On Thursday, June 23, 2016, the Wauseon Fire Department along with several other Fulton County Fire and EMS departments responded to several major incidents on the Ohio Turnpike. These incidents all occurred within close proximity to each other in the eastbound lanes and extended into over 27 hours of continuous operations on the turnpike. For much of this time, both the east and westbound lanes of the turnpike were shut down, causing traffic congestion on Northwest Ohio local roadways Thursday evening and all day Friday.
The first incident occurred at the 34.4 mile post at 7:01 PM and involved a semi truck that struck two different vehicles. This crash resulted in eight people being transported or treated at the scene and released. The injuries from this crash were minor and squads from the Archbold, Delta, Fayette, and Wauseon Fire Departments were dispatched to the scene.
Before all of the Fire Departments units had the ability to clear this first crash, a second crash involving three commercial vehicles with heavy damage was reported in the eastbound lanes of the 43.0 mile post at 8:14 PM. This is the area of the turnpike that begins the upward grade to cross SH 108 before reaching the Wauseon interchange. This crash also involved a semi truck hauling dry goods, failing to maintain assured clear distance ahead and running into the back of another semi dump truck that was being delivered to a customer by the manufacturer. No major injuries resulted from this crash and everyone was treated at the scene and refused transport to the hospital. This crash caused extensive damage to the vehicles involved and separated the semi-trailers from their tractors and even dislodged one of the tractor cabs from its frame, sending it sliding on its side down the highway. Fortunately for the driver of this vehicle, his seatbelt held him safely in place and he was able to crawl out of the wreckage with minor abrasions. This crash completely shut down the eastbound lanes of the Ohio Turnpike due to the extensive amount of vehicle debris and fluids on the highway. Again, the Archbold, Delta, and Wauseon Fire Departments were on the scene for this incident.
While the Fire Department units were wrapping up the scene at the second crash, the Fulton County 911 Dispatch reported another commercial vehicle crash involving heavy fire at the 32.0 milepost and the available units immediately responded along with additional support units from surrounding fire departments. Traffic from the first two crashes already had Turnpike traffic slowed in both directions which, but engines companies from Archbold, Delta, and Wauseon were able to arrive on the scene within minutes.
Upon arrival at this third incident, heavy fire involvement was found to be coming from what appeared to be a semi truck that rear ended a pressure vessel semi-tanker truck that was identified to be carrying hydrogen. The rear of the tanker trailer and entire cab and trailer of the rear semi were fully engulfed in fire. The driver of the semi transporting the hydrogen safely exited his vehicle and was transported to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries. The driver of the semi truck that rear ended the hydrogen tanker perished upon impact in the crash.
This third incident of the evening brought about several serious concerns for the responding area fire departments. First, hydrogen gas was leaking from a 3,000 gallon breached pressure vessel and burning from the crash impact. Second, the contents of the destroyed semi were not known and the possible reaction with water and hydrogen gas was uncertain at the onset of the incident. Thirdly, the structural integrity of the pressure vessel was not initially known and our ability to approach and inspect was impeded by the fire. These concerns were amplified by the fact that many traveling civilians and commercial vehicles were literally trapped on the turnpike.
Eastbound traffic between the 32 and 34 milepost were stuck between the two crashes that had the roadway completely blocked and eastbound traffic was also stopped behind the 32 milepost crash. Many vehicles that had approached the scene were realizing that they were too close and were trying to back up in traffic. In addition to the eastbound traffic problems, westbound traffic was halted behind the responding fire apparatus attempting to control the fire from this crash.
Water supply on hand from the initial responding units was quickly depleted and a tanker shuttle had to be rapidly established using all area fire departments and many others from surrounding counties. Since the westbound lanes of the turnpike were the only available travel route, a water fill site was established in Elmyria from the Archbold water system and a continuous tanker shuttle was operated using the Archbold Turnpike interchange as access. A problem encountered during this process was eastbound traffic from the turnpike turning around on their own and traveling in the opposing direction as the tanker shuttle operations. It took several hours for the turnpike maintenance, with the assistance of ODOT to get this under control and provide traffic safety for the operating fire department tankers.
