by Geoff Fox
In 2023, train derailments, toxic spills and other transport-related emergencies have been making headlines across the country. The most notable incident was a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio which spilled a variety of toxic chemicals, and resulted in a fire that evacuated the immediate area for public safety. More recently, a tanker truck carrying 8,650 gallons of gasoline crashed in a fiery explosion in Frederick, causing the death of the driver and extensive property damage.
What if something like either of those happened in Hancock or across the Potomac River on the train tracks?
The Hancock News reached out to first responders and government officials to find out what the response would be. In Part I, this reporting will look at how local first responders would handle the calls.
Hancock Fire Company and Hancock Rescue Squad would be the first to respond to such an incident in the vicinity of town.
Fire Chief Robert Hoopengardner said in an email he isn’t sure exactly what units would be dispatched for a train derailment as it would depend on what the caller reported was involved.
If the caller reported an Amtrak train derailed, it would trigger certain units to be dispatched to respond, versus a caller saying a cargo train derailed and a large cloud was visible around the crash site.
Because of the location of the train tracks, Morgan County, W.Va. units would be dispatched to respond.
Hoopengardner said on a call like this, Hancock or Morgan County would arrive on scene and immediately set up incident command.
“We have and always will work closely with our neighboring first responders in Morgan County,” he said.
Command would then decide if an evacuation would be needed or the public could shelter in place.
That could depend on what cargo trains were carrying through the area, if chemicals are toxic in an airborne form or how chemicals on trains might interact if released from their individual trains.
Placards on rail cars alert first responders to what is inside.
Morgan County Office of Emergency Services (OES) Director Jason Hoover has said the county’s first step would be to contact CSX or the appropriate rail company to verify the contents of rail cars and tap their expert resources in how to respond to any spill or fire.
Morgan County fire and EMS units have the same training as Hancock agencies, and would work to coordinate their response through Emergency Services managers, who can request equipment, staffing and expertise from their respective states and national emergency agencies.
How does evacuation work?
“If Hancock had to be evacuated, command would be in contact with the Division of Emergency Services in Washington County and have them send a text out on Everbridge to the community and also request the assistance of the police department to make announcements on a PA system while driving through the community, and if needed go door to door,” Hoopengardner said.
He added they would also send personnel to the airport to make sure they are evacuated as well.
With the train yard being close to the 522 bridge, there is the possibility the crossing over the Potomac would be closed, too.
Hoopengarder said once command had evaluated the incident and decided the road would need shut down, they would have dispatch contact MDOT and West Virginia Division of Highways to shut down U.S. 522.
With the Hancock area being at the crossroads for four roads – US 522, US 40/MD144, I-68, and I-70 – there are tanker trucks hauling gasoline and other chemicals through the area at all times.
In the Frederick incident, the tractor-trailer was loaded with gasoline when it wrecked, causing damage to the tanker and allowing the gasoline to spill onto the ground and catch fire, the fire chief said. The fuel spread as it continued to spill out.
“We have too many possible scenarios here where we live because of all the interstates to try and say what we would do,” Hoopengardner said.
He gave an example of a tanker crashing on the I-70 bridge over Pennsylvania Avenue with the same scenario as Frederick.
Hoopengardner said units would arrive on scene and set up a command post and request additional resources from other companies while attempting to extinguish the fire – Hazmat, Town of Hancock, state roads, MDE, and activate the Emergency Operations Center (EOC).
“We would then request the police department evacuate Pennsylvania Avenue from Resley Street to High Street and have the 911 center send a text out over Everbridge of an immediate evacuation of that area,” Hoopengarder said.
He added there would be a request for a foam unit to help extinguish the fire from Hagerstown Regional Airport and Martinsburg Airport.
“We would try and contain the spill to that area,” Hoopengardner said.
He noted firefighters in Hancock don’t train enough for these situations and they have their initial training and reading materials through the year.
Chief Stephen Barnhart of the Hancock Rescue Squad said Company 59 would respond with their heavy rescue squad that has a lot of specialty equipment to assist the fire department with absorbents if there are leaks, and damming or diking to help with water control.
