EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — One day in mid-October of last year, Lonnie Miller sat at a small table in her kitchen and thought about the issues that had come to dominate her life: the nightmares about fires and rats, the unusual health problems, the meetings with counselors and physicians, the hateful comments she’d read on social media.

She’d lost her business and was in the process of saying goodbye to her house of nearly 30 years. So much of what Lonnie cherished had been shattered. The village she loved no longer felt like home. At least her small family remained intact and, she hoped, healthy. 

The blare of a train horn interrupted her thoughts.

Norfolk Southern tracks run 200 feet from Lonnie’s house on East Clark Street. In her neighborhood, the cadence of life conforms to rail traffic. Passing trains stop conversations as well as traffic. Families watching movies on TV hit the pause button until the rumbling and blaring stops. As a toddler, Lonnie’s son, Austin, pressed his face against a front window to catch glimpses of the passing cars, and they called to him. Gondolas, hoppers, tankers — he learned all the names. Thomas the Tank Engine smiled at him from the pages of children’s books. It was a way of embracing the seemingly benign, inescapable and even friendly presence of trains.

No longer. Lonnie now shivers at the shrieking of rail horns.

“I hate being here and hearing the trains,” she said. “I hate it. For eight months of my life, nothing has been normal.”

• • •

Change — fiery, loud and abrupt arrived on a frigid Friday evening one year ago. In the following days, people who’d never heard of East Palestine viewed their first images of the village. Here’s what they saw: colossal towers of smoke, roiling flames and blackened rail cars — the things that soon came to symbolize a place once known for its production of rubber and pottery and where Bob Hope earned his first paycheck as an entertainer. 

The world fixated on the unfolding environmental disaster for a few days, then moved on. East Palestine’s 4,700 residents were left to figure out how to live in a transformed village. Some residents yearned for normalcy and returned to daily routines. Some decided the health risks were too great and moved out. A few feared their homes were contaminated and wanted to leave but couldn’t afford to do so.

Their stories of fear, frustration, resolve, determination and anger unite them with a growing list of communities whose names are now synonymous with contamination — Flint, Love Canal, Three Mile Island, Times Beach. What separates the East Palestine stories is the way they begin: with a singular terrifying event.

Calm, then chaos

By 8 o’clock on Friday evening, Feb. 3, 2023, Lonnie Miller had covered herself in a blanket and settled into a living room chair. Her husband, Dave, leaned back in a recliner beside her. The glow of a TV filled the room. Son Austin, 21, listened to music in his bedroom downstairs.

For Lonnie, 47, this was an ideal way to end the week — curling up at home with those she loved nearby, watching something on Netflix and sending occasional texts. She likes to stay in touch. On this night, she texted two people — her sister, Connie, and a friend. The three discussed a village proposal to change food truck licensing fees while Dave, 53, nodded off. He had risen before 3 a.m. to begin his day as a crew leader at a metal stamping company in Columbiana. By now he was running out of gas. 

Dave Miller looks out of the window of his family’s home on East Clark Street in East Palestine, Ohio, on Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Twenty-six miles west of the Miller home, an eastbound Norfolk Southern train designated as 32N barreled through the Ohio town of Salem. Security cameras focused on frigid parking lots captured images of the train as it passed in the distant darkness. Video showed the orange glow of a fire under the wheels of the 23rd car in the train.

A massive collection of 150 rail cars and three locomotives, train 32N extended 9,300 feet and weighed 18,000 tons. Twenty of its tank cars contained hazardous materials — flammable and combustible liquids and gasses. 

The train began its journey two days earlier in Madison, Illinois, just outside of St. Louis. Its path arched into northern Indiana and Ohio before veering southeast toward the Pennsylvania border. Twice the train developed mechanical issues, once at Bement, Illinois, and again near Williamsport, Indiana. In both instances, crews made repairs, and the train was cleared to continue on its route.

Approximately 20 minutes after leaving Salem, train 32N entered Columbiana. One witness heard the train emit a “loud metal screeching sound.” In New Waterford, 6 miles from East Palestine, sparks flew from the burning wheel of the 23rd car. Investigators would later issue a preliminary report revealing that the fire was the result of an overheated wheel bearing.

Traveling at 47 miles per hour, train 32N screeched through East Palestine with the 23rd car trailing flames and sparks that extended the length of the car. At the Market Street intersection, the burning car passed within feet of a Marathon gas station.

