Fire officials have announced that they now believe the tanker car burning in Lincoln since Tuesday is virtually empty of liquid propane, and that they may be able to render it inert before midnight.
Flames from the top of the car died down around 9 p.m., leading firefighters to run tests attempting to determine how much propane was left in the car, said Lincoln Fire Chief Dave Whitt. They are now pumping the rail car full of water and aqueous foam in an attempt to force out any residual liquid and propane vapors, said Whitt.
"As the tank fills up with foam and water, it's pushing the residual vapors outside the tank," he said. "So we re-lit the fire again and as the tank fills up it'll continue to burn off the residual vapors. We should have a stable tank once that foam ... fills up that tank."
The foam and water mixture is being pumped into the car at 200-300 gallons per minute, leading fire officials to hope that the car might be rendered inert within 60-to-90 minutes, Whitt said at a 10 p.m. news conference. That means the mandatory evacuation order, in place since Tuesday afternoon, could be lifted as early as midnight, though that will be up to law enforcement officials, Whitt said.
"The good news is the problem, like we said earlier, has gone away, and now we're kind of a little bit more in control of this," he said.
Fire personnel had been planning to "hot tap" the rail car, which meant they would weld a valve to the bottom of the car, punch a hole in the car and let the liquid propane drain into a ditch, where it would be burned off. Preparation for the procedure was under way at 8 p.m., when Whitt addressed media members saying there could still be as much as 25,000 gallons of liquid propane in the rail car, and that there was still a potential for "catastrophic failure."
However, firefighters began to reassess the situation when they noticed the flames coming from the rail car were becoming "lazy," and the fire virtually extinguished itself, Whitt said. They tested the weight the car was putting on its springs, and did a heat test, and became "99 percent sure" that the liquid propane had burned off, he said.
Whitt said the mandatory evacuation perimeter in place since Tuesday afternoon would be held until the fire that is burning escaping vapors is completely extinguished. "We have a tank that's full of vapor, and that's the one thing we don't want to have is any type of flash inside the tank," he said.