blessing for us to have industrial brigades such as Stepan and Mobil nearby because of the resources they can offer us," St. Louis said. "There is a lot of expertise within those organizations because of the specialized hazards they deal with at their facilities on a daily basis. That is a benefit to us from a firefighting standpoint, particularly because they have foam capability and experience dealing with hazardous materials."
Shorkey, a 14-year veteran for the Braidwood VFD, had just returned home from the fire station when the first calls concerning the disaster in Bourbonnais arrived."I went back because I knew it was going to be big," he said.
About 20 miles away in Bourbonnais, dispatchers working from information provided by the first police officers on the wreck scene had already declared a five alarm emergency, the local maximum. That decision put much-needed help on the streets early in the emergency, Shorkey said.
"I conferred with our chief and went out on the first vehicle, one of our ambulances," Shorkey said. "Our heavy rescue truck was right behind us. "The team that went to Bourbonnais was all experienced firefighters, he said. No rookies were allowed.
"The chief realized the magnitude of the incident," Shorkey said. "It would havebeen a good learning experience for a young guy, but this wasn't a good time to be teaching. I thought it was a good decision. Of course, the young guys hated it. "The Braidwood VFD was among the first wave of emergency units arriving onthe scene. However, the earliest rescues were conducted by the employees from asteel plant adjoining the tracks.
"Those guys were out there in no time," Shorkey said. "They saved a lot of lives. They were actually performing very risky rescues with no protection of any type in the initial stages of the incident. They did a superhuman job."
Still, there was plenty of work left for the mutual aid responders. Most pressing was caring for the injured.
"We had many crash victims walking toward us in all kinds of different conditions," Shorkey said. "Some were cut and bleeding. Some were just dazed, and some were limping."
The Braidwood VFD ambulance crew immediately took charge of two patients classified as Code Red. As for the firefighters on the rescue truck, an intense fire fueled from the ruptured diesel tanks of the second locomotive caught theirattention.
"I'd equate it to a well-involved process unit fire," Shorkey said. "It was a huge ground fire. There were ditches that ran along side the tracks, and diesel fuel wasspilling from the second engine in line. That was where the big problem came in the fire. It was fully involved. The sleeper car where all the fatalities occurred wasabout half involved at the time."
Hand lines were already stretched to the scene, but only one of them was in use, Shorkey said. Braidwood firefighters, working with fire crews from Bourbonnais and nearby Bradley, launched fire suppression activities, trying to keep the fire from reaching cars where rescues were being made.
"It was critical that we get a foam blanket down right away," Shorkey said. "About a minute into the firefighting effort, I went to the incident commander and asked for any available industrial foam engines. I indicated I didn't think we'd be successful with extinguishment until we had large caliber foam equipment comein."
The closest such units were at the Stepan plant and Mobil Oil's refinery in Joliet. The Elwood Fire Department also had a foam engine available. All three werecontacted immediately.
"I got hold of my shift captain on duty, Ken Heberer, and explained our situation,"Shorkey said. "I told him he needed to expedite now. There was no time for formalities."
Heberer commandeered three off-duty members of the Stepan emergencyresponse team who were just leaving the plant at shift change. Stepan's Emergency One foam engine equipped with Williams Fire & Hazard Control's HydroChemtechnology was the first on the scene in Bourbonnais. Hot on its trail was the crewfrom the Mobil refinery.
"Mobil has one of the finest industrial fire departments that there is," Shorkey said. "If you've got to have an industrial neighbor, these are the guys you want.They are good people from top to bottom."
Mobil Refinery Fire Chief Charles Snyder said his brigade sent 3,000 gallons of foam. He said he considered Mobil's contribution minimal compared to the effort made by area municipal departments that night.
"We've got a pretty good working agreement with the Elwood Fire ProtectionDistrict," Synder said. "We help each other out from time to time. We offer automatic aid for anything in our vicinity. We'll send an engine or an ambulance out forwhatever the need is and assist the firefighters at the scene."
