NTSB: Crew tried to stop train before East Palestine derailment

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While not reaching a conclusive reason as to why a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Ohio earlier this month, the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday morning that it was continuing to look at an overheated wheel bearing on the first car to go off the tracks.

In a preliminary report, the NTSB wrote that it had identified “a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment” on the 23rd car, the first to derail. The report said “hot bearing detectors” picked up a temperature 253 degrees above normal prior to the derailment. The train was traveling at 47 mph, just below the 50 mph speed limit.

An aerial view of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed the previous night in East Palestine, Ohio, still on fire.
Portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed the previous night in East Palestine, Ohio, still on fire on Feb. 4. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Sensors showed the bearing heating up for miles before the crash, but it spiked sharply immediately before the accident. The crew heeded the final warning and tried to stop the train for an inspection.

“After the train stopped, the crew observed fire and smoke and notified the Cleveland East dispatcher of a possible derailment,” read the report. “With dispatcher authorization, the crew applied handbrakes to the two railcars at the head of the train, uncoupled the head-end locomotives, and moved the locomotives about 1 mile from the uncoupled railcars. Responders arrived at the derailment site and began response efforts.”

The NTSB noted that security footage — previously reviewed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — showed that the train had been traveling with a “glowing axle” for at least 20 miles prior to the derailment near East Palestine, a town of about 4,700 people. The NTSB said it had collected the bearing and the affected wheel set for further examination.

Drone footage shows derailed train cars, still smoldering.
Drone footage shows derailed train cars on Feb. 6. (NTSBGov/Handout via Reuters)

The Norfolk Southern train derailed minutes from the Ohio-Pennsylvania border on the evening of Feb. 3, with the governors of both states issuing a joint evacuation order for a roughly 1-mile radius. On Feb. 6, the railroad company burned off five tankers full of vinyl chloride in what it said was an effort to avoid a catastrophic explosion, resulting in the images of a giant toxic smoke plume that drew attention to the situation.

The NTSB said that going forward the investigation will focus on “the wheelset and bearing and tank car design and derailment damage” as well as a review of the accident response, including the “venting and burning of the vinyl chloride, railcar design and maintenance procedures and practices, [Norfolk Southern’s] use of wayside defect detectors and … railcar inspection practices.”

Norfolk Southern has been accused of prioritizing the reopening of the railway over handling the situation as safely as it could. The East Palestine accident is at least the fourth Norfolk Southern derailment in Ohio since the fall.

ProPublica reported Wednesday that the company has a policy that allows crews to “ignore alerts from train track sensors designed to flag potential mechanical problems,” including in one instance that preceded an October derailment in the state that was still not completely cleaned up as of earlier this month.

While local, state and federal officials have all assured residents the air and water there is safe, there have been continued reports of rashes, headaches and other ailments, in addition to the smell of chemicals in the air. Ohio officials have also said that more than 3,000 fish had died in the immediate aftermath of the accident, and residents have reported seeing sick or dead animals.

Trent Conaway, the mayor of East Palestine, Ohio, leads a town hall meeting at a local high school gym.
Trent Conaway, the mayor of East Palestine, leads a town hall meeting at a local high school on Feb. 15. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Experts told Stat News that the burning at the wreck site likely created dioxins, “a highly toxic, carcinogenic, and persistent compound released when polyvinyl chloride burns.” On Feb. 6, Norfolk Southern ordered a burn-off of chemicals at the site of the wreckage, which released more toxins into the air.

“I’m certain from the view of that black smoke plume [caused by a Feb. 6 burn-off] that it was a witch’s brew of chemicals on fire, and I’m quite certain dioxins would be among them,” Ted Schettler, science director at the environmental nonprofit Science and Environmental Health Network, told the outlet.

Former President Donald Trump visited East Palestine on Wednesday, bringing with him Trump-branded water and other supplies. Although footage on social media showed residents warmly greeting Trump, it’s his Department of Transportation that rolled back an Obama-era rule that required an upgrade in brakes for certain trains carrying flammable material.

That rule would not have prevented the East Palestine crash, because while the NTSB had urged the Obama administration to include more trains with dangerous cargo in its policy, the administration issued a less strict rule. When asked during his visit about criticisms that he had rolled back rail safety standards, Trump replied, “I had nothing to do with that,” despite repeatedly bragging about the number of regulations his administration had cut during his time in office.

Former President Donald Trump, wearing a Make America Great Again hat, and his son Donald Trump Jr.
Former President Donald Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. at an event in East Palestine on Wednesday to address the recent derailment of a train carrying hazardous waste. (Alan Freed/Reuters)

While the Environmental Protection Agency and NTSB have been on the ground in the area since the accident, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made his first visit on Thursday. Buttigieg, who did not comment on the crash until 10 days after the incident, has faced bipartisan criticism for his response to the derailment. He told CBS News on Tuesday that not speaking out sooner was a “lesson learned.”

“This morning I’m in East Palestine, Ohio, to see the site of the Norfolk Southern derailment, hear updates from investigators, and meet first responders,” Buttigieg tweeted early Thursday. “[The Department of Transportation] will continue its work to ensure safety and accountability.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, said President Biden was in touch with him in the aftermath of the crash and had offered whatever support the state needed. However, in a Monday interview with Fox News, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway said Biden visiting Ukraine before East Palestine was “the biggest slap in the face that tells you right now he doesn’t care about us.”

Conaway said the following day that he would welcome Biden to his town and was very frustrated at the time he made the comments, but that he stood by them.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine stands at a podium, flanked by other local, state and national leaders, at a news conference
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, flanked by other local, state and national leaders, at a news conference Tuesday to address the train derailment. (Alan Freed/Reuters)

The federal response grew more aggressive on Tuesday after EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited East Palestine late last week and vowed to hold the rail company responsible.

On Tuesday, the Transportation Department released a set of proposals meant to increase rail safety, while the EPA announced it was taking over the cleanup effort, meaning the organization would have to approve Norfolk Southern’s plans and could issue its own guidance if it isn’t satisfied. Additionally, a clinic operated by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Ohio Department of Health opened in town the same day.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, said this week that his state was investigating whether criminal charges against Norfolk Southern were warranted.

“We made a criminal referral to the office of attorney general. They’ll determine whether or not there was criminal activity,” he told NPR. "What I know is that Norfolk Southern is governed every day, not by caring about the communities that they send their trains through, but by corporate greed.”