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Train derails, hazardous chemicals burn as Ohio town evacuates

An Ohio resident captured footage of a large fire that erupted after about 50 train cars derailed near the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania on Feb. 3. (Video: Nate Velez)
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A fire continued to burn Saturday in Northeastern Ohio, after the derailment of a train carrying hazardous chemicals forced officials to order more than 1,500 residents to evacuate their homes.

Twenty hours after the Friday night crash, the presence of the chemicals made it too risky for emergency responders to get close enough to put out the fire, local and federal officials said. Fifty cars derailed, 20 of which contained hazardous materials. Some cars contained vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, but federal officials said they couldn’t say whether vinyl chloride was on fire.

“The area is still very dangerous,” East Palestine Fire Chief Keith A. Drabick said at a news conference Saturday afternoon.

The derailment of the Norfolk Southern train around 9 p.m. Friday caused an explosion that sent flames high into the air and a dense cloud of smoke across the landscape. The fire first spanned the length of the derailed cars, National Transportation Safety Board member Michael Graham said at an evening news briefing, and was still burning on a smaller scale by 5 p.m. Saturday.

The immediate area was blanketed by a chemical odor and chemicals were detected flowing into streams, local and federal officials said. They said no dangerous emissions had been detected and the village’s drinking water was safe.

Meanwhile, evacuated residents wondered when they’d be able to go home and questions swirled about what chemicals could be flowing into the air and water.

“We’re still trying to get the full picture of what happened, the chemicals included,” said David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, an advocacy group in Pennsylvania, where counties just over the border from East Palestine were monitoring the situation. “There are certainly concerns about air pollution... Certainly there’s concern about water contamination in rivers and streams and potential drinking water sources as you have runoff.”

Aside from vinyl chloride, neither Norfolk Southern nor the NTSB said what substances the train was carrying – and which might be on fire. A board member for the NTSB, which is investigating the incident, said the agency had a list of chemicals that may have been on board but had not verified it.

Four of the rail cars were carrying vinyl chloride, and at least one was emitting the chemical via a safety release device, Graham said.

“[Vinyl chloride] is one of the chemicals that’s in there, but there’s also other hazardous materials in there. So right now they’re all posing a danger to us. We’re treating them all equally,” said NTSB investigator-in-charge Ruben Payan.

The train was heading from Illinois to Conway, Pa., when it derailed near the Pennsylvania border. The track is a thoroughfare for trains carrying “a lot of different product,” Drabick said.

No injuries were reported, he said at the Saturday news conference. East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway estimated that between 1,500 and 2,000 homes had been evacuated; others in the vicinity were told to shelter in place.

A train derailed near the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania on Feb. 3, causing a large fire and prompting evacuations. (Video: AP)

When the train derailed, the sound echoed over the surrounding neighborhoods. Nate Velez, 31, who said he lives two streets over from the train tracks, thought it was a thunderstorm; his brother-in-law thought the train had hit something.

Velez went outside and saw first the glow from the fire, then “a giant mountain of smoke,” he told The Washington Post. He and his son drove to the end of the street, where they saw the fire raging with high flames and billows of smoke.

“When I put my window down, the heat from the fire smacked me in the face. It was completely surreal,” he said in a Facebook message to The Post. “I couldn’t believe what I was actually seeing.”

As Velez turned his truck around, one of the derailed cars appeared to explode, he said. He and his son saw and heard the explosion and its flash, and their truck shook, Velez said.

A spokesperson for Norfolk Southern said the company had workers on the scene working with first responders and government agencies. The company set up a drop-in assistance center.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which Graham said was monitoring air quality, did not respond to a request for comment from The Post.

“We have zero readings of any health risks as far as anything airborne coming from the chemicals,” Drabick said, though Conaway added that substances had been detected in the “immediate area around the accident.”

Vinyl chloride is used to make PVC, the plastic resin that pipes and other materials are made of. Exposure to the chemical is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers, lymphoma and leukemia, according to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. Brief exposure can cause dizziness, sleepiness and headaches, according to Ohio’s health department.

The fumes in the area were strong on Saturday, Velez said. His family of four evacuated Friday night, somewhat panicked. They joined with three family members who live on the opposite side of the train tracks and went to a hotel. On Saturday, they relocated to an Airbnb about half an hour away, which they reserved until Monday.

Velez said his engine repair business is also next to the tracks, and he doesn’t know when he’ll be able to go back to work. The family has already spent $600 on the evacuation, he said.

He and his wife “had to sneak back” to their house Saturday morning to get clothes and supplies for their one-year-old, Velez said. After they got there, Velez said he got an instant headache. He likened the feeling to the sensations preceding car sickness and said the smell was similar to that of paint thinner.

Now, he’s wondering what will happen next.

“I worry about any smoke damage at my shop and the possibility of smoke [or] vapor damage at home,” Velez said. “I was also thinking about the chemicals and materials. … I’m worried about the long-term effects at this point.”