Trauma Remains After Ohio Derailment End-shutdown

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (AP) — Heather Bable speaks rapidly, recalling the terror of the night when a train loaded with dangerous chemicals derailed less than half a mile from his home in East Palestine, Ohio. She heard an earth-shaking rumble and, from her bathroom window, “all she saw was the flames.”

He thought of the nearby service station, its gasoline pumps, its diesel and propane tanks.

“I kept myself in check, I told my kids, ‘Okay guys, we have to go,’” Bable says. “… The only thing he knew was that he had to take my children to a safe place. Take only the necessary things and get out of there.

Her voice cracks, tears welling in her tired eyes, as she describes the physical and emotional toll that followed the February 3 disaster and subsequent chemical burning: eight days in a hotel and an uneasy ride home; hoarseness, congestion, nausea, and itchy rashes; including doctor visits; the “awful smell” that disturbs her at night; anger at the Norfolk Southern railway company over the accident and government agencies that she believes responded too slowly.

And constant fear: breathing the air, drinking water, letting her 8-year-old play outside. Fear for Eastern Palestine, where her family has lived for four generations. Now at 45, Bable is eager to move. Also his mother, who has been here even longer.

“We don’t feel safe anymore,” says Bable at Sprinklz On Top, a cozy downtown restaurant. She takes a bottle of water from her jacket pocket and takes a sip. She won’t drink from the faucet these days.

Look at a smartphone app that reports local air quality. “Just a couple of days ago, when it was so beautiful, I didn’t dare open the windows because I didn’t want the air to come in,” he said.

Bable took a leave of absence from his factory job to find another place to live.

“He loves being in the garden,” she says, pointing to her son, Ashton.

“Now, we can’t do that. … I’m even afraid to cut that grass, because what is still left on the ground? It’s just not right.”


Bable’s plight is similar to that of many in this town of 4,700 near the Pennsylvania line a month after 38 train cars derailed. A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board blamed an overheated wheel bearing.

Several tank cars were carrying dangerous chemicals that caught fire or spilled. Days later, after evacuating thousands of nearby residents, crews vented and burned toxic vinyl chloride of five cars to prevent an uncontrolled explosion, sending another black column into the sky.

Fear and mistrust still grip many in a community battered by government assurances that the air and water are safe; warnings from activists like Erin Brockovich of cover-ups and dangers in the coming years; and social networks disinformation.

“It’s hard to know what the truth is,” Cory Hofmeister, 34, said after Brockovich and lawyers seeking plaintiffs organized a packed meeting in high school that highlighted potential health risks.

The outrage against the railway company, widely condemned for failing to prevent the disaster and doing very little afterwards, is palpable. Recently, a married couple sold yard signs reading, “Together We Stand Against Norfolk Southern,” placed on a sidewalk table to benefit the fire department. Business was fast.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw expressed regret and promised a thorough cleanup.


Sherry Bable, 64, stands near the barricade preventing onlookers from approaching the site of the derailment. Her house is at the end of the street. Heather lives a couple of blocks away with Ashton and her 25-year-old daughter Paige.

“Every time I hear a train, all I keep thinking is, ‘My God, don’t let anything happen this time,’” Sherry says. “And I’m not the only one in town like that.”

She looks sadly at Sulfur Run, a stream near the railroad. Formerly a popular wading spot, it is now among waterways receiving “KEEP OUT” signs amid testing and cleanup.

Like her daughter, Sherry checks her phone for air quality data and images from a home camera focused on the street. She captures trucks, bulldozers, and other vehicles going in and out of the area. Nearly 4.85 million gallons (18.36 million liters) of liquid sewage and 2,980 tons (2,703.41 metric tons) of soil have been removed, the governor said. She says Mike DeWine’s office.

“That railway company should buy all these houses, tear them down, get families that have children first, get the old people out, and then work with everyone else,” says Bable. “Because I keep saying this is going to cause cancer.”


