Crews work to prevent explosion at site of burning derailed train in Ohio as residents are urged to flee
This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio are still on fire at mid-day Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
(CNN) — As residents are urged to flee, teams at the site of a burning derailed train in East Palestine, Ohio, are working to prevent a “catastrophic tanker failure” and explosion that could shoot deadly shrapnel up to a mile away, officials said.
The train was carrying hazardous materials when it derailed Friday, igniting a massive inferno and prompting evacuations and shelter-in-place orders amid concerns over air and water quality.
As the fire continued to burn for a third night Sunday, the threat escalated, and officials pleaded with those who remained in their homes in the one-mile radius around the crash site to evacuate quickly.
The explosion risk comes from a drastic temperature change inside one of the rail cars, warned Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who on Sunday activated the Ohio National Guard to deploy to the scene.
“We are at a risk now of a catastrophic failure of that container,” Fire Chief Keith Drabick said Sunday. “Measures are being taken to try and control that and prevent that from happening.”
In the meantime, people in the area must leave, the fire chief said. “We need you to leave now,” Drabick told residents.
While most people in the one-mile radius had already evacuated, more than 500 people had declined to leave their homes, according to local officials.
“There is a high probability of a toxic gas release and or explosion,” Columbiana County Sheriff Brian McLaughlin warned, “Please, for your own safety, remove your families from danger,” McLaughlin added.
Of the Norfolk Southern train’s more than 100 cars, about 20 were carrying hazardous materials, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the incident.
Ten of those cars derailed, including five that were carrying vinyl chloride, the NTSB said in a statement Saturday.
There was a “drastic change” Sunday in the vinyl chloride — a chemical officials had been concerned about all day, Drabick said.
“This catastrophic failure, if it occurs, it will produce hydrogen chloride and phosgene gas into the atmosphere,” Drabick said, adding that the mile-radius around the derailment may be extended.
There had already been concerns about the chemicals the train was hauling.
Officials issued a shelter-in-place order for the entire town of roughly 5,000 people, and an evacuation order was issued for the area within a mile radius of the train crash near James Street.
While air and water quality remained stable Sunday, “things can change at any moment,” James Justice of the EPA’s Emergency Response warned.
East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway assured residents earlier that the air and drinking water were safe, but said classes at East Palestine schools would be canceled Monday, as would city meetings.
While the cause of the derailment remains under investigation, investigators learned there was a mechanical failure warning before the crash, NTSB Member Michael Graham said Sunday afternoon at a news conference.
“The crew did receive an alarm from a wayside defect detector shortly before the derailment, indicating a mechanical issue,” Graham said. “Then an emergency brake application initiated.”
Investigators were also able to identify the point of derailment and found video showing “preliminary indications of mechanical issues” on one of the railcar axles, Graham said.
NTSB is still investigating when the potential defect happened and the response from the crew, which included an engineer, conductor and conductor trainee, Graham added.
Investigators have also requested records from Norfolk Southern, including track inspection records, locomotive and railcar inspections and maintenance records, train crew records and qualifications, Graham said.
Since the fire is still burning, investigators haven’t been able to walk around the crash site.
Graham said it’s unclear how long it’ll take before the scene is cleaned up, adding “we still have a hot zone in there.” The preliminary report on the derailment is expected in 4 to 6 weeks, Graham added.
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