Conrail train engineer: ‘My God, the bridge is collapsing!’

Two Conrail locomotive operators testified yesterday that they had carefully inspected a moveable train bridge before it collapsed sending four rail cars into a creek. The derailment punctured one tank car carrying vinyl chloride, which formed a vapor cloud over Paulsboro, N.J. on Nov 30, 2012.

Conrail engineer Mark Mather said the A-frame that straddles the bridge went down. “It fell over like a tree. It was almost instantaneous,” Mather testified. “I said, my God, the bridge is collapsing!”

Tuesday marked the first of a two-day national Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing into the November train derailment in Paulsboro that sent four tank cars into Mantua Creek.

The hearing allowed witnesses to create a narrative timeline for what happened prior to the train accident and later how the Paulsboro police and fire departments handled the aftermath.

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A problem spot

The NTSB’s investigative team has so far found that the Paulsboro bridge had a history of malfunctions, including a total of 24 reported incidents in the year proceeding the accident. Half of those occurrences took place in the month of November between Hurricane Sandy and the date of CSX train accident.

The bridge is left open for marine traffic from Mar 1 through Dec 1. It has a programable logic controller, or PLC, allowing for radio-controlled operation of the bridge’s swing span from a locomotive. A signal light indicates whether or not the bridge’s slide locks are fully driven in place. The bridge also has a warning messaging system broadcast over loudspeaker both announcing and confirming the closure.

“The signal system is the fail safe mode,” stated Conrail’s Vice President and Chief Engineer, Tim Tierney.

Tierney testified that the company was “chasing a problem” during November involving the bridge’s locking mechanism, which was producing a “Failure To Operate” message. Despite having an electrical consultant out twice to the site, the intermittent problem could not be replicated. The bridge was found to be working as intended, he stated.

The electronic consultant recommended that the bridge be closed 10 days ahead of the normal winter shutdown. Tierney said Conrail understood the recommendation, but had determined that the the type of work needed to further troubleshoot the problem would be best done after bridge closed for the season, in order not to disrupt marine and rail traffic.


Last chance to stop

Moments prior to the accident, Mather, who was in the locomotive, attempted to gain a green light by keying in the required pass code. He repeated this six times and the light remained red.

Conrail train conductor WIlbert den Ouden, following normal procedures, got out of the train to inspect the bridge.

But both Den Ouden and his train engineer Mather looked over the bridge and in particular the sliding locks that keep the tracks perfectly aligned.

“I am 100 percent sure that all four were in place. There is no doubt in my mind,” Mather testified, stating that he saw the locks were in place.

Per procedure, Mather said he called the dispatcher for permission to pull the train past the stop signal. The dispatcher approved the request.


6:59 a.m

The train, he said, initially rode over the bridge with no discernible trouble, but then through his side mirror, Mather said he saw the A-frame of the bridge moving side to side then collapse sending four rail cars into the creek.

Mather said he made an emergency radio call to the dispatcher, reporting the bridge collapse and a subsequent vapor trail.


The aftermath

NTSB officials stated that they are particularly interested how first responders handled this accident because any lessons learned here will better prepare them for the future.

One of the top priorities for first responders that morning was trying to determine how dangerous the vapor cloud was.

Although each chemical car is labelled, first responders said they also needed the train’s shipping papers called the consist. These papers include what hazardous chemicals are on board and detailed instructions for first responders in dealing with an accident.

But that morning it took 45 minutes for those papers to get into the right hands. It passed through the chain of command – going from the conductor to the trainmaster, then to Conrail’s Chief Risk Officer, Neil Ferrone before it was shared with Paulsboro first responders. Ferrone said the consist does not exist in any kind of electronic format, only in hard copy.

Identifying what was in a breached railcar is absolutely critical, stated Patrick Robinson, Superintendent of Paulsboro Refinery’s Emergency Services.

Both Conrail train operators den Ouden and Mathers said they told a police officer that there were dangerous chemicals on the train. Despite this, the NTSB investigation indicates that the police continued to report that the vapor was non-toxic.

Paulsboro’s Deputy Fire Chief, Gary Stevenson, who lives next to the site made the first 911 call at 07:01 a.m. Stevenson testified that he put on his fire gear before heading to the scene, but at that time did not have any respiratory protection available. Stevenson said he read the placard with binoculars and had his wife Google the information.

When Fire Chief Alfonso Giampola arrived 15 minutes later, they set up an initial command 50 yards from the accident site and requested assistance from the nearby Paulsboro Refinery and from Gloucester County.

Paulsboro Police Captain Vernon Marino said four officers, also without respiratory protection, were securing the scene with no direct communication. Police operate on one radio channel, the fire department on another. “Early on there was chaos,” Giampola said.

A mandatory evacuation of a three-block area was ordered by police almost a half hour after the accident.

Despite a Emergency Response Guidebook recommendation to evacuate a half-mile downwind of the breached car, Fire Chief Giapola said he decided it was better to issue a shelter in place order.

Paulsboro does not have the resources for mass evacuations, he said.

Evacuation of a half mile would mean moving 3000 people, via three buses, he explained. The town has no handicapped bus. Nearly half of Paulsboro residents are renters, many of whom do not own cars, he said.

The deputy fire chief said public exposure to the vapor cloud was the top concern when calling for the “shelter-in-place” order.

Why he, Stevenson (deputy fire chief) and other first responders were out and about in the chemical fog was a matter of both early confusion about what the vapor was and budgetary constraints for the volunteer fire company, Giampola said. Now everyone has respiratory equipment. It was one of several lessons learned in the aftermath, he noted.

Hearings to continue today

The NTSB will continue its hearings into the Paulsboro derailment, Wednesday at 9 a.m., focusing on hazardous incident management and emergency response. Watch a live stream of the hearing.

Editor’s note: Correctly identifies train operators as Conrail employees. 


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