Federal agencies say that prolonged exposure to vinyl chloride, primarily through inhalation, is associated with an increased risk of some types of cancer. But experts say living near a spill doesn’t necessarily elevate your risk. It is difficult to demonstrate links between individual cases and contaminants.

The US Environmental Protection Agency says Norfolk Southern has yet to report exactly how much vinyl chloride was released. The EPA is monitoring the air at 29 outdoor stations and tested it inside more than 600 homes, finding no vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride, a skin, eye, and nose irritant that can be generated when burn vinyl chloride. Ordered Norfolk Southern to dioxin testwhich may have been released during the February cremation.

University researchers from Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon say their own sampling from a mobile lab picked up chemicals including vinyl chloride and acrolein, a probable foul-smelling carcinogen that can form during the burning of fuels, wood and plastics.

Most of the readings fell below the minimum risk levels for people exposed for less than a year. But acrolein levels were high enough in some places to cause long-term health problems, said Albert Presto, a Carnegie Mellon research professor of mechanical engineering.

The EPA said its measurements temporarily registered slightly elevated acrolein concentrations, but it did not consider them a health risk.

Bruce Vanderhoff, Ohio health director, said in february that bad odors and symptoms such as headaches can be caused by air pollutants at levels well below what is unsafe.

State officials also say no contaminants associated with the derailment were found in the municipal water supply or in 136 private wells. Norfolk Southern plans to take soil samples, with priority on farmland.

None of that reassures the Bables.

After more than a week in a hotel, Sherry returned home. The next morning, she had congestion, a hoarse throat and itchy eyes, she said.

Since then, she has had irritating red patches on her skin, headaches, and “sticky” substance in her eyes.

Heather, interviewed three weeks after the accident, showed selfies with red spots on her face and neck. The night before, a strong stench of “burning plastic” woke her up. The odors are worse at night, as she continues the cleanup job, she says.

Both women, and Heather’s children, have seen doctors. An X-ray showed that Sherry’s lungs were clear. Both await blood test results, but say their doctors weren’t sure what to look for.

“That’s something I hate about this,” Sherry says. “No one is really getting any answers.”

Officials say they are trying to provide them.

The state has opened a free clinic where residents receive medical exams and meet with mental health specialists and a toxicologist. State and federal teams have 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 doors in the area, leaving fliers saying residents were invited to take a health check. assessment.

Larson and Parasram say they smelled chemicals near the railroad the day they arrived and don’t doubt the residents’ health concerns.

“My daughter is 9 years old,” Parasram said. “I’d like to get her out of here and take her far, far away.”

The Ohio Department of Health is also seeking participants for the health survey. Their questionnaire asks people about their proximity to the accident and for how long, what kind of smells they remembered, physical and mental symptoms, and more.

With at least 320 surveys completed, officials said the main symptoms include headaches, anxiety, coughing, fatigue and skin irritation.


Heather wants to get out of the danger zone. But her search for another house or apartment is going nowhere. She says that many places are taking advantage of the situation and “are charging double or triple what we are paying.”

He remembers growing up in Eastern Palestine, a blue-collar community in the foothills of the Appalachians, an hour northwest of Pittsburgh. Before the derailment, he considered it perfect for a family.

“It was peaceful,” she says. “You could go to the ball games. You could leave the kids outside to play and you would be outside at night and you would be listening to the crickets, the frogs. The people were friendly.”

The local economy appeared to be recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now this happened…and it just went back down,” she says. “People don’t want to come here. They’re scared.”

Sherry and her husband are also considering leaving.

Her living room is stocked with pallets of bottled water, and she replaced her dogs’ dishes, toys, and bedding. She mostly keeps them indoors now.

But as long as she is around, she is determined to hold the railway company and the government accountable. “They think we’re… small-town,” she says.

“They keep telling us it’s okay down here, the air quality. Now, I’d like to see them come here living in houses, especially right behind the crash site, see how they like it and how safe they feel.”

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