Opinion: 'Everyone's scared' -- a novelist's view of the rail disaster in Ohio | CNN (2023)

Opinion: 'Everyone's scared' -- a novelist's view of the rail disaster in Ohio | CNN (1)

Distressed residents demand answers about chemical leak from train

02:27 - Source: CNN


One well-known resident of East Palestine, Ohio, is book author Judith A. Lennington, who has published nearly 20 works of fiction, almost all of which can be found, she says, in the town’s library.

Opinion: 'Everyone's scared' -- a novelist's view of the rail disaster in Ohio | CNN (2)

Judy A. Lennington

Lennington, 75, attended area schools from elementary to high school. And before striking out as a writer late in life, she worked for more than three decades in factories a stone’s throw from East Palestine. The community of nearly 5,000 is in northern Appalachia, about an hour from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and about 30 minutes from the Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio.

On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying 20 cars of hazardous materials slid off the rails and caught fire, threatening to explode and prompting mass evacuations. State officials complied with the company’s request to intentionally burn off some of the chemicals at the site.

East Palestine has been through difficult times over the years, as its population has dwindled and industry moved away. But residents say nothing as cataclysmic has befallen the town as the train derailment that emitted a noxious plume of smoke and put the future of the community in question.

The derailment was just three miles from the farm where Lennington and her husband reside — far enough to avoid the evacuation that was ordered in parts of East Palestine, but well within range of the fumes. She spoke to CNN Opinion’s Stephanie Griffith about the disaster and its ongoing impact on her community.

CNN: You live a few miles from the site of the derailment. What has been your personal experience of the initial disaster and its ongoing impact?

(Video) 12 Moments You Wouldn’t Believe If Not Filmed

Lennington: The railroad trains go right by here. We can see the train tracks from our house. They run right by my home to go into the center of East Palestine.

The cloud that went up in the sky was like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life. It looked like a huge black cloud with a tornado coming down from it. It was just awful. After the accident, we put quilts over the doors and over the windows, sealed the cracks and just stayed inside.

I can still smell it outside. Luckily the fumes are not strong here — the wind blows in the other direction — but I can, still, if I go from the house to the garage, I can feel my eyes burning. And I lose my voice after a while.

Members of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspect the site of a train derailment of hazardous material in East Palestine, Ohio, U.S., February 16, 2023. REUTERS/Alan Freed Alan Freed/Reuters Feds are sending medical experts to Ohio toxic train wreck site as residents' safety concerns simmer

I know a lot of the people in town who were evacuated. My sister was evacuated. She lives two blocks from the wreck. And there are a lot of people in town who already have health issues — and then this happens.

CNN: You came to writing professionally later in life. How did that come about?

Lennington: I worked for 38 years in a factory on an assembly line. The first factory I worked in made filing cabinets, desks and fireproof security boxes. I was a welder there. I met all kinds of people. I heard all kinds of stories and it was just when I retired, I was just kind of stuck.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. My husband was still working and I was retired. So I just started writing the story for him. And he would come home every night and he would read maybe five or six pages that I wrote in my first book. And when it was done, he said, ‘Oh my gosh, you have to publish it.”

I said, “You know I am not a college professor. I am a factory worker. I can’t publish a book.” But he said, “You have to.” So I sent the file on a Friday to I think four publishers, and Monday morning I got a call from a publisher.

And after that, I was writing.

CNN: You’ve lived in or near East Palestine all your life. Tell me what it’s like — and how it has changed over the years.

(Video) White Noise

Lennington: East Palestine used to be quite the community. I grew up on a farm (one town over) in Negley, Ohio. I first moved to East Palestine in 1967. At that time, there was so much industry in the town. There were little mom and pop stores. There was a skating rink.

And then everything just left. Little by little, the shops closed down and then the industry started to go.

And over time, people just started leaving. When their parents died, young people stayed behind. But there was no work around here, so they all just moved away.

You know, there are no homeless people on our streets, no hypodermic needles lying about, and our citizens opened up their own independent businesses and have kept this community going. Every neighbor watches out for the next.

