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Norfolk Southern CEO a no-show at town hall meeting to discuss derailment

“We are sorry. We’re sorry for what happened,” a company representative said at Thursday's meeting.

Norfolk Southern's CEO did not attend an East Palestine, Ohio, town hall meeting where concerned residents detailed their health symptoms and grilled officials on why they have not been relocated away from the derailment site.

Darrell Wilson, assistant vice president of government relations for Norfolk Southern, joined several other federal and local officials for Thursday's meeting.

"We are sorry. We're sorry for what happened," Wilson said before the crowd began yelling questions at him.

"You need to get some of our people out of here today!" one resident screamed. "What’s happened here is not right, people are suffering!"

Wilson attempted to explain Norfolk Southern's recovery and cleanup plan following the Feb. 3 derailment, but he was bombarded with questions.

Another resident asked the officials not to dismiss people who have health concerns.

"The chemicals in the atmosphere could be affecting people differently so people that have symptoms they shouldn't be dismissed, they should be looked at and they shouldn't be here. I want to know why we were allowed to come home and why we haven't been removed from here," the resident said. "Just out of an abundance of caution. ... What happened is not right."

It's not clear if Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw was expected to be at Thursday's meeting. Shaw has been asked to testify under oath in a coming hearing hosted by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to talk about the derailment.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

The 150-car Norfolk Southern Railway train was traveling from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, when it crashed in East Palestine, a small community near the Pennsylvania border, on Feb. 3.

Erin Brockovich speaks at the East Palestine Justice Town Hall Meeting at the Columbiana Cultural Collective in East Palestine, Ohio on March 2, 2023.
Erin Brockovich speaks at the East Palestine Justice Town Hall Meeting at the Columbiana Cultural Collective in East Palestine, Ohio on March 2, 2023.mpi34/MediaPunch/IPx

A report by the National Transportation Safety Board said that a defect detector built into the railway transmitted an alarm message to the train’s crew after it recorded that the temperature of a wheel bearing on the 23rd car was 253 degrees hotter than the air temperature. Anything over 170 degrees requires the engineer to stop the train, according to the railroad company’s policies.

The engineer hit the brakes, but before the train came to a halt, the 23rd car derailed, taking other cars with it, and an automatic emergency break kicked in. The report said the crew then “observed fire and smoke and notified the Cleveland East dispatcher of a possible derailment.”

The 9,300-foot train was carrying dangerous chemicals when it derailed. Five toxic chemicals have been identified around the site of the crash, including butyl acrylate, isobutylene, ethylene glycol and ethylhexyl acrylate, and vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen. Some chemicals were burned in a controlled release in the aftermath of the disaster to avoid a possible explosion.

Since the crash, many residents in East Palestine have expressed concern over possible health issues. Earlier this week, the presidents of U.S. railroad unions told Biden administration officials that rail workers working at the derailment site had fallen ill.

A number of lawsuits against Norfolk Southern have been filed, and state officials have reported many thousands of dead fish in nearby streams.

NTSB officials have said that there were no signs a track defect or crew member error contributed to the crash. But Chairperson Jennifer Homendy previously told NBC News that the disaster was “100% preventable.”

Norfolk Southern previously said in a statement that it is cooperating with the investigation.