‘We Had All the Issues That Town Has:’ East Palestine Is Not the First or Last Derailment Disaster

Before a freight train derailed in East Palestine, causing national furor and sparking conspiracy theories and endless news cycles, there Was Sibley, Iowa and Hyndman, Pennsylvania.
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Ken Huls, the fire chief of Sibley, Iowa, a town of about 3,000 people in the northwest corner of Iowa, was just sitting down for his son’s high school graduation in the high school gymnasium when his pager went off. A Union Pacific train had derailed about 1,000 feet outside the town limit. It was 2:05 p.m. on Sunday, May 16, 2021.

Huls stepped into the lobby without disturbing the procession of newly-minted graduates in cap and gowns, he told Motherboard in a recent interview, to find out more about the derailment and whether he’d really have to leave his son’s graduation to deal with it. Train derailments happen; there were 35 in Iowa in 2020 and 53 in 2019, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, but most of those occur in rail yards or sidings where they are likely to be minor. But still, major derailments happen surprisingly frequently. According to the Federal Railroad Administration’s accident reporting database, there were 14 main line derailments in 2019 in Iowa alone and 251 nationwide, or one every 35 hours.


When Huls heard, as he recalled, that there was “lots of smoke and derailed cars,” he knew it was serious. He walked outside and turned to face west, where the derailment occurred relative to the gymnasium. The entire horizon was “solid black” with smoke.

“Oh crap,” Huls remembered thinking to himself. “This is going to be a long week.”

In many ways, Sibley was a preview of East Palestine, Ohio, the train derailment that sparked an evacuation and widespread concerns about air, water, and soil contamination. Less than two years before international media focused its attention on the small Ohio town, Sibley experienced many of the same hardships: forced evacuations, contaminated soil and water, physical symptoms among some residents, and an uncertain future. But the biggest difference, as Huls tells it, was not anything to do with the derailment itself, but the attention it got. The only news crews that showed up in Sibley were local outlets.

“I see all these things going on in this little town in Ohio, and all this publicity on the matter, and why?” Huls told Motherboard. “We had all the issues that town has.”

Like the train that derailed in East Palestine, the one in Sibley was carrying a host of hazardous materials. Of the 47 cars that derailed, three immediately burst into flames. Two of those cars contained aviation fuel, the third liquid asphalt, according to a presentation given to the Iowa Department of Homeland Security.. Aside from those three, seven more cars contained various hazardous materials, including sulfur and hydrochloric acid which was forming a fog that made it difficult to breathe. Another car contained potassium hydroxide, which is highly corrosive and can cause severe burns. Both the hydrochloric acid and potassium hydroxide spilled out of the car. The train derailed adjacent to a small body of water called Otter Creek, which emergency crews dammed within a few hours.


Liquid asphalt and jet fuel burns incredibly hot, so it was difficult for the firefighters to get close enough to the non-burning cars to identify what was inside. Even if they could get close enough, many of the hazardous material decals had melted in the heat and train car identifiers were placed assuming the cars were in a row and right-side up, not piled in a heap and on fire. As a result, it took Huls and his crew time to learn what was inside the derailed cars and what risks they posed. About 45 minutes after the initial call, they learned one of the rail cars possibly contained ammonium nitrate. 

When I asked Huls why that was important, he said, “when you mix that with burning fuel, think of the Oklahoma City bombing all over again.”

That was when they ordered about half of Sibley to evacuate. Huls also ordered first responders a half-mile away from the site.

Huls is the first to say that Sibley got very lucky that day. For one, the winds were carrying the smoke and hydrochloric acid away from most of the town and the first responders. Also, the train was just a few hundred feet from a car dealership, a lumber yard, and a grain elevator. Instead, the train fell into a recently-tilled corn field. And, most importantly, about three hours after they first learned a car might contain ammonium nitrate, they got an update from Union Pacific: the car had recently been emptied.


Although the wind was mostly avoiding the town, a small corner did get some downwind fumes. About 50 to 100 people experienced tingling sensations in their mouths and bad odors before they were evacuated. The fire took almost 30 hours to burn itself out. After about 48 hours, people were allowed to return to their homes, but it took almost a year to remove the chemicals from the ground and ensure the water in the creek was safe. Huls says the town finally put the last of its remediation efforts to rest in October, almost 18 months after the derailment. The cause of the Sibley derailment is still unknown.

The scare left a lasting impression on Huls. “You’re going from a Sunday afternoon at a graduation,” he said, “to suddenly your town is going to blow up.”

Sibley was hardly the only warning that something like East Palestine was likely, perhaps even inevitable. On August 2, 2017, a CSX train in Hydman, Pennsylvania, derailed just before 5 a.m. and three cars containing molten asphalt, molten sulfur, and propane exploded, destroying three homes and forcing about 1,000 people to evacuate for several days. Miraculously, no one was hurt, but it was a close call. The tracks in Hyndman go directly through town; if the derailment had occurred just a few hundred feet further, it would have been catastrophic. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the cause of the derailment was improper use of hand brakes on empty cars combined with putting too many empty cars at the front of a long, heavy train, a practice that violates many longstanding railroading principles but has become increasingly common as the railroad companies prioritize keeping trains moving to make more money.

Travis Leap, the current mayor of Hyndman, has long been concerned about hazardous trains, he told Motherboard. He lives right next to the tracks, so close that he can see the hazardous material decals as the trains pass by. “As they pass my window, I look at the numbers, and I look in the books” that decode the numbers, he said. “And it’s terrifying. Because if there’s a derailment, we’re all dead. There’s nothing you can do about it.”

Leap is serving his second term as mayor. His first was from 2010 to 2013. He was replaced by Newt Huffman, who served during the derailment and died last year. Leap took over soon afterwards. By coincidence, Leap happened to be in Connecticut visiting family when the derailment happened. When he saw the news about the East Palestine derailment, he said it was “not surprising.” Ever since their close call, he figured it was only a matter of time until it happened somewhere.

I asked Huls, the Sibley fire chief, if he thought more attention to his derailment might have prevented something similar happening in Ohio. He said it was possible, but hard to say given he still doesn’t know why the train in Sibley derailed. But, according to the NTSB, the first responders on East Palestine also struggled to identify the contents of the rail cars due to the melting placards. Perhaps, Huls said, that could have been fixed.

When I asked Huls how different Sibley’s derailment was from East Palestine’s, he was so eager to answer I couldn’t even finish the question. “It’s not. It’s not.”