In 1996, federal code required that railroad tracks be inspected twice weekly. The turnout inspection section of the reports on January 11 and January 30, 1996 indicated that “all were O.K.” Also on February 5, February 12, and February 15, 1996, the turnout inspection section of the reports indicated that “all were O.K.” It was also noted that on February 22, 1996 a broken rail was discovered in a weld at MP 222.95, and the rail had pulled apart. Most of the other anomalies on the inspection reports were loose, broken, or missing fasteners.
The last two high-rail track inspections occurred in Weyauwega on February 29, 1996. The inspection report indicated that a broken rail was discovered at MP 212.83, and a rail “pull apart” was discovered at MP 221.1. The turnout inspection section of the report indicated that “all were OK.”
On February 29, 1996 the signal maintainer and the track inspector were called by the train dispatcher to investigate a track occupancy light indication near Weyauwega. The track occupancy light cleared before a problem was found. However, continued inspection revealed a broken rail just east of the east Weyauwega power switch. The rail break was reported to be the result of a bolt hole crack that had not progressed enough to where the ball of the rail had come out of the joint bars, but was loose enough to break signal continuity.
The federal code also required that each switch be inspected by a track inspector on foot once per month. The switches at Weyauwega were inspected in this manner on January 18, 1996 and on February 8, 1996. On January 18, 1996 the East House Track switch specifically was noted to have
“frog bolts out,” and the condition was repaired on January 23, 1996. However, the report for February 8, 1996, did not indicate that the switches at Weyauwega were “OK.” The report indicated that work was necessary. The type of work that was necessary was not specified.
Engineer Doug Winkleman he went on duty at Stevens Point at 4:00am on March 4, 1996, after the legal off-duty rest period. He went to bed at 8:00pm on March 3, 1996 and was called at 2:30am to report to work. He had a total of six and one half hours sleep, with one and one half hour call. He said, he was off a total of ten hours and forty five minutes prior to going on duty. Winkleman said, the other crew member on the date of the accident was WC Conductor Greg Vertein. He and the conductor only discussed going to work and small talk, prior to departure.
Vertein was called for duty at about 2:30am, the morning of March 4, 1996. He reported at the Stevens Point Yard Office at 4:00am, for work. He had received the proper time off before being called. He remembered going to bed at 8:00pm, on the night of March 3, 1996, a total of about six and a half hours sleep.
Weather conditions were cloudy and dark, and the temperature was about 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature high that day was 16 degrees Fahrenheit and the low was -6 degrees Fahrenheit.
Prior to departing Stevens Point yard, the engineer of train LO224conducted a “set and release” air brake test, utilizing the end of train device. Both train crewmembers stated that they did not take any exception to the brake test or brake performance. The train departed eastward from Stevens Point yard at about 4:55am.
Train LO224 consisted of two locomotive units, 68 loaded freight cars, and 13 empty freight cars. Twenty-eight of the loaded freight cars contained hazardous materials. The lead locomotive unit was WC 6525, and the trailing locomotive unit was WC 3003. The train was 5,217 feet long, and had 7,922 trailing tons.
The train crewmembers stated that the trip prior to the derailment was uneventful. The event recorder data from both locomotive units were downloaded. The event recorder data strip indicated that an emergency brake application occurred at 5:49am, the throttle position was in idle, and the train speed was 48.3 mph. They approached the city of Weyauwega traveling on a downward grade. The locomotives and the first 16 cars of the train passed a switch without incident, after which the seventeenth through fifty-third cars behind them derailed at the location of the switch, at 5:49am.
The derailed cars included seven tank cars of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), seven tank cars of propane and two tank cars of sodium hydroxide. The derailment ruptured three of the tank cars, spilling both LPG and propane, which immediately ignited. Seven of the cars containing LPG and propane were engulfed in fire after the derailment. The conductor cut the train after the first nine cars, and proceeded onward 1.5 miles.
Winkelman said, after they stopped, just east of the east power switch, between there and a private
crossing, he tried contacting the Central Dispatcher by radio. He kept yelling, “Emergency!