There are also pads that could divert whatever chemicals are going into streams and storm drains.
Barnhart also said they’d respond with manpower to assist the fire department with putting out any fire as well, including mitigation of any chemicals. He added there are rescue techs that would be available.
Hancock Rescue would be at the direction of command and more than likely be the first EMS response to be on scene taking care of any patients who might be injured or exposed to anything.
“Our primary role first, as far as the EMS side of it, would be take care of any critically injured or sick people from any hazardous material that may have come about,” Barnhart said.
Hancock has two medic units available at the station and would take both to the scene as there will more than likely be multiple patients, so it would be mitigated with the second unit and as much manpower as possible.
Barnhart said the type of incident and injuries would dictate where patients might go for treatment.
Each railcar or tanker has a placard alerting first responders and others what is being transported in the containers and there is a guidebook first responders have that would also help in determining where the patients go for treatment or if there needs to be an evacuation or shelter in place issued.
Barnhart said if somebody were exposed to chemicals, they would get treatment at Meritus in Hagerstown if possible, as they have a decontamination unit and could handle the number of possible patients. It’s also a level three trauma center.
If a patient isn’t stable, they would go to War Memorial. Hospital, which is much closer.
Should there be an evacuation situation, Hancock Rescue Squad would assist and could assist with some of their utility vehicles if there was a mass evacuation due to whatever chemical possibly floating in the air.
Barnhart said if they had to evacuate for a possible two-mile radius, they would have to see what manpower they could pull together to assist the fire department.
In that situation though, Barnhart said they’d also be pulling resources from other parts of Washington County as well, along with the major role police would play as well.
Safety of bystanders
With people looking to get “likes” and other forms of social media affirmation, there will bound to be onlookers looking to get a closer look at major emergency sites.
Hoopengardner said if people know what’s going on, they should stay inside their homes until an evacuation order is issued because it could be decided that a shelter in place could be issued instead of being evacuated.
Should the evacuation order be given, Hoopengardner said people should only take with them what’s necessary for a couple days like medications, clothes for a couple days, cash, and credit cards.
Agencies recommend each household has an emergency kit ready in case of such events.
Depending on what’s involved, command could shut down U.S. 522 in Maryland at the bridge initially and in West Virginia near Lover’s Leap, River Road at Culp Road, Pious Ridge at River Road, and Fairview Drive at River Road for a train derailment.
“Doing this shuts down access to the crash site,” he said.
When asked how the public could keep themselves safe if there was a tanker explosion, Hoopengarder admitted it wasn’t an easy question to answer because it depends on the type of call.
If it was like Frederick, Hoopengardner said people would need to get away from the area involved in the fire.
“If I lived where Harry’s store used to be [on Pennsylvania Avenue], I would walk out the back door and walk towards Virginia Ave.,” Hoopengardner said.
If it’s a train derailment with a hazardous substance leaking and the wind carrying it over Hancock and no evacuation order given, Hoopengarder said people should shelter in place. That means bringing family and pets inside; locking doors and closing windows, air vents, and fireplace dampers; and turning off fans, air conditioners, and force heating systems.
“If you know of an emergency, listen to local media for updates and what you may need to do,” he said. “Do not try and see what’s going on.”
Hoopengarder added people should listen to firefighters, EMS, and/or police when they tell you to either evacuate or shelter in place.
“Remember we only do this when it is absolutely necessary to keep you safe,” he said.
Barnhart added if there were to be a large-scale incident and there were not an immediate threat to a person, he would strongly suggest a shelter in place until instructed otherwise.
“Shelter in place is probably the best thing until you hear otherwise and just monitor local TV channels and radio channels,” he said.
Eric Jacobs, Washington County’s Division of Emergency Services Operations Manager, said generally an incident like a train derailment would require a great deal of command, control, and communications.
“Washington County, through Emergency Management, would be charged with updating the general public on potential risks and known evacuations,” he said.