RANDALL BENTON / rbenton@sacbee.com

Having stayed at a safer distance for most of the day, firefighters stand atop the burning tanker late Wednesday. Despite plans to use a "hot tap" to redirect the propane into a pond, they had to reignite the blaze to allow it to burn in place again.

Quick response to Lincoln rail tanker fire lauded

Published: Saturday, Sep. 3, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011 - 8:10 am

A calm, take-charge dispatcher, quick action by firefighters and police, and plenty of good breaks were were credited with preventing a catastrophe in Lincoln last week.

City officials Friday released recordings of 911 calls to the lone dispatcher on duty along with recordings of police and fire radio communications during the critical minutes following the first report of fire atop a rail tanker car containing 30,000 gallons of propane.

The fire prompted the evacuation of approximately 4,800 homes, as well as businesses and City Hall, within the one-mile radius of the fire that could have been affected had the tanker exploded.

Before the fire burned itself out 40 hours later, approximately 50 agencies had come to the city's aid, but Fire Chief Dave Whitt and interim Police Chief Paul Shelgren credited first responders with preventing a disaster.

"This is what it sounded like for the poor dispatcher by herself," Whitt said as a recording of the 911 calls was played during a City Hall news conference.

Veteran dispatcher Teri Leedy fielded calls from a worker at the Northern Energy propane storage facility, who reported the fire while trying to aid an injured colleague who was stranded on top of the burning tanker.

A ladder provided access to an inspection valve on top of the tanker. When the worker opened it, the propane ignited.

"The force of the ignition blew him to the other end of the car," Whitt said. "He would have had to go through the fire to get to the ladder."

The man, who was burned, was coaxed by his co-worker to slide off the side of the tanker on his stomach.

The second call came from a woman at Phoenix High School, across the street from the fire.

Firefighters were dispatched 34 seconds after the first call and were on the scene within two minutes, Shelgren said. Five minutes and 15 seconds after the first call, police arrived at the scene and began evacuating the neighborhood.

Within six minutes, an ambulance had arrived and within seven minutes, Roseville's hazardous materials team had been requested. Within 12 minutes, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection truck was in place and a Roseville Fire Department engine was en route.

Whitt said firefighters immediately rolled out hoses and began cooling the tanker with streams of water to prevent an explosion.

"There were a lot of things that happened … we got every good break," Whitt said.

A change made a couple of years ago in the communications operation to direct 911 calls made within the city to the city's emergency dispatchers rather than the California Highway Patrol contributed the the quick response, officials said, as did the presence of a veteran dispatcher.

Whitt said a city the size of Lincoln should have two dispatchers on duty around the clock, but the city can't afford that level of staffing. He noted that the dispatcher handles both 911 and non-emergency business calls. A number of 911 calls were not answered following the initial report of the fire because the dispatcher was busy dispatching local fire and police, and requesting help from surrounding communities.

While city offices were being evacuated and a dispatch center set up at the Rocklin Police Department, emergency calls were routed to the Roseville Police Department.

Whitt also noted that an hour into the propane fire, firefighters responded to a structure fire at a restaurant in the downtown area.

The cause of the tanker fire has not been determined. The Federal Railroad Administration has taken charge of the investigation. Whitt said a forensic study will be made of the dome of the tanker and the valve assembly.

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