Train 32N’s journey came to its disastrous end at 8:54 p.m. on the east side of town, just past the North Pleasant Drive intersection and 1,800 feet from the Miller home. Thirty-eight of the train’s cars toppled off the track and piled into an accordion-shaped tangle of dented and twisted steel. Some of those cars burst into flames.

• • •

The thundering sound of metal thumping against metal jolted Lonnie from her Friday night serenity. Lonnie was accustomed to train noises. This one was different. Unusually loud, it rattled windows and hinted at something calamitous. Alarmed, she turned to Dave. “I think a train derailed,” she said.

Half asleep, Dave shrugged it off. It’s just slack in the train, he said. They heard it all the time.

Lonnie didn’t think so. She texted Connie: Had she heard the noise? Yes, Connie replied. She lived farther north on North Pleasant Drive, more than a mile from the tracks. 

Lonnie nudged Dave. Something big has happened, she insisted. Dave rose from his chair, put on his shoes and walked outside to see for himself. The night was exceptionally cold, about 10 degrees, but otherwise quiet and normal. Then Dave looked east and saw an orange glow on the horizon. Smoke rose into the sky.

While Dave was outside, Lonnie rushed downstairs to alert Austin. At first, he thought his mother was joking, but he followed her upstairs. Dave came in from the cold and told Lonnie she was probably right, a train had derailed. He told them about the flames. They could see for themselves from the front porch.

Dave wanted to get closer to see what was happening. Lonnie didn’t think that was a good idea. 

“We know people who live in that area,” Dave said. Maybe they’d need help. Dave backed his pickup truck out of the driveway and headed east, down nearby Martin Street.

Nathan Velez shot this picture from his truck and sent it to a Youngstown TV station shortly after learning about the derailment. (Nathan Velez)

Nathan Velez learned about the crash from his brother-in-law, Steven, who had called and left several messages. Nathan, 32, had returned home after working all day in his small engine repair shop on East Taggart Street and was busy fixing dinner for his family. He wasn’t paying attention to his phone. When he finally returned the call, Steven was excited. “Dude, somebody got hit on the tracks,” he said.

Steven lives on East Taggart Street, near the crash site. The impact had shaken him out of bed. He originally thought a train had collided with a vehicle at an intersection. “I can’t believe you didn’t hear it,” he said to Nathan. With two kids and two dogs, the Velez household could be a noisy place. Outside sounds often go unnoticed. Besides, the Velez house was located more than four blocks from the railroad tracks.

Nathan hung up the phone, turned to his son, Troy, 9, and said, “Hey, bud, hop in the truck. Let’s go.” The two headed east, to the end of East Clark Street. There, Nathan could see a jumble of burning and overturned cars that extended at least a few hundred feet. The scope of the fire stunned him. A number of tanker cars were fully engulfed, and the flames were spreading. He could see them jumping from car to car along connecting hydraulic lines. 

Nathan pulled out his phone and took a picture, then sent it to a Youngstown TV station with a simple note: “Train derailment in East Palestine.”

Nathan lowered a window. He and Troy could feel the heat of the fire. A moment later, something exploded with enough force to shake Nathan’s truck. He put the vehicle in gear and drove quickly back to his home. He had no idea what was in those tanker cars, but he knew the danger of applying extreme heat to pressurized containers. An acetylene tank had once ignited in his shop — It shot upward with enough force to put a hole in the roof. And as a kid, he’d throw empty spray paint cans in campfires and wait for the “boom,” a game country boys played. Nathan looked at those rail cars and saw potential bombs.

‘I think we should leave’

Bob Figley was relaxing in the basement of his home on South Pleasant Drive when one of his employees called to tell him something big had happened in front of Figley’s store, Brushville Supply on East Taggart Street.

Figley and his wife, Marilyn, live on 30 acres of property about a half-mile from the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks. He got dressed, then drove north. At East Taggart Street, he saw before him a wall of flames rising at least 100 feet into the air. It looked like something out of a dream — or a nightmare.

He turned right onto East Taggart and pulled into the parking lot of his hardware store, which sits on a hill and offered a view of the disaster unfolding below. For a while, he and a few others — neighbors and an employee — watched in awe as firefighters poured water on the derailed cars. One person mentioned some of the cars contained chlorine or maybe chloride. It was just a rumor (several cars, in fact, contained vinyl chloride), but the possibility that the cars held dangerous chemicals alarmed Figley.

