Response to fiery Ohio derailment frustrated by poor communication and incomplete information

Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed the previous night in East Palestine, Ohio, remain on fire at mid-day on Feb. 4. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

OMAHA, Neb. — Firefighters who responded to February’s fiery train derailment in Ohio struggled to immediately identify the hazardous chemicals the train was hauling due to a lack of communication from the railroad, 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 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.

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Knowing what was on the train helps firefighters determine the proper response.

The two-day NTSB hearing was designed to provide 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.

That 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. Even now, residents are concerned about lingering impacts on health, even though state and federal officials say tests show the town’s air and water are safe.

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

Railroad experts and contractors who helped with the emergency response said they believed they had no choice except to use explosives to blow a hole in the tank cars to release and burn the vinyl chloride. Moving the cars or draining the chemicals were not options.

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