Train derails in East Palestine

Smoke was seen from Burke Lizzie’s attic window. Photo courtesy of Burke Lizzie

By Elizabeth Coss and Samantha Smith

A train derailed and caught fire in East Palestine on Feb. 3 and underwent a controlled release of the chemicals inside. 

According to the Ohio’s Governor website, five of the 50 rail cars that were carrying vinyl chloride became unstable and were at a risk of exploding. On Feb. 6, Norfolk Southern Railroad conducted the controlled release to prevent shrapnel, toxic fumes and fire from spreading any further

Burke Lizzie, a Youngstown State University sophomore mechanical engineering major from East Palestine was home when the train derailed and saw smoke from his attic.

“It derailed around 9 o’clock, I thought that it was a neighbor running into their garage — It was around the same volume — but further away. It was maybe three blocks from my house, like horizontally, and maybe a block or two down the train tracks,” Lizzie said. 

Prior to a mandated evacuation led by the Ohio National Guard and U.S. Department of Defense, Lizzie said he evacuated the night of, because he was concerned.

“I evacuated around, between midnight and half past [midnight] … I’m not sure if it was actually high enough that [the smoke cloud] was going over the houses or if that was just a smoke cloud. It was really … it was terrifying,” Lizzie said. “I was just, you know, ‘I’m getting my dog. I’m getting my clothes. I’m getting my partner’s clothes.’”

Geoffery Everly, an adjunct professor who instructs fire and explosives courses at YSU, said a regular vehicle explosion spreads toxic chemicals like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen chloride and hydrogen cyanide. 

Everly said that the addition of hazardous chemicals carried on the train could pollute the air and water. 

“This is an uncontrolled large-scale emergency incident,” Everly said. “The off-gas and the byproducts are the largest hazard and they can be carried to other areas from the actual site of the event itself … It’s hard to tell with temperature changes, wind direction changes all of that affects where this is going to go.”

Vinyl chloride, a colorless and cancer-causing gas according to the National Cancer Institute, burns easily and is used in making polyvinyl chloride, which is a hard-plastic resin product commonly used in making pipes. 

Everly said the fire and explosion from the train was similar to the 2005 train derailment in Graniteville, South Carolina, when a train derailed and created a hazardous chlorine spill.

“The burning of multiple chemicals can produce numerous toxic, potentially lethal byproducts,” Everly said. “Many of these byproducts or substances could be colorless, odorless gasses that would be undetectable to the residents before they were overcome, as a similar situation occurred in Graniteville, South Carolina, killing nine people.” 

The Office of the Dean of Students is offering services for students facing unpredictable situations such as housing dislocation on a case-by-case process. 

Nicole Kent-Strollo, the dean of students and the ombudsperson, said the office provides emergency housing, food options like the Penguin Pantry and Swipe out Hunger, and clothing services for the YSU community. 

“When we have emergency housing needs, that’s certainly not something that’s going to take more than a couple hours to get them into,” Kent-Strollo said. “[The Office of the Dean of Students is] really meeting with students, as we do everyday on a case-by-case basis, to see ‘What do you need in particular?’ ‘How can we help?’ So, there may be options for students to stay in our residence halls.”

Kent-Strollo said several students have reached out to the office about needing services or resources following the evacuation of East Palestine.

“We’ve had a few reach out to us that are saying, ‘Hey, I want to talk to you about some resources.’ We’re in the process of reaching back out to them to see ‘what does that mean?” Kent-Strollo said. “‘I’m in need of housing,’ could mean a variety of things. It could mean they don’t have the financial means to possibly pay for a hotel room or to maybe stay in a residence hall on an emergency basis.”

The office has funding for emergency housing needs for students called the Penguin-to-Penguin Fund. 

The fund was distributed to students who were struggling with either housing, bills or other expenses during the pandemic, but has since changed to cover issues outside of just COVID-19.  

To donate to the Penguin-to-Penguin Fund, visit The Office of the Dean of Students website. The Penguin Pantry and clothing donation site is in Cushwa Hall, room 1405. 

Feb. 8, the evacuation order for residents of East Palestine and surrounding affected areas was removed, allowing individuals to return home. 

All rail cars have been removed from the tracks, but several main roads will remain closed for a few days. 

For anyone wanting to perform an air test at their home, call Norfolk Southern at (234) 542-6472. 

Norfolk Southern Railroad also opened a family assistance center at the Abundant Life Fellowship Church in New Waterford, Ohio to help aid residents.