Derailment 30 years ago forced evacuations, closed down local school

A freight train derailment 30 years ago Sunday forced 75 families out of their homes and ended classes for the day at a local high school. (MGN/file)
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TEMPLE, Texas (KWTX) Seven cars of a Santa Fe freight train derailed in downtown Temple on Feb. 9, 1990 and after the chemical-laden cars overturned authorities evacuated 75 families from their homes and ended classes early at Temple High School.

It made quite a mess and disrupted things near downtown for some time, but according to news reports from the day no one got hurt.
“Seven railcars carrying chemicals rolled down the tracks until they contacted a derailment clip,” Thomas Pechal, a retired Temple firefighter, said.

A derailment clip is a heavy iron device that trackmen place on some tracks that is designed to force uncontrolled cars off the rails before they can strike other cars.

“I don’t know why the cars rolled,” Kathy Westphal, public affairs spokesperson for Santa Fe, in Chicago, said at the time.

“The area around the derailment was evacuated and Temple High dismissed classes early,” Pechal, who was working at the Temple Fire Department when the derailment happened, recalled.

The alarm went out to firefighters that Friday at 9:24 a.m. and units, that eventually numbered six either fire or foam trucks, raced to the tracks under the Adams Street overpass, then-Deputy Temple Fire Chief Frankie Copeland said.

The first units on the scene reported none of the cars actually was leaking and in fact only two had completely derailed.

Police responded and at once began evacuating an apartment house where 75 families lived, Temple police Lt. Robert Flippo said, according to the next day’s report in the Temple Daily Telegram.

The two derailed cars contained liquid chemicals, both of which had extremely low flash points, the temperature at which they ignite.

One carried ethyl acetate, with a flash point of 55-degrees Fahrenheit, the other methyl ethyl ketone which has a flashpoint of only 22 degrees.

Ethyl acetate is found in alcoholic beverages, cereal crops, radishes, fruit juices, beer, wine, and spirits and is used as a solvent in the manufacture of modified hop extract and decaffeinated tea or coffee.

It’s also used as an insect killer, the U.S. National Library of Medicine, says.

Methyl ethyl ketone appears as colorless fairly volatile liquid with a pleasant pungent odor and a flash point 20 degrees.

It is used as a solvent, for making other chemicals, and for production of wax from petroleum and is used for color and inks used to mark fruit or vegetables.

The remaining cars were empty but had been carrying either extremely corrosive acrylic acid or liquid beef tallow fat.

First responders feared because remaining fumes that could have built up in the empty cars all were heavier than air, a leak could result in fumes accumulating close to the ground as they expanded.

Deputy Temple Fire Chief Eddie Clanton said at the time “the fumes are three times heavier than air and they could escape along the ground to an alternative ignition source.”

Fumes weren’t the only thing firefighters were battling that day because at about 1 p.m. the sky opened up and heavy rain drenched them as they worked.

Firefighters used heavy hoses to pump out the liquid that remained in the full cars to reduce their weight so they could be more easily righted and “re-railed.”

A company from Corsicana that specialized in such incidents responded to the scene and by 3:30 p.m. had begun re-railing the cars.

But those who’d been evacuated learned they wouldn’t be allowed to return home until after midnight, so a coalition headed up by Temple American Red Cross, with help from students from University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, nurses and other medical professionals from Scott and White, Olin E. Teague Veteran’s Hospital and King’s Daughters Hospital, arranged for shelter in a local church and provided medical attention and other services for those effected.

The next morning the sun dawned bright and the railcars had been removed and life in downtown Temple went on as if nothing had happened.