Thursday, February 23, 2006

More 296C Notes

Tonight’s class was about “transportation as the cause” of emergency.

The three events we reviewed were 1.) The Texas City Shipboard Explosion, 2.) The Dunsmuir Rail Accident and Chemical Spill and 3.) Alaskan Airlines Flight 261 Crash.

The Texas Shipboard explosion was quite an amazing event. It started on April 16th 1947 as ships were being loaded with goods to send to Europe for post WWII construction. Among the goods loaded on the ships SS Grandcamp and SS Highflyer was Ammonium Nitrate. This as a fertilizer can also be used as an explosive. Under certain circumstances can be quite dangerous. ANFO? Is used in strip mining, I just learned, and was used to explode the Ryder Truck in front of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City. Notably, by cigarette smoking, a fire was caused on the Grandcamp. This fire was treated poorly as dock personnel weren’t clear on the characteristics of the fertilizer. They felt that they could stop the fire by sealing the ship’s cargo hold and adding steam to extinguish the fire. This pressure and the increased heat and carbon from the burning of cargo materials caused a huge explosion. An explosion felt up to 150 miles away. The explosion apparently even reflected off a cloud to send the shockwave to nearby Galveston and cause damage to windows and knock people over. Of course the explosion caused unbelievable damage to Texas City. And because of the fire, many people gathered around the port to see what was happening; while fire and police personnel were descending on the scene to help put out the fire – a fire that evaporated the water that was sprayed on it to put it out. With the gathering crowd, came this explosion. It basically vaporized people at the nearest point (100 people never found), while other were knocked dead by the immense soundwave – the spectators. This crushed people’s bodies, flattened buildings. Because of this incredible explosion, many thought that this was the end of the world – a nuclear attack, an attack by the Soviet Union (our new enemy). The explosion also created a 15 foot Tsunami in the ship harbor. This shifting water caused the SS Highflyer to move in the harbor, occupying the former dock of the Grandcamp - which basically disappeared when it exploded. In the shifting waters and slamming into the dock, the Highflyer was damaged and then caught fire. In addition to holding more Ammonium Nitrate, it was also packed with Sulfur. With even more resources descending to help – it exploded just as violently as the first ship.

What were we supposed to learn about the event? Well, in some cases it speaks to the need for more careful regulation. Nobody realized the dangerous nature of this material at the time. But, treating the fire, when you assume it is normal cargo, by “suffocating it” makes a lot of sense. From what I understand, ammonium nitrate was not really very well understood or regulated until April 1995 – after Oklahoma City. And how strange that it was so near that same date? Though I guess intimately tied to Waco which was the same month (hey Texas). Another interesting point; that the “amateur” nature of McVeigh and Nichols somehow meant that the bomb could’ve been made to be much worse. The only time before that raised peoples concerns about regulation of materials like this was Bhopal India – some 40 years later.

Another lesson learned was the idea that land use regulations and zonings can help shield communities from danger, but this is the Texas Gulf Coast – either you think it is real nasty or that people have more economic freedom… there is not much land use regulation and impact reporting – that’s for the freaks in Cali; “it must be nice, a luxury,” they’d say.

The second presentation was about the Dunsmuir Train Derailment of July 1991.
I don’t think anybody died, but the damage done was intense non-the-less. A 97 car, six-thousand foot train (yes, more than a mile) was traveling up a slight grade with mostly empty cars trailing behind. The configuration had the engine at the front, along with a few cars carrying metam sodium (a “soil sterilizer”) and cars carrying scrap metal at the rear ( That page says 84 empty cars were connecting in between. Sometimes I guess they’ll add extra engines as “helpers” in cases like this, but not this time. Traveling up the grade and at suspended sections above the Sacramento River along sweeping curves (that try to lessen the grade) the physics don’t allow for much slack along the train. So imagine that the line [a string] of train cars got pulled very tight along this winding section. It caused the train to derail and cars to start to plunge in to the river. The engineer cut the cars loose as the crew did not want to tumble into the river with the engine. Metam Sodium – as described by the student did weird things when it contacted with water. The plume spread along the flow of 45 miles of the river. It either killed flora and fauna instantly, or through the food chain more slowly. Recovery efforts scoured and stripped the river bed from top to bottom and hauled away the debree. TO quote the professor, “it looked like a poorly managed construction site.” It also killed a local tourist economy based on trout fishing. Of course, the local economy used to be the railroad – before transporting such disastrous materials could even be imagined. 45 miles down the river would lead to Shasta Lake – the top end of our states drinking water system. See the link and do the Geography:

What could be done here? Well, the RR (SP at the time, now UP) could agree to more of the requirement to follow rules and regulations without playing the commerce clause. Don’t forget, they haul a lot of stuff that wouldn’t be (or we wouldn’t want) on our highways. And like the B&O tunnel, they are the only game in town. (see the previous post about the Baltimore RR tunnel)

They also built protective railing around these steep and curving sections of grade, but I was informed by another student (Amtrak employee) that that would not do any good to stop train cars and especially engines from falling. Just to appease somebody, if I can paraphrase him.

I like the idea of the extra engines or more consciously placing loads along trains, but I suspect this is a way to watch the bottom-line – or sometimes physically impossible. Probably the best move is to eliminate these kinds of materials and their transport altogether.

The final presentation was about the crash of Alaska Airlines flight 261 during January 2000. This plane, a Douglas plane, went down in the Pacific in the Santa Barbara Channel Just north of Anacapa Island. It struck me when I saw the crash as that I had been out there where it crashed just 6 months before. 88 people died as the plane lost vertical control because of a jacked jack-screw. The plane had trouble when it took off from Puerta Vallarta (bound for Seattle) related to this and apparently missed 9 opportunities to safely land it before deciding to land at LAX. This decision came after a rapid drop of almost 10,000 ft. The plane stabilized and the Pilot seemed very calm – they say even to the end. After seven minutes of relatively stable flight, the plane then plunged nearly vertical into the Ocean from 20,000 ft. Another pilot watched the whole thing.

Apparently this event was well managed as the nearby Port Hueneme and the Navy helping in the recovery. The military base allowed keeping the press at bay and respectful to the victims (the surviving families). This was also the first implementation of a federal emergency plan that would try to comfort the families as much as possible. The other positive outcome is that it highlighted the need to properly maintain the jackscrew and increased its maintenance schedule.

Doing some web surfing on this event I found the following:

I don’t really know what else to say about this event. It is rather chilling and brings about a certain denial.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Emergency Management 296C

While realizing that I do some pretty extensive journaling, there is some that I'd like to share, and obviously some I'd hope you never see. For instance, I wrote 25 pages in a word document during a recent trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. I'd rather you see the pictures though... You know what they say

I put so much down, but it seems to go no-where...

In the last semster of school, I have been taking a class in Emergency Management as I am trying to become more of a transportation specialist in the field of Geography. The subject area is interesting for sure and I think of the days that I made super highways with my cousin across the Creek behind my Grandma's house in Kentucky. Guess what?, he works in trasnportation too! Is transportation important? You bet... Do folks take it for granted? Sure, quicker than you can say Harley Davidson. Do people really understand "distance" in all its forms? I'm not quite sure myself sometimes...

What I'd like to do is post some of the journal I write when I get home from class, open a beer and spill my mind on the page about what I've learned that evening... It seems like the only way to remember. Some of the things I have learned are quite profound and sometimes strange things happen on the way home too.


Class #6

Tonight’s class was pretty good. Our focus was “transportation as the site” of an emergency.

