I-71 fiery crash poses unreported hydrogen hazard

Campbellsburg Fire and Rescue Chief David Noe reported that the tank truck involved in the April 27 violent crash on southbound I-71 in Pendleton did indeed contain liquid hydrogen, not nitrogen, as previously reported by the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

“The two trucks collided – one was the liquid hydrogen truck,” Noe confirmed. “The other one that caught fire…the first thing we did, we put out the fire.”

But in the immediate confusion of the response to the Interstate wreckage, Noe said the actual contents of the tanker were yet to be determined on the spot.

“We got conflicting information,” Noe said, relating that the dangerous anhydrous ammonia was first reported as the tanker’s chemical filler.

Fortunately, a truck sign was located indicating that the tanker truck was carrying hydrogen, which Noe says was confirmed by cargo records. The distinction made a huge difference in how fire crews had to operate.

“Hydrogen is very, very volatile,” Noe said.

The risk of explosion from ignited hydrogen subjected the first responders on site to a very dangerous situation with a potentially devastating explosion zone.

Noe said on-scene command still did not know how much hydrogen was involved because no definitive amount was listed on accessible paperwork. And even if the truck had carried an empty or “dirty” tank, as Noe explained, the residual hydrogen could still be a powder keg capable of a high-explosive short-range explosion.

Noe said one of the positives was that the safety measures were put in place in the way they were designed, which helped to mitigate some of that explosion risk.

“The tanker was venting some of the normal safety valves,” Noe said.

Once Incident Command had as much control of the scene as possible through the efforts of fire departments and hazmat specialists, the next step involved the removal of the hydrogen.

Noe said the tanker’s owner, Air Products, sent specialists to the site to treat the hydrogen with helium multiple times to render the hydrogen inert.

“They evacuated all the liquid hydrogen,” Noe said.

In total, the southbound section of I-71 remained closed for nearly an entire day before reopening. During that time, from 10:30 p.m. Wednesday to 4:30 p.m. the next day, Noe said several units of the Henry County Volunteer Fire Department and others remained at the scene.

“Closer to the end, we kept a tanker and engine on site,” Noe said.

With so many fire and rescue departments and other first responders on the scene (many of whom are paid), Noe wanted it known that volunteer fire departments still maintain operational proficiency even when specialists and state entities are on hand to provide guidance and oversight.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to be the incident commander,” Noe said. “It’s our baby.”

The dedication of volunteer first responders like those at Campbellsburg, Lake Jericho and other unpaid fire departments makes this possible, but so does the equipment, especially when constantly responding to crash after crash on the Federal Interstate Highway, I-71.

“If we were to push a truck to the scene and make it work,” Noe said, “we’re going to do it because we have to react.”

While it may seem unlikely that the situation will ever come to that, there are very real problems facing volunteer fire departments, like Campbellsburg Fire & Rescue, in the ability to fight a fire with the equipment of firefighting required.

“My main line of frontline trucks – the engines that came out of this station – in 2025 will be 30 years old,” Noe said.

Noe added that volunteer fire departments are often severely underfunded in the absence of recurrent financial resources from federal and state agencies. The lack of larger funding sources shifts the financial burden to localities to fund local solutions to better equip fire departments for their volunteer vocation.

“We need regular funding,” Noe said. “And it doesn’t have to be something that we have to go to tax court for.”

Noe suggested that a county tax district would be a solution to ensuring volunteer fire departments receive regular funding, despite the higher tax rate such a designation would create.

“We have to be in our own tax district,” said Noe, who is helping the Campbellsburg Fire Department expand to Port Royal with a station to house a ready-to-use fire truck.

“I’ve been doing this for 39 years,” Noe said. “And I’m very progressive in maintaining services.”

Martin E. Berry