“I think we should leave,” he said.

• • •

Shortly after the derailment, Dave Miller crossed East Clark Street and saw the flames from the tracks near his home. (Dave Miller)

From the Millers’ home, the fire looked menacing — a looming mass of raging flames and smoke just beyond homes down the street. But that perspective of the blaze, from its western end, proved deceiving. It was in truth much larger. Dave, like Nathan, had driven to Martin Street and seen the fire’s terrible breadth. When he returned home, he told Lonnie, “It’s big.”

By now, sirens screamed all over town. About 300 firefighters from 50 different departments would eventually respond to the disaster. Lonnie grew concerned about her neighbor, an elderly woman who lived alone. So she stepped outside, crossed the lawn and walked up a series of steps to the neighbor’s door.

Eastbound emergency vehicles roared and honked down nearby streets. The sky directly above was clear — Lonnie could see the moon and stars. However, the eastern sky was completely obscured by a rising column of smoke that reflected the growing fire. This is crazy, she thought.

Lonnie pounded on her neighbor’s front door. After several minutes the neighbor answered, stunned and confused. She’d slept through the event. What’s going on? she asked. 

While the two women talked, a man approached from the sidewalk and said everyone had to leave the area. Local police had begun evacuating nearby residents.

“Where do I go?” the neighbor asked. “I don’t have any place to go.”

The man offered no advice. “You just need to leave,” he said.

“Just get in your car and go,” Lonnie said. The neighbor indicated she’d head to a relative’s house in nearby Salem.

Back at her home a few minutes later, Lonnie told Dave they needed to go someplace safer, but Dave demurred. If everyone left, he wondered, who would protect the neighborhood? What if looters came?

Standing in the living room, Lonnie and Dave’s conversation was interrupted by the wail of a train horn and the screeching sound of train brakes. Lonnie froze.

“Oh, my God!” she said. “There’s a second train!” She braced herself for the impact of a locomotive crashing into the derailed cars. It didn’t happen; the train stopped in time. But the incident added to the stress. Everything seemed to be spinning out of control. 

The family made a quick decision: Lonnie and Austin would go to Connie’s house on North Pleasant Drive. It’s certainly safer there. Dave would stay on East Clark Street with the family’s two English shepherds, Chevy and Lincoln.

Austin was the first to leave, heading out in his Honda Civic. Lonnie stuffed a few items into a bag, gave Dave a hug and said, “I love you.” She then climbed into her small SUV and began the journey to Connie’s place.                                        

She immediately ran into a problem: Traffic clogged all routes to North Pleasant. It seemed everyone was trying to flee town or to get into town to see what was happening. Plus, there were all those emergency vehicles.

Alone in her car and stuck in traffic, with sirens blaring all around her and a fire blazing out of control less than a half-mile away, Lonnie began to panic. She worried about Austin — certainly he was caught up in this mess of traffic. She called Connie, who said Austin had not yet arrived. “He should have been there by now,” Lonnie thought. Where was he?

Nathan Velez works in his small engine repair shop on East Taggart Street in East Palestine, Ohio, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Nathan Velez returned to his East North Street home and told his wife, Nicole, what he’d seen. “Babe, we’ve got to get out,” he said. Nicole held the couple’s 1-year-old daughter, Cambria. It was nearing the child’s bedtime.

“What are you talking about?” Nicole said. “It’s 9 at night.”

“It’s not good,” Nathan said. “Everyone is going to have to leave.”

Nathan’s serious tone alarmed Nicole. She began gathering supplies she’d need to care for the baby — diapers, clothes, food. It was now past 10 p.m. TV news played in the background while family members packed. A news anchor mentioned the train derailment, and a photograph of the fire flashed across the screen. “Hey, Dad,” Troy called out. “That’s your picture.”

Nathan grew concerned about his mother-in-law, who lived on East Clark Street. So he drove to her home and brought her back to his family’s East North Street house. Steven, his wife, Haley, and their dog joined the Velez family, and they all secured rooms at a Beaver Falls hotel.

Nathan, Nicole and the children piled into Nicole’s Toyota SUV and headed to a downtown gas station to fill the tank. Market Street was packed with emergency vehicles. The entire town, it seemed, was alight with flashing red and blue lights. The situation was even more dire than Nathan thought.

