Sacto 9-1-1
August 29, 2011
Lincoln propane tanker fire cause still undetermined; feds to conduct investigation

Dave Whitt.jpgLincoln Fire Chief Dave Whitt said Monday the cause of a propane tanker rail car fire last week is "undetermined, unable to rule out mechanical failure or human error."

Whitt's preliminary report on the tanker car blaze that resulted in the evacuation of approximately 4,800 homes in the city for two days leaves unanswered why the fire erupted that day.

It could be some time before federal officials release a possible cause. Whitt said he understands that federal investigators with the Federal Railroad Administration want to take the the burned rail car away on a flatbed car to a location where they can closely exam the tanker.

Photo gallery: Propane fire threatens Lincoln

Whitt said inspectors will look at valving on the rail car and may conduct more interviews.

"They did some interviews on Saturday," said Whitt. "They may have to do some more. It's pretty simple: there was one guy up there when it started. I don't know what the result of that interview was."

Lincoln Fire Department will not investigate the propane car fire, Whitt said. Even though the fire occurred in Lincoln jurisdiction, it is appropriate to place the investigation in the hands of federal authorities who have more experience with railroad fires .

"I would yield to the experts: the Federal Railroad Adminstration and the Public Utilities Commission," said Whitt.

Firefighters responded about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday to emergency calls of flames shooting from the top of the full 30,000-gallon propane rail car parked on a spur off the Union Pacific main line. Authorities evacuated neighborhoods within a one-mile radius, including the city's downtown, while unmanned hoses were trained on the burning tanker to cool in and keep it from exploding.

Experts were brought in from Texas to conduct a risky "hot tap" operation to divert the liquid propane from the tanker into a dug-out pond, where it could be safely burned. But before that operation was undertaken Wednesday night, firefighters saw that the flames were diminishing. They instead pumped water and an aqueous foam into the tanker to force out the remaining vapors and allowed fire to burn itself out.

Northern Energy, the firm that owns and operates the propane storage facility in Lincoln, announced today that is has set up a centralized call center to handle claims from people affected the evacuation last week. Effective today, people may call (855) 828-5137.

Northern Energy is an operating subsidiary of Helena, Mont.-based Heritage Propane, a national propane retailer.

"The strength and character of this community shone brightly during a very difficult time, yet we know that many of you made great sacrifices during the evacuation effort," Eric Beatty, Heritage Propane's general counsel, said in a written statement. "If you were affected by the evacuation effort, please contact us."

Fore more information, see the company's website.

PHOTO CREDIT: Lincoln fire chief Dave Whitt said that authorities will try to drain the propane from a burning rail car in a maneuver to prevent an explosion, during a news conference in Lincoln, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. Between 4,000 and 5,000 homes were evacuated Tuesday, when a rail car carrying 29,000 gallons of liquid propane burst into flames near their homes. Fire officials initially said the blaze could continue for 21 days, but Whitt said that scenario was unacceptable. Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press.

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