Ohio train derailment: Aftermath of trauma
East Palestine, Ohio –
Heather Bable speaks quickly as she recalls the horror of the night a train loaded with dangerous chemicals derailed a half-mile from her home in East Palestine, Ohio. She heard a shocking boom and from her bathroom window “all you saw was fire”.
His mind raced to the nearest gas station, gas pumps, diesel and propane tanks.
“I kind of kept myself under control, I told my children. “Alright guys, we gotta go,” Babel says. “… The only thing I knew was that I had to get my children to safety. Take only what you need and get out of there.”
Her voice is catchy, tears welling up in tired eyes as she describes the physical and emotional toll after the February 3 disaster and the chemical burns that followed; eight days in a hotel and a restless return home. hoarseness, congestion, nausea, and an itchy rash; unscheduled doctor visits; “the god-awful smell” that disturbs him at night; Anger at the Norfolk Southern railway company over the accident and government agencies he believes were too slow to respond.
And constant fear. breathe air, drink water, let my 8-year-old son play outside. Fear for East Palestine, where his family has lived for four generations. Now, at 45, Babel wants to move. Also his mother who has been here longer.
“We don’t feel safe anymore,” says Babel at Sprinklz On Top, a cozy eatery in the city. He takes out a bottle of water from his jacket pocket and takes a sip. He won’t be drinking from the tap these days.
He glances at a smartphone app that reports the local air quality. “Just a few days ago, when it was so beautiful, I didn’t dare open my windows because I didn’t want the air to come in,” he said.
Bale took a leave of absence from his factory job to find somewhere else to live.
“He likes to be in the yard,” she says, pointing to her son Ashton.
“Now we can’t do that… I’m afraid to even cut that grass because what’s left in the ground, it’s just not right.”
Heather Bable and her son Ashton pose for a photo at Sprinklz On Top restaurant on February 25, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Flesher)
Bailey’s plight mirrors that of many in this village of 4,700 near the Pennsylvania line a month after 38 train cars derailed. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board blamed an overheated wheel bearing.
Several trucks were carrying hazardous chemicals that caught fire or spilled. Days later, after thousands of nearby residents were evacuated, crews vented and burned toxic vinyl chloride from five vehicles to prevent an uncontrolled explosion that sent another plume of black into the sky.
Fear and mistrust still grip many in a community reeling from government assurances that the air and water are safe; Activists like Erin Brockovich warn of cover-ups and the danger for years to come. and social media misinformation.
“It’s hard to know what the truth is,” Cory Hoffmeister, 34, said after Brockovich and attorneys seeking plaintiffs for the trial hosted a packed high school gathering that highlighted the potential health risks.
The anger against the rail company, which has been widely condemned for failing to prevent the disaster and doing little in the aftermath, is palpable. A married couple recently sold yard signs reading “Together We Stand Against South Norfolk” from a sidewalk table to benefit the fire department. Business was brisk.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw expressed regret and promised a thorough cleanup.
Sherry Bable, 64, stands at a road barrier, keeping pedestrians away from the derailment. His house is just down the street. Heather lives with Ashton and her 25-year-old daughter, Paige, a few blocks away.
“Every time I hear a train, I just think: “Oh my God, don’t let anything happen this time,” Sherry says. “And I’m not the only one in town like that.”
He gazes sadly at Sulfur Run, a stream near the railway. Once a popular place to surf, it is now among the waterways receiving “KEEP OUT” signs during testing and cleanup.
Like her daughter, Sherry checks her phone for air quality data and images from a home camera trained on the street. It attracts trucks, bulldozers and other vehicles entering and exiting the site. Nearly 4.85 million gallons (18.36 million liters) of liquid sewage and 2,980 tons (2,703.41 metric tons) of soil were removed, Gov. Mike DeWine’s office said.
“That railroad company has to buy all these houses, tear them down, get the families with the kids first, get the old people out, then work with everybody else,” Beble said. “Because I still say this stuff is going to cause cancer.”
