35 years later: Miamisburg train derailment remembered

MIAMISBURG, Ohio — The city of Miamisburg is marking the anniversary of a huge train derailment disaster that put them in the national spotlight for a week, forcing mass evacuations.

On this date, 35 years ago, 15 cars of a 144-car freight train went off the tracks and a tanker car containing while phosphorous began burning uncontrollably, sending a huge plume of smoke across large sections of southern Montgomery County.

The derailment happened on the tracks on the trestle over Bear Creek. It remains the largest train derailment evacuation in North American history and it wasn’t just the nearby homes that were evacuated – it was all of Miamisburg as well as part of West Carrollton and Moraine too.

A burning tanker car sent flames as high as 40 feet, at times in the air, but also sent clouds of phosphorous-filled smoke across an area that would stretch as far away as 13 miles. 30,000 people had to be evacuated on July 8, 1986 and the days after.

Police used their cruiser and firefighters went door to door on foot alerting residents to pack up and leave their homes.

West Carrollton High School was used as a shelter for those forced to leave Miamisburg.

People in the area and all-across the Miami Valley were glued to the coverage of the unprecedented chemical cloud.

Billy Ring, retired Miamisburg Firefighter, said, “I had no idea until later, they guess 95 out of every 100 television sets were tuned to that broadcast.”

Ring was captain at the time and his chief assigned him to climb about Chopper 7 and keep him and the News Center 7 viewers informed of what the fire and the huge plume of smoke were doing.

“It was a priceless communication tool, having a local person in that helicopter,” Ring said.

According to Ring, there were so many aircraft in the area, the city asked the FAA to install a no-fly zone. But the city exempted Chopper 7 because of Ring’s presence on board.

Ring kept flying six or more hours a day, for six days, helping inform fire departments decisions. The tanker car had been ruptured after the cars uncoupled and another car crashed into it.

Authorities said 12,500 gallons of white phosphorous burned continuously. They set up seven tankers pumping water 24-7 for six days until the phosphorous was exhausted.

Health officials said possible reactions for endangered people included eye and skin irritation and respiratory problems.

Ring said, “Almost 600 people reported to the hospital for car of exposure to products of combustion, the cloud.”

An investigation determined that the train had been going too fast on a newly installed section of track. Ring said no matter was caused the derailment, he’s glad the city’s emergency response plans worked and that they could use a news gathering tool like Chopper 7 to make wise decisions and keep people safe.

The trains that travel along the tracks 35 years after the Miamisburg incident are safe than ever. The railroad industry changed the way that trains are coupled together so, even in the case of a derailment, they don’t come apart and puncture a car near them.