Waverly, Tennessee, tank car explosion

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Waverly, Tennessee, tank car explosion
DateFebruary 22–24, 1978
Location Waverly, Tennessee
Coordinates 36°05′13″N87°47′31″W / 36.087°N 87.792°W / 36.087; -87.792 Coordinates: 36°05′13″N87°47′31″W / 36.087°N 87.792°W / 36.087; -87.792
Country United States
Operator Louisville and Nashville Railroad
Incident typeDerailment, tank car explosion
CauseTank car BLEVE two days following a derailment
DamageUS$1,800,000(equivalent to $6,213,755 in 2018)

The Waverly, Tennessee, tank car explosion was an explosion that occurred at approximately 2:58 p.m. on Friday, February 24, 1978, in Waverly, Tennessee, following a train derailment incident days earlier. A tank car containing liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) exploded as a result of cleanup related to this derailment.

Waverly, Tennessee City in Tennessee, United States

Waverly is a city in and the county seat of Humphreys County, Tennessee, United States. The population was 4,105 at the 2010 census.

Tank car Type of freight car

A tank car is a type of railroad car or rolling stock designed to transport liquid and gaseous commodities.

Liquefied petroleum gas chemical compound

Liquefied petroleum gas or liquid petroleum gas, also referred to as simply propane or butane, are flammable mixtures of hydrocarbon gases used as fuel in heating appliances, cooking equipment, and vehicles.



At about 10:30 p.m. on February 22, twenty-four cars of a Louisville and Nashville Railroad freight train derailed in the downtown area of Waverly. Initially, local emergency services handled the accident, including inspecting the wreck for signs of any hazardous material leaks. The responding team assumed the LPG tank car was a double-wall tank car; however, it was a single-wall car.

Louisville and Nashville Railroad defunct American Class I railway

The Louisville and Nashville Railroad, commonly called the L&N, was a Class I railroad that operated freight and passenger services in the southeast United States.

Dangerous goods Solids, liquids, or gases harmful to people, other organisms, property or the environment

Dangerous goods, abbreviated DG, are items or substances that when transported are a risk to health, safety, property or the environment. Hazardous materials are substances, solids, liquids, or gases that can harm people, other living organisms, property, or the environment, more specifically.

Response to derailment

At 5:10 a.m. on February 23, after a previous miscommunication regarding hazardous material being present, the Tennessee Office of Civil Defense (now the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency) sent out a hazmat team to assess the situation. They concurred with the local officials' decision to keep the tank cars cool by spraying them with streams of water, and the decision was made to evacuate a 14-mile (0.40 km) area around the derailment zone, with gas and electric service to the area shut off.

Tennessee Emergency Management Agency Disaster response agency for the state of Tennessee

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) is an agency of Tennessee government tasked with preparing for and responding to natural and man-made disasters across the state of Tennessee. The agency is headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. TEMA is a component of the Tennessee Military Department, along with the Tennessee National Guard and the Tennessee State Guard.

By this time, Louisville and Nashville wreck crews were beginning to clear debris. The tank car that would eventually explode, owned by Union Tank Car Company and numbered UTLX 83013, was buried by debris. Crews removed the wrecked cars and UTLX 83013 was moved to clear the tracks, and the rail line partially reopened at about 8 p.m. on February 23. A tanker truck and a crew specializing in LPG cleanup arrived about 1 p.m. on February 24.

Union Tank Car Company railway equipment company

Union Tank Car Company or UTLX is a railway equipment leasing company headquartered in metro Chicago, Illinois. As the name says, they specialise in tank cars, and covered hopper cars. As of September 2005, according to their site, they have about 80,000 cars in their fleet.

Tank car explodes

Temperatures during the previous two days of the incident had remained in the mid-20s Fahrenheit (around -3.5 °C) and light snow was on the ground, but by mid-day on February 24 the temperature had risen to the mid-50s Fahrenheit (around 12.5 °C) and the sun was showing through clear skies.

