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.
"I am so sorry for the traumatic event that you're going through. It's devastating," NTSB chairperson Jennifer Homendy said during a press conference, speaking directly to East Palestine residents.
"I can tell you this much: This was 100% preventable. We call things accidents. There is no accident. Every single event that we investigate is preventable. So our hearts are with you," she added.
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.
Anything from 170 to 200 degrees requires the engineer to stop the train, per Norfolk Southern's policies.
The engineer hit the brakes, but before the train came to a full stop, the 23rd car derailed, bringing 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.
The train was headed from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, and the previous detector it had passed along the way recorded a temperature of 103 degrees above ambient, which Norfolk Southern protocol deems not dangerous enough to stop.
NTSB officials said there is no sign of a track defect or crew error.
"We have no evidence that the crew did anything wrong. During this deceleration, the wheel bearing failed." Homendy said.
But the reasons the bearing broke will be a focal point of the ongoing probe, she added.
"You cannot wait until they fail," Homendy said. "Problems need to be identified early so something catastrophic like this does not occur again."
The final report is expected to take 12 to 18 months to complete.
Norfolk Southern could not be immediately reached for comment to address the initial findings.
The NTSB report also described why Norfolk Southern opted to do a controlled burn of one chemical, vinyl chloride, days after the derailment. The temperature inside one 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 (PVC) for packaging materials and other products.
During the controlled release, responders dug ditches to contain the liquid while it vaporized and burned.
The town of East Palestine has been gripped by fear and anxiety since the derailment and subsequent burn.
The NTSB announced on Thursday that it will hold an investigatory field hearing there in the spring.
"The NTSB has one goal, and that is safety and ensuring that this never happens again," Homendy said. "We don't have investigative hearings often. It is rare. But we will question invited witnesses."
The board's full investigation "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," the report said.
A union representing railroad workers said Wednesday that from its perspective, Norfolk Southern has prioritized speed — via 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.”
Since the derailment, state officials in Ohio have reported many thousands of dead fish in nearby streams. Some local residents have sued Norfolk Southern.
On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the rail company to identify and clean contaminated soil and water. On Wednesday, the company said it would temporarily remove the tracks and excavate the soil underneath, rather than simply remediating 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 may 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.
"We recognize that we have a responsibility, and we have committed to doing what’s right for the residents of East Palestine," the company said in a statement posted to a website it created.
“We are going to learn from this terrible accident and work with regulators and elected officials to improve railroad safety,” it added.
The website cites EPA data from air and water samplings, which indicate that concentrations of hazardous chemicals are below the agency's safety thresholds.
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 the way it’s going to be tomorrow. These chemicals are going to mitigate through the system for decades.”