EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WKBN) — Those at the scene of Friday’s train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, are giving their first-hand accounts of the accident. A train, pulling 150-200 cars, derailed Friday around 9 p.m. near the Pennsylvania border. The fire that ensued stretched from one-quarter to one-half mile along the tracks.
Chief Steve Szekely with Mahoning County Hazmat was one of the first responders on the scene, arriving soon after East Palestine firefighters.
“The only way I can describe it is the like the doors of hell were open,” said Szekely. “I mean, it was hot and the flames were shooting up into the air at least 100 feet.”
Several highly flammable materials had been on board but no manifest was readily available for responders.
“We didn’t know what chemicals there were. But once on the scene, we can smell. You can smell it in the air that there was something,” Szekely said.
The images of a half-mile-long trail of fire actually were of burning material pouring out of one of the tank cars, Szekely explained. The fire was moving toward the front of the train until Szekely and a partner were able to stop it from advancing any further.
When Szekely arrived, he was in a tanker with the Springfield Fire Department dealing with a fire that was active and getting worse by the minute. After several hours, he left, only to return Saturday morning as Mahoning County’s Hazmat chief.
“They spend all Saturday there monitoring the air and helping in whatever way they can. We ended up going back down Sunday,” he said.
That was when experts realized the internal temperature of one of the five tank cars carrying vinyl chloride was becoming unstable, causing fears of a catastrophic explosion. It was decided to blow holes in all five cars with explosives and burn off the material — also known as a controlled release.
“That was the worst-case scenario for this type of chemical. So, that’s the last thing that they could do,” Szekely said.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced the plan on Monday morning, telling those in the area to evacuate immediately. There was a risk of an explosion as well as risks from the fumes that may be released into the air.
Following the release of the material, many have complained about smelling chemicals to the north in Mahoning and Trumbull Counties. Teams and equipment have been monitoring the air quality ever since and the readings have been safe.
Szekely calls the experience a once-in-a-lifetime event.