Brenda Vermillion, Carson County Emergency Management coordinator, said she first thought the June 28 head‑on collision between two BNSF trains was an incredibly loud test shot at the Pantex Plant, but she quickly realized the noise was located at the edge of Panhandle, Texas. “I immediately ran outside the building, and could see the cars toppling and then the explosion,” she said.
Several Pantex response vehicles that are a cross between a normal fire engine and an engine designed for a refinery fire respond to Panhandle train derailment. Photos taken by Shelly Zimmerman.
Vermillion went immediately to the dispatch office at the Carson County Law Enforcement Center. “We were already receiving 911 calls,” she said. “I told the dispatchers to call everyone and get everything you can.”
Pantex was one of the first calls. “The response from Pantex was fantastic,” Vermillion said.
Pantex dispatched one engine when the alarm sounded, said Mike Brock, Pantex fire chief. Fire department personnel then evaluated the situation and dispatched another truck as quickly as possible. The Pantex response vehicles are a cross between a normal engine found in a city like Amarillo and an engine designed for a refinery fire, Brock explained. Intended to be fed by a high‑pressure fire loop, Brock said the truck had water pumped to it so that it could blast hundreds of gallons a minute on the blaze. One truck, he said, was manned by Pantexans and ran continuously for about 48 hours.
Pantex has to maintain a level of readiness at all times. Brock said they called off‑shift personnel and set up a rotation schedule, which allowed firefighters to rest, clean up, eat and be ready to return if needed while maintaining the site’s requirements.
“Our guys operated flawlessly, and I could not be more proud of them,” said Brock.
Carson County Judge Dan Looten agreed, saying, “We stretched everyone to the limit, but Pantex ran very well while transferring people in and out.” Hundreds of first responders from across the Texas Panhandle were sent to the small town about 10 miles from Pantex.
Pantex also provided an Incident Command Vehicle that served as a command center on one side of the train. Looten explained the length of the trains made it difficult to quickly travel from one side to the other because the railroad crossings were blocked by rail cars. “We were managing two scenes — one on the north side and one on the south,” he said. Pantex’s ICV was vital to the response, he said.
Meanwhile, Vermillion, who was running the response from the county’s emergency operations center, received a call from Pantexan Chuck Rives, who was in the Pantex emergency operations center. Rives, a member of the Pantex Emergency Management Department and team lead for the Consequence Assessment Team, was able to work with Vermillion’s team to identify areas of concern in the trains’ manifests.
“Chuck was fantastic,” said Vermillion. “We couldn’t have done it without him. He stayed on the phone the entire time.” Rives quickly pointed to his co-workers — Brenda Graham, Sheryl Moran, Raj Sheth and Teri Vigil — who sorted through dozens of pages of the trains’ manifest to identify possible hazardous cargo, material properties and toxicity information. “Their work narrowed our focus to just a few dangerous cars so that I could quickly and accurately relay information to Brenda,” Rives said.
The team also provided smoke plume modeling working with the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center. Knowing what the Panhandle winds were expected to do was vitally important, Vermillion and Looten said. Early in the day, portions of the town were evacuated because of smoke. If the winds changed, driving the fire farther down the train, other actions would be needed to keep the community safe.
Todd Ailes, Pantex site manager, praised the response efforts. He said, “This was a tragic accident that touched the lives of hundreds of our employees who live in Panhandle. Our concern was to help our neighbors in any way possible. Pantex Fire Department, Emergency Management and Communications & Public Affairs personnel worked diligently to provide any services needed by the town, and to provide accurate updates and safe route information to our employees who live in or travel through Panhandle.”
Brock conducted an after‑action review and identified some lessons, including improved interface between the agencies, different types of equipment that could be included on the trucks and the need for new communication equipment that will enable the Pantex team to hear and respond to the other teams.
“Unfortunately, when we get called to do what we are trained to do, it is someone else’s worst day,” said Brock.
The Pantex Fire Department Rescue Team, along with Y-12 firefighter John Fife, who was visiting Pantex, recently participated in a Confined Space Training event in Panhandle. Members of the rescue team are trained in five disciplines—confined spaces, heavy vehicles, structures, rope and trench rescue.
Pantex Fire Department Rescue Team members participate in a confined space training event in Panhandle, Texas.
“All of our team is highly trained,” said Lee Foster, Pantex Fire Department captain. “They have all been to specialized school throughout the tri-state area and are extremely skilled when it comes to these difficult rescue scenarios.”
The rescue team, made up of 23 members, has to train in the five disciplines annually. “We have to train in each area a minimum of eight hours each year,” Foster said. All of that training has been used as the team has been called upon for rescues in the Palo Duro Canyon area as well as other surrounding areas.
This spring, more than 750 Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC employees participated in the Active for Life℠ challenge, an 8‑week program, sponsored by the American Cancer Society®, that encouraged employees to be more mindful of healthy behaviors on a daily basis. Participants formed 57 teams, each led by a team captain who helped provide motivation and reminders to log points on the program’s website.
Y-12 Site Manager Bill Tindal (second left) and Karen Lacy (right), CNS wellness coordinator and Active for Life program co-director, congratulate members of CNS’s winning Active for Life challenge team.
