Hundreds evacuated after spill in Willard

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

WILLARD, Ohio — Jeff Feltner said he first knew something was wrong when he couldn’t hear train noise early Wednesday morning from the massive CSX Transportation railroad yard near his home in this southern Huron County city.

When he looked out his window, he saw lights flashing from the tops of vehicles.

Ten minutes later, “here come the police” to tell him he needed to leave, Mr. Feltner recalled Wednesday afternoon while passing the time at Willard High School.

He was sent there, along with hundreds of his neighbors, after a derailment late Tuesday in the CSX yard caused a chemical spill.

About 400 homes on both sides of the tracks, just west of downtown Willard, were evacuated during the wee hours Wednesday after the accident.

About half of a tank car’s 26,000-gallon load of styrene monomer spilled after it and three other railcars derailed.

Officials announced Wednesday evening that the evacuation would continue into today.

Brian Humphress, Willard’s city manager, said that while officials were hopeful that most residents could return sometime today, about 20 homes closest to the accident scene might remain off-limits into Saturday.

CSX provided hotel rooms for evacuees, primarily in Tiffin about 22 miles west of Willard.

But even before the evacuation’s likely duration was announced, the chance of a disrupted Thanksgiving holiday loomed for many.

“Most likely, we’re not going to have Thanksgiving with our family,” Jennifer Barnett predicted Wednesday morning.

She lives on Keefer Street, within the half-mile radius of the accident scene.

“It’s messing our plans up a bit,” agreed Manuel DeLeon Gonzalez.

He had stayed overnight with a friend, but on Wednesday afternoon returned to the high school for a ride to one of the hotels.

Jeri Coburn, a West Sandusky Street resident, said that if she and her family ended up spending the holiday in a hotel, “I’ll just go to Ryan’s or Golden Corral” for dinner — “my little boy likes those.”

Mr. Feltner, who uses a wheelchair or crutches to get around, turned down being taken to a hotel Wednesday morning, thinking the evacuation would be brief.

“There was no sense in going there for a couple hours, then coming back,” he said at midafternoon. “Now I’ve been here 12 hours. I guess I should have taken them up on their offer.”

The accident involved railcars that were being sorted by a switching crew when they somehow jumped the rails on a track near the east end of the yard.

The rail yard sprawls west from the northern edge of Willard’s downtown.

One tank car ended up leaning against an auto-carrier car in a train on a parallel track to the south, but Gary Sease, a CSX spokesman, said he did not know if that was the tank that was breached.

About 12,500 gallons of styrene monomer were believed to have leaked from the damaged tank car, spilling onto ballast rock that supports the tracks.

Styrene is a synthetic, and heavily used, petroleum derivative used in a variety of industrial processes, most notably the manufacture of polystyrene plastics.

It is an oily liquid at room temperature but evaporates quickly and is highly flammable.

It has a slightly sweet odor that was faintly but plainly detectable downwind of the railroad yard Wednesday.

Mr. Sease said at midmorning that the spill had been contained on railroad property, but hours later he said railroad and environmental-protection officials were still determining how the material would be removed, including contaminated soil at the spill site.

Chris Abbruzzese, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokesman, said the cleanup focused first on containment, then removal.

“Anytime you have a spill like this, there is cause for concern,” Mr. Abbruzzese said.

“We have not seen any impact to surface water, and from what I have been told, any air impact has been very minimal. There hasn’t been any immediate threat to humans or the environment.”

Mr. Abbruzzese said the evacuation was ordered “out of an abundance of caution.”

While highly concentrated styrene monomer is an eye and skin irritant, its flammability and the associated risk of an explosion was the main reason for the evacuation, Mr. Humphress said.

Mr. Sease said one rail car coupled to the car that leaked also contained styrene monomer, while another derailed tank car carried butyl acrylate, another highly flammable plastics-related chemical.

The fourth derailed tank car contained corn syrup.

Air monitoring was to continue overnight near the scene while the remaining styrene was pumped from the damaged tank car, followed by ballast and soil cleanup.

Like others, Ms. Barnett and her family were roused by a knock on their door at 2:30 a.m., with a railroad-provided van waiting outside to take them to the high school.

“Everybody had to leave, right then and there,” she said.

Pets had to be left behind, which was one of several causes for anxiety later, along with a lack of sleep.

“I haven’t had but maybe an hour’s sleep,” Ms. Barnett said, noting that the school gym set up as a dormitory was cold, and children were noisy and unsupervised.

Deana Gonzalez, whose Front Street home is next to the tracks, said she and her family slept through authorities coming to their home.

They awoke Wednesday morning to numerous phone messages from her mother inquiring about their whereabouts.

They got a ride to the high school, from which Ms. Gonzalez then arranged with CSX for transportation to Sandusky, where she works at a hotel.

“I work all day Thanksgiving anyway, so I’ll just have my family with me,” she said.

The accident prompted CSX to shut down train traffic through Willard.

While no passenger trains were affected, scores of freight trains that normally enter, exit, or pass by the Willard yard on a normal day were disrupted.

Many are to be held until the evacuation is lifted, while some were diverted onto one or more detour routes bypassing Willard.

The soil cleanup could further disrupt rail operations through Willard until that task’s completion.

Contact David Patch at: or 419-724-6094.