Other Event Detail

Summit Tunnel Fire
Todmorden, England

December 20, 1984

A train carrying more than 835 tons of gasoline in 13 tanker cars was passing through the Summit Tunnel on the Greater Manchester/West Yorkshire border, between Littleborough and Todmorden, England on December 20, 1984. While in the tunnel, at 5:50 a.m., a defective axle bearing derailed the fourth tanker, which also knocked the tanker cars behind it off the track. One of the derailed tankers fell on its side and began to leak its content into the tunnel. Vapor from the leaking gasoline was ignited by a hot axle box. The three members of the train's crew ran a mile to the end of the tunnel to call in the alarm. Crews from Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire fire brigades quickly attended the scene. The train crew went back in the tunnel and brought the three tankers that were still on the rails out. The fire crews entered the tunnel to begin firefighting operations. At 9.40 a.m. the pressure in one of the heated tankers rose high enough to open its pressure relief valves. The vented vapor caught fire and blew flames onto the tunnel wall. The wall deflected the flames both ways along the tunnel, the bricks in the tunnel wall began to break apart and melt. The fire crews decided to evacuate. They managed to leave just before the first explosion occurred. The fire burned freely inside the tunnel and the air temperature rose, all ten tankers discharged gasoline vapors from their pressure relief valves. Two tankers melted and discharged their remaining loads in floods. The fuel supply was so rich, that there wasn't enough oxygen in the tunnel for it to burn. Instead it was propelled out two ten-foot wide blast shafts of the tunnel and burst into flames almost 150 feet high. The gasses blew up these shafts at 110 mph, taking with it molten pieces of the tunnel lining and tank cars, which came raining down on the hillside like lava bombs, setting the brush on fire. Unable to get close enough to fight the fire directlty, the firefighters forced foam into ventilation shafts far from the fire. This created blockages that starved the fire of oxygen. By mid-afternoon the next day the inferno was no longer burning, but the fire was not out. Gasoline continued to leak from the derailed tankers through the tunnel drainage and ballast and the vapors sporadically re-ignited. Gasoline had also leaked into the nearby River Roch, and the towns of Summit and Todmorden, were evacuated. Firefighters continued to fight the fire for two more days, until it was put out just after 6:30 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Fire crews remained at the scene until January 7, 1985. Of the approximately 315,000 gallons of gasoline being carried by the train: 73,000 gallons were rescued by the train crew, 4,200 gallons were recovered after the fire, and 237,750 gallons burned.

1984-12-20   The Number 8 and Number 9 blast relief shafts of the Summit Tunnel on the Greater Manchester/West Yorkshire border, between Littleborough and Todmorden, England blow fire fueld by a gasoline tanker train derailment in the tunnel on December 20, 1984.
This photo is copyrighted. It is used here with permission from www.todchat.com.

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