EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WJW) — The National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday released their preliminary investigation report of the train derailment on Feb. 3.
The report spells out the timeline of events leading up to the derailment, saying the train had been experiencing problems before reaching East Palestine.
On Feb. 3, at approximately 8:54 p.m., a Norfolk Southern Railway train derailed on main track 1 in East Palestine. As a result, 38 rail cars derailed.
NTSB says the train had a sudden major failure on one of the car’s wheel bearings, specifically temperatures that were well above safe levels.
After stopping the train, the crew observed fire and smoke and notified the Cleveland East dispatcher of a possible derailment.
The fire was extinguished, but heat continued to build in cars containing vinyl chloride prompting the decision to release the chemicals, which caused a fiery explosion.
NTSB is not making comments on the impact on the environment and is directing any questions to EPA.
The investigation is continuing on the wheel bearing, the accident response and inspection practices. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy and Robert J. Hall, director of the NTSB’s Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials, discussed the report and rail safety Thursday at the NTSB headquarters.
Click here for the full report.
‘This was 100% preventable’
The NTSB’s investigation focuses on the wheelset of the derailed car and its wheel bearing, Homendy said Thursday.
“We will look at railcar design and maintenance practices of Norfolk Southern, as well as Norfolk Southern’s inspection procedures. We’ll also look at any history of prior accidents involving car no. 23 and this wheelset. We’ll look at tank car design and derailment damage,” she continued.
The roller bearings that were on the derailed car have a finite lifespan, she said — typically between 100,000 and 300,000 miles. The overheating could have been caused by fatigue cracking, water damage, mechanical damage, a loose bearing or a wheel defect.
It’s unclear what caused the overheating, but it’s something the board will review, she said.
Had the overheating bearing been detected earlier, “that derailment might not have occurred,” Homendy said.
“This was 100% preventable,” she said. “We’ve never seen an accident that wasn’t preventable. Nothing is an accident.”
Though the crew manning the train received alerts about the temperature of the overheating bearing, they didn’t act because its temperature had not yet reached the critical threshold defined by Norfolk Southern’s procedures, she said.
“We’re gonna look at that and figure out if that threshold should have changed,” she said.
The cars carrying vinyl chloride were insulated, “which actually helped at the beginning,” Homendy said. Federal regulations require such train cars to be cooled for 100 minutes — but the fire lasted much longer, meaning that insulation actually kept the cars from cooling, Homendy said.
Homendy said the board will also consider whether there was wrongdoing on the part of the rail operator. So far, the rail operator is cooperating with investigators, she said.
Norfolk Southern responds
In a statement issued Thursday evening, the rail company highlighted portions of the board’s preliminary report indicating the train crew was following company operations procedure and driving below the track’s speed limit; that the detectors that alerted operators to the overheating bearing were working as intended.
“The company’s wayside detectors on its network trigger an alarm at a temperature threshold that is among the lowest in the rail industry,” reads the statement.
Once operators received that alert, they “immediately began to stop the train,” it reads.
The company now plans to inspect all of the nearly 1,000 such detectors on its system on top of their regular monthly inspections, “out of an abundance of caution.”
“We and the rail industry need to learn as much as we can from this event,” the statement reads. “Norfolk Southern will develop practices and invest in technologies that could help prevent an incident like this in the future. We will also work with the owners of the rail cars on the integrity and safety of the equipment we use.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visits East Palestine
U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg traveled to East Palestine Thursday starting at the site of the Norfolk Southern train derailment where he met with the team from U.S. Department of Transportation that was on the ground just hours after the derailment, seen below:
NTSB also updated Buttigieg on their investigation. He met with emergency responders and community members in East Palestine.
During a press conference, seen in the video player at the top of the story, Buttigieg said the focus of his visit was to assess the best way to make safety improvements across the national transportation system and also improve communication with communities in a hazmat situation.
Buttigieg promised to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the complete cleanup of the community, including the water supply and even the mental health of its residents.
He implores the company to “stop fighting” the federal administration on safety regulations.
Buttigieg explained there were changes made in railroad safety regulations during the previous administration, which ended two years ago.
Community to hold Town Hall meeting Thursday
Community members will gather on Thursday at 6 p.m. for a meeting held by River Valley Organizing. Independent health, environmental, and legal experts will speak and also hold a Q&A with audience members.
ODH expands services at health clinic
The Ohio Department of Health is expanding the services offered at its Health Assessment Clinic in East Palestine where all visitors to the free clinic will have vital signs taken and be seen by a physician, who will conduct a medical examination. Mental health specialists and a toxicologist are also on hand.
The clinic, at the First Church of Christ in East Palestine, opened on Tuesday and is fully booked through Thursday.
At first, residents closest to East Palestine were prioritized but now they are accepting residents from a wider area including all residents of Unity Township and Beaver County, Pennsylvania with zip codes 16115, 16120 and 16141.
The clinic will be open at least through March 4 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, except for Friday, Feb. 24 when it is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Community’s criticism of federal aid response
Buttigieg’s trip comes after the Biden administration faced criticism for not heading to East Palestine sooner.
The Transportation Department defended the timing of the trip, saying in a statement on Wednesday that Buttigieg wanted to “go when it is appropriate and wouldn’t detract from the emergency response efforts.”
Trump visits East Palestine
Former President Donald Trump visited East Palestine on Wednesday. During the visit, the former president said he was delivering more than a dozen pallets of “Trump water” and thousands of gallons of cleaning supplies.
Prior to meeting with East Palestine residents, he stopped at a creek to look at the water.
Mayor Trent Conaway on Tuesday said he welcomes anyone who wants to come to East Palestine and offer help, but he does not want the community to become a “political pawn.”
“We dont want to be a sound bite or a news bite we just want to go back to living our lives the way that they were,” said Conway.