Emergency! Emergency!” He said no one answered and it seemed like an eternity, maybe one and one half minutes passed, before the dispatcher responded.
Vertein remembered walking to a police officer and informing him of the hazardous materials
that were burning. He thought they stopped at County Road X. A local person gave him a ride back into town where he contacted some hazardous materials people at the fire station and WC Vice President & General Manager Ed Terbell.
When the local fire crew arrived on the scene five minutes after the derailment, fireballs were exploding up to 300 feet high that were visible for nearly 13 miles. Fire spread to a nearby feed mill and storage building that were both difficult to access by the fire crew because the derailed train was blocking the grade crossing. High tension power lines were also torn down by the derailment, which caused secondary electrical fires. In total, seven of the tank cars of LPG and propane leaked, and the two sodium hydroxide tank cars leaked their contents. Electricity and natural gas service to 25% of the city of Weyauwega was disrupted, and city water services had to be shut off because of a rupture in a water main.
Assistant Fire Chief Jim Baehnman (Chief Gary Hecker was on vacation) quickly determined that the accident was beyond the scope of Weyauwega’s fire department. Fire crews from 10 surrounding departments were called in to help with the recovery. Between 10 minutes and one hour after the derailment, it became known that propane and LPG were involved in this derailment.
One hour after the derailment, Wisconsin Central Railroad informed responding firefighters that the tank cars could withstand approximately 90 minutes of fire. Additionally, the head end of the train was rolled back to the accident scene, and pulled away seven cars of the train that were not derailed. At this point, a decision was made by the fire chief to pull firefighters back from the derailment, because of the risk of a BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion). This evacuation of personnel was two blocks for one hour, then 1 mile, and finally 1.5 miles; the initial evacuation was completed so quickly that fire hoses in use were abandoned and froze where they lay.
Baehnman also made the decision to evacuate the entire city of Weyauwega, a decision which displaced approximately 1,700 residents of the city, and 600 additional people in surrounding rural areas. A total estimate of 2,300-3,155 people. The scope of the resulting fire and leaking of chemicals kept residents evacuated for just over two weeks, and many of the fires that erupted as a result of the derailment burned for most of the 16-day evacuation.
The weather may have helped ease the situation for firefighters; the ambient temperature at the time of the derailment was only 10°F and there was still snow on the ground. Both factors may have helped prevent a BLEVE explosion within the first hour of the disaster, while emergency personnel were still on site. Ultimately, one of the cars (CITX 34875) containing LPG was involved in a BLEVE, causing a large fireball several hours after the accident.
Because of the location of natural gas lines near the track structure and a gas odorizing plant, the natural gas service to Weyauwega was shut off. City water services had to be shut off because of a main water line rupture. About 3,155 residents of the town were evacuated from their homes. Highways 10 and 110 were closed, along with all county roads near the derailment area. The Wisconsin governor declared the site a “disaster area,” and the Wisconsin National Guard was ordered to Weyauwega to help with the emergency.
The Weyauwega police and fire departments conducted the evacuation of the town. The highway patrol and county sheriff department performed the perimeter security and road blocks. Hazardous material units from Appleton, Oshkosh, and Waupaca assisted.
There were no reported injuries as a direct result of the derailment or hazardous material release. However, there were three evacuees that sustained minor injuries during the evacuation.
The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the cause of this accident was: the switch point rail broke due to an undetected bolt hole crack that progressed from improper maintenance because Wisconsin Central management did not ensure that the two employees responsible for inspecting the track structure were properly trained.
20% of the city structures suffered damage, caused mainly by broken water pipes. Significant damage was found in twenty-five homes with one house destroyed. On March 20, officials in charge of the evacuation and disaster recovery declared the town safe for residents to return.
WC 6525, the lead locomotive of the train involved in the accident was eventually renumbered WC 7525. It is now owned by the Illinois Railway Museum and is on display there.
Nine individuals who were affected by the evacuation filed a class action suit seeking punitive and treble damages against Wisconsin Central on March 26, 1996. By the end of the year, 13 additional families and two businesses joined the suit against the railroad. In 1998, the railroad estimated the costs from the derailment and class action suit to be valued at $28 million.