In their preliminary report on the February 3 toxic chemical spill and subsequent contamination of air and water in the northeastern Ohio town, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said that the operator received warnings to ensure this didn't happen.
According to the agency, which is responsible for investigating transportation accidents, a "critical audible alarm message [instructed] the crew to slow and stop the train to inspect a hot axle," when a hot bearing detector system observed high levels of heat. After hearing the warning, the train's engineer, who was already braking due to a train ahead, "increased the dynamic brake application to further slow and stop the train."
However, the safety device, which "detect[s] overheated bearings and provide[s] audible real-time warnings to train crews," wasn't enough, despite the fact that the train passed through three of these systems "on its trip before the derailment," according to the report.
Through the first system sensor, the suspect bearing on the 23rd car had a temperature 38 degrees above ambient temperature. At the second system, it was 103 degrees above ambient. At the third system, NTSB said that "the suspect bearing's temperature [was] at 253°F above ambient.""After the train stopped, the crew observed fire and smoke and notified the Cleveland East dispatcher of a possible derailment. 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," the NTSB wrote. "Responders arrived at the derailment site and began response efforts."
More evidence revealed in the report showed that "visibility conditions were dark and clear; the weather was 10°F with no precipitation" when the train with "hazardous materials tank cars transporting combustible liquids, flammable liquids, and flammable gas, including vinyl chloride" derailed.
During the reveal of the preliminary report, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said in a press conference that the derailment and environmental disaster "was 100 percent preventable."
"We call things accidents. There is no accident. Every single event that we investigate is preventable," she said. "So our hearts are with, you know, that the NTSB has one goal and that is safety and ensuring that this never happens again."
Homendy also announced that her agency will conduct a "rare investigative field hearing this spring in East Palestine" to collect more information on the derailment.
"We don't have investigative hearings often. It is rare, but we will question invited witnesses," the chair said. "We have four goals for conducting an investigative field hearing: number one, inform the public. Number two, collect factual information from witnesses. Number three, discuss possible solutions. And number four, build consensus for change."
A final report will likely take up to 12-18 months, Homendy added.
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