CENTERVILLE, Pa. — Crews on Wednesday are continuing the process of cleaning up after a crash between a train and a tanker truck that was hauling hydrochloric acid in Washington County.
Clouds of acidic gas stymied emergency responders arriving at the scene of the violent crash on Tuesday that closed Route 88 for about 12 hours.
The train, carrying diesel fuel, smashed into the truck hauling one to two thousand gallons of hydrochloric acid just before 11 a.m. in Centerville. The impact carried the truck 100 yards down the rails before it stopped.
“Probably half or less spilled from the truck we are estimating, between one (thousand) and two thousand gallons,” said East Bethlehem Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mark Giovanelli.
The truck driver, who officials said made a left turn off of Route 88 directly in front of the train, was taken by helicopter to a Pittsburgh hospital with serious traumatic injuries. Two people on the train were taken to hospitals by ambulance. Their injuries are minor.
“The wind was blowing in the direction the responders were coming in,” said Jeff Yates, director of county public safety. “They had to back off until the wind shifted.”
Eight other people were treated at the scene for exposure to the acid.
Hazmat crews worked hard to prevent acid and diesel fuel from getting in the waterway.
The train, owned by CSX, was being operated by a Norfolk Southern crew as part of an operational agreement for that stretch of rail along the Monongahela River. That proximity had hazmat crews scrambling to prevent the acid and diesel fuel from getting into the waterway.
“We are dealing with a hazardous material incident plus we have diesel fuel leaking from the train,” said fire Chief Mark Giovanelli.
Officials said cleanup will take at least a day, if not more. Some of the rail may need to be replaced after being exposed to the acid.
Gov. Tom Wolf said he is monitoring the situation.
“The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency is engaged and working with county emergency personnel to ensure the continued safety of residents in the area,” he said in a statement.
County personnel went door to door and evacuated some homes and a business nearby as the acid billowed into the air. Six residents and a couple of pets were taken to East Bethlehem Volunteer Fire Department to wait for the dangerous gas to clear.
“The street underneath the train was bubbling,” said Jack Mowry, who lives next to the tracks, about 100 yards from where the crash happened. “It was eating the asphalt up. It's some strong chemical.”
Channel 11 News crews could smell the gas before they got to the scene. Residents who were nearby when the crash happened were complaining of headaches and upset stomachs.
“Now this isn't the first time this has happened, so I'm familiar with the screeching of the brakes and the slamming of the train,” Mowry said.
Officials will hook an engine to the train and crews will decontaminate it as it passes by to neutralize any chemical runoff. But some residents want to see a proactive effort to reduce accidents in the area.
“If they put a blinking light, if nothing else, a blinking light there, it would help,” said Charles Sheury.
Don Lloyd, a truck driver from Altoona who also hauls hydrochloric acid, was working nearby when the collision happened.
“I heard the crash behind me. I looked in my mirrors – it was just terrible,” he said.
Lloyd knew instantly what the situation was when he smelled the acid in the air.
"Very bitter in the lungs and dry," he said. "It's very nasty."
He rushed to the scene to give the driver of the truck in the crash an oxygen mask to protect him from the acid clouds.
“I grabbed my safety gear and ran to check on the driver,” he said. “I took my respirator off and handed it to him. Unfortunately, he dropped it; we had to run and get him another one.”
© 2020 Cox Media Group