Tilton was a village of heavy industry at the edge of a larger populated area, and train tracks crisscrossed the village, as well as a switchyard planted in the middle of it, so a train derailment was not an unexpected event. Minor derailments were common, and this call, that came late one evening, described a minor derailment. The problem arose when one of the tanker cars bumped into another, and a leak developed. In those days there was no identifying information on the tanker car itself, describing the nature of the liquid contained in it, and the railroad personnel, who presumably called the volunteer fire department in the first place, were nowhere to be found.
The smell coming from the car was not extremely pungent, but sufficiently strong to make us wonder whether we and the neighborhood were in danger from the fumes. We kept our distance, knowing that the water that we had available, with our hoses ready to be charged, might not be usable for certain chemicals that were transported through the village, although diluting the chemical would be useful in most cases. The leaking chemical did seem to sizzle and foam when it touched the ground, but that in itself might not indicate severe danger. Without any information about the nature of the chemical, we were not in a position to know what the correct course of action might be. Evacuating the neighborhood, even the whole town, was not out of the question, but we didn’t want to be alarmists if it was simply a mild acid.
For thirty minutes we waited, trying to find and contact someone with accurate information so that a proper course of action could be followed. Finally a railroad representative arrived. It seemed that no one on the train itself had the correct information about the leaking chemical, and they decided to keep their distance until they could learn about it. They finally had discovered at there was no danger and that we could hose it down. It was instructive for us to learn that the local firefighters and the community itself were considered expendable if the information had turned out to be different, and a dangerous chemical had been involved.
We poured on some water, packed up our equipment and returned to the station, not much older but wiser.