Massive Response Speeds Amtrak Rescue

Deputy Fire Chief Bob Allwang tells how the right training and luck enabled 69 professional and volunteer units to evacuate nearly 200 passengers from a derailed Amtrak train in 90 minutes. It could have been worse, much worse.

By Alan S. Brown

At 1:55 p.m. on Monday, July 29, Amtrak's east-bound Capitol Limited rocketed off its tracks in Kensington, Md., 12 miles outside of Washington, D.C.

The train was moving nearly 60 mph when passenger cars began to rock from side to side. Eight passenger cars left the track. Six fell over on their sides as they skidded 100 feet, slashing through small trees and bushes. Several slid about 20 feet down a gully.

Miraculously, no one died. The train's steel cars did not twist or buckle. Nor did its 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel leak or explode. Many passengers and crew left under their own power. The rest were evacuated within 90 minutes, despite the 97-degree heat.

The evacuation progressed rapidly because Kensington, with a population of 1,900, could draw on more resources than most large cities. It receives police and fire services from Montgomery County, whose population of nearly 900,000 supports 1,000 career and 1,000 volunteer firemen and EMS crew members, as well as more than 1,000 police.

The derailment drew 69 professional and volunteer fire, police, EMS, rescue units and 116 vehicles. Most arrived within 15 minutes of the derailment. Each unit had to mesh to keep the operation from plunging into chaos.

Montgomery County made it work because its first responders had trained for derailments and knew how to manage large operations.

Learning from Disaster

The county began training for derailments following a 1996 collision between Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) and Amtrak passenger trains near Silver Spring, Md. The impact killed the Amtrak crew, peeled the sides off the MARC cars, and torched a fire that killed eight MARC passengers.

With Amtrak, MARC and Washington's Metro subway crisscrossing the region, the Montgomery Fire Department realized its vulnerability. "We recognize that rail accidents don't occur too often; but when they do, the training really pays off," says operations chief Bob Allwang.

"We ran every career and volunteer shift we have through the training," he recalls. "It was very hands-on and practical. Many people don't ordinarily use trains. We walked them through the different types of passenger cars and showed them the layouts, emergency systems, window latches and doors.

"We taught rail evacuation at the Fire Academy, integrated it into classes, and ran joint drills with Metro. It paid dividends in Kensington," says Allwang.

Rapid Response

Within four minutes of the Capitol Limited derail-ment, fire, police and EMS units had arrived at the scene. Passenger cars littered the track. Yet the responders saw no twisted wreckage, fire or leaking fuel.

Equally important, the site was readily accessible. A parking lot 200 feet from one side of the tracks and a roadway 100 feet away from the other could serve as staging areas.

The first responders issued a box alarm modified specifically for train derailments. This sent four engines, two ladder trucks, two rescue squads, five EMS units and two command officers speeding to the site.

Allwang, who was near Kensington, arrived within seven minutes. He took control as incident commander. Within moments, he issued a second and third modified alarm. He later rang a fourth alarm to provide enough personnel to rotate out first responders working in the 97-degree heat.

A Growing Operation

By now, units were deploying to staging areas on both sides of the tracks. The HAZMAT team had surveyed the scene and signaled the "all clear." Scores of people had crawled out of the wreckage.

"If they got out, walked over, and talked to us, they had already received the first level of triage," says Allwang. Rescue workers gathered the passengers on the track bed, then led them to buildings on opposite sides of the track. Later, they removed them to the Kensington Armory, where Red Cross, police, medical and railroad personnel tended to their needs.

Meanwhile, fire and rescue workers began extricating individuals trapped in the cars. While many had cuts and gashes, only a few had serious injuries requiring immediate treatment. Even so, EMS crews shuttled about 100 people to area hospitals.

By now, nearly 200 first responders were on the scene. It could have been a recipe for pandemonium, but Montgomery and the surrounding counties – Howard, Prince George and Carroll in Maryland and Fairfax in Virginia – operate daily on a mutual aid system.

"It's normal for us to run back and forth between counties," says Allwang. "Both career and volunteer units have the same command model, and the same rules and procedures. We're familiar with working together, as well as responding directly to staging areas to get our assignments."

Unified Command

Daily cooperation between so many disparate types of units has oiled the region's incident command structure until it operates smoothly. The Kensington incident provides a case in point. Although Allwang assumed responsibility as incident commander, Kensington Volunteer Fire Department Chief James P. Stanton outranked him when he arrived minutes later. The two men had worked with one another many times before. "We had a very brief discussion and decided that I would handle incident command while he took over operations," says Allwang.

The massive response to the derailment challenged Allwang's ability to meld disparate units into a single response team. In addition to multiple county and local fire, EMS, police and rescue units, the derailment drew state and park officials, Red Cross volunteers and representatives from the railroads, National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration. All played a role in response decisions.

Allwang used well-practiced incident command principles to keep from being overwhelmed. He broke the scene into two operational divisions, one on each side of the tracks, as well as extrication, EMS and HAZMAT. Staff functions included planning and logistics. This simplified the chain of command and made it relatively easy to translate consensus decisions into action.

Using spray paint to number cars also kept it simple. "The operational groups numbered the cars and divided the train up," explains Allwang. "As resources came to the scene, we could assign them by car number."

The team also made good use of volunteers. The Red Cross manned the evacuation centers. They provided shelter and food while calling family and friends for uninjured passengers.

Meanwhile, volunteer canteen units tended to rescuers working in personal protective equipment in 97-degree heat. "We sent for additional resources so we could rotate the crews," says Allwang. "That's just part of normal business practice. We took them to the canteens, where they could cool off, drink and have EMS crews assess them."

Bumps on the Road

Some things did not go smoothly. The sheer volume of units on the scene overloaded the communications system. "We were dispatched on a primary fire channel, moved half of incident operations to a secondary channel, and EMS to a third channel," says Allwang.

"That kept everyone from talking at once on the same channel, but we were still overloaded. And as incident commander, I still can't listen to three channels at once." He expects a shift to a more sophisticated 800 MHz multichannel radio system later this year will improve, if not eliminate, the problem.

Allwang's crews also bumped into equipment problems. "We found the normal backboards used to move rescue victims don't work well when you have to hoist them out of an overturned train," he notes. "We had to turn them sideways and lift them up through the windows. People didn't slide around as much with a Stokes basket, but we didn't have enough of them."

Allwang realizes how lucky he and the passengers aboard the Capital Limited were. "A trainload of 200 people rolled over six cars and dragged them 100 feet, several of them down a 25-foot gully, and nobody died," he marvels.

"The scene was uncomplicated by fire, hazmat or access issues. We had a straight rescue, and we were fortunate enough to have the depth of resources to meet that demand.

"But the most important thing that made the rescue work were the people down on the track doing their job. They didn't wait for instructions or need a lot of guidance. They knew what to do and just kept going."

Sidebar: Lessons Learned

What lessons will Deputy Chief Allwang carry away from the Capital Limited derailment?

  • Get a good visualization of the scene.
  • Keep resources ahead of demand.
  • Use incident management to divide up the work. No single chief can run a large incident by himself.
  • Establish and practice unified command. The county and volunteer municipal fire departments should look and act like a single organization. If you're not doing that, you're not taking advantage of all your resources.
  • Take advantage of other supporting agencies. You have to know who to reach out and touch. It's of significant benefit that you plan and practice together on a regular basis.
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