The tactics used at this scene to control the fire were mainly using copious amounts of water to keep the pressure vessel cool and let the hydrogen gas burn off until the contents of the vessel had depleted. After several conference calls with company representatives about the nature of the product being transported and the equipment that was being used in transport, it was decided that this was the best and safest course of action given the circumstances of nearby civilians and limited access to the scene. Company representatives were dispatched to the scene from Butler, Indiana, Cleveland, and Buffalo, New York, and as this incident progressed, Fire Department Incident Command stayed in contact via conference call with company and industry hydrogen experts world-wide. Live video was sent from the scene to these company representatives showing the conditions of their vehicle and the fire behavior emanating from their vessel. Several hours into the incident, it was determined that no previous situation had ever been experienced industry-wide, where the entire control valve system of a hydrogen tanker had been destroyed, therefore there would be no way to contain the product. Confirmation was given that the safest action was to continue the release of hydrogen as a burning gas, since it produces no harmful by-product, and to keep the vessel cool to maintain its structural integrity.
Company representatives arrived on the scene in the early morning hours Friday and monitored their vessel and provided this information to fire operations command personnel and ensured that the scene would remain safe as long as the vessel could be kept cool and the internal pressure could be kept low. It was determined that a trailer of helium would be needed to properly protect workers from the hydrogen gas once the fire had burnt out, so this and several more support units were dispatched from the Dayton, Ohio area and at no time during the monitoring process was the safety of any civilians in jeopardy. A 300 foot safety zone was maintained at all times. This operation continued well into Friday afternoon until the pressure in the transportation vessel fell to zero PSI and no burning was detected from the rear of the trailer. As a safety measure, helium was pumped into the trailer to purge and remaining hydrogen to allow the fire department and company representatives to continue with cleanup and recovery operations.
Around 8:00 PM Friday evening, the scene was considered safe and westbound traffic was allowed turnpike travel again. The remaining debris from this crash was removed by recovery companies and the interstate pavement was removed and replaced by a contractor. Around midnight Friday, traffic was moving in both directions and all of the crash debris had been cleared.
The Wauseon Fire Department would like to thank all of the area responders for their assistance over those very busy days. It took the cooperation and dedication of all of the Fulton County Fire Departments not only to directly respond to the major incidents, but to also provide coverage for the other emergency calls for service in Fulton County during this time period as well. These incidents truly stretched the limits of any one department, but it showed that cooperative efforts of the Fulton County Fire Departments can be matched by none.
In addition to the Fulton County Fire Departments, the Ohio Fire Chiefs Response Plan was activated to reach out to surrounding counties for further assistance in maintaining support and fire operations since the initial responding companies had been on the scene for over 24 hours. This response plan brought in units from all of Williams County including Bryan, Brady Township, and Northwest Township. Units from Henry County included Napoleon, Ridgeville, and Malinta Fire Departments. Lucas County provided Richfield Township, Springfield Township, Whitehouse, and Monclova Fire Department staff as well as personnel and equipment from the United States Air Force 180th ANG.
In total, 455,200 gallons of water was hauled from the Archbold municipal water system in 137 trips from the fill site 9 miles to the incident scene. Working together, the many fire department units were able to flow an average of 25,000 gallons of water per hour for a sustained 17 hours. Fifteen fire departments supplied tanker support and 19 departments provided engine and support apparatus. Forty-three pieces of fire apparatus were used during these operations and this does not include the many departments that supplied stand-by support in the event of additional calls of service in Fulton County.
In addition to the assistance received from the many area fire departments, the City of Wauseon would also like to recognize the efforts of many other organizations that worked on the front lines of this incident to keep the public safe. These include” The Fulton County Emergency Management (EMA), Fulton County Emergency Services (EMS), the American Red Cross, Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT), Ohio State Highway Patrol, Ohio Turnpike Commission Safety Services, The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office and 911 Communications Center, and the City of Wauseon Public Works. In addition, we would like to recognize the many businesses that donated food and supplies to the emergency workers and contractors. With everyone’s help and cooperation, we were able to return the Fulton County highway and transportation system back to normal as quickly as possible.
All of these crashes are still under investigation by the Ohio State Highway Patrol. For more information on liquid hydrogen visit http://energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/liquid-hydrogen-delivery