NTSB blames Conrail, local responders in Paulsboro train wreck

DAVID M WARREN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Irma Stevenson , who lives along Mantua Creek near the site of the 2012 train wreck, says first responders shouldn't be blamed.
DAVID M WARREN / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Irma Stevenson , who lives along Mantua Creek near the site of the 2012 train wreck, says first responders shouldn't be blamed.
Posted: July 31, 2014

AN AFTERNOON TRAIN rolled out of Paulsboro yesterday, a moving chain of black and gray chemical tankers curving away after passing over Mantua Creek, just a few hours after some long-awaited news had rolled into the Gloucester County town.

Earlier in the day, 130 miles away in Washington, D.C., the National Transportation Safety Board met to review the developments that had occurred before, during and after a Conrail train derailed and released a toxic cloud of vinyl chloride in the tough, 2-square-mile town along the Delaware River on Nov. 30, 2012.

The NTSB put most of the blame on Conrail, which had known there were issues with the Mantua Creek swing bridge, built in the 1800s, long before the accident. On that day, the train engineer was given permission to cross, bypassing a red light that suggested the bridge was not properly locked.

Moments later, seven freight-train cars derailed, some crashing into the creek below, and 20,000 gallons of vinyl chloride crept over the water and through the town.

"The stakes are too high to leave multiple malfunctions uncorrected without a robust process that adequately mitigates the increased risk," the NTSB's acting chairman, Christopher A. Hart, said in a statement yesterday. "And that starts at the top. In this case, the red signal was correct."

The NTSB also has faulted the emergency response from local crews in Paulsboro and surrounding areas, saying that incident commanders failed to get a handle on the situation or to implement proper safeguards once they learned how dangerous the vinyl chloride was.

That finding irked Walt and Irma Stevenson, who've lived by the bridge for decades and have learned to accept the odds of a chemical mishap in Paulsboro. Their son, Gary Stevenson, lives across the street, just feet from the bridge, and was one of the first responders as the fumes filled his house.

"I'm really upset that they felt the need to blame the first responders," said Irma Stevenson, 74. "They're all volunteers."

Thousands of Paulsboro residents have filed lawsuits against Conrail, including the Stevensons, through a handful of law firms. Center City lawyer Mark Cuker represents more than 1,000 of those he said were affected by the derailment, people suffering from headaches, respiratory problems, dizziness and other symptoms.

Cuker said it was Conrail that failed the first responders and failed the town by ignoring the bridge issues.

"They are in the business to make money by hauling chemicals over bridges," he said. "When they're not hauling chemicals over bridges, they're not making money."

Conrail, in a statement, said it has "redoubled" its interaction with first responders.

"We regret that this incident occurred, and its impact on those that it affected," the company said in the statement.

Irma and Walt Stevenson, looking out from a side patio as the high tide was racing in from the river and the train disappeared beyond a bend, said they're not leaving.

"It's the best view in town," said Walt Stevenson, 78. "It's sort of tranquil."

On Twitter: @JasonNark

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