Systemic errors led to a 2012 train derailment in New Jersey that released a dangerous gas into the air, sickening residents and emergency responders, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday in a scathing report.
The NTSB faulted Conrail for continuing to open and close the swinging bridge where the accident occurred despite a consultant's recommendation not to.
The board also criticized Conrail and state and local officials for the way they handled their emergency response.
NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said in the meeting in Washington that he often describes emergency responses as "organized chaos."
"On this day, there was chaos, but it certainly was not organized," he said.
The NTSB issued a list of 20 recommendations to prevent similar accidents and improve the emergency response.
Seven cars derailed on Nov. 30, 2012, as the train began crossing a swinging bridge Paulsboro, an industrial town across the Delaware River from Philadelphia International Airport. Four of them plunged into Mantua Creek below, and one tanker was punctured, releasing 20,000 gallons of vinyl chloride — a gas used in industrial processes that has been linked to respiratory problems, dizziness or even death.
Twenty emergency responders sought medical treatment as did scores of people who lived near the site. Several lawsuits have been filed in the aftermath.
Officials in Paulsboro said their emergency management officers were in Washington for Tuesday's hearings. Those officials did not immediately return messages.
Conrail issued a statement saying it takes the findings and recommendations seriously and "will implement all appropriate measures." The company also says it is doing more to work with first responders.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, said in a statement Tuesday that he is evaluating whether laws are needed to address any of the issues raised in the report, which he said "deeply troubled" him.
Tuesday's report found that the accident could have been prevented.
The NTSB concluded there had been troubles reported on the bridge 23 times in the year before, including 11 times in the month before. The complaints began soon after Superstorm Sandy brought high winds to the area.
In the weeks before the accident, a consultant called in by Conrail had recommended keeping the bridge in its locked position — leaving it open to trains but closing the creek below to boat traffic.
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