Firefighters work their way along the train searching for casualties. - Photo by Fred Ruetz/Braidwood Fire Department

Firefighters work their way along the train searching for casualties.

Photo by Fred Ruetz/Braidwood Fire Department

Industrial fire brigades don’t exist in a vacuum limited to the plant they protect, but function as part of the surrounding community. When available resources from traditional sources are stretched thin, fire brigades often step forward with the equipment and personnel that make a crucial difference.

Near Bourbonnais, Illinois, in March 1999, Amtrak’s City of New Orleans train collided with a 48-foot-long flat-bed semi-trailer carrying 37,000 pounds of 60-foot-long, 1-inch-thick steel reinforcing rods. Eleven of the 219 passengers died, and another 117 passengers and crew were injured.

Twenty-one miles away, Mike Shorkey, a lieutenant with the Braidwood Volunteer Fire Department, responded to the scene. Shorkey is also the emergency response coordinator for the Stepan Company’s Millsdale plant in Elwood and was just one of many industrial responders who assisted that night.

“It just kind of short-circuited your sense, when you looked at it,” he said, when asked to describe the wreckage.

The accident happened at a grade crossing equipped with gates and flashing lights. The train of two locomotives and 14 cars was moving at 79 miles per hour, the maximum allowed, when the collision occurred.

“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.”

Worse yet, an intense fire fueled by the ruptured diesel tank of a locomotive that was now on its side raged near the crossing.

“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 was spilling from the second engine.” A sleeper car in which all 11 fatalities were found was also about half involved at the time.

Volunteers who work full time in the factory were not the only industrial emergency response representatives on scene. Mobil Oil’s Joliet, Illinois, refinery dispatched equipment and on-the-job personnel to assist.

Captain Ed St. Louis of the Bourbonnais Fire Department counts the municipal and industrial mutual-aid response as a blessing.

“It was 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.”

Both Stepan and Mobil provided specialized firefighting foam rated to deal with the large-volume spill fire. With that resolved, responders focused on the lengthy and complicated issues of tactical rescue in freeing those still trapped inside the train.

Braidwood VFD made its biggest contribution by providing electricity to the scene throughout the night using a 40,000-watt generator on its heavy rescue truck.

Many plants and refineries have strict policies governing when personnel and equipment can respond to outside incidents. However, the City of New Orleans wreck was a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe.

“For a smaller company like us, it was time to stand proud,” Shorkey said.

To read the extended magazine article on the wreck, CLICK HERE