A CSX engineer and conductor suffered physical injuries and possible chemical burns when their locomotive crashed into railcars parked on a side track outside a dye plant in Martin, South Carolina (SC). The train accident occurred at around 2 am on January 27, 2015. Investigators from agencies ranging from the National Transportation Safety Board and the SC Emergency Management Agency to the FBI arrived quickly. Officials initially treated the incident as a possible crime and a potential environmental disaster because the train in service got on the wrong track and the collision released significant amounts of what is believed to be hydrochloric acid.
The State newspaper noted that this accident and chemical spill “has similarities to the disastrous train wreck in Aiken County a decade ago this month. Nine people died after a speeding Norfolk Southern train ran off a main track and crashed into parked train cars, causing deadly chlorine to spill.” Some of the deaths resulting from that earlier train wreck and hazmat incident occurred because victims breathed in chlorine gas. The CSX engineer and conductor taken to the hospital from the Martin crash scene reported experiencing difficulty breathing.
Hydrochloric acid gives off poisonous fumes that burn the lining of the mouth, throat and lungs. Fortunately, the CSX collision and derailment happened in a rural area where few people could get exposed to harmful liquid or airborne chemicals. Clean up may take days, but no evacuations were deemed necessary to protect people's safety.
Any time a train misses a track switch, tragedy can follow. The risks for misreading signals or encountering a switch left open inadvertently rise significantly when trains operate in rail yards or get onto and off of trunk lines. Clear and continuous communication and cooperation between crews and track workers become essential. Perhaps the accident in Martin represents nothing more than a lapse in attention to detail. If, however, radios were not working or dispatchers gave unclear instructions or the engineer failed to maintain proper control due to fatigue or impairment, the specific error or act of negligence must be identified and corrected.
My Carolina railroad accident law firm colleagues and I wish the injured CSX workers full and rapid recoveries. We also hope that valuable lessons can be learned from this accident and applied to prevent similar incidents in the future.