A scene Friday, Feb. 24, 2023, as cleanup continues at the site of the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment that occurred Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio. (AP Photo/Matt Freed, File)
Federal agencies say long-term exposure to vinyl chloride, mostly through inhalation, is associated with an increased risk of certain cancers. But experts say living near a spill doesn’t necessarily increase the risk. Establishing links between individual cases and pollutants is difficult.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says Norfolk Southern has not yet disclosed exactly how much vinyl chloride was released. The EPA has monitored the air at 29 outdoor stations and tested it in more than 600 homes without finding vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride, a skin, eye and nose irritant that can form when vinyl chloride burns. It ordered Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins that may have been released during the February burn.
Researchers at Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon University say their own sampling from the mobile lab found chemicals including vinyl chloride and acrolein; A foul-smelling, possibly carcinogenic substance that can form when fuel, wood, and plastics are burned.
Most readings fell below minimal risk levels for people less than a year old. But in some places, acrolein levels were high enough to raise long-term health concerns, said Albert Presto, a research professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon.
The EPA said its measurements temporarily recorded slightly higher concentrations of acrolein, but did not consider them to be a health risk.
Ohio Health Director Bruce Vanderhoff said in February that foul odors and symptoms such as headaches can be caused by air pollutants well below hazardous levels.
State officials also said no contaminants linked to the derailment were found in the city’s water supply or in 136 private wells. Norfolk Southern plans to conduct soil sampling, prioritizing agricultural land.
None of this appeases Bubbles.
After staying at the hotel for over a week, Sherry returned home. The next morning, he had congestion, a hoarse throat and itchy eyes, she said.
Since then, she has had irritating red patches on her skin, headaches and a “gloomy” substance in her eyes.
Heather, who was interviewed three weeks after the accident, showed off selfies of the red marks on her face and neck. The night before, he was awakened by a strong “burnt plastic” stench. The smells get worse at night as the cleanup continues, he says.
Both the women and Heather’s children have seen doctors. X-rays showed Sherry’s lungs were clear. Both are awaiting blood test results, but say their doctors weren’t sure what to look for.
“That’s one thing I hate about this,” Sherry says. “No one really gets any answers.”
Officials say they are trying to provide them.
The state has opened a free clinic where residents undergo medical examinations and meet with mental health specialists and a toxicologist. State and federal teams also distributed more than 2,200 informational flyers, according to the EPA, which has an information center in the city.
Ted Larson, an epidemiologist with the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and Vidisha Parasram of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were among federal and state teams knocking on area doors, leaving fliers inviting residents to take a health assessment;
Larson and Parasram say they smelled chemicals near the railroad tracks the day they arrived and don’t suspect residents’ health concerns.
“My daughter is 9 years old,” said Parasram. “I wish I could fly him out of here and take him far, far away.”
The Ohio Department of Health is also seeking health research participants. His questionnaire asks people about their proximity to the accident and how long, what smells they remember, physical and mental symptoms, and more.
In at least 320 studies completed, officials say leading symptoms include headaches, restlessness, cough, fatigue and skin irritation.
Heather wants to move out of the danger zone. But his search for another house or apartment leads nowhere. He says many places are taking advantage of the situation and “charging double or triple what we’re paying.”
He recalls growing up in East Palestine, a blue-collar community in the Appalachian foothills an hour northwest of Pittsburgh. Before the derailment, he thought it was perfect for a family.
“It was peaceful,” he says. “You can go to balls. You can let the children out to play, and at night you would be outside and hear crickets and frogs. People were friendly.”
The local economy appeared to be recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Now this happened … and it just went backwards,” he says. “People don’t want to come here, they’re afraid.”
Sherry and her husband are also considering leaving.
Her living room is stocked with bottled water, and she’s replaced her dog’s dishes, toys and bedding. Now he mostly keeps them under wraps.
But while he’s around, he’s determined to hold the railroad company and the government accountable. “They think we’re … small-town tricks,” he says.
“They keep telling us that the air quality is good here. Now I’d like to see them come down here living in the houses, especially right behind the crash site, see how they like it and how safe they feel.”
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