How the Conrail Derailment Created Life-Changing Crisis Management Experience

It was about 7 am on Friday morning, November 30, 2012, and I was taking the day off. Just as I settled down to a cup of coffee and the newspaper, my cell phone started ringing, and I immediately recognized Conrail’s Chief Risk Officer was trying to reach me. He greeted me with “four tank cars in the Mantua Creek, one breached and a vapor cloud of vinyl chloride is over the town”. The town was Paulsboro, NJ. Over the next fortnight, I learned the meaning of crisis management first hand.

The first thing I did was call our claims department to get folks on the scene to assist those affected. Our CRO had already contacted our emergency response providers. The next thing was to contact our insurance broker to notify our general and property liability towers. I turned on the TV, and aerial pictures of the scene were on every channel (the President was due in town that day across the river at the airport). I called two of our internal lawyers, one who handled media relations and one who managed our environmental litigation to get to Paulsboro as soon as possible. I then jumped in my car to head to our operating headquarters knowing the National Transportation Safety Board would be convening an emergency conference call of all stakeholders to explain the rules of the road for such an incident.

I am a trained commercial lawyer, focusing on litigation and transactions. Never in my 30 years as an attorney had I faced this type of situation; a situation only magnified by social media and the 24-hour news cycle.

When I arrived at our New Jersey offices, I was deluged by phone calls from our corporate owners, wanting to make sure we had sufficient resources. The first thing they did was send a team from a public relations firm to assist us. The next thing I learned was that the U.S. Coast Guard had taken jurisdiction over the incident, wresting it from the NTSB. When I finally got to the general incident site that afternoon, there were already 400-500 people engaged. The USCG had set up an incident command that strictly followed military protocol.

Over the next 24-72 hours, as the Responsible Party, we had to provide enormous financial and human resources to meet the requirements of the Coast Guard. We had to make scores of critical decisions each hour. At one point, we were incurring costs of $1M a day. We had to coordinate and then support an evacuation of 10% of the town; providing hotel rooms, meal vouchers, dog sitters and anything else you could imagine. At the same time, state and federal officials paraded through the command center. The press was omnipresent.

Never in my 30 years as an attorney had I faced this type of situation; a situation only magnified by social media and the 24-hour news cycle.

We also had to try and assemble our own legal team to preserve evidence, begin to conduct an investigation into the incident (the NTSB puts strict limits on any investigatory activities during an active incident). We had to respond to the first lawsuits within 48 hours of the incident as plaintiff’s lawyers jockeyed for control. And, at the same time, we needed to keep our Board of Directors and our insurers constantly apprised of developments.

Anyone who has experienced anything like this endures what becomes a life-changing experience. In many respects, it felt like my entire career had culminated at this moment. In-house counsel serves as the critical linchpin to coordinate and manage all disciplines in what can be an existential crisis for a business.

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