This year marked the third time Y-12 participated in the Active for Life challenge and the second time Pantex participated. It was the first time for the sites to compete as OneTeam against six other U.S. Department of Energy sites. Linda Bauer, vice president for Mission Assurance, which includes Environment, Safety and Health, participated on the CNS Executive Leadership Team led by Y-12 Site Manager Bill Tindal.
“Active for Life encourages healthy habits and fitness through friendly competition among colleagues across DOE facilities, while enhancing teambuilding and collaboration,” Bauer said. “I’m a firm believer that the healthier we are, the happier we are on—and off—the job.”
Participants received one point for each minute they were active each day, as well as points for servings of fruits and vegetables and glasses of water. Points were logged on the Active for Life website, which allowed users to track nutrition intake and weight maintenance goals. LiveWise added weekly bonus challenges for the CNS teams to provide ways to earn extra points, as well as fun opportunities to build team spirit and engagement. These challenges included on-site pushup and plank competitions, weekly water and vegetable intake goals, and participation in community fitness events. More than 80 Y-12 employees participated in this year’s Secret City 5K for Haiti, which rewarded registrants with 25 bonus points.
The top team, Team OSHA, was led by captain Jan Wuest of Training and Development, who logged the most individual activity points throughout the program. An avid hiker, Wuest, along with teammates Becky Ownby and Lee Lutner, averaged almost 800 minutes of physical activity per week during the 8-week campaign. Wuest credits the success to “working together as a team and a support system.”
“There was no ‘captain.’ In this team, we were equal partners, and we encouraged each other to do the best we can,” Wuest said.
In addition to the CNS team, other competitors were: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Nevada National Security Site, Ames Laboratory, National Renewable Energy and Sandia National Laboratories (New Mexico and California).
“Communication between the sites helps foster a wellness coalition in the DOE complex, where we can learn from each other’s best practices to improve employees’ health,” said Karen Lacey, CNS wellness coordinator and Active for Life program co‑director.
CNS came in sixth place; while a rank decrease from last year’s standings, the overall activity scores were higher. CNS participants averaged 47 minutes of activity daily, far outpacing statistics that state 60 percent of American adults fall short of meeting physical activity recommendations of 30 minutes most days.
Sherry Philyaw, Pantex Safety Culture advocate and CNS Active for Life program co-director said a few weather challenges did not dissuade participants. “Active for Life is a fantastic way to establish healthy habits and get out and enjoy the community, your family and friends, and the weather.”
Since 2002, Pantexans have sent more than 9,000 care boxes to U.S. military stationed overseas and are continuing the tradition—thanks to Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC.
Packing day volunteers pose before heading to the post office with the boxes they prepared.
During the recent Pantex Day of Volunteering, Pantexans and their friends and family members teamed up with Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 430 to pack 28 care boxes. CNS contributed $2,000 to cover the shipping.
“Packing these boxes requires a lot of volunteers,” explained Verlene Dickson, retired U.S. Army member and director of the Veterans Resource Center in Amarillo. “There’s a lot that goes in to collecting the items that are donated, organizing the volunteers during a packing day and then getting these boxes shipped.”
Kimbel Leffew, a Pantexan who knows first-hand the importance of care boxes, offered to lead the team of volunteers during packing day.
“All of my children are or were in the military,” said Leffew. “I know how meaningful packages from home were to them, especially when some of the military receive absolutely nothing.”
In total, the volunteer team packed and shipped 28 boxes for 14 individuals in seven different United Service Organizations (USOs). Each recipient received two care boxes: one full of snacks such as chips, jerky, peanuts and even Girl Scout cookies; and the other loaded with an assortment of hygiene products such as deodorant, shampoo, lotion and hand sanitizer.
“When they open those boxes, they don’t just see the snacks, they see the love that is put behind these boxes, and that matters more to them than the actual contents of the box,” said Luan Martin, packing day facilitator and retired Pantexan. “It’s a piece of America.”
Consolidated Nuclear Security, LLC scientists and engineers recently treated Texas Panhandle students to an ooey, gooey, good time at Window on a Wider World’s WOWW Day in Amarillo.
When Stephanie Steelman, a polymer chemist at the Pantex Plant, was asked to provide an interactive learning station at the event, she jumped at the chance to make slime with about 500 children.
“Days like that re-energize me because my work is so serious,” said Steelman. “I really enjoy seeing the children’s faces light up.”
She recruited scientists Matthew Reyes and Anthony Cortese and engineer Courtney Waddell to help with the lime-green learning demonstration. The four Pantexans and Allison Roberts, public affairs specialist and WOWW board member, helped the students make polymer slime. They used the slime to teach the kindergarten through fifth-grade students about the phases of matter.
Other community organizations hosted learning stations focused on history, art and music. One station even used tennis to teach math.
Steelman says science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, educational outreach is vital because it introduces students to the fields with fun, hands-on activities. “We have to give children credit that they can learn science at any age. Activities like this capture their attention and encourage them to become the next generation of scientists and engineers,” she said.
CNS supports Window on a Wider World activities like WOWW Day and the fall WOWW Science Collaboratives as part of its commitment to STEM education. WOWW is a nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching the curriculum of Texas Panhandle students through the arts, science and cultural experiences. For more information about WOWW, visit their website.