He told Nicole they needed to return home to get a small safe and the guns the couple owned. Once there, Nathan checked to make certain he’d locked his pickup truck. He noticed a thin layer of what he thought was snow on the vehicle. He rubbed his finger across the metal and discovered the snow was actually ash.

(Jennifer Kundrach/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

This can’t be healthy

Feeling trapped on East North Street, Lonnie made an abrupt U-turn — later, she was certain she’d driven into a resident’s yard — then took a long, looping route to Connie’s house. As she descended a hill overlooking town, Lonnie was stunned by what she saw. A massive conflagration now dominated what was normally a bucolic view. She stopped, rolled down her window and took a single photograph.

A few minutes later, Lonnie was relieved to see her son, Austin, sitting in Connie’s living room. She plopped down on a couch, then she and Connie called their mother, Dorothy Davis, who lived a few miles away in Pennsylvania.

The sisters spent the next several hours texting friends and checking Facebook for updates. Residents all over East Palestine were posting reports on what they’d seen and heard. People speculated about what was in those burning tanker cars. At one point, someone suggested it was malt liquor. It was difficult to determine what was truthful.

Meantime, back on East Clark Street, Dave remained in the house until around 11:30, when he detected a strong chemical odor. It smelled like burning plastic or paint. This can’t be healthy, he thought, so he loaded the family’s dogs, Chevy and Lincoln, into the cab of his pickup truck and drove off. He headed west to the Market Street business district, where he noticed something odd: Although Market was farther from the derailment, the odor there was more pungent than on East Clark.

For a while, Dave cruised around town, stopping on occasion to take a few pictures. Exhausted, he pulled into the parking lot of a Dollar General Store on state Route 14 so he could get some sleep. The two dogs curled up in the back seat of his extended cab while Dave reclined in the driver’s seat. Dave closed his eyes. More than 2 miles from the derailment, he could still smell a chemical odor.

Hours after the derailment Dave Miller shot this picture of the flames and clouds from state Route 14, a few miles north of the disaster. (Dave Miller)

• • •

Nathan and Nicole and their two children checked into a hotel room around 1 o’clock Saturday morning. Cambria and Troy were by now terrified but soon settled down and fell asleep. Nathan and Nicole, shocked by what had occurred in the past few hours, spent the next several hours checking social media and news reports for updates on the derailment. They soon determined they needed to stay out of town, at least for a while.

Nicole found an Airbnb in Canfield, Ohio, about 20 miles north of East Palestine. “How long should we book it?” Nicole asked. “Book it for two weeks,” Nathan said. The couple weren’t rich — they live on income from Nathan’s small engine repair shop and Nicole’s salary as a nurse — but they saw no alternative to spending the money. Nathan had seen the fire double in size in an hour. He knew the explosive potential of those tanker cars. At 6 a.m. Saturday, after spending five hours at the Beaver Falls hotel, the family departed for Canfield.

• • •

Having been up all night texting friends and checking for updates, Lonnie returned to her home around noon Saturday, hoping to persuade her husband to leave. She found him folding laundry in the dining room. Daylight streamed in through a window, illuminating a very fine glitter suspended in the air. It looked metallic. Officials had yet to release information about the materials burning in those derailed cars, but Lonnie suspected the glitter wasn’t good. She pinched the air with her fingers. “Can’t you see what’s in the air?” she asked Dave. “Why are you here? We need to get out of here!”

Dave didn’t see the urgency. After a tumultuous Friday night, Saturday seemed normal. He could still smell chemicals, but the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement saying the air was safe. Dave had seen men in hardhats walking along the railroad tracks across the street. They weren’t wearing gas masks, so how bad could it be?

Lonnie wanted to leave but wouldn’t do so without her husband. The couple remained at East Clark Street as the derailed cars continued to smolder and burn throughout the day. Austin returned home that evening. Meanwhile, friends who’d decided to leave East Palestine and stay in hotels texted Lonnie, urging her to get out.

‘Risk of catastrophic failure’

On Sunday morning, a deputy from the Columbiana County sheriff’s department arrived on East Clark Street and asked Dave how many people were in the house. Officials were getting a head count, the deputy explained. Lonnie asked the man about chemicals on the train, and he suggested she go to the community center at a local park. She could get answers there.