EAST PALESTINE, OH - FEBRUARY 8: Aerial view of a train derailment containing the toxic chemical, vinyl chloride derailed five days ago in the village of 5,000 people near the Pennsylvania border. Residents were allowed to return home after tests deemed it to be safe in the area on February 8, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. Credit: mpi34/MediaPunch /IPX mpi34/MediaPunch/IPX/AP video New surveillance video shows train wheel overheating before crash

It really breaks my heart to see the community going through this, because they feel like nobody’s really listening to them. There are so many people who are just so angry because they feel like they can’t trust anyone.

CNN: And it appears that part of the growing mistrust is about a $1,000 “inconvenience payment” that some residents in East Palestine reportedly have been offered?

Lennington: There was talk that if you went and you took the money then you’re not going to be able to get anything later down the road. And people were like, “Is this true? Do we believe this?”

$1,000 is a lot of money to some people. But my sister for one, she didn’t go to a motel. There are people in town who don’t have credit cards. When they evacuate, they’re told they have to go to a motel. Well, the motel wants money upfront, you know, they don’t care what the railroads are telling you. And people in this town don’t always have that.

CNN: In the wake of this disaster, how are you and other residents of this tiny community coping?

Lennington: I think the more the media gets involved, the better it’ll be for the citizens. At least they’ll feel like their stories have been heard and they haven’t been just brushed under the rug.

(Video) Panic Attack on Live Television | ABC World News Tonight | ABC News

There are many rumors out there. You still can’t get down there. The roads are blocked. They won’t let you even get down that street.

I know some people that don’t want to take their pets outside. They are afraid they’ll get in the grass — and that the grass will make them sick.

Everyone’s scared. They had a normal life, then they’re told to grab what you can and get out now, which they did. And then they were told, well, you can go back and you’re on your own. You know, that’s not right. I think they (the rail company) owe these people something.

I retired at 62, because I was afraid of the chemicals. I thought they were dangerous. And my husband did the same thing. My father lived here on the farm. When he got cancer, I came down here and stayed with him and started taking care of him. After he died, my husband and I decided to relocate here. We tried to keep everything chemical-free. And then we have this train wreck.

They keep talking about how the waterways are clear, but the fish are dying. People say toxins have been found in the Ohio River as far as Weirton, West Virginia. That’s a lot of water that that toxins passed through to get to there and they’re still not gone.

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    So I don’t know what’s going to happen. Is it safe to let your children go out and walk in that grass? Is it safe to let your pets go to the bathroom on the grass and then come back in your house? If your water is safe, what about those ponds where the train wreck is? There are little standing ponds on both sides of the tracks there. Did anybody check that water? We just don’t know.

    A week ago, we went for a ride through town before the accident on our way to the post office and we just took some side streets and we commented about how many homes in town were for sale. And that was before the accident.

    Now, what hope is there for those people selling those homes? And what if you are a person who worked like I did for 38 years in a factory, and you were going to sell your home as part of your retirement. What happens now?

    It’s just sad. And I don’t have the answers.



    Was Ohio train derailment preventable? ›

    So far, the investigation found the crew did not do anything wrong prior to the derailment, though the crash was “100% preventable,” Homendy said. Video of the train before the derailment showed what appeared to be an overheated wheel bearing, according to the NTSB report.

    How did Ohio train derailment happen? ›

    The National Transportation Safety Board, an independent investigative agency, in a preliminary report tied the incident to an overheated wheel bearing. The Biden administration and Norfolk Southern Corp. face increasing pressure from residents who fear their community remains unsafe from toxic fumes.

    When did the Ohio train derail? ›

    DeWine was at the site of the wreck and the cleanup operations for the first time Wednesday. Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw speaks to reporters, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, near the site where a freight train derailed Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio.

    Where was the train that derailed in Ohio going? ›

    Around 9 p.m. on Feb. 3, a train derailed in East Palestine, a village of about 4,700 residents about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. There were 150 cars on the route from Madison, Ill., to Conway, Pa. The National Transportation Safety Board said that 38 cars derailed and a fire ensued, damaging another 12 cars.

    How long can a train be stopped on the tracks in Ohio? ›

    (A) No railroad company shall obstruct, or permit or cause to be obstructed a public street, road, or highway, by permitting a railroad car, locomotive, or other obstruction to remain upon or across it for longer than five minutes, to the hindrance or inconvenience of travelers or a person passing along or upon such ...

    What is the main cause of train derailment? ›

    Broken rails are a leading cause of derailments. According to data from the Federal Railroad Administration, broken rails and welds are the most common reason for train derailments, making up more than 15 percent of derailment cases.

