PAULSBORO, N.J. (AP) — A signal may have malfunctioned on a southern New Jersey bridge where a train derailed, causing a hazardous chemical to spew into the air and leading to health problems, an evacuation, tricky cleanup decisions and broader questions about the condition of railway infrastructure.
No serious injuries were reported in the Friday morning accident. But the U.S. Coast Guard said Saturday night that the evacuation of 12 city blocks near the Mantua Creek site would remain in effect as a precaution. Teams also were monitoring the air quality and collecting water samples, the Coast Guard said.
National Transportation Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman said the crew on the train told investigators that when they approached the Mantua Creek bridge before 7 a.m. Friday, the signal light was red, telling them not to cross. She said the crew found it unusual to get a red light at that hour of the day.
They used a radio signal to try to change the signal to green, but it did not work, Hersman said. She said the conductor got off the train and inspected the aging bridge. When it appeared to be OK, she said, the engineer called for — and received — permission from a dispatcher to go through the red light and cross the bridge.
Only the two locomotives and the first five cars on the southbound train got across the bridge before seven cars derailed. Hersman said the engine was moving 8 mph before the accident — under the 10 mph speed limit.
Hersman said investigators were trying to determine whether other train crews had had the same signal issue lately and whether the signal problems had anything to do with the accident.
Four of the derailed cars, including three that ended up partially in the creek, contained vinyl chloride, an ingredient in the common plastic PVC. A gas, vinyl chloride can induce respiratory problems, dizziness and other health effects after short-term exposure — and liver problems and other complications after high levels of exposure over time.
The accident ripped a hole inside one of the tankers, causing the gas to escape.
More than 70 people went to an emergency room Friday, none of them with life-threatening injuries.
A handful of nearby homes were evacuated Friday; some residents were allowed to return hours later after some of the chemical dissipated into the air and the rest turned into a solid and settled back into the tanker. But Friday evening, residents in the 12 blocks near the site were ordered evacuated.
State Assemblyman John Burzichelli, a former Paulsboro mayor serving as an emergency management spokesman, said the chemical levels spiked as the temperatures dropped and the breeze died down Friday evening so that gas escaping the tanker lingered nearby longer.
Conrail, the owner of the tracks, put up residents in 106 hotel rooms Friday night. And the Coast Guard said Conrail will again open a center in the Paulsboro Fire Department to help people affected by the accident.