By then, officials had announced that some of the burning cars contained vinyl chloride, a combustible material known to cause cancer. Lonnie drove to the information center but got few answers there. People wearing Norfolk Southern shirts seemed more interested in collecting residents’ information — phone contacts and Social Security numbers, for example — than in helping people and answering questions about chemical exposure, she said later. Lonnie left angry and appalled at the lack of urgency.

At home, Dave kept thinking about the odd smells. It didn’t make sense. Why were the chemical odors more pronounced downtown, farther from the derailment? At one point on Sunday afternoon, Lonnie showed Dave social media posts of dead fish in Sulfur Run, a creek that runs past the derailment site and through the village’s downtown.

It was then that the danger became real for Dave. He threw his hands in the air. “Oh, my God, it’s already in the water,” he said. “That’s why there’s dead fish. That’s why it smells so bad downtown.” He figured chemicals leaking from the derailed cars had contaminated the area’s creeks and waterways.

Still, Lonnie and Dave decided they could stay in East Palestine for at least a while. That changed Sunday evening, as the couple watched a news conference held by local officials and carried live on Facebook. After a delay of several minutes, East Palestine fire Chief Keith Drabick sat down at a microphone to announce a “drastic change” in the vinyl chloride in one of the derailed cars.

“We are at risk now of a catastrophic failure of that container,” he said. “Measures are being taken to try to control that and prevent that from happening,” but he offered no details about those measures.

Everyone within a 1-mile radius of the derailment must evacuate immediately, he said. Those who defied the order and stayed in their homes could be arrested. The catastrophic failure, if it occurred, would produce hydrogen chloride and phosgene gas, Drabick said.

And then, less than 90 seconds after Drabick had begun talking, the news conference ended. Officials announced they would take no questions.

Moments later, each of the Millers’ cellphones emitted the high-pitched beep of an emergency alert. For Lonnie, the moment seemed filled with dread. How long did they have before the “catastrophic failure”? Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued a statement that went further, saying that the tanker could explode “with the potential of deadly shrapnel traveling more than a mile.” The Miller home was less than half that distance from the smoldering pile of cars. Could the explosion wreck the entire neighborhood? What about those chemicals? What would happen to them if the rail cars blew up?

Derailed train cars in East Palestine, Ohio. (Courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Justice)

Lonnie rushed through the house, grabbing family photos and stuffing clothes into duffel bags. Dave began filling zip-close bags with dog food. Lonnie screamed at him, “Just take the whole container! Put the whole container in your truck right now!”

The plan was to meet other family members at the Pennsylvania home of Lonnie’s mother, Dorothy Davis, and figure out what to do. Lonnie’s sister, Connie, and her husband, John, would be there, too.

Lonnie, Dave and Austin each drove separate vehicles. The family’s two dogs climbed into Dave’s truck. In the rush to leave, Lonnie backed her vehicle into Austin’s Civic. She simply misjudged where her son’s car was positioned. This evening, like Friday, was devolving into chaos, Lonnie thought. The derailment menaced everything she cared about — her family, her home, her neighborhood. As she drove out of East Palestine, Lonnie wept and prayed.

Once everyone had arrived at Dorothy’s house, Austin confronted his mother about the crash on East Clark Street. “What the hell, Mom?” he screamed at her. Then he saw the look on her face, realized how upset she was, and the two embraced. “I’m sorry,” Austin said.

Dave called hotels, searching for a place that would accept dogs because they could not stay at Dorothy’s small mobile home. Dave found an available room in Beaver Falls, but Dorothy wanted Austin to stay with her. Lonnie relented. She and Dave and the dogs headed to Beaver Falls. At least for now, it seemed, everyone was safe.

At the hotel later that night, Lonnie had trouble calming her dog Chevy. Voices in the hallway and the sound of other people with animals moving into rooms added to Chevy’s anxiety. The dog shook uncontrollably. Around 1 a.m. Lonnie decided to take her for a walk. 

Passing through the hotel lobby, Lonnie saw a group of workers waiting for room assignments. The workers were covered in black dust, like coal miners. She figured these were men who’d been trying to put out the fire in East Palestine, so she walked up to one of the older workers and thanked him for helping the town. “Ma’am,” the man said in a thick Southern accent, “this is what we do. We go from town to town and clean things up like this. After this, there will probably be another one.”

His words shocked Lonnie. Another one? How often does this happen? 

