The Reporter (Vacaville)

Aches, rashes and fear: Trauma remains after Ohio derailment

- By John Flesher

EAST PALESTINE, OHIO >> Heather Bable speaks rapidly, recalling the terror of the night when a train loaded with hazardous chemicals derailed less than a half-mile from her home in East Palestine, Ohio. She heard an earthshaki­ng boom and, from her bathroom window, “all you saw was the flames.”

Mind racing, she thought of the nearby filling station — its gasoline pumps, its diesel and propane tanks.

“I kind of kept myself under control, told my kids, `OK, guys, we have to leave,'” Bable says. “... The only thing I knew was I had to get my kids to safety. Take just the necessary things and get out of there.”

Her voice catches, tears welling in weary eyes, as she describes the physical and emotional toll following the Feb. 3 disaster and subsequent chemical burn: eight days in a hotel and an uneasy return home; hoarseness, congestion, nausea and itchy rashes; inconclusi­ve doctor visits; the “god-awful smell” that disturbs her at night; anger at train company Norfolk Southern over the crash and government agencies she thinks responded too slowly.

And constant fear — to breathe the air, drink the water, let her 8-year-old son play outdoors. Fear for East Palestine, where her family has lived for four generation­s. Now, at 45, Bable is eager to move. So is her mother, who has been here even longer.

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

She glances at a smartphone applicatio­n that reports local air quality. “Just a couple of days ago, when it was so beautiful, I didn't dare to open my windows, because I didn't want the air to come in,” she said.

Bable took a leave from her factory job to find another place to live.

“He loves to be out in the yard,” she says, gesturing toward her son, Ashton.

“Now, we can't do that . ... I'm even afraid to cut that grass, because what's still left in the soil? It's just not right.”

Bable's plight mirrors many in this village of 4,700 near the Pennsylvan­ia line a month after 38 train cars derailed. A preliminar­y National Transporta­tion Safety Board report blamed an overheated wheel bearing.

Several tanker cars carried hazardous chemicals that ignited or spilled. Days later, after evacuating thousands of residents nearby, crews vented and burned toxic vinyl chloride from five cars to prevent an uncontroll­ed explosion, sending another black plume skyward.

Fear and mistrust still grip many in a community whipsawed by government assurances that the air and water are safe; warnings from activists like Erin Brockovich about coverups and danger for years to come; and social media misinforma­tion.

“It's hard to know what the truth is,” said Cory Hofmeister, 34, after Brockovich and attorneys seeking plaintiffs for litigation hosted a packed gathering at the high school that highlighte­d potential health risks.

Outrage against the railroad company, widely condemned for failing to prevent the disaster and doing too little afterward, is palpable. A married couple recently sold yard signs reading, “Together we stand against Norfolk Southern,” from a sidewalk table to benefit the fire department. Business was brisk.

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

Sherry Bable, 64, stands near the roadblock keeping gawkers from the derailment site. Her house is just down the street. Heather lives a couple blocks away with Ashton and her 25-year-old daughter, Paige.

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