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Wisconsin Gas Eases Town's Recovery From Train Explosion

Carrie Hilliker, Wisconsin Gas, Milwaukee, WI

Today, souvenir hats and T-shirts reading 'I survived the great Weyauwega Train Wreck and Evacuation,' stand in the windows of shops in Weyauwega, WI as remnants of the inferno that raged on the north side of the town last winter. There is no need to remind the people of this town of the event that put them in the national spotlight for two weeks last March. Although there are few physical scars left in the town, there are plenty of emotional ones, as well as a great appreciation for the efforts made by hundreds of men and women to save their town.

One quiet morning last winter, while most of Weyauwega slept in their warm homes, an 81-car freight train carrying millions of pounds of hazardous materials pummeled down the Wisconsin Central Ltd. railroad. On the frigid Monday morning of March 4, 1996, more than 35 cars, with 14 containing 1 million pounds of propane liquid gas. Some of the mammoth time bombs exploded into flames just 100 feet from a Wisconsin Gas natural gas gate station and the main gas line feeding the town of Weyauwega.

Dan Carlson, lead field employee for Wisconsin Gas, was awakened by a frantic phone call and immediately rushed to the site of the accident where Waupaca and Weyauwega fire departments were already on the scene. The heat was so intense that Carlson quickly decided to close the gate station to prevent the relief valve from blowing. It was an 'awful mess,' he recalled.

The most frightening aspect of the incident was the possibility of a BLEVE (boiling liquid evaporating vapor explosion). Upon realizing the severity of the accident, Wisconsin Central Railroad's Terry Corson and Jim Baeman, fire chief for the town of Weyauwega, agreed an evacuation was necessary to ensure the safety of the citizens.

At 7 a.m., two hours after the accident, families were rushed from their homes, some still wearing nightclothes, and forced to leave everything behind, including pets, mail and medications. The town was evacuated up to 2 square miles from the accident and a portion of Highway 10 was blockaded. Residents would not be home again for more than two weeks while rescue and emergency groups struggled to restore safety to the town.

Once the evacuation was completed, teams of government experts and rescue workers moved in. The fiery wreckage smoldered and flames licked at the gray winter sky as rescue workers, Wisconsin National Guard and fire officials kept a wide berth from the unpredictable heap of metal and smoke.

During the evacuation, a makeshift emergency staff was created and included men and women from the local fire and police departments, Wisconsin Gas, Wisconsin Electric, Lunda Construction, Wisconsin Central Railroad, and Waupaca County. Their coordination not only eased the smooth evacuation and re-entry programs, but also provided mental and emotional security for stricken residents.

In nearby Wautoma and other surrounding areas, shelters were quickly set up for families until hotel rooms were available. Daily briefings kept everyone informed about the dangerous situation.

By Day 3, officials were advising townspeople that it could be weeks before they would be allowed home. Weyauwegans reluctantly settled in for an uncomfortable few weeks from home, but several still tried to sneak back, dodging arrest charges and the ominous possibility of an explosion.

'With propane, it's the worst (accident) I've seen,' Wisconsin Central Railroad's Carson told frustrated residents. He emphasized that an explosion was still possible, and with vivid aerial videos backing him up, warned them of the extreme dangers they faced if they tried to return home prematurely.

Restoration Plan

Wisconsin Gas corrosion engineer Bill Hoffman took the lead with the company's emergency restoration plan as the foundation for restoring service and re-entry into the town. This is a required procedure designed by Wisconsin Gas for a variety of emergencies.

Once the all-clear signal was given 15 days later, the utility went house-to-house in the empty town to shut off all 700 meters. Next, the crew made minor repairs to the gate station and repressurized and purged the gas mains, leaving the system on test overnight.

To begin re-entry, Waupaca County emergency services staff devised a strategy in which Weyauwega was divided into four zones based on the Wisconsin Gas restoration plan. This helped in the coordination of buses and routing of families back into the town.

A convoy of 40 Wisconsin Gas technical services employees from Milwaukee and other offices drove to Weyauwega to assist with the relighting efforts. Using gas leak detection equipment, they swept each building and secured it. They were teamed with electric, water and construction crews who assessed any damage to homes and appliances. The primary owner of a residence or business was allowed on the premises with the inspection crew and was allowed to return permanently only alter it was declared safe. With the exception of some water damage, no other severe scarring was done to the homes.


The restoration of service to the town was completed in just three days. Wisconsin Gas and Lunda Construction made sure that homes were in good condition and determined what needed to be repaired.

Wisconsin Gas proved to be an integral part of the success in Weyauwega and many agreed that it was 'one to put in the record books' because of working for so many hours under such trying conditions.

The goal of Wisconsin Gas and the other companies involved was to ensure the safety of the people of Weyauwega and provide a smooth re-entry plan. As Wisconsin Gas employees double-checked on the residents of this town following the restoration, they were rewarded with many smiles and outstretched hands.

'Our required restoration plan really came in handy as a basic tool when dealing with the unexpected,' Hoffman said. In addition to paying for the expenses of the residents during their exile, Wisconsin Central Railroad fully reimbursed Wisconsin Gas for lost sales and income.

Wisconsin Gas, a WICOR company, is the oldest and largest natural gas distributor in Wisconsin. Headquartered in Milwaukee, the utility serves 510,000 customers in 510 communities. P&GJ
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Author:Hilliker, Carrie
Publication:Pipeline & Gas Journal
Geographic Code:1U3WI
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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