Evacuees near Paulsboro train derailment cannot return for a week

Posted: December 04, 2012

PAULSBORO - When a train derailed Friday in this small town on the Delaware, spilling a tanker of vinyl chloride into a nearby creek, officials evacuated 12 residential blocks almost immediately.

Now, even as cleanup crews scramble to pump the toxic chemical out of the creek, officials have extended that evacuation order through Saturday, which means members of 48 households in the evacuation zone won't be able to get home for the rest of the week.

Public schools will reopen Monday, but Guardian Angels Regional Catholic School will send students to its Gibbstown campus for the week. The Head Start Center of Paulsboro will also be closed through Friday, and Municipal Court proceedings have been canceled for Monday.

Conrail, owner of the tracks on which the 82-car train derailed, is providing hotel rooms and vouchers for everything from laundry to restaurants, officials said Sunday.

But displaced residents expressed frustration, some saying they had spent the weekend in a state of uncertainty and simply wanted to return home. Some said they were running out of money despite Conrail's promises to reimburse their expenses.

"Our whole neighborhood's in this hotel," said Sean McFarland, 48, leaning out of a second-floor window at a Motel 6 just outside town. "I'd much rather be at home."

McFarland, a diesel mechanic who lives in the evacuation zone, and his family had spent the last several nights at the motel. His neighbor Lisa Driver said the community was trying to keep its spirits up.

"We're just trying to remain upbeat. It's a fiasco," she said Sunday. On Friday, she evacuated with her two dogs as white vapor - spilled vinyl chloride in gas form - swirled around her ankles.

Members of the train crew told the National Transportation Safety Board they arrived at the century-old swing bridge over Mantua Creek early Friday to find it already closed - an unusual situation, NTSB representatives said. The train left Camden that morning en route to a train yard at Carneys Point, and it stopped in several towns along the way.

Although the bridge was closed, the signal was red, indicating the train could not cross, the crew said. A conductor left the train to inspect the bridge, they said, and told other crew members the bridge seemed fine. The engineer obtained permission from a dispatcher to cross the bridge against the red signal, NTSB representatives said.

The bridge opens and closes like a hinge, allowing river traffic to pass. It is ordinarily open, with the crossing light red to alert train crews that they cannot cross. The bridge last underwent a weekly track inspection Nov. 20.

The crew was crossing the bridge Friday morning at 7 m.p.h. - the speed limit is 10 m.p.h. - when the emergency brakes activated, NTSB representatives said. They looked back to see the bridge collapsing behind them.

On Sunday, NTSB officials said they had confirmed the train crew's account of the accident, and added that they were working to figure out what went wrong. They have brought a laser scanner to the scene of the derailment and are looking to survey the crash site before cleanup begins in earnest, as well as to check the bridge for mechanical and structural deficiencies.

In the evacuation zone, first responders worked to pump liquefied vinyl chloride from the punctured tanker in Mantua Creek. Three other tankers carrying the chemical were not breached.

Removing the four other tankers from the creek will be tricky, officials said. Crash debris in the water must be removed before crews can begin working on the cars.

"We still have containers of vinyl chloride [in the creek], and as long as we've got vinyl chloride, we're taking precautions," Coast Guard Capt. Todd Wiemers said.

In downtown Paulsboro on Sunday, police were stationed at every intersection leading into the 12-block evacuation zone. A few families had refused to leave the area despite warnings of potential health hazards - exposure to vinyl chloride can cause dizziness, drowsiness, and headaches - but for the most part, the streets near Mantua Creek were empty, cordoned off with orange cones and caution tape.

Local officials said they were focusing on cleanup efforts but reiterated the need to repair the bridge as soon as possible. Refineries in the area that depend on railways to transport chemical loads will be served by trucks and barges until the bridge is repaired, said New Jersey Assemblyman John Burzichelli, a former Paulsboro mayor.

He said he planned to ask the Legislature to help fund a new bridge.

"There's no way a bridge that still has parts from 1873 has any place at a major rail site," he said.

Contact Aubrey Whelan at 610-313-8112, awhelan@philly.com, or follow @aubreyjwhelan on Twitter.

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