EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WKBN) — “The visual pictures of that fire and the derailment photos are eerily similar.”
Jenna Harris, an East Palestine resident, noticed the similarities immediately between the East Palestine derailment fire and the Richmond, Indiana recycling plant fire that happened last Tuesday.
“I feel for those people and those families there because they are going to be in the same situations that we are all in in East Palestine and that is not OK,” Harris said. “We are living in a state of fear.”
Harris and her family have been living in hotels since the East Palestine derailment fire in early February. While they weren’t part of the initial evacuation group, days later their well tested positive for dangerous chemicals, including two ethylhexyl phthalate. The EPA also conducted independent well testing but did not find any contamination.
In Richmond last Tuesday, a fire broke out around 2:30 p.m. at a plastic storage facility. By four p.m., local officials had issued a half-mile evacuation from the site.
Kim Guard, a Richmond resident in the evacuation zone, said you could see the plume of smoke miles away and six stories up.
“So we went to look out the window from the sixth floor and oh my goodness … it looked like it went up to Heaven. It was so much black smoke,” Guard said. “And about 4 p.m. I got the message from my son that they had put out the evacuation order.”
The mandatory evacuation in East Palestine did not happen until about 48 hours after the derailment. Officials were concerned there was a possibility of a deadly explosion of the still burning train cars, leading to a controlled release of the chemicals.
East Palestine residents reported headaches, coughs and irritation from the chemicals.
Dr. Samuel Iden, the medical director of the department of emergency medicine at Reid Hospital in Richmond, says those symptoms are normal in a chemical plume like this.
“By respiratory irritants what I mean is this particulate matter from any fire gets into the air and if you are standing out in where the smoke is coming through it can cause your eyes to water, it irritates your mucus membrane, your nose can be runny, sinuses can get some pressure,” Dr. Iden said. “Some people in fact will have irritation into their airways and either get a sore throat or want to cough.”
Dr. Iden told First News it is too early to tell what the long-term effects the plume from the plant fire may have, but right now the doctors at Reid Health have not seen much of an increase in patients with these symptoms.
“But we have not seen in our emergency departments a significant increase in any of the concerning symptoms that we talk about,” Dr. Iden said.
Dr. Iden said the Reid Emergency Department has only seen eight patients come into the emergency room with these symptoms, but there is no way to tell if the symptoms are from the plume.
According to our sister station in Dayton, the EPA started doing tests on the air quality on Thursday. Guard says she’s happy the government is moving so quickly.
“You know, it’s going to be a concern. We don’t have the answers, and I know people are frustrated,” said Guard. “But I – I also appreciate that they’re taking the time to figure out what the answers are to give the right answers.”
Harris says her experience with the East Palestine derailment has opened her eyes to other disasters in the United States.
“I feel like this situation that we went through in East Palestine has really opened my eyes to a lot of our emergency management systems are broken,” Harris said. “And I’m sure that’s what going to happen in Indiana, where the people that are going to need help the most are just going to be left behind confused.”
As the Richmond fire officially stopped burning Friday morning, almost three days after it started, Harris has long-term advice for Richmond residents.
“First and foremost, document everything,” said Harris. “And 100% do what is best for your family … you know best for your family.”
More than that, Harris encouraged Richmond residents to advocate for themselves as they face the long-term consequences of this fire.
“I could not feel more compassion for those in Indiana that are dealing with the evacuation and this fire. … there are so many similarities and I hope they can get the help that they need,” Harris said.
As Guard looks to the future for Richmond, questions still linger.
“I think there’s more to the story than we’re totally being told, but that’s the way the government is most of the time,” Guard said.
The EPA began the debris removal process from the fire in parts of Indiana and Ohio Saturday morning, and there is no telling what the long-term effects of the fire will be yet.
Norfolk Southern finished the excavation of some soil under its south track also on Saturday, but East Palestine residents are still reeling from the permanent changes to their home.