Railroad officials on Wednesday said vandals apparently tampered with a railway switch and caused Tuesday night’s derailment of a freight train that carried thousands of rounds of live artillery shells.
Two locomotives and two boxcars on the nine-car Southern Pacific train jumped the track at the Hoover Street crossing, about 2 miles from Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station. The ammunition was being shipped from the base to Indiana for storage.
Bill Currier, a superintendent with Southern Pacific railroad, said Wednesday that the train’s three-man crew realized a railway switch was not working correctly as they approached the crossing at 10 m.p.h., but they could not stop the train in time.
Railroad officials suspect vandals because the switch--a device on the track that allows trains to change tracks--had been tampered with, Currier said. Although it looked as if it was in the correct position, there were gaps, and its lock was missing.
Emergency crews blocked off the streets around the rail crossing and Westminster fire officials came close to evacuating several thousand people in the area. But naval ordnance experts called to the scene determined the cargo was undamaged and no evacuation was ordered.
“There was no chance of it detonating in this particular accident. The packing was very well done and the cars stayed upright,” Westminster Fire Chief Dwayne Scott said. “The next accident, however, you don’t know what will happen.”
Scott said his crews were unable to immediately identify the types of explosives on board because the paperwork that described the cargo was in military code. He suggested that the Navy in the future include language that could be understood
by civilian emergency crews.
Scott also urged the military to find other ways to transport its materials, saying the hauling of live munitions through urban areas makes him extremely nervous.
“It’s not good to transport these materials through a metropolitan area,” he said.
Navy Capt. Stephen T. Holl, commanding officer at Seal Beach, said most of the base’s munitions are moved by truck, but the rail line is used about six times a year. He said no accidents have occurred before, and added that rail is a safe and economical way to move the materials.
“This ammunition is very safe,” he said. “It’s a very carefully controlled operation.”
The shells were wrapped with steel bands and packed tightly so they did not shift when the cars derailed, Holl said.
The ammunition was fused, but Holl said it detonates only after an exact sequence of events. The projectiles would have to be jolted hard from behind, and then a mechanism senses whether there is a spinning motion. If there is no such centrifugal motion, they won’t detonate.
“It would be virtually impossible to duplicate that and cause it to detonate,” Thomas said.
Also, Holl said the ammunition probably would not have exploded during a fire because the casings are thick. About 100 gallons of diesel fuel spilled in the derailment, but there was no fire.
Aboard the two cars that derailed were 2,304 38-caliber artillery shells that are 2 feet long and 5 inches in diameter. Two other cars were loaded with other ammunition, but they remained on the tracks. One contained 103,508 rounds of 20-millimeter anti-missile shells and the other held 48 rounds of 16-inch projectiles.
The shells were being shipped to a naval weapons support center in Crane, Ind., because they were outdated and can only be used on old battleships, Holl said.
The fire crews, the first emergency teams to arrive on the scene, were in the dark about the types of explosives on board until Navy officials arrived 15 minutes later to translate the manifests. All fire crews knew at first was that explosives were aboard, Scott said.
“When we called them, the naval weapons depot responded very, very expediently. They identified exactly what was on board, so it put our minds at ease,” Scott said.
“If we did not know exactly what was in the boxcar, we probably would have initiated evacuation in the nearby area. That would have reached a hospital, a senior citizens center and a convalescent hospital. It would have been an exceedingly difficult evacuation.”
Scott said he worries about the codes because naval officials may be unavailable in the event of another such accident, or delayed in reaching the scene.
“In the long run it turned out to be just a bunch of twisted track. But it’s the potential, the what-ifs, that worry us,” he said.
Tom Thomas, a spokesman for the weapons station, said Wednesday that the cargo information is not classified and base officials will investigate changing the forms to assist emergency crews.
“It is written somewhat in military jargon,” he said. “We’re required by Navy safety regulations to list it that way. Everyone within the military knows and understands it. But we will certainly investigate adding a column that says common names.”
Fire Chief Scott said he would prefer that the base’s ammunition be moved by ship, although he said this cargo destined for Indiana obviously had to go by rail. He said he knew before the accident that the tracks through the city were used occasionally to carry ordnance.
“Maybe (rail) is the best way, but it sure makes us feel uncomfortable here,” Scott said.
Gwen Forsythe, a Seal Beach councilwoman, said she was satisfied with the base’s use of railroads. “I’m comfortable with the way this ammunition was transferred,” she said.
Southern Pacific’s police team is investigating the apparent vandalism. No suspects have been identified.
Each stretch of rail is inspected weekly by workers who use a special truck fitted with rail wheels that runs down the track. The track was inspected last week, and had been scheduled for another inspection Wednesday, said Southern Pacific road master Larry Magathan.
Wednesday morning, the stranded cars were towed back to the Seal Beach weapons station, where the ammunition was to be stored until it can be hauled out again.
By dawn, about 15 Southern Pacific workers were busy repairing about 300 feet of twisted rails and torn railway ties at the corner of Westminster Boulevard and Hoover Street. Using a crane-like device, they hoisted the damaged rail and pulled broken ties out.
Magathan, who is supervising the repairs, said new rails and ties were on the way, and predicted that the rails would be repaired and opened to traffic by Friday.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railway Administration are not investigating the accident. The agencies usually get involved only when there are major injuries or property damage.
Times staff writers Jeffrey Perlman and Sonni Efron contributed to this report.
Westminster Train Derailment Authorities blamed vandalism for the derailment of a train loaded with ammunition from the U.S. Naval Weapons Station in Seal Beach. Two of the four boxcars loaded with ammunition, along with the two engines pulling the train, derailed. The Cargo Four of the boxcars were loaded with three different types of ammunition, including 5-inch and 16-inch shells fired by large guns on battleships, and 20-millimeter shells used against incoming missiles and aircraft.