The foam engines, using the standard five-gallon foam buckets common tomunicipal firefighting were limited to using 1¾ hand lines instead of their large volume deck gun monitors.
"We had planned on using the 2,000-gpm deck gun as soon as they hit the scene, but the rescue companies on the east side of the incident were up on top of the overturned cars performing rope rescues," Shorkey said. "We would have washed them off the side of the cars."
Another important decision early in the incident involved calling for a Combined Agency Response Team (CART), summoning experts in tactical rescue from fire departments across suburban Chicago, nearly 60 miles away, Shorkey said.
"When I called for the foam engine, one of our firemen, Ray Marquardt, who is a professional firefighter with the Orland Fire Protection District, said 'We need toget the tactical rescue guys coming,'" Shorkey said. "The first rescuers on the scene were becoming exhausted. We needed the guys who were trained in debris removal, stabilization and confined space rescue. We ended up bringing nearly 30 departments just for their tactical rescue teams."
With large paved parking lots on both sides of the wreck scene, rescue personnelstaged for a two-front approach to the disaster, Shorkey said. As for the west sidewhere Shorkey was working, the Braidwood VFD E-One rescue truck became the incident command post in the initial hours of the emergency.
"If you've seen the Emergency One brochure for heavy rescue vehicles, that'sour truck on the cover," Shorkey said. "It's a non-walk-in rescue vehicle with an incident command post built into the cab. It was a 10-man cab that we turned into an eight-man cab. The command post literally folds out of the back wall when it is needed."
Equipped with a 40,000-watt generator, the rescue truck provided as much as 80 percent of the electricity used throughout the night, except for one 220, Shorkey said.
"When we drew the specifications for the generator we wanted it to be able to run every pieceof equipment on the truck and still have 20 percent of its capacity in reserve. By our chief engineer's estimate, we had about 10 percent capacity left that night, and it ran in that condition for more thaneight hours."
The train wreck also gave Braidwood firefighters an opportunity to test their incident command capability and learn where they needed to improve.
"We need a couple more cell phones, and one of them needs to be a cellular fax machine," Shorkey said. "There were a lot of state and federal agencies that needed to be contacted. It was very difficult to get those numbers with all the radio traffic that was involved. We needed information such as MSDS sheets, since there was thought to be hazardous materials involved. We needed to be able to transferinformation back and forth a lot better, and a fax machine would have fit the bill perfectly."
The emergency found Braidwood VFD in the process of changing their radiosystem from a low band to an 800 trunking system. Shorkey said the Bourbonnais disaster only confirmed the necessity of a better radio system. Another item that would have helped at the scene was white marker boards to put up inside the cab to better chart the progress of the rescue effort, Shorkey said.
Eventually, the incident outgrew the rescue vehicle's incident command capabilities. A bigger command vehicle responding from a Chicago suburb tookover the scene.
"Our command post was not designed for a catastrophic event such as thiswhere you have a multi-agency effort," Shorkey said. "We served well as an intermediary step, however."
After 10 hours on the scene, the Braidwood firefighters returned home. At onepoint, firefighters had completely stripped the rescue vehicle of equipment. Onceit returned to the station, it took several hours to get the vehicle back into full service, Shorkey said.
As for the firefighters, maintenance for them included debriefing sessions tohelp them better cope with the traumatic experience. Aside from firefighting, their work at the scene included assisting with removing the dead.
One week later, Stepan, Mobil and the Elwood Fire Department were again called upon to dispatch their foam engines to the scene of a train wreck. Just 11miles from the site of the Amtrak crash, two freight trains collided near Momence, Illinois, injuring four crew members.
"I couldn't believe it," Shorkey said. "I thought somebody was joking with me on the phone."
Two such emergencies so close together is probably going to require that Stepan establish a policy governing when it will respond to outside incidents, Shorkey said. However, a catastrophe such as the City of New Orleans wreck is a once-in-a-lifetime event for most communities.
"I know a lot of companies worry about their people and equipment leaving the site," Shorkey said. "But for a smaller company like us, it was time to stand proud."
Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.