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Investigation into Ohio train derailment points to overheated wheel bearing

Preliminary findings from the National Transportation Safety Board show that one wheel bearing was 253 degrees above ambient temperatures.
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The "preventable" and "traumatic" derailment of a train carrying dangerous chemicals in Ohio can be traced to an overheated wheel bearing, which was 253 degrees hotter than the air temperature, National Transportation Safety Board officials said Thursday.

The NTSB released a preliminary report offering clues about what most likely caused the 150-car Norfolk Southern Railway train to crash in East Palestine, just west of the Pennsylvania state line, on Feb. 3.

NTSB Chairperson Jennifer Homendy also announced that the board will hold an investigatory field hearing in the East Palestine area in the spring, in addition to its customary full meeting in Washington, D.C.

“We don’t usually have investigative [field] hearings, but we believe that it will be helpful in getting more factual information and getting buy-in on change that will be needed,” Homendy said in an interview after a news conference.

“I think the community deserves to hear some of the answers, and having it there will allow them to see and hear what is being said,” she said.

According to the NTSB report, 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 Fahrenheit above the ambient temperature.

Anything over 170 degrees requires the engineer to stop the train, according to Norfolk Southern’s policies.

The engineer hit the brakes, but before the train came to a full stop, the 23rd car derailed, taking others with it, and an automatic emergency break kicked in.

After that, “the crew observed fire and smoke and notified the Cleveland East dispatcher of a possible derailment,” the report said.

NTSB officials said there is no sign of a track defect or an error by any crew members aboard the 9,300-foot train, which weighed nearly 18,000 tons.

“We have no indication that they did anything wrong,” Homendy told NBC News. “We believe at this time that they acted appropriately and have no evidence otherwise.”

But the reasons the bearing broke will be a focal point of the probe, she said during the media briefing.

“You cannot wait until they fail,” Homendy told reporters. “Problems need to be identified early so something catastrophic like this does not occur again.”

Homendy also offered a message to East Palestine residents: "I am so sorry for the traumatic event that you're going through. It's devastating."

She rejected the idea that the derailment was an unavoidable accident.

"I can tell you this much: This was 100% preventable," she said. "We call things accidents. There is no accident. Every single event that we investigate is preventable. So our hearts are with you."

The Norfolk Southern train was headed from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania. The previous detector it had passed along the way recorded a temperature of 103 degrees above the ambient temperature, which Norfolk Southern protocol deems not dangerous enough to stop.

The company said in statement Thursday that it is cooperating with investigators and that its detectors "trigger an alarm at a temperature threshold that is among the lowest in the rail industry."

"Under the supervision of the Federal Railroad Administration, the company has inspected all wayside detectors in the area of the incident and found they were operating as designed," the statement added. "Out of an abundance of caution, Norfolk Southern is now inspecting all of the nearly 1,000 wayside heat detectors on its system — on top of the regular inspection of the detectors every 30 days."

The preliminary report also described why Norfolk Southern opted to release and burn a chemical, vinyl chloride, days after the derailment. The temperature inside a tank car carrying the liquid was rising, the report said, which suggested the chemical was undergoing a reaction that raised the risk of an explosion.

In total, the train carried 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride, a highly flammable carcinogen used to produce polyvinyl chloride for packaging materials and other products.

During the controlled release, responders dug ditches to contain the liquid while it vaporized and burned.

East Palestine has been gripped by fear and anxiety since the derailment and subsequent burn. State officials in Ohio have reported many thousands of dead fish in nearby streams. Some residents have sued Norfolk Southern.

An Ohio EPA Emergency Response worker looks for signs of fish and also agitates the water in Leslie Run creek to check for chemicals that have settled at the bottom following a train derailment on Feb. 20, 2023, in East Palestine.
An Ohio EPA emergency response worker looks for signs of fish in Leslie Run creek and checks for chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, on Monday.Michael Swensen / Getty Images

The full NTSB investigation, expected to take 12 to 18 months, "will focus on the wheelset and bearing; tank car design and derailment damage; a review of the accident response, including the venting and burning of the vinyl chloride; railcar design and maintenance procedures and practices; NS [Norfolk Southern] use of wayside defect detectors; and NS railcar inspection practices," its preliminary report said.

A union representing railroad workers said Wednesday that from its perspective, Norfolk Southern has prioritized speed — by a system called “precision scheduled railroading” that aims to keep trains moving — over safety.

“Somehow ‘We tried to warn you,’ just doesn’t quite cut it,” the Transportation Communications Union said in a statement.

“Railroads are also relying increasingly on automated wayside detectors to replace — rather than complement — human inspections," the statement continued. "The railroads have sought waiver after waiver to allow in-person inspections to be substituted for automated temperature detectors."

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the rail company to identify and clean contaminated soil and water. On Wednesday, Norfolk Southern said it would temporarily remove the tracks and excavate the soil underneath, rather than simply remediate the soil, as it had originally planned.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said his office made a criminal referral over the derailment, while officials in Ohio signaled they might take legal action against the company, as well.

Norfolk Southern has consistently highlighted the extent of its cleanup efforts, as well as the funding it has committed to the East Palestine area, including $3.4 million in financial assistance for local families and a $1 million community assistance fund.

But environmental activist Erin Brockovich said it could be many years before the full impact of the derailment is felt.

“Don’t sign anything from Norfolk Southern Railroad. They’re not your friend,” Brockovich told MSNBC on Thursday from East Palestine. “We may take in this moment the municipal water is safe. But that’s not the way it’s going to be tomorrow. These chemicals are going to mitigate through the system for decades.”