EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (BP) — Residents of East Palestine, Ohio remain on edge, despite officials’ assurances, about the safety of returning to their homes after a Norfolk Southern Railway train derailed Feb. 3. A subsequent “controlled breach” of the train’s cars resulted in a large fire and cloud that covered the area, leading many to stay away in hotels or homes with friends or relatives.
Teams of Ohio Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (OSBDR) personnel have started cleaning homes in the area affected by a train derailment and chemical fire earlier this month.
“I was floored at how uncertain and anxious the residents were,” said John Heading, OSBDR state director. “They want to believe what they are being told, but they are hearing so many conflicting things that they do not know who to believe.”
Norfolk Southern has provided bottled water, air quality testing and water well testing in the area. A cleaning out process of homes has consisted of a railway employee walking through with a backpack sprayer.
“There is still a lot of assigning blame, but in talking with the Norfolk Southern executives, I indicated that we were there to help the residents and that we would leave it to others to resolve those issues,” said Heading.
The help began Feb. 20 with an OSBDR team arriving to clean out and wipe down the inside of homes. Clothes, toys and other cloth items are bagged up to either be cleaned or thrown out at the homeowner’s discretion.
“We rub down everything from floor to ceiling, then vacuum,” Heading told Baptist Press today (Feb. 22). “It’s a thorough ‘spring cleaning’ that takes 8-10 people around two hours to accomplish.”
OSBDR also has its own toxicologist who is ex-military and “a subject matter expert on these chemicals” on site. Volunteers work in homes that have passed inspection by the Environment Protection Agency and Norfolk Southern, but still wear gloves and N-95 masks.
Additional teams are scheduled to arrive this weekend, said Heading, as more cleanup requests are issued. He said the area was one with several oft-visited food banks and is in need of those cupboards being kept full. Goya Foods recently announced it would be shipping ready-to-serve meals and beverages to those affected by the accident.
During the response, Heading has been staying in a hotel in Salem, 30 miles west. At times he will also make the four-hour drive to his home in Dayton. Completing that journey Monday brought him to his front door around 1 a.m. on Feb. 21.
Dehydration and the hours of work led him to pass out upon walking inside, breaking his nose as he face-planted on the floor. His visit to the emergency room finally ended around 4:30 a.m.
So, smelling the chemicals in the air won’t be a problem for Heading when he returns to East Palestine. He’s also scheduling another OSBDR team for a trip to Budapest, where they will work with Ukrainian refugees.
One East Palestine resident whose home was just a few hundred yards from the accident said the Disaster Relief response helps in easing one area of stress, at least.
“My family feels so blessed to have OSBDR serving my family. We are so grateful,” said Matthew Day. “We want to thank Southern Baptists for having such a dynamic ministry as Disaster Relief.”
Additional reporting by Stephanie Heading.