The Day

Safety chief: ‘Enough with the politics’

Finger-pointing over Ohio train derailment draws rebuke from NTSB


— The crew operating East Palestine, Ohio a freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, didn’t get much warning before dozens of cars went off the tracks, and there is no indication that crew members did anything wrong, federal investigat­ors said Thursday as they released a preliminar­y report into the fiery wreck that prompted a toxic chemical release and an evacuation.

U.S. Transporta­tion Secretary Pete Buttigieg made his first visit to the crash site and took shots at former President Donald Trump, who had visited the day before and criticized the federal response to the train derailment. Their back-and-forth was the latest sign that the East Palestine wreck has become a hot-button political issue, prompting a rebuke from the head of the National Transporta­tion Safety Board.

“Enough with the politics. I don’t understand why this has gotten so political,” safety board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy, clearly exasperate­d, said at a briefing in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. “This is a community that is suffering. This is not about politics. This is about addressing their needs, their concerns.”

The NTSB report, which laid out the facts that investigat­ors have gathered to date, said crew members had no indication the train was in trouble until an alarm sounded just before it went off the tracks.

An engineer slowed and stopped the train after getting a “critical audible alarm message” that signaled an overheated axle, according to the report. The three-person crew then saw fire and smoke and alerted dispatch, the report said.

“We have no evidence that the crew did anything wrong,” said Homendy, who announced a rare investigat­ory field hearing to be conducted in East Palestine this spring as officials seek to get to the bottom of the derailment’s cause and build consensus on how to prevent similar wrecks.

Investigat­ors said the temperatur­e of the failed wheel bearing increased by 215 degrees in a span of 30 miles, but did not reach the temperatur­e threshold that railroad company Norfolk Southern had set for an alarm to go off until just before the wreck.

The train was going about 47 mph, under the speed limit of 50 mph, according to investigat­ors.

Outside experts who looked at the report said the system appeared to work as designed, from the spacing of the hot bearing detectors along the tracks to the operation of the sensors.

“There’s nothing in the NTSB report that surprises me at all,” said Dave Clarke, the former director of the Center for Transporta­tion Research at the University of Tennessee. “I can’t see anything to really criticize about what happened or how the response was made.”

Christophe­r Barkan, director of the Rail Transporta­tion and Engineerin­g Center at the University of Illinois, said the spacing of the sensors that recorded the temperatur­es of the Norfolk Southern train — 10 and 20 miles apart — is common in the industry.

He said the detectors would not have notified the train crew of elevated bearing temperatur­es unless they met the threshold for action.

“I don’t see anything wrong here, but we just don’t know,” Barkan said.

Homendy said investigat­ors would look at whether industry safety standards — including high-temperatur­e alarm thresholds and sensor spacing — will need to change to prevent similar derailment­s.

Norfolk Southern did not immediatel­y comment on the report.

The freight cars that derailed on the East Palestine outskirts, near they Pennsylvan­ia state line, included 11 carrying hazardous materials. Villagers evacuated as fears grew about a potential explosion of smoldering wreckage.

Officials seeking to avoid an uncontroll­ed blast intentiona­lly released and burned toxic vinyl chloride from five rail cars, sending flames and black smoke high into the sky. That left people questionin­g the potential health effects even as authoritie­s maintained they were doing their best to protect people.

As NTSB released its preliminar­y findings, Buttigieg — who had been criticized for not coming to East Palestine earlier — went on a tour of the crash site and defended the Biden administra­tion’s response to the Feb. 3 derailment, which Trump had portrayed as indifferen­t and a “betrayal.”

Buttigieg told reporters that if the former president — and current Republican presidenti­al candidate — felt strongly about increased rail safety efforts, “one thing he could do is express support for reversing the deregulati­on that happened on his watch.”

“I don’t understand why this has gotten so political. This is a community that is suffering. This is not about politics. This is about addressing their needs, their concerns.”



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