Full timeline of Ohio train derailment and government response

Residents have been able to return home, but many are still worried about the health and safety of themselves and their families.

Hannah Nightingale Washington DC

February 3: A Norfolk Southern train traveling through East Palestine derailed. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the train was traveling eastbound when it derailed at around 8:54 pm. 

Since then, residents have been able to return home, but many are still worried about the health and safety of themselves and their families.

38 train cars derailed, with an additional 12 cars being damaged in a fire that broke out. The NTSB stated that 20 cars being pulled by the train carried hazardous materials, 11 of which derailed.

February 4: At a press briefing, NTSB Board Member Michael Graham stated that investigators arrived on the scene that afternoon. Graham said at the time that the initial fire started by the derailment was still burning, though it had reduced in intensity. 

"Four cars carrying vinyl chloride were involved in the derailment and have been exposed to fire. At least one vinyl chloride car is intermittently releasing the contents of the car through a pressure relief device, as designed," Graham said, noting that NTSB investigators were working to verify which hazardous materials cars were breached.

Later that evening, officials issued evacuation orders to residents living near the site of the derailment.

February 5: Ohio Governor Mike DeWine issued a statement on Twitter urging residents who live within a one-mile radius of the derailment to "immediately evacuate" over concerns of an explosion.

"Within the last two hours, a drastic temperature change has taken place in a rail car, and there is now a potential of a catastrophic tanker failure which would cause an explosion with the potential of deadly shrapnel traveling up to a mile," the statement read.

"Although teams are working to prevent an explosion from happening, residents living within a mile of the site are advised to immediately leave the area," the statement continued. "While most individuals in the one-mile radius have already evacuated, local officials say that more than 500 people have declined to leave their homes."

The statement added that at 8 pm, DeWine activated the Ohio National Guard to assist local authorities at the scene.

New modeling information on February 6 expanded that evacuation area to a one-mile by two-mile zone surrounding East Palestine, including residents in Ohio and Pennsylvania. 

February 5: (or thereabouts) DeWine and Shapiro spoke and signed off on the plans to burn the chemicals. This they revealed during a February 14 press conference.

"It was clear at that point that we were faced with two bad options," DeWine said during the February 14 press conference of the hours and days immediately following the incident. DeWine later stated that "we then made the decision to go ahead with the second option which was to control release."

"Governor Shapiro and I spent considerable time up to about two hours, I recall, asking a lot of questions about how that would take place," DeWine added.

DeWine stated that "we then made the decision to go ahead with the second option which was to control release as that was being prepared to be done.

February 6: At 3:30 pm, crews released vinyl chloride into trenches dug next to the derailed train and ignited it. Pictures of the plume of smoke appeared on social media, with smoke clouds being seen in neighboring communities.

"Based on current weather patterns and the expected flow of the smoke and fumes, anyone who remains in the red affected area is facing grave danger of death. Anyone who remains in the yellow impacted area is at a high risk of severe injury, including skin burns and serious lung damage," DeWine said in a statement before the controlled release.

It was estimated that the controlled release would last between one to three hours.

According to CBS News, after the controlled release was complete, crews would begin the "wrecking" process, in which the train cars are moved off the tracks and relocated to be inspected by NTSB officials.

February 8: DeWine and Shapiro announced that residents under evacuation orders would be able to return home.

"Air quality samples in the area of the wreckage and in nearby residential neighborhoods have consistently showed readings at points below safety screening levels for contaminants of concern. Based on this information, state and local health officials determined that it is now safe for community members to return to their residences," the statement said. Ongoing air monitoring would be occurring in the area, the statement continued, and residents who wanted their homes tested could get that done through an independent contractor hired by Norfolk Southern.

Residents would also be able to get free water testing of private wells.

"In the interim, those with private water wells are encouraged to use bottled water, which will be supplied by Norfolk Southern. Those who remain uncomfortable returning home at this time can also request assistance with hotel expenses from the railroad," the statement read.

After returning home, residents reported a chemical smell in the air and seeing dead fish pop up "by the hundreds" in local streams.

February 13: Video obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette showed the train 20 miles from the site of the derailment, showing sparks and flames flying out from underneath one of the train cars.

"We have obtained two videos which show preliminary indications of mechanical issues on one of the rail car axles," said Michael Graham, according to CBS News.

A second video came from a processing plant mile down the track, which has a hot box detector, which sends an alert if it detects an overheating axel, in front of it.

"The crew did receive an alarm from a wayside detector shortly before the derailment indicating a mechanical issue," Graham said. "Then an emergency brake application initiated."

While the NTSB says that there was an alarm, it is unknown whether the alarm came from the hot box detector at the Salem processing plant or the next one down the track in East Palestine.

February 14: The NTSB released an investigative update, stating that a surveillance video from a residence "showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment."

"The wheelset from the suspected railcar has been collected as evidence for metallurgical examination. The suspected overheated wheel bearing has been collected and will be examined by engineers from the NTSB Materials Laboratory in Washington, DC," the statement added.

Governor DeWine held a press conference on that day, revealing that he and Governor Shapiro signed off on the controlled release of chemicals from the train.

During this press conference, officials stated that air and water levels have consistently been within safe levels.

DeWine also revealed that "this train was not considered a high hazardous material train" therefore "the railroad was not required to notify anyone here in Ohio about what was in the rail cars coming into our state. I would think that the members of Congress —  I would ask them to take a look at this." 

The train, he said, was not considered a high hazardous material train because the majority of the train cars did not possess hazardous materials. "Frankly, if this is true, and I’m told it’s true, this is absurd."

February 14: Shapiro sent a letter to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, expressing "serious concerns" over the rail company’s management of the derailment.

Shapiro said that "Norfolk Southern failed to. implement Unified Command, creating confusion and resulting in a general lack of awareness for first responders and emergency management of the tactics Norfolk Southern planned in response."

"Second, Norfolk Southern gave inaccurate information and conflicting modeling about the impact of the controlled release that made protective action decision making more difficult in the immediate aftermath of the derailment.

"Third, Norfolk Southern’s unwillingness to explore or articulate alternate courses of action to their proposed vent and burn limited state and local leaders’ ability to respond effectively."

Ohio residents gathered in East Palestine High School’s gymnasium on February 15, expecting to question Norfolk Southern representatives about what they’re doing to clean up the derailment. Those representatives never showed up, pulling out ahead of the town hall meeting.

Norfolk Southern said they couldn’t attend the town hall meeting because of concerns over "the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties."

"With that in mind, Norfolk Southern will not be in attendance this evening," the statement continued. "We want to continue our dialogue with the community and address their concerns, and our people will remain in East Palestine, respond to this situation, and meet with residents."

February 16: It was revealed that the Biden administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) had declined to provide aid.

"The DeWine Administration has been in daily contact with FEMA to discuss the need for federal support, however, FEMA continues to tell Governor DeWine that Ohio is not eligible for assistance at this time."

Responding to a video released by Sen. JD Vance on Thursday showing rainbow-colored chemical spillage in a creek in East Palestine, DeWine said in a Friday press conference, "I know that there's been some video played on TV circulating of visible contamination in one of the local waterways."

"A section of Sulfur Run that is very near the crash site remains severely contaminated. We knew this. We know this. It's going to take a while to remediate this," the governor said to reporters.

February 18: FEMA announced that they would be sending teams out to East Palestine, though a disaster declaration has not been issued by the Biden administration.


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