By David Madden and Cleve Bryan

WASHINGTON, D.C. (CBS) — The National Transportation Safety Board is holding two days of hearings in Washington, looking into last November’s derailment of a Conrail freight train in Paulsboro, NJ that sickened about two dozen people and forced half the town to evacuate for several days (see related stories).

Conrail employees told the panel they did everything by the book that day, noting there had been dozens of problems reported at the bridge in the year preceding the derailment and subsequent leak of vinyl chloride — half of them in the 30 days before the accident, just after Hurricane Sandy hit.

“Several of those (problems) were obviously repaired,” said Conrail chief engineer Tim Tierney, “with either debris associated with high water that got jammed in the mechanisms of the bridge as part of the tidal cycle or other repairs to the components.  One was simply a burned-out bulb.”

Train conductor Wilbert Den Ouden testified that after several attempts to make the swing bridge signals operate correctly failed, he and engineer Mark Mather checked to make sure that the bridge was closed and then got the go-ahead from a dispatcher to slowly proceed.

“We go by the bridge, about six or eight cars,” he testified today. “All of the sudden I hear a bang and I look in my side mirror, I see the A-frame actually collapsing, at which time we knew that we derailed.”

Mather, the train engineer, testified that he and Den Ouden then grabbed documents listing what chemicals the train was carrying and leaped off the train in separate directions to warn nearby motorists and schools and to coordinate with first-responders.

The NTSB insists this is a factfinding mission, not an attempt to assess blame. But it was noted that the first-responders did not heed warnings to don protective respirators in the critical opening minutes of the incident.

“We felt we were doing the best things for the residents of Paulsboro,” said Paulsboro fire chief Alfonso Giampola in response.  “Sometimes you wind up taking a little chance on your own that you don’t want to take on your residents.”

CBS3’s Cleve Bryan reports that Irma Stevenson, who lives right next to the bridge that collapsed in Paulsboro, has been listening to the NTSB hearings.

“I want to know what the engineers say happened,” says Stevenson, who had to stay out of her home on Jefferson Street for 17 days.

She wonders about the long-term health effects that she and her husband Walt face because of exposure to chemicals that spilled during the derailment.

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” she says.  “If I have trouble breathing one day, is it because of the chemicals?  I’m a nurse, I’d like to know, and you just don’t know.”

Her neighbor, Samuel Simon, is trying to sell his home after owning the property for more than 40 years.

“I probably lost a lot of value since the accident,” says Simon. “People might not want to live here and worry about the soil.”

Conrail spokesperson Kirk Dorn tells CBS3 that so far the company has received more than 4,000 claim requests. Dorn couldn’t speak to the specifics of any claims or lawsuits against Conrail.

Since the derailment, the bridge is locked in place and no longer swings open. Construction of a new bridge is expected to be complete by fall of 2014.

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