    What chemicals were spilled in Ohio train derailment? ›

    An Ohio train derailment caused a chemical spill of vinyl chloride and butyl acetate, leading to various health hazards for humans and animals in the area.

    Has snow ever derailed a train? ›

    A 10-year US Department of Transportation analysis of weather-related train accidents in America, from 1995 to 2005, found that the accidents related to snow and ice, when they did occur, often resulted in dangerous derailments.

    How fast was the Amtrak train going when it derailed? ›

    A federal official said the eight-car train was going about 90 mph when it struck the truck at a public crossing southwest of the rural town of Mendon at 12:42 p.m.

    Did train toilets empty onto tracks? ›

    The traditional method of disposing human waste from trains is to deposit the waste onto the tracks or, more often, onto nearby ground using what is known as a hopper toilet. This ranges from a hole in the floor to a full-flush system (possibly with sterilization).

    What caused the train derailment in East Palestine Ohio? ›

    'Too late' A preliminary report from the East Palestine derailment, released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board, found hot box sensors detected that a wheel bearing was heating up miles before it eventually failed and caused the train to derail.

    Did dioxins spread after the Ohio train derailment? ›

    Testing so far by the EPA for “indicator chemicals” has suggested there's a low chance that dioxins were released from the derailment, the agency said. Dioxins refer to a group of toxic chemical compounds that can persist in the environment for long periods, according to the World Health Organization.

    Who is responsible for the train derailment in Ohio? ›

    The CEO of Norfolk Southern, the rail company responsible for the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment, has agreed to appear before a Senate committee next week.

    How many train cars derailed in Ohio? ›

    In all, 38 cars derailed, including 11 tankers carrying hazardous materials.

    How common are train derailments? ›

    According to the Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Safety Analysis, there are over 1,000 train derailments every year. Of those, 400 are caused by track defects. 550 to 600 are caused by human error. If you've been harmed in a train derailment accident, we want to hear your story.

    Is walking on railroad tracks illegal in Ohio? ›

    Railroad property is private property and being on it is trespassing - local rail companies will prosecute violators. Over 500 people are killed each year in the United States and many others are critically injured while walking on or crossing railroad tracks. Don't do it - it's illegal and dangerous.

    Why can't trains stop? ›

    Because of their size, weight and speed, trains do not stop quickly, even under emergency conditions. From the time the brake is applied to the time that the train stops, it may cover more than a mile of track. This means that even well-trained workers may have no way to avoid an accident.

    How many miles before a train can stop? ›

    The average freight train is about 1 to 1¼ miles in length (90 to 120 rail cars). When it's moving at 55 miles an hour, it can take a mile or more to stop after the locomotive engineer fully applies the emergency brake. An 8-car passenger train moving at 80 miles an hour needs about a mile to stop.

    What state has the most train accidents? ›

    There were 273 crossing fatalities and 763 crossing injuries in 2022 across the U.S. Approximately 85% of all 2022 highway-rail grade crossing collisions occurred in these states.
    UPDATED 3/1/23.
    24 more columns

    How many times a year does a train derail? ›

    From 1990 to 2021 there were an average of 1,705 train derailments per year, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics and Federal Railroad Administration. In 2021, there were 1,087 train derailments, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

    What are the effects of railway accidents? ›

    Among the total people affected by railway accidents, twenty-seven percent lost their life while seventy-three percent got injured and IR faced a total loss of 86,486 crore INR. It means every fourth person affected by railway accidents lost his life. On an average, 0.76 persons got killed and caused a loss of Rs.

    What was the deadliest train crash in the US? ›

    The Great Train Wreck of 1918. On July 9, 1918, two passenger trains collided head-on in Nashville, Tennessee. Today, it remains the worst railroad accident in United States history. The amount of lives that the crash claimed varies based on what source is used.

    What is the biggest train accident? ›

    The Ufa Train Disaster – 575 Deaths

    Hundreds of meters away, a gas pipeline was leaking liquid gas into the gully where the trains were passing each other.

    Why do trains spray water? ›

    Discussed here are characteristics of a water sprinkler which sprays rectangularly distributed water on railway tracks on which high-speed trains run in order to keep snow deposit on them in a wet condition to protect the running gear and underfloor equipment of vehicles from snow damage.

