Anxiety in East Palestine as Residents Await Controlled Explosion

EDITOR’S NOTE: Deanne Johnson is a longtime resident of East Palestine and a Business Journal reporter. She filed this first-person account this afternoon.

EAST PALESTINE – East Palestine is holding its breath Monday afternoon as a controlled explosion and burn is planned for five of the train cars involved in a Friday night derailment.

During a press conference Monday afternoon, Gov. Mike DeWine and officials from Norfolk Southern and the Ohio EPA joined local officials to detail plans to blow holes in five tanks containing vinyl chloride. If things go well, the explosions planned for 3:30 p.m. will release gas into the air. Pointing to a map with a red zone and a yellow zone, DeWine noted those in the red zone could face death, and those in the yellow zone could face serious injuries.

Officials have knocked on doors and are hopeful everyone is out of the area.

With fears of explosions and toxic gas choking the air, houses on nearly the entire east side of East Palestine and into Pennsylvania were dark as residents evacuated Monday morning.

As I left town following a knock at the door from a state trooper while I was in the shower this morning, houses were all dark. Vinyl chloride, a chemical few had heard of before Friday night’s train derailment, has the potential to change the lives and landscape of town forever.

Residents and all their pets have moved in with relatives and friends across town and across the county or taken to nearby hotels. Families are staying on cots at East Palestine High School. Businesses on the east side of town have been forced to shutter, and employees have been left without a place to go.

Firefighters from three states responded Friday night but were eventually told to push back after monitors were set up on the train cars. Late Sunday, the worst fears of those who know about vinyl chloride were realized. The fail system on one of the train cars was no longer handling the situation, and the temperature was rising, making it potentially explosive.

A new round of evacuation orders for the 1-mile radius went out with threats of arrest for those who didn’t comply.

From the beginning, many of us were counting our blessings that no one was killed or even injured with a reported 50 Norfolk-Southern railcars leaving the tracks and the fire that happened. Police and firefighters responded immediately, doing what they always do, heading into danger to protect the rest of us. No buildings reportedly caught fire, only the piled-up, twisted train cars.

Evacuation area. (Office of Gov. Mike DeWine)

Due to the concerns of my husband, a police lieutenant, I evacuated Friday night, driving the police K-9 out of town and away from the flames, smoke and chemical smell. Despite the house being just a little past the 1-mile radius, the glow in the sky and smoke was billowing so high in the air it was visible from my kitchen window, above the houses down the street. Years of covering fires told me that it was most likely a house fire about a block away. It was actually about a mile down over the hill. 

Throughout the weekend, many were trying to go about their day, avoiding the area near the east end of town while monitoring updates on news apps and social media. Closed signs on major roads in and out of East Palestine isolated town, but locals knew the side streets. Shelter-in-place orders seemed a lot like the stay-at-home orders from a not distant enough past.

But as of Monday morning, even many of the small side streets in that area have been closed off. As I tried to get some sleep last night after packing a bag with a few days of clothes, a helicopter circled over our house, which I later learned was someone from the state trooper’s office.

DeWine had called in the Ohio National Guard. Even the 911 police and fire communication’s center has been moved out of town, to the neighboring village of New Waterford.

Pictured at top: Gov. Mike DeWine participates in a news conference Monday to discuss plans for a controlled explosion and burn after the train derailment in East Palestine.

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