Toxic Train Derailment in East Palestine Leaves Pets and Fish Dead, Ohio Townspeople Fear They Could Be Next

Fear grips the Ohio town of East Palestine, where a train derailment spewed fire, smoke and toxic chemicals for days.

The nightmare began on Feb. 3, when the Ohio village of East Palestine shuddered from a massive train derailment that sent 50 cars, some laden with chemicals, careening off the tracks. Mighty explosions followed, and residents spilled outside to see orange fireballs shooting into the night sky.

Two days later, Gov. Mike DeWine ordered residents to leave, warning "there is now the potential of a catastrophic tanker failure which could cause an explosion with the potential of deadly shrapnel traveling up to a mile,” he said in a statement.

Families with children who ignored the evacuation order were subject to arrest, the governor said. The Nation Guard was called in.

On Feb. 6, Norfolk Southern, which operated the train, released toxic chemicals from five of the derailed tanker cars, and then burned them, saying it was necessary to avoid an explosion of bomb-blast proportions. One chemical that was highly worrying was vinyl chloride, a toxic, colorless gas used in plastic production.

The National Cancer Institute says exposure to the dangerous gas is associated with an increased risk for various cancers, including brain and lung diseases and can also seep into water supplies and be ingested.

DeWine and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro issued a wider, color-coded evacuation mandate.

“The controlled release process involves the burning of the rail cars’ chemicals, which will release fumes into the air that can be deadly if inhaled," their order said.

"Based on current weather patterns and the expected flow of the smoke and fumes, anyone who remains in the red affected area is facing grave danger of death. Anyone who remains in the yellow impacted area is at a high risk of severe injury, including skin burns and serious lung damage.”

Thus began a chemical catastrophe that residents say has sickened and killed their animals. Environmental officials have reported more than 3,000 fish have died and homeowners fear their wells could be poisoned. Class-action suits have been filed by property owners demanding accountability and compensation.

Authorities said on Feb. 8 that it was safe for residents to return.

Still, many in East Palestine have complained of dizziness, shortness of breath and sore throats. On social media, residents have posted videos saying the town of about 5,000 is blanketed in reeking fumes that make their noses run and their eyes water.

One woman posted videos of her chickens, which she says dropped dead after the chemical release. Another posted images of his sick and dead foxes, which he kept in the nature preserve he runs.

Videos taken at area streams and creeks showed scores of dead fish and belly-up frogs.

Maura Todd and her husband, Philip, did not wait for the chemicals to be released. They took their 6-year-old son and three dogs and fled as soon as their phones erupted with alerts from the town that vinyl chloride was going to be released to stave off an explosion, she said.

"On Sunday night (Feb. 5), after the alarms went off on our phones, we decided to stay away and not come back," Maura Todd tells Inside Edition Digital. "That's our whole life. That's our home. We lost everything."

In preceding days, Todd said her family felt sick. "We thought we were coming down with something," she says. Their eyes were red, their noses were red and inflamed and they had hacking, dry coughs, she says.

Then her son started throwing up. "It was dry retching," the mother says. "He couldn't even keep water down." The regurgitations were wrenching to watch, and they didn't stop, Todd says.

Still, the mother didn't immediately equate her son's distress with the train derailment. "It was me not realizing that about a mile from my home, there's this toxic cocktail that's on fire," she says. That night was when her cellphone blew up with the evacuation orders.

"We got out of there in about 15 to 20 minutes," she says. The parents grabbed some clothes, important papers, herded their trio of miniature schnauzers into their vehicle and ensconced their sick son in blankets and pillows. As they headed south, the stench was horrible, she said.

"It smelled like burning tires and nail polish remover, every nasty smell you can think of," the mother says. "And this was before the chemical release."

The fumes made her son vomit all over again, she said. The family is now staying with her parents near Lexington, Kentucky, she says. The Todds had just moved to Ohio in August.

"We hand-picked East Palestine to be our home," she said. "They have a wonderful library, a public pool, the school district is wonderful."

She and her husband would often marvel at how great the town was, and how nice its people were. "We were happy. We were safe. Now all of that has been violently ripped away from us," she says.

Yet, her family will start over. Just not in East Palestine. They had previously lived in Kentucky, and on Wednesday, her husband got his old job back in records management at a storage facility. She hopes they might be able to sell their Ohio house, but she's not counting on it.

She's also not counting on retrieving anything from her now-abandoned home.

"I don't know if anything that is in my house is safe," she said. "And even if they said it was safe, I wouldn't believe it."

On Monday, the EPA said it had not detected any concerning levels of toxins during air testing.

On Tuesday, Norfolk Southern said it had provided more than $1.2 million in reimbursements and cash advances to families to help cover evacuation costs for lodging, travel, food and clothing.

The company is working with environmental agencies to decontaminate the area, it said. State officials said there did not appear to be groundwater contamination in troubling amounts.

"We will continue to remediate the site, including the removal of soil, to reach or exceed regulatory standards. Soil taken from the site is moved to a separate site for testing before being safely disposed of," the rail company said in a statement this week. 

But the EPA also said a clean-up plan submitted by the rail company listed other hazardous chemicals not previously known about. Those added chemicals include phosgene, a poisonous gas that was previously used as a chemical weapon in World War I. 

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said a plume of contaminants including butyl acrylate had formed on the Ohio River after the derailment, and was slowly nearing West Virginia. It was expected to dissipate into unharmful levels, the agency said.

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