Train derails, goes up in flames in Ohio, causes half of town to evacuate
Written by ABC Audio ALL RIGHTS RESERVED on February 4, 2023
(EAST PALESTINE, Ohio) — Local officials in East Palestine, Ohio, have ordered roughly 2,000 residents, about half the town’s population, to evacuate their homes after a Norfolk Southern train derailed and caught fire.
A Norfolk Southern train traveling from Illinois to Pennsylvania derailed around 9 p.m. Friday, ignited, and prompted a response from over 50 fire departments across three states, according to East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway.
In an interview with ABC News early Saturday morning, Conaway said residents living in a one-mile radius of the fire have been asked to evacuate or shelter in place voluntarily. At a Saturday morning press conference, Conaway said the evacuation is mandatory, though the town “can’t physically make people leave their homes.”
Janet Meek, a 55-year-old resident in the evacuation zone, said she decided not to evacuate due to concerns about her pets, though she reported feeling the impacts of the blaze when she went outside.
“It’s like burning our eyes, and it was burning our throats,” she said. “We don’t … didn’t feel real good.”
Fire chief Keith Drabick said at the press conference Saturday morning that the train was carrying hazardous substances but could not confirm if the fire impacted the train cars carrying the hazardous goods. Drabick said the odor permeating East Palestine is not harmful at current levels, but representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency are monitoring the situation.
East Palestine is a small village on the border of Pennsylvania and Ohio with roughly 4,700 residents.
A spokesperson from Norfolk Southern said they are “coordinating closely with local first responders while mobilizing our own teams.”
“If you have to come to East Palestine, don’t,” Drabick said. “Stay out of the area until we can get this mitigated.”
Efforts to contain the fire stalled Saturday night when firefighters withdrew from the blaze due to concerns about air quality and explosions.
Conaway said firefighters withdrew from the fire Friday night due to concerns about air quality, with a plan to reengage once they get a “better grasp of what exactly is what chemical is burning.” At Saturday’s press conference, Drabick added that there had been multiple explosions overnight, which posed a risk to firefighters.
Early Saturday morning, Conway described the fire as “contained” but “ongoing.” Drabick said daybreak would show the extent of the damage and long-term potential for the blaze.
The call to evaluate comes as East Palestine is hit with some of the coldest weather this year, dropping to 6 F on Friday night.
Living a block from the railroad tracks, Meek said she heard a “loud boom” around 9 p.m. after coming home from a local basketball game.
After her husband reported seeing a “billowing ball of fire” while walking their dogs, she went outside to witness the fire, only to return inside after feeling some of the effects of the fumes. Meek said she has seen over 100 fire trucks respond to the fire, which she said appeared uncontained.
“There was no actually stopping it…,” she said. “It just looked like mushroom clouds, and everything was exploding, like you could just hear these explosions.”
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