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NTSB Launches Investigation Into Freight Train Derailment

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By Robin Rieger and Cherri Gregg

PAULSBORO, N.J. (CBS) – Crews prepared to remove the vinyl chloride on board a train car Saturday night that landed in the Mantua Creek after seven cars derailed crossing the Conrail train bridge in Paulsboro, New Jersey Friday.

Two other cars are carrying vinyl chloride. The one in the creek has a hole in it. Fumes sent 86 people to the hospital for treatment before being released.

VIEW: Photos From The Scene

Some workers at a nearby store say they still feel some effects.

“It’s just irritation of the eyes”, says Kimmi Noel, who works at the nearby Heritages.

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said investigators wont be able to inspect the derailment site until its cleaned up, but says interviews with employees indicate the train crossed the bridge with approval from dispatch even though the signal at the bridge crossing was red. The bridge appeared to be closed.

“This is an unusual position for them to see the bridge in at that time. They would have expected to see the bridge in an open position”, Hersman said.

Hersman says the movable swing bridge normally stays open for boat traffic to pass through and closes when the train engineer or conductor keys in a code on his radio.

“They keyed in the signal that they need to send to the bridge looking for a clear signal looking for a green proceed signal on the bridge…they didn’t get that”, Hersman said.

Hersman says they didn’t get it after three more attempts and a walking inspection of the bridge by the conductor.

“He called dispatch over the radio and he received approval to cross the bridge and pass that red signal”, she said.

“I’m not an engineer, but I know red means don’t go”, said New Jersey State Assemblyman John Burzichelli. “I was surprised and those attending that briefing were equally surprised that this early in the discussion of what occurred that there was a clear decision made to overide the red signal on that bridge.”

In addition to inspection reports, structural drawings and other information from Conrail, the NTSB is now requesting records of any other signal problems at the bridge.

The NTSB has requested all radio dispatch tapes be preserved.

Conrail, as the owner of the tracks and bridge according to the NTSB, is responsible for all inspections, dispatch and maintenance.

The train had a total of 82 cars, 14 of which were empty. Only four cars and two locomotives made it across before the derailment.

NTSB Investigators say they expect to be on the scene at least a week.

Hersman says there may have been some clues that there was a problem on the bridge before it collapsed. The NTSB says there are lots of questions, including what happened during the 2009 collapse and repair.

The bridge speed limit is ten miles per hour. Recordings show the train was going eight miles per hour.

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