John Mowry of Centerville was drinking coffee Tuesday morning when he heard a “ba-wam” outside his home.
About 200 feet away from his Maple Glenn Road home outside of Fredericktown, a train had broadsided a tanker truck hauling some 4,400 gallons of a corrosive solution of hydrochloric acid as the rig’s driver crossed the tracks about 10:30 a.m., dragging the vehicle about 100 yards south.
“I knew what happened,” Mowry said, alluding to at least five or six other crashes at the nearby railroad crossing in recent years. “We’re kind of used to it, sad to say. And they’re not doing anything to correct the situation.”
Officials said the truck driver was flown by helicopter to a Pittsburgh hospital. Washington County Public Safety Director Jeff Yates wasn’t sure of the extent of the driver’s injuries but said he believed the driver suffered “significant trauma.”
The CSX train’s engineer and conductor were taken to a local hospital for evaluation, according to a statement from Norfolk Southern, which was operating the train under an agreement with CSX.
Six people from nearby homes were evacuated. The residents were expected to return by Tuesday night.
For several hours, a column of white vapor floated above the wreckage as an array of agencies converged on the spot between a closed stretch of Route 88 and the Monongahela River.
Members of the county’s Hazardous Materials Team and workers for Specialized Professional Services Inc. were among those on scene. Yates said officials were trying to make sure none of the contamination had reached beyond the area of the wreck.
“We’ve got crews checking the outfalls to make sure it hasn’t reached the river,” he said. “We don’t think that it has.”
Yates said the acid will cause burns but doesn’t pose a serious danger “as long as you’re not too close to it.”
All of the hydrochloric acid spilled onto the ground and the train was leaking diesel fuel, East Bethlehem fire Chief Mark Giovanelli said.
For Mowry, this was a departure from previous crashes at the crossing near his home. He started smelling fumes, prompting him to call 911.
“There was just a big cloud of white smoke down there,” he said of the hydrochloric acid. “The whole valley filled up with vapors.”
He said firefighters initially attempted to evacuate the neighborhood, but the crash site was blocking the only way out. Emergency responders instead asked residents to close all windows and doors while sheltering in place. Before that, though, Mowry said he saw the tanker driver being transported from the scene by medical helicopter and the two train workers were loaded into an ambulance after inhaling some of the chemical fumes.
Some of the acid released from the tanker was eating the asphalt, he said.
“The street is bubbling,” Mowry said.
Lt. Shawn Simeral of the U.S. Coast Guard said the branch’s station in Pittsburgh was notified of the incident partly because of a national response and “partly because of the river,” which didn’t seem to be impacted.
He said the Environmental Protection Agency is the lead agency involved in the incident, and the Coast Guard is on standby if needed.
The state Department of Environmental Protection sent several staff members to the scene and was working with the Fish and Boat Commission to monitor the Monongahela River and downstream area for pH levels. Water companies that take water from the river downstream have been notified, a DEP news release said. The cleanup contractor was putting lime on impacted area to neutralize the acid. As of 3 p.m., the river had not been impacted.
Route 88 is closed between Barney’s Run and Ridge roads and is expected to remain closed today while the cleanup continues.
Norfolk Southern spokesman Jonathan Glass said the truck pulled out in front of the southbound train, which included three locomotives and 102 empty coal cars, at a marked crossing.
“Norfolk Southern’s top priority is ensuring the safety of its employees, the community, and emergency first responders,” he added.
The names of the truck’s owner and the warehouse to which it was traveling were not immediately known.