EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (NEWSnet/AP) — Residents of an Ohio town have learned more about the fiery wreck of a Norfolk Southern freight train last year that disrupted their lives as yet another hearing on the case begins.

The National Transportation Safety Board met Tuesday to discuss the investigation of the Feb. 3, 2023, derailment near East Palestine, and issue recommendations for averting future such disasters.

“On behalf of the entire agency I want to recognize the significant impact this derailment has had,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said at the beginning of Tuesday's hearing.

She said some people have tried to minimize the impacts of last year's derailment because there were no deaths, but “the absence of fatality or injury doesn’t mean the presence of safety.”

Michael Graham, a board member who was on the scene after the derailment, said the NTSB’s work would not end after it makes recommendations to prevent future derailments. “We will continue to pursue and advocate for these safety recommendations until each one is implemented,” he said.

 

Dozens of freight cars derailed in the incident near the Pennsylvania border, including 11 shipping cards carrying hazardous materials. Residents evacuated as fears grew about a potential explosion.

Despite potential health effects, officials then intentionally released and burned toxic vinyl chloride from five railcars, sending flames and plumes of black smoke into the air.

The NTSB said early on that an overheated bearing on one of the railcars that was not caught in time by trackside sensors likely caused the crash.

Investigative hearings have since highlighted other possible contributors including widespread rail job cuts and rushed inspections. Investigators also looked into why officials chose to deliberately blow open the vinyl chloride cars and burn what is a key ingredient for making PVC pipes.

On Tuesday, NTSB board members confirmed that a trackside detector in Salem, Ohio, failed to accurately detect the overheated rail car bearing that was on fire some 20 miles before the fiery train derailment in East Palestine last year.

They further said that firefighters didn’t get the details of what was on the train for more than an hour after the derailment.

The NTSB staff said they would recommend that the Federal Railroad Administration establish rules governing railroad responses to the alarms. Though NTSB recommendations aren't binding, Congress may be willing to take up laws for enforcement because of the attention to this particular crash.

In the meantime, Norfolk Southern's CEO Alan Shaw pledged to “make things right” in East Palestine with more than $100 million in aid to residents and the community.

After the derailment, all the major freight railroads pledged work to improve safety by adding hundreds more trackside sensors to help spot problems like overheating bearings and by re-evaluating how they analyze the data from those detectors. The Association of American Railroads trade group said the industry will review the NTSB report and look for additional ways to improve safety.

The NTSB has also looked at the struggles of first responders who didn't immediately know exactly what was on the train after 38 cars jumped off the tracks, many spilling their contents and catching fire.

Federal officials finalized a new rule Monday that will require railroads to inform first responders about what is on a train immediately after a derailment.

The industry says more than two million first responders now have immediate access to that information via an AskRail app that allows them to look up any train's cargo.

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