The National Transportation Safety Board began the first day of a two-day field hearing Tuesday in East Palestine as the federal agency takes testimony on what led up to the February 3rd Norfolk Southern train derailment, fire, and chemical spill in that community.

Characterized as a "fact-finding proceeding", the NTSB also plans to use information gathered during testimony to make
recommendations to improve transportation safety. 

The hearing began with NTSB Investigator-in-Charge, Ruben Payan, who talked about the days leading up to the derailment.

Payan noted that security cameras along the train's route didn't show any indication of problems until it reached Salem when flames could be seen under one of the cars.

Subsequent videos from cameras in Columbiana, New Waterford, and East Palestine showed increasing flame and sparks beneath a car as it reached its eventual derailment site in East Palestine.

Payan also noted the previously reported evidence that so-called hot box detectors didn't report rising temperatures of a wheel bearing on one of the cars until the train neared East Palestine.  When the temperature reached the point required to send a critical alarm, the train was already in the village, moments before the train left the tracks.

The first panel discussion that got underway shortly before 10 a.m. is focusing on the communication about the derailment to first responders that night and their response to the incident.

East Palestine Fire Cheif Keith Drabick told investigators that he saw himself as a coordinator of the team of first responders that were called out after learning about the derailment.  Drabick called the decision to initiate a controlled burn of the leaking tankers "the only option" in light of the risk of a possible explosion.

"Hot and angry", is how East Palestine Police Chief Dan Hauter described the burning rail cars when asked about his first impressions of the incident. Hauter said at the time he had no idea that cars were carrying toxic materials.


Dan Hauter


As far as prior training to prepare for the derailment, in spite of extensive police experience, Hauter said he used "common sense" in this case.

An investigator questioned Scott Deutsch, Regional Hazardous Materials Manager for  Norfolk Southern about the decision to have firefighters withdraw while they were battling flames.



Scott Deutsch


Deutsch said he saw firefighters spraying water down on the cars from aerial trucks and became concerned that the cases would heat up and injure them.

An investigator questioned Deutsch about the protocol for notifying first responders when there are hazardous materials on a derailed train, noting that the Ask Rail app with such information is not always available to firefighters in an area with poor cell reception and that train crews are not instructed to approach first responders with that critical information which in this case took about 40 minutes to get in the hands of those responders.

A representative from one of the trade unions suggested that first responders could have found the engineer to ask what the train was carrying that night. Fire Chief Drabick noted that the locomotives had been instructed to uncouple from the burning cars and move one mile east of the derailment.  Drabick says during the emergency it was all hands on deck and the department didn't have the manpower to "chase a train" a mile away to find the engineer.


Fire Chief Keith Drabeck


Asked if it would be helpful if the railroad sent First Responders information on what trains are carrying ahead of time, Chief Drabick said that East Palestine has trains pass through the village an average of every nine minutes 365 days a year, noting that the paperwork would be overwhelming.

Answering a question about his fire department's ability to communicate with each other, East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick called communications a "Ginormous" problem noting that first responders operate on different frequencies making it hard to communicate with various departments in different counties and states.

Drabick said that on the night of the derailment, there was only one dispatcher on duty being overwhelmed with phone calls for three fire departments and two police departments. "A centralized 911 center would be a good step forward," said Drabick.

Thursday's hearing is scheduled to wrap up at 7 p.m. and at 6 p.m. on Friday.