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Firefighters struggled to identify the toxic freight in fiery Ohio train derailment, chiefs say

Train operator Norfolk Southern was able to provide details of the freight to one of its contractors within 10 minutes of the Feb. 3 derailment, but it took an hour to get that information to first responders

Portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed the night before in East Palestine, Ohio
Portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed the night before in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 4, 2023.Gene J. Puskar (AP)

Firefighters who responded to February’s fiery train derailment in Ohio struggled to communicate with each other and were unable to quickly identify the hazardous chemicals the train was hauling, 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 train operator 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 that started Thursday was launched to provide more 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.

The move to release and burn the chemicals 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. Residents have many questions about possible lingering health effects, even though state and federal officials say tests show the air and water in town remains safe.

East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick said Thursday that there had been a consensus in the command center that releasing and burning the chemicals was the “least bad option.”

Drabick and other first responders who testified said firefighters need more training — particularly volunteer firefighters like those who were 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 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 no hazardous materials training is included.

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 were informed 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 railroad has since been digging up and removing contaminated soil and water and the Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio officials are overseeing the cleanup.

Norfolk Southern has committed more than $62 million to helping the town recover. The railroad has said it expects the derailment will eventually cost it nearly $400 million, although insurance will cover some of that and other companies that are found responsible may have to contribute. The cost is expected to increase as lawsuits filed by states, the federal government and residents progress through the courts.

The NTSB said in its preliminary report that an overheating 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 (42 kilometers) before the derailment in Salem, Ohio.

The hearing on Friday will focus on tank car safety and the trackside detectors.

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.

Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability sent Shaw a letter that was released Thursday morning expressing frustration that his railroad has refused to produce documents they asked for related to the way it uses trackside detectors and some of the operating decisions Norfolk Southern has made in recent years to slash its workforce and reduce costs.

The railroad has followed industry practice by running fewer but longer trains so it doesn’t need as many crews and locomotives. Rail unions have raised concerns that the cuts have made railroads riskier, while executives defend their approach.

Norfolk Southern’s lawyers told the congressional committee that the railroad couldn’t release the internal documents because of the ongoing NTSB investigation. Committee Democrats reject that explanation and say the railroad knows that nothing about the NTSB probe should keep the committee from investigating. So far, the railroad has provided only two small batches of documents that appear to be publicly available.

“We are profoundly troubled by Norfolk Southern’s illegitimate efforts to mislead Committee Democrats and use NTSB’s investigation as a shield to impede Congressional oversight,” the 21 Democrats wrote in their letter.

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