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Train derailment in Ohio sparks fire, prompts evacuations

Feb. 4, 2023 Updated Sat., Feb. 4, 2023 at 9:07 p.m.

By Eduardo Medina New York Times

A train derailment caused a huge fire to erupt in eastern Ohio on Friday night, prompting officials to order about half of a town’s residents to evacuate as crews assessed whether the cargo contained toxic material, authorities said.

Roughly 50 cars derailed about 9 p.m. in East Palestine, Ohio, which has 4,700 residents and is about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

On Saturday, local and federal officials and Norfolk Southern, the rail operator, were still investigating the cause of the derailment, which led to a fire that swept much of the town in smoke and cast a red glow over homes in the area overnight.

There were no reports of injuries or deaths, Trent Conaway, the mayor of East Palestine, said at a news conference Saturday. But 1,500 to 2,000 residents were asked to evacuate the area near the derailment, officials said.

Videos and photos of the fire showed smoke swelling up in the night as emergency vehicles rushed to the site. On Saturday morning, some train cars continued to burn, putting out gray puffs across East Palestine. Officials said there had been several explosions, including some Saturday morning.

It was not immediately clear how many train cars caught fire.

Keith A. Drabick, chief of the East Palestine Fire Department, said Saturday that officials had monitored the air quality and “so far, everything is good.”

But, he added, authorities were still unsure whether the material burning was hazardous. He noted that the train, which had been traveling from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, was carrying some material that could be hazardous.

“If you have to come to East Palestine – don’t,” Drabick said. “Stay out of the area until we can get this mitigated.”

The possible product that investigators were most worried about burning, he said, was vinyl chloride, a colorless and flammable gas that is toxic to people.

“The rail car that was carrying that is doing its job,” Drabick said. “The safety feature of that rail car is still functioning.”

Drones were deployed to the site Saturday to determine what was burning, he said.

The plan for Saturday, officials said, was to let the train cars burn and put the fire out once Norfolk Southern workers deemed it safe.

Drabick said he had no estimate of when that would be. Norfolk Southern did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Saturday.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it would investigate. An NTSB team was expected to be in East Palestine on Saturday.

The sprawling fire led more than two dozen agencies from other states to go to East Palestine to help with containment and the investigation. Firefighters from Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia also responded.

Officials said the main concern Saturday was the potential for poor air quality. Conaway, who declared a state of emergency in the community, said he lived on the edge of the town and it smelled “horrible” there.

“Check on your family members if they have breathing problems,” he said. “You might want to get them out of here.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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