The past few days had been emotionally overwhelming. The derailment destroyed normal life on Friday night. Then, on Saturday, things seemed to settle down. Now Lonnie wasn’t sure she’d ever see her home again. Stressed and physically exhausted, Lonnie returned Chevy to the hotel room, then walked into the bathroom, shut the door, sat on the floor and cried.

A black cloud

Five of the tanker cars containing vinyl chloride remained intact after the derailment, but Norfolk Southern officials and their contractors felt at least one of them was unsafe because a relief valve had malfunctioned. The car’s contents were heating up, officials said.

To prevent an explosion, they proposed using small charges to create holes in the five cars, allowing the hazardous material to flow into a trench where it would be ignited by flares. They called this process “vent and burn.”

Fire Chief Drabick, acting as “incident commander,” said Norfolk Southern officials and their contractors told him the situation was urgent and gave him just 13 minutes to make a decision whether to approve the vent and burn process. Drabick heard no objections from the first responders, railroad officials and hazardous materials experts that made up the “unified command.” So around noon on Monday he gave the OK.

Lonnie researched the dangers of vinyl chloride and phosgene gas, which, she learned, was used as a chemical weapon in World War I. She felt guilty about leaving her mother, Dorothy, and son Austin in an area she felt was unsafe. 

On Monday morning, she called her mother and sister, and everyone agreed they needed to leave the area immediately. A hotel room wasn’t the answer. Family members decided to drive separately and meet at a shopping center parking lot near the town of East Liverpool, Ohio, about 20 miles north. There, Dave sat in his truck and again used his phone to search for an available house or an Airbnb. Lonnie posted a plea on Facebook. Hours passed, with no luck. Everything was booked as people from East Palestine scrambled to leave town. For 4½ hours family members sat in their separate vehicles in the cold. Dave grew increasingly frustrated. At one point Lonnie, sitting in her small SUV, looked over and saw him weeping in his truck.

Finally, Dave secured rental rooms at an East Liverpool house that could accommodate everyone except Lonnie’s sister, Connie, and her husband, John, who found a separate place to stay. 

In this dramatic image shot by an East Palestine resident, a black plume of smoke rises skyward during the “controlled burn” on Feb. 6, 2023. Read the story behind it here. (Rodney Bobin)

Hours passed on Monday afternoon while East Palestine residents, many now scattered about the region in hotels and Airbnbs and at the homes of friends and relatives, waited to see what would happen when officials ignited the vinyl chloride.

Nathan Velez and his family, including his mother-in-law and brother-in-law, gathered in a room at the Canfield Airbnb they’d rented. The TV was tuned to a local news station covering the story live. An iPad and cellphones streamed live feeds. Everyone was talking. When Nathan noticed the burn-off was beginning, he hollered out, “Everyone shut up. You all need to watch this. All of us in the room might lose everything right now.”

The room grew quiet. On the TV, a small fireball rising from the derailment site morphed into a massive roiling black plume. Weather conditions at the time were less than ideal. Over East Palestine, a layer of warm air lay atop colder air hovering near the earth’s surface, creating a temperature inversion. The problem with inversions is that the warm air acts like a hard ceiling, trapping smoke and pollutants.

As a result, that thick plume of smoke from the “controlled burn” rose to a height of about 3,000 feet, then spread in an ever-widening circle that soon filled the sky and darkened East Palestine. 

Nicole was the first to respond to live video of the burn. “Are you kidding me?” she said.

Nathan looked closely at drone shots and could see the family’s East North Street house below the plume. What was in that black cloud? Whatever it was, it couldn’t be safe — and it was coming down in his village. Nathan and Nicole decided to extend the Airbnb lease as long as possible. They knew they could never again live in East Palestine.

The Millers watched the same images in their East Liverpool rental. The black cloud appalled Lonnie. She imagined East Palestine as ground zero in Manhattan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, with everything and everyone covered in a choking dust.

• • • 

Bob Figley, the hardware store owner, looked at the black cloud and wondered, “Who thought it was a good idea to blow up a toxic bomb?”

He and his wife, Marilyn, had stayed with relatives on the west side of town in the days immediately following the derailment but made brief visits to their home and business over the next few days. They wanted to move several pregnant goats they were raising to a safer location and feed their chickens. Police called and told Bob they wanted him to shut down his business temporarily. He wondered about the future. Would he be able to reopen? Would customers return to a store so close to an environmental disaster?