    Do train tracks get plowed? ›

    Specialty Equipment

    Locomotives are equipped with a plow in front to push snow away from the tracks. But when the snow is too deep for the locomotive plow to handle, railroads use on-track machinery, massive bulldozers and specialized cars that can move tons of snow at once.

    Do trains get hit by lightning? ›

    Trains and the operating systems that run them are just as susceptible to lightning strikes as anything else and the result of a lightning strike to the railway infrastructure can be impeding and sometimes disastrous.

    Can trains run on flooded tracks? ›

    Trains are not designed to run on tracks that are flooded. In addition, flooding can wash out stone, sand and other structures under train tracks leaving the track itself vulnerable to weaknesses is the track line.

    Is Amtrak train faster than driving? ›

    High-speed rail travels roughly three times faster than cars and consumes around one tenth of the fuel. Your journey to see that barely-distant family member would be cut to a comfortable two hours, and the trip would be significantly cheaper, reflecting the less fuel required.

    Do Amtrak trains derail often? ›

    While fatalities from train derailments are rare, derailments themselves are actually quite common. From 1990, the first year the BTS began tracking derailments and injuries on a yearly basis, to 2021, there have been 54,539 accidents in which a train derailed. That's an average of 1,704 derailments per year.

    Why can't Amtrak go faster? ›

    Getting Amtrak to go faster might sound absurdly difficult: California's High-Speed Rail program is notoriously expensive (albeit overblown), and replacing Amtrak's rolling stock would be wasteful and costly for a company subsidized by our tax dollars.

    Do trains have showers? ›

    Each room includes a big picture window, fresh towels and linens, and an in-room sink, restroom, and shower.

    How often are train toilets cleaned? ›

    Turnaround cleans are undertaken once a day when a train reaches its terminus, including deeper toilet cleans and rubbish collection. Heavy cleans are carried out regularly, with the whole fleet deep cleaned every eight weeks.

    Do planes empty their toilets in the air? ›

    Airlines aren't allowed to drop sewage from the sky – pilots have no dump button – but there have been incidents. Fictional ones, too.

    Why did the train stopped for the first time? ›

    The train stopped the first time when a herd of buffaloes charged across the railway track.

    Why did the train stop at the first? ›

    The train stopped the first time when a herd of buffaloes began to cross the railway track. Was this answer helpful?

    What causes most highway rail crashes? ›

    A majority of railroad accidents happen at railroad crossings with improper warning devices like gates or lights. They are typically caused by lack of visibility, impaired or distracted drivers, or drivers trying to outrun the train.

    How is dioxin cleaned up? ›

    Heat-based destruction techniques for treating dioxin-contaminated soil and debris include incineration, thermal desorption, and vitrification. Incineration at temperatures above 1200°C is considered the most effective way of destroying dioxins.

    How are people exposed to dioxins? ›

    Today people are exposed to dioxins primarily by eating food, in particular animal products, contaminated by these chemicals. Dioxins are absorbed and stored in fat tissue and, therefore, accumulate in the food chain. More than 90 percent of human exposure is through food.

    How long does dioxin stay in the environment? ›

    The half-life of dioxins in the soil is from 60 to 80 years, and at the same time, it persists for a long time in the environment, seeps into the soil and sediments, and migrates into vegetation and aquatic life, leading to bioaccumulation in the soil and food chain [2,9,44].

    Who is responsible for rail safety? ›

    The ORR is the health and safety regulator and enforcement authority for the railway. Its role is to make sure that the health and safety of everyone associated with the rail industry is protected.

    Who is the person that controls the train? ›

    A train driver, engine driver, engineman or locomotive driver, commonly known as an engineer or railroad engineer in the United States and Canada, and also as a locomotive handler, locomotive engineer, locomotive operator, train operator, or motorman, is a person who operates a train, railcar, or other rail transport ...

    Do train drivers control the train? ›

    Day-to-day tasks

    drive the train between stations or freight depots. speak with control centres along the route about any issues. follow track signalling, safety and speed instructions.

    How long can a train block the tracks in Ohio? ›

    (A) No railroad company shall obstruct, or permit or cause to be obstructed a public street, road, or highway, by permitting a railroad car, locomotive, or other obstruction to remain upon or across it for longer than five minutes, to the hindrance or inconvenience of travelers or a person passing along or upon such ...