About 20 minutes before the LPG removal was to begin, the area was tested with dedicated gas detection equipment and no leaks were found. The Waverly police and fire chiefs were on the scene and the hazmat crew was moving its equipment to start the transfer when at 2:58 p.m. vapor was discovered leaking from the tank car. Before any action could be taken, a BLEVE (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion) occurred.

The blast was felt for hundreds of feet and seen for miles, and disabled most of the fire-fighting equipment at the site. One piece of the tank car was launched over 330 feet (100 m), landing in front of a house. The explosion started numerous fires in nearby buildings and torched a number of road vehicles and other rail cars.

Response to explosion

Over the next several hours over 250 emergency vehicles converged on the blast site, some from as far as Nashville and Memphis. Air ambulances from Fort Campbell Army Post were dispatched to the site and the worst burn victims were moved to Nashville for initial treatment. A number of these were then transported to burn centers in Louisville, Kentucky, Birmingham, Alabama and Cincinnati, Ohio late on February 25. The evacuation radius was moved out to 1 mile (1.6 km) in case a second tanker exploded.

Nashville, Tennessee State capital and consolidated city-county in Tennessee, United States

Nashville is the capital and most populous city of the U.S. state of Tennessee. The city is the county seat of Davidson County and is located on the Cumberland River. The city's population ranks 24th in the U.S. According to 2018 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, the total consolidated city-county population stood at 692,587. The "balance" population, which excludes semi-independent municipalities within Davidson County, was 669,053 in 2018.

Memphis, Tennessee City in Tennessee, United States

Memphis is a city located along the Mississippi River in southwestern Shelby County, Tennessee, United States. The 2017 city population was 652,236, making Memphis the largest city on the Mississippi River, the second most populous city in Tennessee, as well as the 26th largest city in the United States. Greater Memphis is the 42nd largest metropolitan area in the United States, with a population of 1,348,260 in 2017. The city is the anchor of West Tennessee and the greater Mid-South region, which includes portions of neighboring Arkansas and Mississippi. Memphis is the seat of Shelby County, the most populous county in Tennessee. As one of the most historic and cultural cities of the southern United States, the city features a wide variety of landscapes and distinct neighborhoods.

Fort Campbell is a United States Army installation located astride the Kentucky–Tennessee border between Hopkinsville, Kentucky and Clarksville, Tennessee. Fort Campbell is home to the 101st Airborne Division and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

By 7:00 p.m. the fires were under control, and a search for additional casualties was begun. It was later called off because of visibility problems, but restarted at 5:30 a.m. on February 25. A car loaded with paper products reignited at about 3:15 p.m., but was quickly put out. A second LPG car was emptied by 10:30 p.m. Local residents were allowed to return home at 8:30 a.m. on February 26.


A total of sixteen people died as a result of the blast and the aftermath; six were killed instantly. Those lost included Waverly's fire chief Wilbur York and police chief Guy Barnett, TOCD state investigator Mark Belyew, members of the L&N wreck crew, and several residents of the area. 43 others were injured to various degrees.

Sixteen structures in Waverly were destroyed, and another 20 seriously damaged. Both of Waverly's fire trucks were destroyed. In 1979, the total property damage was estimated at US$1,800,000(equivalent to $6,213,755 in 2018).

The National Transportation Safety Board eventually blamed the blast on the car itself, as a crack had developed when the car was damaged by the derailment. It is believed that this crack expanded when the car was moved off the tracks, eventually causing overpressurization in the tank, causing the single wall to give out. The NTSB commended the town of Waverly on its preparedness for such an emergency, but also exposed the need for all people involved in accident cleanups to be trained in how to handle hazardous materials.

The Waverly explosion, along with several other accidents involving railroad derailments and hazardous materials (the most famous being the train derailment in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada on November 10, 1979) resulted in a major rework of how authorities deal with such emergencies. Tennessee and the TOCD created a set of standards and the Tennessee Hazardous Materials Institute in 1980 for the training of hazmat responders, and since the institute's formation, there have been no fatalities of Tennessee emergency responders at hazmat sites.

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