Explosion ‘imminent’ after train carrying chemicals derails near Ohio town

Authorities have warned an explosion is “imminent” after a train derailed in Ohio near the Pennsylvania state line, sparking evacuations.

About 50 cars derailed in East Palestine at about 9pm Friday as a train was carrying a variety of products from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, rail operator Norfolk Southern said. No injuries to crew, residents or first responders have been reported.

Officials escalated pleas for anyone within a one-mile radius of the inferno to evacuate on Monday after a “drastic change” in a chemical was detected.

Five of the derailed cars were carrying that chemical, vinyl chloride.

Anyone who refuses to evacuate could face arrest, Columbiana County Sheriff Brian McLaughlin warned, as fears grow that an explosion could launch shrapnel as far as a mile.

“There is a high probability of a toxic gas release and or explosion,” the sheriff said. “Please, for your own safety, remove your families from danger.”

East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick added: “We are at a risk now of a catastrophic failure of that container. Measures are being taken to try and control that and prevent that from happening.”

Ohio Gov Mike DeWine called for anyone living in the evacuation zone to get out immediately on Sunday as he activated the National Guard to respond to the smouldering wreckage.

Mayor Trent Conaway, who declared a state of emergency in the village, said one person was arrested for going around barricades right up to the crash during the night. He warned that more arrests would follow if people did not to stay away.

“I don't know why anybody would want to be up there; you're breathing toxic fumes if you're that close,” he said, stressing that monitors of air quality away from the fire showed no levels of concern and the town's water is safe because it is fed by groundwater unaffected by some material that went into streams. Environmental protection agency crews were working to remove contaminants from streams and monitor water quality.

Fire Chief Keith Drabick said it was so important to avoid the area “because a train carrying hazardous material wrecked in the town and is burning. Doesn’t get any simpler than that.”

Sheriffs went door-to-door Sunday to count residents remaining and urge people within the evacuation area to leave. “We are asking residents to please evacuate and cooperate,” officials said in a statement. Schools and village offices will be closed Monday and officials would determine that afternoon whether the school closure would be extended.

Norfolk Southern said 20 of the more than 100 cars were classified as carrying hazardous materials — defined as cargo that could pose any kind of danger “including flammables, combustibles, or environmental risks.” Some cars carried vinyl chloride, and at least one was “intermittently releasing” its contents via a pressure release device.

The National Transportation Safety Board said only 10 cars carrying hazardous materials derailed and five of them were carrying vinyl chloride, not 14 as was said earlier. And officials stressed again late Saturday that they had not confirmed the release of vinyl chloride other than from pressure release devices operating as designed.

Vinyl chloride, used to make the polyvinyl chloride hard plastic resin in a variety of plastic products, is associated with increased risk of liver cancer and other cancers, according to the federal government’s National Cancer Institute. Norfolk Southern was to provide a fact sheet listing all chemicals involved.

The evacuation order covered homes of 1,500 to 2,000 of the town’s 4,800 to 4,900 residents, but officials said it was unknown exactly how many were actually affected. About eight residents remained at an emergency shelter. Norfolk Southern opened an assistance center in the village to gather information from affected residents; village officials said 75 people went to the center Saturday and about 100 had been there Sunday morning.