TUCSON -- It took almost an hour for Union Pacific officials to notify emergency agencies of a train derailment in Sahuarita that spilled 10,000 gallons of sulfuric acid and prompted officials to evacuate about 100 residents, the Arizona Daily Star reports.

The delay aroused concern among the emergency crews who responded to the Jan. 2 derailment of 19 rail cars, six of which were each carrying 20,000 gallons of sulfuric acid, about 1.5 miles south of Sahuarita Road.

"We were concerned with trying to secure the scene at the earliest possible moment, get everybody out and allow no new people in," said George Good, district chief with the Rural/Metro Fire District. "We had people driving through this for an hour, which could have been very hazardous; (sulfuric acid) is a severe respiratory hazard."

The acid was en route to a copper mine processing plant in Ray Junction, a common load for the stretch of track dubbed the Nogales spur.

No one was injured in the derailment, but at least one Rural/Metro firefighter was treated and released at University Medical Center for a possible inhalation injury, Good said.

"Obviously, if he was transported, then other members of the public were potentially at risk as well," Good said.

Dave Lenox, coordinator with the Pima County Office of Emergency Management, said the agency looked into the amount of time it took Union Pacific to notify local agencies of the derailment and found nothing wrong.

"(The delay) became a concern sometime during the 20 hours or so we were there," said Lenox. "There was approximately an hour's difference from the time of the event to the time of notification, which, given the circumstances, were not outside the parameters for notification."

"Are there better ways to do things? Sure there are," Lenox said. "Are they cost-efficient? Probably not. Maybe if every train had a satellite transmitter, but how many millions are you willing to spend? That's the bottom line."

Union Pacific spokesman Mike Furtney said the company is not exactly sure when the derailment occurred. An initial time of 7:06 p.m. was reported, but UP now believes the derailment may have happened as late as 7:15 or 7:20, Furtney said.

The Pima County Sheriff's Department was notified at 8:13 p.m., Furtney said.

"When the train crew realized something had happened, the conductor went back and walked the train," Furtney said. He said the derailed cars were in the middle of the 107-car train -- about a half-mile's walk in one direction, in the dark.

"When he saw what happened, he walked back and phoned the dispatchers with his radio immediately, and they started making the notification calls," Furtney said. "We think we responded appropriately in this case."

Adding to the delay was the fact that no one, not residents nor motorists, called 911 to notify emergency personnel, said Lenox. All of the emergency agencies that responded to the derailment -- Sahuarita police, Pima County Sheriff's Department, Rural/Metro Fire District and others -- said they were notified by Union Pacific or another agency.

"The funny thing is, there were no 911 calls. People heard it and nobody called 911. People drove by it and nobody called 911," Lenox said.

Sahuarita Town Manager Jerry Flannery said the response to the derailment -- once all the agencies were notified -- was exemplary.

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January 17, 2001


2001 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers