MIAMISBURG, Ohio (WDTN) – According to Murphy’s Law, anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

That adage certainly applies to a hot July week in 1986, when a train carrying white phosphorus derailed over Bear Creek, sparking an incident that would take nearly a week to clear.

Years later, this event still serves as training for fire and emergency crews at the National Fire Academy.

Problem 1: Phosphorus ignites when exposed to air.

Smoke and fire erupt from the tanker (WDTN Archive Footage)

When the cars derailed on July 8, 1986, the hitch of one car punctured a hole in the car carrying white phosphorus: 12,000 gallons of it. The glowing flames pushed a massive plume of smoke into the sky, spreading phosphoric acid into the surrounding areas.

Hazmat and fire crews from the surrounding towns were called to the scene, as they began to strategize how to fight a blaze that no one had ever fought before. Billy Ring, who served as a fire captain for the Miamisburg Fire Department at the time, recounts his memory of the event.

“It was the biggest by far that I had ever seen, and that all the Metropolitan Fire departments that came,” Ring said. “No one had ever seen anything of this magnitude, either before, or since.”

Ring was at his home when the call went out for all hands on deck. He could see the plume from his house, he said, and he knew this was going to be something big.

When he arrived at the station, everyone was working to build a strategy to take on the fire while also enacting the necessary safeguards to protect the citizens nearby and the whole community.

“One of the first things to do is determine what kind of interaction multiples will create in a way of hazard,” Ring explained. “Often in and of themselves they are a great enough hazard, But when you combine some of them, the activities, reactivities become much worse, much more hazardous. So that was a constant evaluation process.”

Problem 2:  The policy had not been updated recently.

The firefighters were well trained, Ring said, there was no denying that. But oftentimes, policy is one of those things that is revised after something goes wrong, not before.

In a strangely fortunate turn of events, one of the firefighters, Howard Davis, was recovering from surgery at the time and wasn’t in the field.

Fire and smoke rise from the tipped-over rail car (WDTN Archived Footage)

“I asked the chief, ‘Is there something we can get this guy to do?'” Ring said. The chief suggested that he could review the disaster plan, as he didn’t have the time to do so himself.

“So this guy, How, was extraordinary,” Ring said. “He took the whole city disaster plan and just dissected that thing into segments, updated every last thing in there, And then, once that was approved by all the fire people and the police and so on, once that was a finished product, then he arranged this entire and complete training for every last city employee on such a circumstance. So everyone was briefed – knew their duty and training.”

Problem 3: Thousands of people lived nearby.

How do you evacuate an entire city? Or more importantly, how do you evacuate several cities at once? On Wednesday, July 9, between 25,000 and 40,000 people were displaced over the course of a couple of hours.

People gather around the television for updates on the evacuation (WDTN Archive Footage)

Thankfully, with the help of local TV stations, authorities were able to efficiently notify the public of what was happening, and where they needed to go to stay safe.

And for those who were unable to leave, or who had been exposed to the toxic plume, a fleet of medics organized to efficiently get them the care they needed.

“There was over 100 – I want to say 150 or more calls for service,” Ring said.”And those medics just kept going and then coming back – getting in line, the next one would go get in line, come back. And you know, that’s the way it worked.”

Of course, that still left the community with the issue of feeding the thousands now unable to go home, at a time when many restaurants were also affected by the evacuation area.

One woman described how businesses in the community worked to keep the community fed. You can listen to her speak in the 1986 footage shown below.

Problem 4: The wind changed, repeatedly.

On Tuesday, July 8, the plume was affecting portions of Miamisburg, West Carrollton and Moraine, forcing 17,500 people to evacuate. Wednesday brought them home briefly, before a portion of the bridge railing collapsed, rupturing the car a second time, and causing more of the material to ignite.

This time, the wind was not in Miamisburg’s favor. The entire city was forced to evacuate along with portions of the surrounding areas.

At one point, Ring said that those staying in an evacuation shelter were forced to evacuate to a second shelter as the plume settled over them once again.

Smoke and fire spread from the burning car (WDTN Archived Footage)

“The scariest moments were the changing of the direction of the wind and the plume, the way it traveled and changing directions,” Ring explained. “Mostly winds are prevalently out of the west, but they were out of the southwest, the northwest – and it just changed everything many, many times.”

Thankfully, they were able to keep up with the changes with nearly constant updates from a local laboratory. between consistent updates, solid training, and impressive flexibility, the crews turned the massive amount of chaos thrown at them into a resounding success.

“As it turns out, there is an organization called the National Fire Academy in Washington DC. And they still use that as a model for training chiefs, assistant chiefs, lieutenants, captains, and so forth,” Ring said. “To this day, they still use that, because it was an excellent job by all standards and all measures. It was 100% successful. And every 15 minutes we would get a weather report and predictions from Mound laboratory, and so we constantly upgraded the operation every 15 minutes or so. And it was an incredible chore.”

Problem 5: It was early July, and temperatures were rising.

While firefighters may be used to the heat, it is still dangerous, and dehydration can lead to injuries, or worse.

The crews were given strict time limits within the hazard area before they were called back to get the heavy gear off, get refreshments, sit down and rest.

“Fire service people are disciplined, and were, of course, subject to following orders, which they did,” Ring explained. “And there probably was a case or two where they needed just another few minutes, and we gave them that to complete some task they had almost finished but not quite. So generally speaking, we held everybody’s feet to the fire -no pun intended – to make sure they conformed to the limitations of exposure.”

Problem 6: Phosphorus wasn’t the only thing that could burn.

Phosphorus may have been one of the more flammable materials on the train that day, but it wasn’t the only one. The train was carrying lard and sulfur in cars next to the phosphorus.

Furthermore, three cars were carrying brand-new Lincoln Continentals to be sold, 72 cars total, making a loss that Ring mourns as perhaps one of the biggest tragedies to occur that week.

Ring recalls how the West Carrollton fire chief quickly responded when the command post told him the situation.

The chemicals all spilled into each other, in what should have been an even more toxic mix, but as they were running into Bear Creek, much of that danger was, quite literally, washed away.

Aerial footage of the derailed cars over Bear Creek (WDTN Archived Footage)

Instead, crews faced a different problem: Bear Creek ran into the Great Miami River, and it was bringing toxic chemicals with it.

“We had to put down booms, which are floating containment systems, pneumatically inflated, and then pads upstream in front of the booms, so as a product comes down, it collects in the pads. The pads can be retrieved and disposed of and new ones put in its place,” Ring explained.

Unfortunately, this would not go as planned.

Problem 7: Heavy storms moved in.

Heavy rains caused the river to swell, washing the barriers away.

“We got all that in place, and then came this unbelievable rainstorm that you just couldn’t imagine,” Ring said. “And Bear Creek came flying up. And it took the booms, the pads and everything somewhere south, we don’t know how far where it actually went. But it went south. And we never saw that again.”

Problem 8: An earthquake hits.

When it seemed as though everything else that could happen had happened, an earthquake hit the area.

“It was a tremendous tremor,” Ring said. “And it was felt the tri-state area. And everybody had to say, they thought, ‘oh, no, what next?'”

A bent piece of track sits in front of the blazing fire (WDTN Archived Footage)

Problem 9: Lawsuits began.

Even as the flames began to die down, firefighters still weren’t allowed to remove the car from the area.

Ring said the crews were told that a majority of metropolitan citizens had filed a class-action lawsuit. The car was classified as evidence, and would not be allowed to be moved.

“We got orders that the rail car had to be cordoned off and protected because it would become class action evidence. And the court ordered that it would be isolated and not touched, not moved, you know, all that kind of stuff,” Ring said. “So the city law director had to go to federal court and get that injunction lifted, which he did. And then we did eventually, with the railroad’s assistance, retrieve that car, the phosphorus car and secured it and moved it out of the area.”

Facing a massive incident like this, it would be easy to be discouraged, but not for Captain Billy Ring. Looking at the well-trained, hardworking team around him, he knew they could handle everything that was thrown at them.

“The most vivid thing I remember is, I’m thinking that we were winning the battle. And I could see it step by step,” Ring recalls. “The things that we were doing were under the greatest advice and consultation that those circumstances or conditions would allow. And we could see very quickly that it was coming around to our way. And it ultimately did.”

To this day, the well-organized strategy used by the departments for this derailment is used in training for fire departments across the U.S. According to Ring, in-depth training is to be credited for the success at the Miamisburg derailment.

“It’s incumbent on every fire department in every community that they’re always anticipating, preparing for, equipping for that thing they never imagined would happen,” Ring said. “And there’s all kinds of those, if you think about it. But if you build your day-to-day procedures with respect to that open end, that you just can’t know what’s going to occur next, then that’s the way you build success and tactical completion in the safety of the community by making those preparations.”

“And my guess would be, you would be hard-pressed to find any fire department that does not do that every single day.”

Newspapers about the derailment (WDTN Archive Footage)