Controlled Explosion Caps 4 Nights of Evacuations, Uncertainty

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

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – East Palestine held its collective breath Monday evening as a controlled explosion and burn of five train cars went off successfully.

A large explosion, flames and a smoke plume that some described as similar to a tornado cloud rose from the area where a train derailment rocked the East Palestine community Friday night.

The burning of the vinyl chloride creates two new dangerous gases, hydrogen chloride and phosgene, the latter reportedly a weapon used in World War I, which settles into low areas.

The plans laid out by Gov. Mike DeWine, Master Sgt. David Hurst of the Ohio National Guard, Scott Deutsch of Norfolk Southern Railroad and others was for the fumes to quickly disperse into the atmosphere.

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk and Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

During a press conference Monday afternoon, Hurst talked about the calculations made that developed a new evacuation map, a 1-mile by 2-mile area going into Darlington, Pa., and following the direction they believed the wind would push the plume. DeWine and other officials had continued to urge people to leave those areas in town and about 20 homes in Pennsylvania. 

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, including lung damage and skin burns.

Officials from several departments had knocked on doors and were finally hopeful everyone was out of the area after many refused to leave when evacuations were ordered Friday or returned home.

The controlled release of the chemicals was designed to also relieve the fears of a catastrophic explosion, which officials had determined could have caused metal shrapnel to fly up to a mile and send unexpected toxic gases choking the air. That concern of explosion had led to a Sunday night request to again evacuate the area roughly a mile around the trail wreck. Houses on nearly the entire east side of East Palestine and into Pennsylvania were dark, and many residents had evacuated as of Monday morning.

Residents evacuate

As I left town myself following a knock at the door from a state trooper while I was in the shower Monday morning, nearly every house was 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 the 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 the East Palestine High School. Businesses on the east side of town have been forced to shutter, and employees were left without a job to go to.

East Palestine and the surrounding communities are the type of places where many neighbors help neighbors. New Waterford Mayor Shane Patrone said the village offered the use of its dispatch center Monday morning when it was determined East Palestine’s was too close to the danger zone. Additionally, Abundant Life Church opened its doors to the Norfolk Southern assistance representative, who during the weekend had been set up at the East Palestine City Park Community Center to help residents displaced by the derailment.

From the beginning, many of us were counting our blessings that, with a reported 50 Norfolk-Southern rail cars leaving the tracks and the fire that happened, no one was killed or even injured. 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.

Firefighters respond

Firefighters from three states responded Friday night but were eventually told to push back after monitors were set up on the train cars.

One of those who responded as well was county Commissioner Tim Weigle, who also operates a drone for the EMA for emergencies and lives in Unity Township, north of East Palestine. Weigle said he took video and photos of the wreckage from above, helping firefighters determine if the water was reaching where they were aiming because the heat was making it difficult for them to personally get close enough to tell. On Saturday when he was again helping with the drone, along with EMA Director Peggy Clark and Assistant Director Brian Rutledge, one of the cars exploded, and they fled.

Patrone said firefighters from New Waterford were among the departments there Friday but came back to the station and hung their gear, just to learn later, due to the chemical exposure, that the gear would need to be bagged and labeled due to the Hazmat situation. Patrone said they are grateful for the help of Wellsville, Boardman and Glenmore fire departments, who have helped back them up while they continue to back up East Palestine. Some other fire departments have given New Waterford some of their old equipment, so they have enough gear for now, albeit mismatched gear. It will cost New Waterford about $125,000 just to replace all the turnout gear and air tanks the fire department lost Friday night, and when it’s ordered, it could take several weeks to arrive.

The cost to those departments, the cost of anticipated cleanup of the site where the derailment occurred and the cleanup following the intentional drainage of the chemicals Monday afternoon will all take a long time to tally. So will the environmental effects, including to fish and wildlife. Reports and videos are already surfacing on social media of dead fish in area streams.

Additionally, there are videos of the train derailment and the train passing through towns prior to the accident. Patrone said he has seen one from a doorbell camera of the train passing over the bridge in New Waterford with one of the axle wheels appearing to be on fire. Others reported seeing a similar photo captured in Salem.

With so many Columbiana County towns right along the tracks, including Leetonia and Columbiana, there may be questions to address later about the numerous hazardous chemicals traveling through the heart of small communities.

What’s next?

After Norfolk Southern released a statement Monday night that “the controlled breach of several rail cars has been completed successfully under the supervision of experts and first responders,” people are asking what’s next.

Evacuations remain in place, and the question of how soon people in East Palestine and Beaver County, Pa., may be able to get back into their homes remained unclear Monday evening.

Don and Diana Elzer, owners of Sutherin’s Green House, Dogs on the Run and other small businesses in the community, said for them, the hardest thing is not knowing what’s next. Like many, they relocated from their house not far from the derailment area but did not know how much to take and how much to buy for their stay.

“I really think the mayor and the fire chief did a fantastic job,” Don Elzer said. “They didn’t sign up for that.”

He questions how the technology on the trains would not have allowed them to know the train was on fire somewhere between Salem, where he saw photos showing it going by Freshmark with the axel already on fire, and where it left the tracks in East Palestine near the Pennsylvania border.

As for their business, the Elzers said they just bought TV commercials to run through the month of February, including a big push for Valentine’s Day, a big day for a greenhouse. They now question the expense because “nobody is going to come to East Palestine to buy flowers if there is a fear of explosion.”

The past 18 months have been a problem for the businesses between supply chain issues and rising prices, but Don Elzer said if the aquifer, the groundwater and the soil is not destroyed by this, the town will recover from this too. He just wishes there was more reliable information about when.

Pictured at top: Gov. Mike DeWine points to a map of East Palestine that indicates the area that has been evacuated as a result of the Norfolk and Southern train derailment. (AP Photo | Gene J. Puskar)

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