50-car train derailment sparks massive fire, mandatory evacuation order in Ohio

Youngstown officials issued a shelter-in-place order for the entire town of roughly 5K people.

ByRebekah Riess, CNN, CNNWire
Sunday, February 5, 2023
50-car train derailment sparks massive fire, mandatory evacuation order in Ohio
An East Palestine train derailment caused a massive Ohio fire on Friday night, prompting an evacuation order.

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio -- A massive fire broke out after a train derailed Friday night in northeastern Ohio near the Pennsylvania state border, leading officials to issue evacuation and shelter-in-place orders for nearby residents.

About 50 cars derailed in East Palestine at about 9 p.m. EST Friday as a train was carrying a variety of products from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, rail operator Norfolk Southern said Saturday. There was no immediate information about what caused the derailment. No injuries or damage to structures were reported.

"The post-derailment fire spanned about the length of the derailed train cars," Michael Graham, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, told reporters Saturday evening. "The fire has since reduced in intensity, but remains active and the two main tracks are still blocked."

On Saturday, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway issued an emergency proclamation, saying the town had been "threatened" by unspecified hazardous materials potentially released in the accident, CNN reported.

The proclamation said the village "has been or is immediately threatened by a natural/man-made/technological hazard and or nuclear or conventional attack, and; at approximately 9:00 pm on Friday February 3, 2023 Norfolk Southern had a train derailment with hazardous materials."

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Norfolk Southern said 20 of the more than 100 cars were classified as carrying hazardous materials - defined as cargo that could pose any kind of danger "including flammables, combustibles, or environmental risks." Graham said 14 cars carrying vinyl chloride were involved in the derailment "and have been exposed to fire," and at least one "is intermittently releasing the contents of the car through a pressure release device as designed."

"At this time we are working to verify which hazardous materials cars, if any, have been breached," he said. The Environmental Protection Agency and Norfolk Southern were continuing to monitor air quality, and investigators would begin their on-scene work "once the scene is safe and secure," he said.

"As of right now air quality, even one street back is OK," Conaway said. The smell in the air is because of the fire, he said, but there are no concerns about air quality.

Vinyl chloride, used to make the polyvinyl chloride hard plastic resin used in a variety of plastic products, is associated with increased risk of liver cancer and other cancers, according to the federal government's National Cancer Institute. Federal officials said they were also concerned about other possibly hazardous materials.

Fire Chief Keith Drabick said officials were most concerned about the vinyl chloride and referenced one car containing that chemical but said safety features on that car were still functioning. Emergency crews would keep their distance until Norfolk Southern officials told them it was safe to approach, Drabick said.

"When they say it's time to go in and put the fire out, my guys will go in and put the fire out," he said. He said there were also other chemicals in the cars and officials would seek a list from Norfolk Southern and federal authorities.

Officials issued a shelter-in-place order for the entire town of roughly 5,000 people, while an evacuation order was in effect within a mile of the train crossing at James Street as of early Saturday.

Conaway said surveillance from the air showed "an entanglement of cars" with fires still burning and heavy smoke continuing to billow from the scene as officials tried to determine what was in each car from the labels outside. The evacuation order and shelter-in-place warnings would remain in effect until further notice, officials said.

Two evacuation stations have opened to provide shelter to residents, and the Red Cross has been notified, Conaway said.

Norfolk Southern opened an assistance center in the village to take information from affected residents and also said it was "supporting the efforts of the American Red Cross and their temporary community shelters through a $25,000 donation.

Conaway on Saturday called for the "exercise of all necessary emergency authority for protection of lives and the property of the residents of the Village of East Palestine, Ohio."

The proclamation also called on citizens to comply with the emergency measures.

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In a Facebook post, the village said residents "may be experiencing low pressure or discoloration of water due to the high usage fighting the railroad fire but be assured that the water is perfectly fine and safe for consumption."

Photos from the scene showed a large, dense cloud of smoke engulfing flames atop the train. Firefighters from three states, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia responded, according to Conaway.

The Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring air quality, Conaway noted.

Norfolk Southern Railway said in a statement it is aware of the derailment and was "coordinating closely" with local first responders while mobilizing their own teams.

"We will share more details as they become available," the statement said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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