    What is the longest train ride in Ohio? ›

    Hop aboard one of the oldest, longest and most scenic tourist excursion railways in the country.

    What is the most cars a train has ever pulled? ›

    The record-breaking ore train from the same company, 682 cars and 7,300 m long, once carried 82,000 metric tons of ore for a total weight of the train, largest in the world, of 99,734 tonnes. It was driven by eight locomotives distributed along its length to keep the coupling loads and curve performance controllable.

    What is the safest part of a train? ›

    "The safest spot in a train, during an accident, is the center of the train," said Mann, who was the principal author of the Federal Railway Safety Act in 1970. "Because if there is a front-end collision or a rear-end collision, the damages will be greater at those locations.

    Are trains safer than cars? ›

    Compared to other popular forms of travel, such as cars, ships, buses, and planes, trains are one of the safest forms of transportation in the United States. That's because trains have an excellent safety record!

    How can train derailment be prevented? ›

    Look for Wide Gauge Tracks
    1. Checking for loose or missing joint bars and bolts.
    2. Inspecting track for broken railroad ties, loose or missing spikes and tie plates cutting into the railroad ties.
    3. Looking for mud on top of ballast, which may indicate a weak foundation and inadequate drainage.

    How did Outlaws stop trains? ›

    By using such a heavy safe, any outlaws intending to rob the train had to use a large charge of black powder or dynamite to blow it open. The resulting blast's magnitude usually destroyed the contents of the safe, as well as the roof and sides of the express car.

    How many Amtrak trains derail a year? ›

    While fatalities from train derailments are rare, derailments themselves are actually quite common. From 1990, the first year the BTS began tracking derailments and injuries on a yearly basis, to 2021, there have been 54,539 accidents in which a train derailed. That's an average of 1,704 derailments per year.

    How can railroad accidents be prevented? ›

    Tips to Avoid Dangerous Train Crashes
    1. Never stop on train tracks. ...
    2. Never assume that a train track is not in use. ...
    3. Report railroad safety features that are not working properly. ...
    4. Look and listen for trains in both directions. ...
    5. Never try to beat a train across the tracks, or go around railroad safety arms.

    Can a train derail from hitting a car? ›

    A train often does not derail when it hits a car or a truck, Mr. Quimby said. But if it is moving at a high speed or if metal gets underneath the traction motors — two factors that Mr. Quimby said he believes occurred in Missouri — then it is more likely to tilt and crash.

    How likely is a train to derail? ›

    About 1,000 derailments occur each year, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. The number of trains coming off their rails has been on a decline, coinciding with a reduction in miles covered by the industry. There were 1,049 such instances in 2022, out of roughly 535 million miles traveled.

    What crimes did outlaws commit? ›

    Outlawry normally occurred as a consequence of a criminal or civil action, although the process could occasionally begin with a petition in parliament. Criminal outlawries arose from indictments for treason, rebellion, conspiracy or other serious felonies. Civil outlawries were generally proclaimed in cases of debt.

    Who killed the railroads? ›

    Angel Maturino Reséndiz (August 1, 1959 – June 27, 2006), also known as The Railroad Killer, was a Mexican itinerant serial killer suspected in as many as 23 murders across the United States and Mexico during the 1990s. Some also involved sexual assault.

    What is the safest car on a train? ›

    When choosing a seat on a train, try to get one in the center-most car, or one of the central cars. This will put you as far as possible from the most common points of issue for collisions or derailment, namely the front and end of the train. Also, when possible, sit in a rear-facing seat.

    Is Amtrak safer than driving? ›

    HOW SAFE ARE TRAINS? Trains are statistically much safer than driving.

    How can railway safety be improved? ›

    In order to improve safety, modern track structure consisting of Prestressed Concrete Sleeper (PSC), 60 KG, 90 or higher Ultimate Tensile Strength (UTS) rails, fanshaped layout turnout on PSC sleepers, Steel Channel Sleepers on girder bridges is used while carrying out primary track renewals.

    What would be the possible effects of railroad accident? ›

    Individuals and organizations may experience significant property damage and financial loss as a result of train accidents. They may even be injured or become ill as a result of toxic substances released into the environment by a train crash.


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