EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Freight train cars continued to burn Saturday sending up heavy smoke following a derailment that prompted an evacuation order and a declaration of a state of emergency in an Ohio village near the Pennsylvania state line.
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.
Mayor Trent Conaway of the village of East Palestine declared a state of emergency, citing a “train derailment with hazardous materials.” Air quality was being monitored throughout a one-mile zone that was ordered evacuated and there had been no dangerous readings to report, he said.
Norfolk Southern said the train had more than 100 cars, 20 of which were classified as carrying hazardous materials — defined as cargo that could pose any kind of danger "including flammables, combustibles, or environmental risks.”
Fire Chief Keith Drabick said officials were most concerned about a shipment of the chemical vinyl chloride, but safety features of the rail car carrying that were still functioning. “The rail car that was carrying that is doing its job,” he said.
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.
Emergency crews would keep their distance until rail 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.
Firefighters were pulled from the immediate area and unmanned streams were used to protect some areas including businesses that might also have contained materials of concern, officials said. Freezing temperatures in the single digits complicated the response as trucks pumping water froze, Conaway said.
Officials said 68 agencies from three states and a number of counties responded to the derailment, which happened about 51 miles (82 kilometers) northwest of Pittsburgh and within 20 miles (32 kilometers) of the tip of West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Saturday that it was “launching a go-team to investigate” the derailment, and board member Michael Graham would “serve as spokesperson on scene."
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.
Village officials warned residents that they might hear explosions due to the fire. They said drinking water was safe despite discoloration due to the volume being pumped the fight the blaze. Some runoff had been detected in streams but rail officials were working to stem that and prevent it from going downstream, officials said.
Officials repeatedly urged people not to come to the scene, saying they were endangering not only themselves but emergency responders.
The evacuation area covered 1,500 to 2,000 of the town's 4,800 to 4,900 residents, but it was unknown how many were actually affected, Conaway said. A high school and community center were opened, and the few dozen residents sheltering at the high school included Ann McAnlis, who said a neighbor had texted her about the crash.
“She took a picture of the glow in the sky from the front porch,” McAnlis told WFMJ-TV. “That’s when I knew how substantial this was.”
Norfolk Southern opened an assistance center in the village to take information from affected residents.
Elizabeth Parker Sherry said her 19-year-old son was heading to Walmart to pick up a new TV in time for the Super Bowl when he called her outside to see the flames and black smoke billowing toward their home. She said she messaged her mother to get out of her home next to the tracks, but all three of them and her daughter then had to leave her own home as crews went door-to-door to tell people to leave the evacuation zone.