US authorities enforce evacuations after train derails in Ohio

Derailment in Ohio town threatens the release of toxic gas and an explosion that could launch shrapnel, officials say.

Drone photo shows train derailment in Ohio
This photo taken with a drone on February 4 shows portions of a Norfolk Southern Railway freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio, the United States [Gene J Puskar/AP Photo]

Authorities in the US state of Ohio have threatened to arrest anyone who does not leave an evacuation zone near the smouldering wreckage of a train derailment near the Pennsylvania state line, warning that there was a high probability of a toxic gas release.

While crews were working to prevent a major explosion on Monday, residents were packing overnight bags, loading their pets into cars and searching for hotel rooms. Police in the town of East Palestine moved out of their communication centre as the threat of an explosion increased.

“I’m worried about leaving and not getting back,” Mallory Burkett, who lives just outside the evacuation area, said Monday just before her family drove out of town. “I’m definitely going to come back, but I’m not sure when.”

Officials warned hundreds of residents who had declined to evacuate earlier to do so Sunday night, saying a rail car was at risk of a potential explosion that could launch deadly shrapnel as far as a mile.

About 50 cars, including 10 carrying hazardous materials, derailed in a fiery crash on Friday night, according to operator Norfolk Southern Railway and the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). No injuries to crew, residents or first responders were reported.

Drone photo shows freight train derailment in Ohio
Approximately 50 train cars derailed on Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio [NTSBGov/Handout via Reuters]

Norfolk Southern said 20 of the more than 100 cars on the train were classified as carrying hazardous materials — defined as cargo that could pose any kind of danger “including flammables, combustibles, or environmental risks”.

The cars involved carried combustible liquids, butyl acrylate and the residue of benzene from previous shipments, officials said.

Five were transporting vinyl chloride, which is used to make the polyvinyl chloride hard plastic resin in plastic products and is associated with an increased risk of liver cancer and other cancers, according to the federal government’s National Cancer Institute.

“There is no indication that any potential exposure that occurred after the derailment increases the risk of cancer or any other long-term health effects in community members,” said a post on East Palestine’s Facebook page.

Authorities on Monday did not say what hazardous materials they were concerned about releasing into the air or how imminent that could be.

A statement from Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s office warned on Sunday night of “the potential of a catastrophic tanker failure” after a “drastic temperature change” was observed in a rail car.

Police cars, snowploughs and military vehicles from the Ohio National Guard blocked streets leading into the town on Monday morning as authorities began enforcing what had previously been a strongly recommended evacuation zone within a 1.6km (1-mile) radius of the crash site.

Schools and many businesses were closed, and the local high school was turned into a shelter.

Norfolk Southern has opened an assistance centre in the town to gather information from affected residents. But some residents complained about a lack of information regarding the evacuation, which covered the homes of about half the town’s 4,800 residents.

Emergency responders were monitoring but keeping their distance from the fire. Remediation efforts could not begin while the cars smouldered, authorities said.

Federal investigators say the cause of the derailment was a mechanical issue with a rail car axle.

The three-member train crew received an alert about the mechanical defect “shortly before the derailment”, Michael Graham, a board member of the NTSB, said Sunday. Investigators identified the exact “point of derailment”, but the board was still working to determine which rail car experienced the axle issue, he said.

Mayor Trent Conaway, who declared a state of emergency in the town, said one person was arrested for going around barricades right up to the crash. He warned people to stay away and said they would risk arrest.

“I don’t know why anybody would want to be up there; you’re breathing toxic fumes if you’re that close,” he said, stressing that monitors of air quality away from the fire showed no levels of concern and that the town’s water is safe.

Drone footage shows train derailment in Ohio
Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine on February 6, 2023 [NTSBGov/Handout via Reuters]
Source: The Associated Press