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.


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