Authorities in the US state of Ohio have threatened to arrest anyone who does not leave an evacuation zone near the smoldering remains of a train that derailed near the Pennsylvania state line, warning that there is a high likelihood of toxic gas being released.
As crews worked to contain Monday’s massive explosion, residents packed overnight bags, piled their pets into cars and searched for hotel rooms. Police in the city of East Palestine abandoned their communications center as the threat of an explosion increased.
“I’m worried about leaving and not coming back,” Mallory Burkett, who lives not far from the evacuation area, said Monday just before her family drove out of town. “I will definitely be back, but not sure when.”
Officials warned hundreds of residents who had earlier refused to evacuate to do so Sunday night, saying the train car was at risk of a potential explosion that could send deadly shrapnel up to a mile away.
About 50 cars, including 10 carrying hazardous materials, derailed in a fiery crash Friday night, according to operator Norfolk Southern Railway and the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). There were no reports of injuries to crew, residents or first responders.
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 hazard “including flammable, combustible substances or environmental risks.”
The cars involved were carrying flammable liquids, butyl acrylate and benzene residues from previous shipments, officials said.
Five of them were carrying vinyl chloride, which is used to make polyvinyl chloride hard plastic resin in plastic products and has been linked to an increased risk of liver and other cancers, according to the federal government’s National Cancer Institute.
“There is no indication that any potential exposure that occurred after the jump increased the risk of cancer or any other long-term health consequences in community members,” said a post on East Palestine’s Facebook page.
Authorities did not say Monday what hazardous materials they are concerned about being released into the air or how imminent it might be.
Statement of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s Office warned on Sunday evening of the “possibility of a catastrophic failure of the tanker” after a “drastic temperature change” was observed in the train carriage.
Police cars, snowplows and Ohio National Guard military vehicles blocked streets leading into the city Monday morning as authorities began enforcing what had previously been a highly recommended evacuation zone within a 1.6 km (1 mile) radius of the site accidents.
East Palestine: Residents living within a mile of the derailment site who have not yet left their homes have been asked to evacuate immediately due to the possibility of a large explosion. pic.twitter.com/F2BWmBipPx
— Gov. Mike DeWine (@GovMikeDeWine) February 6, 2023
Schools and many businesses were closed, and the local high school was turned into a shelter.
Norfolk Southern has opened an assistance center in the city to gather information from affected residents. But some residents complained about the lack of information about the evacuation, which included the homes of about half of the city’s 4,800 residents.
Emergency personnel monitored the situation but stayed away from the fire. Recovery efforts could not begin while the cars were smoldering, authorities said.
Federal investigators say the cause of the derailment was a mechanical problem with the railcar’s axle.
The train’s three-man crew received a warning of a mechanical failure “shortly before the derailment,” Michael Graham, a member of the NTSB board, said Sunday. Investigators have identified the exact “slip point,” but the board is still working to determine which car had the axle problem, he said.
Mayor Trent Conaway, who declared a state of emergency in the city, said one person was arrested for walking around the barricades before the crash. He warned people to stay away and said they would risk arrest.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to be up there; you’re breathing toxic fumes if you’re that close,” he said, noting that air quality monitors far from the fire showed no levels of concern and that the city’s water is safe.