However, we first had to do more of the student papers #2. Someone did my same paper as I did last week. The gal from Orange County. This guy Zoyd (self described as an agitator) did a neat article review about the planning for transportation in light of terrorism. It was really good and talked about the importance of gaining control back after that type of event. Short Term and long term control - case study, I think, 9/11. In my mind I wonder about the political aftermath that we now face - did it make us stronger, more resolved, more dignified? I don't know... Seems like a bunch of dudes finally came out of the closet after the thing happened and now are super patriotic and going around telling everyone else how much they aren't... Who could've imagined that'd be the outcome?


Tonight's Student presentations were the following: 1.) The Long Island Rail Road Massacre, and 2.) The Baltimore Rail Tunnel Fire.

The long island rail road massacre was in Dec. 1993. This cat Colin Ferguson, a Jamaican immigrant opened fire on the train – 100 rounds… He killed 6 and injured 20. When he went to trial he fired his attorneys and the judge let him defend himself. He cross-examined the people he shot at. He asked questions to witnesses like, “so, where were you on December 7th 1993?” “I was running from your gun!” Mr. Ferguson asks, "Do you see the perpetrator in the room?, “Yes, pointing directly at him, “it was you!” I know it sounds crazy. Our focus however, was the emergency/disaster response. For example, the area was too crowded to get response vehicles in. There was no decent triage for the “green” people (green people are those with no physical symptoms, but mentally traumatized – in shock (susto) maybe. I also learned about ABC – Airway, bleeding – scraped (scabby), veinous (pumping Low BP), arterially (draining High BP) and Consciousness. Usually, “greens” should be separated from the recovery scene so they don’t have to see the trauma over and over again. Our other focus was on the very large circles of people that were affected… Maybe even family who watched TV – having a family member not showing because they can’t get through the transit system and then seeing them on TV – just standing around but maybe with blood splattered on their face. The press monster that must be fed and sometimes doesn't take greater or more solemn responsibility. And of course the trial where the victims were subject to cross examination by the perpetrator! That's crazy...

The Baltimore Rail Tunnel Fire happened during the summer of 2001. Under the streets of Baltimore is a crucial single rail line in an old tunnel. Supplying anything and everything to the northeastarn United States. It was built more than 100 years ago by the B&O RR, and it almost bankrupt them. Now it is run by CSX. 40trains a day with 50 to 100 cars! On July 18th 2001 the train derailed in the tunnel and then a fire started. In the cars were some hardcore (and unpronounceable) chemicals. Hydrochloric acid, and the main culprit: tripropylene. These things burned, along with freight cars containing wood and soy oil, to a high temperature of 1800 degrees Fahrenheit. The fire also burned fiber-optic cable that was strung in the tunnel, cutting communications to various parts of the world. It shut down the city, they sheltered in place at first and then evacuated, closing the city for 5 days. They really didn’t know what to do. The heat of the fire, also, broke a water main which then flooded the tunnel and therefore stopped the fire. But, the water flooded the city streets and spread the chemicals about. Somehow though, I don’t think there were any deaths. Though official still are not very certain, the tripropylene, apparently seeped up into storm and sewers. At some point a month later, in August, when they thought all was back to normal, an underground explosion happened blowing "300 pound" manhole lids up out of the street.

Of the two, I think the Baltimore Rail tunnel fire was more interesting as it has implications to things that we can do. We can build new Infrastructure in the US – we need to. We are a hoopty nation sometimes I think. Can you say weak link? Trying to make a buck we fuck ourselves. It was also neat to read that this points toward the Yucca Mountain thing. And I don’t think that storage is the bad thing (I really know little about that), but it is getting the stuff there that seems scary. Especially when what happened in Baltimore was that some of the “special canisters” opened due to the high heat. The guy coming on the train and shooting is preventable from a mental health standpoint, but it seems less likely than the rail crash chemical spill thing. I mean, shit, you could live next door to a meth cook! The problems of the rail transit and the single pinch point of goods, makes me think of Monterey Rd and Blanchard project and the UP train through there. But, death is also a trip in the transit tunnel – it would be very claustrophobic.

I don’t know.