Railroad company gave fire chief 13 minutes to decide on vent and burn in Ohio vinyl chloride incident
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The East Palestine fire chief told investigators probing a Norfolk Southern derailment that the railroad gave him 13 minutes to decide whether to vent and burn carloads of hazardous vinyl chloride — a timeline he said left him feeling “blindsided”, as reported by the Washington Post.
The decision to vent and burn off the hazardous materials was the best decision Fire Chief Keith Drabick felt he could make at the time, with the information he had. While few in the fire community would perhaps disagree with his decision, the public has had a range of more or less heated opinions on both the initial response, and how the authorities have handled the situation afterwards.
The decision to vent and burn was seen as controversial - but making a different decision may possibly have led to similar - or worse - outcomes to the local residents. With only 13 minutes to make a decision, many factors are naturally weighed against each other, and few would envy an incident commander the intense pressure of having to make such a rapid decision based on often insufficient information.
What we know is that an already serious derailment in early February turned into a national event which became the backdrop for weeks of culture war battles, and which generated apocalyptic images of thick black smoke spewing over the small Ohio community.
It also sparked an intense debate over the level of resources available for fire brigades in small communities to respond to chemical accidents - something which statistically occurs so rarely that those responsible for budgets seldom will justify the spending on equipment or training for every fire station along a hazmat transport route.
Chief Keith Drabick’s new account was released as the National Transportation Safety Board began two days of hearings in East Palestine, questioning witnesses and sharing almost 5,000 pages of records. The hearings — the first of their kind since 2017 — and documents provide the most detailed account yet of the derailment and emergency response, including witness transcripts and testimony revealing deep confusion that persisted in the days after the incident.
Photo Credit: An explosives contractor prepares for the vent and burn of vinyl chloride in this image included in NTSB documents released Thursday. (NTSB)