Authorities warned Sunday that a “major explosion” is possible at the site of a train derailment, which led to a chemical fire, causing environmental and safety concerns in northeastern Ohio.
Residents living within a mile of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, a village near the Pennsylvania border, were given an urgent evacuation order Sunday night. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Sunday that there had been a “drastic temperature change” in a rail car, which could cause a “catastrophic tanker failure,” making it possible for an explosion with deadly shrapnel traveling up to a mile.
Nearly half of the village of 4,761 residents were told to evacuate late Friday after a train carrying hazardous materials derailed and caused a chemical fire. The village remained under a state of emergency and evacuation order but local officials said more than 500 people have declined to leave their homes.
Dozens of train cars, lingering fires
During a news conference early Saturday, officials said about 50 train cars were involved, many of them still burning at the time.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the incident, 20 train cars were carrying hazardous materials and ten of those cars derailed.
Five of the ten derailed cars were carrying vinyl chloride, the NTSB said in a statement Saturday. The agency said it has “not confirmed vinyl chloride has been released other than from the pressure release devices.”
The cars involved were also carrying combustible liquids, butyl acrylate, and residue of benzene from previous shipments, as well as nonhazardous materials such as wheat, plastic pellets, malt liquors, and lube oil, according to the NTSB.
The NTSB announced Sunday that a mechanical issue with a rail car axle caused the fiery derailment.
In a brief statement after the accident, Norfolk Southern, the transportation company that owns the derailed train, said it was coordinating with first responders in the village while assembling its own team to respond.
Village Mayor Trent Conaway issued an evacuation order for residents in a 1-mile radius around the derailment. He said no injuries or fatalities had been reported.
On Saturday afternoon, the Columbiana County Sheriff’s Office said a curfew starting at 10 p.m. would be enforced in a 1-mile radius around the derailment.
Conaway warned people that arrests would occur if people did not stay away from the scene. He said one person was arrested for going around barricades right up to the crash during the night.
“I don’t know why anybody would want to be up there; you’re breathing toxic fumes if you’re that close,” Conaway said.
He also stressed that air quality levels away from the fire showed no concerns and that the village’s water is safe because it is fed by groundwater unaffected by some material that went into streams. Environmental protection agency crews were working to remove contaminants from streams and monitor water quality.
‘If you have to come to East Palestine, don’t’
East Palestine Fire Chief Keith A. Drabick said in a news conference Saturday morning that the train had been en route from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania.
Drabick said first responders had been pulled from the scene, but unmanned ground monitors were being used and air quality monitoring was ongoing. He said there had been several explosions, leading to the decision to pull responders from the scene.
“If you have to come to East Palestine, don’t,” he said. “Stay out of the area.”
Conaway said about 25 to 30 agencies were helping respond to the derailment. He said about 1,500 to 2,000 residents live in the evacuation zone, adding: “It’s about half the town.”
On Facebook, former University of Akron student Eric Whiting said he had been among those evacuated in East Palestine.
“The train is burning with chemicals on it and makes the air hard to breathe,” he posted.
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