OMAHA, Neb. — Firefighters who responded to February’s fiery train derailment in Ohio struggled to immediately identify the hazardous chemicals the train was hauling due to a lack of communication from the railroad, officials said Thursday.
During a public hearing in East Palestine — where thousands of residents had to evacuate their homes because of the derailment — National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman Jennifer Homendy asked why Norfolk Southern was able to provide details of the freight to one of its contractors within 10 minutes of the Feb. 3 derailment, but that it took an hour to get that information to first responders.
Knowing what was on the train helps firefighters determine the proper response.
The two-day NTSB hearing was designed to provide information to residents, officials and investigators about the emergency response and the crucial decision three days after the derailment to release toxic vinyl chloride from five tank cars and burn it to keep them from exploding.
That sent a towering plume of black smoke over the town near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and prompted the evacuation of about half of its 5,000 residents. Even now, residents are concerned about lingering impacts on health, even though state and federal officials say tests show the town’s air and water are safe.
East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick said there was a consensus in the command center that releasing and burning the chemicals was the “least bad option.”
Railroad experts and contractors who helped with the emergency response said they believed they had no choice except to use explosives to blow a hole in the tank cars to release and burn the vinyl chloride. Moving the cars or draining the chemicals were not options.
Temperature readings and malfunctioning pressure relief valves led experts to believe a chemical reaction was taking place inside the tank cars that was building pressure, and that this could cause an explosion.
Drew McCarty with Specialized Profession Services said one of the tank cars “frankly scared the hell out of us” when it violently released vinyl chloride with a roar after hours of calm. McCarty said that, combined with his decades of experience, made him think the cars could explode.
Officials from Oxy Vinyls — the company that produced the vinyl chloride — said they were convinced that the chemical remained stable inside those cars and they tried to explain that to the railroad before officials decided to vent the cars and burn the vinyl chloride, but Norfolk Southern didn’t explain that to decision makers. Tests the company did later showed no evidence that the reaction had occurred.
Norfolk Southern’s Robert Wood said even if there wasn’t a chemical reaction, officials were still concerned that the tank cars could fail and release the vinyl chloride.
“If that car fails, that is a large cloud of liquefied flammable gas that’s going to light off and can have devastating consequences,” Wood said.
Drabick and other first responders who testified said firefighters need more training — particularly volunteer firefighters like those first on the scene after the derailment — on how to handle hazardous materials. But he conceded it would be hard to imagine ever being fully ready for a disaster of that magnitude.
“I don’t think you can ever be prepared for something like this,” Drabick said.
Ohio officials said volunteer firefighters receive only 36 hours of initial training when they are certified — significantly less than the 200 hours professional firefighters receive — and that includes no hazardous materials training.
The fire chiefs said the initial response to the derailment was complicated because the radios used by the different departments don’t work with each other. It also took time for emergency responders to discover exactly what the train was carrying because the first firefighters on scene didn’t have access to the AskRail app that railroads developed to provide that information. The train crew that also had that information was a mile away after moving the locomotive and didn’t immediately connect with first responders.
Drabick said it took about 45 minutes for his department to discover what was in the cars. Homendy said the railroad didn’t immediately provide that information to dispatchers and officials who requested it.
Eventually, officials learned about the dangerous nature of the cargo and pulled firefighters back from the derailment site. They also ordered the evacuation of all homes within one mile.
The NTSB said in its preliminary report that an overheated bearing on one of the railcars likely caused the derailment, but it could take more than a year before the agency publishes its final report. The bearing started heating up miles before the derailment, according to sensors on the tracks, but it didn’t get hot enough to trigger an alarm until just before the crash. The crew had little time to react.
Video gathered by investigators showed sparks or fire beneath one of the rail cars starting at least 26 miles before the derailment in Salem, Ohio.
This derailment and others generated nationwide concern about railroad safety and prompted members of Congress to propose reforms. Norfolk Southern’s CEO Alan Shaw was grilled at two Senate hearings where he apologized for the derailment and promised to make things right in East Palestine.