PAULSBORO, N.J. (AP) — A freight train derailed Friday on a railroad bridge that has had problems before, toppling tanker cars partially into a creek and causing a leak of hazardous gas that was blamed for sickening dozens of people, authorities said.
After hours of not registering at all on sensors, the level of the dangerous chemical spiked Friday evening, prompting authorities to evacuate people from several blocks around the site of the derailment and causing investigators to conduct interviews and record checks away from the accident site.
Members of the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in New Jersey on Friday afternoon to investigate. They will try to determine whether the derailment was caused by a problem with the bridge or if the derailment was to blame for the bridge's partial collapse.
A delicate operation lies ahead, as a huge crane was being brought from New York Harbor to pick up the dangling tanker cars.
The accident happened just after 7 a.m. when a train with two locomotives, 83 freight cars and a caboose made its way from Camden to the industrial town of Paulsboro, just across the river from Philadelphia International Airport.
Cars from a train operated by CSX went off the rails on a swing-style bridge, owned by Conrail, over Mantua Creek.
Seven cars derailed, including two box cars on stable ground and five on the bridge. NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said four tankers were partially in the creek.
One tanker containing 25,000 gallons of vinyl chloride was sliced open in the accident and some of the gas spewed into the air, while the rest turned into a solid and settled into the bottom of the tanker.
People who live nearby said the air was smoky in the morning. Doug Ricotta was working in his bakery when he heard a loud sound. "Next came a smell, kind of sweet — not a healthy smell," he said. He stayed in his business and kept baking, though one catering order had to be canceled because roads into and out of town were closed for a few hours.
Breathing vinyl chloride, which is used to make the common plastic PVC, can make people dizzy or sleepy. Breathing very high levels can cause someone to pass out, and breathing extremely high levels can cause death. Most of the vinyl chloride is gone from the body one day after being breathed in.
More than 70 people were treated at Underwood-Memorial Hospital, most complaining of breathing problems, burning eyes or scratchy throats, said spokeswoman Karen Urbaniak. She said 11 arrived by ambulance, and the rest walked in. More than 60 were discharged by late afternoon, and the handful that remained were in stable condition.
Residents of Paulsboro, West Deptford and East Greenwich Township were told to remain indoors early Friday before an all-clear was given. One resident walked through town Friday morning wearing a gas mask.
By late morning, state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Larry Hajna said sensors were not detecting the chemical at the site.
But by Friday evening, Hersman said, the chemical was detected again, leading to a new evacuation order for areas close to the accident.