 • • •

Deane Cope stands in the workshop he built behind his house, which backs up to the train tracks, on East Clark Street in East Palestine, Ohio, Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The rising plume reminded Deane Cope of mushroom clouds rising over American deserts during atomic bomb tests in the years after World War II. As a child, Deane had seen films of those tests. “My God, this is really something,” he thought as the cloud rose over East Palestine.

Deane, 79, watched the burn-off from the yard of a friend’s house in Unity Township, where he and his wife, Debbie, 67, had been staying since the night of the derailment. Debbie saw the cloud from inside the house. She and Deane were anxious to return to their normal lives and thought the burn-off would be a step in that direction.

The Copes live on East Clark Street, across from the Miller house. Norfolk Southern’s tracks run just beyond the couple’s backyard. Deane grew up on East Clark. Trains had always been a comfort to him. He remembered his grandmother feeding hobos who rode the rails decades ago.

Debbie felt differently. Those rumbling trains, passing so close to her house and rattling the walls, could be a hassle. On occasion, the couple had to straighten pictures knocked askew. In warm weather, Debbie liked to sit on the back porch and enjoy moments of peace and quiet, but she found it hard to do when trains rolled through every 30 minutes or so.

After the burn-off, Deane thought he and Debbie would soon be able to return home. But his wife wasn’t so certain. She’d struggled with blood cancer for more than a decade. All those chemicals worried her. “Is everything contaminated?” she wondered. “What’s inside the house? What are we going to be breathing?”

Debbie and Deane Cope look out their kitchen window toward the train tracks. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

‘We have to figure things out’

Lonnie, Dave and Austin remained in East Liverpool until Tuesday, Feb. 21. Lonnie wanted to stay longer. The family paid for lodging with a credit card, and she was willing to do so for another few months if needed. She felt the environmental damage caused by the derailment had rendered East Palestine unsafe. But Dave insisted. 

“We have to try to figure things out,” he said. Besides, Dave added, Lonnie needed to prepare her testimony for a Feb. 23 hearing into the derailment. The hearing had been scheduled in Beaver County by Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano. Lonnie had reached out to his office because Mastriano chaired a committee responsible for overseeing fire and emergency management, and as a result she was one of several people invited to testify. It felt good to be heard by someone with authority, she said.

Once back on East Clark Street, however, the house did not feel the same. Odors lingered, and there were health concerns. Some of Lonnie’s friends had reported rashes, chemical bronchitis, swollen faces and a burning sensation around the mouth. Lonnie herself had experienced nosebleeds and crushing headaches. “Much worse than a migraine,” she said. 

She tried to blame these on other factors — lack of sleep, stress. But she remembered the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, so mishandled at the local, state and federal level that several officials resigned and a number of others were criminally charged. (A state court found even the prosecution was mishandled, and the charges were either dismissed or dropped.) She thought of the 9/11 emergency responders in New York who experienced an increased risk of cancer due to their exposure to toxic dust, and the water contamination issue at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. She begged Dave to put their belongings in a rental truck and just leave.

“We can’t just walk away from everything,” Dave said. He got so upset at one point that he stormed out of the house, got in his pickup truck and drove away. Distressed, Lonnie turned to Austin and said, “I don’t know what Dad’s going to do.”

Her husband was “so angry and upset that he couldn’t save us, and he wanted to. He came back home within five minutes. He was just devastated.”

Lonnie Miller cries as she watches a model train travel a track around the living room of her family’s home on East Clark Street in East Palestine, Ohio, Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The couple spent that night lying in bed and listening to the trains running along tracks 200 feet away. Norfolk Southern had reopened the track a few days after the burn-off; now the rail traffic seemed never-ending. “They just kept going like we didn’t exist,” Lonnie said.

Soon, Lonnie began experiencing nightmares. In one, a house across the street became engulfed in flames, and Lonnie could do nothing to save her neighbor. In another, she and Austin sat in an automobile while a train derailed in front of them. Lonnie would wake up screaming, with Dave trying to console her. Another time, she dreamed of rats attacking in the bedroom. Lonnie’s dogs tried to fight off the rodents but were overwhelmed. A friend later told Lonnie that, in dreams, rats signify contamination.

Lonnie began sleeping in a living room chair, with a duffel bag of clothes beside her, in case another train derailed and she needed to leave quickly. Eventually, Dave, too, slept in the living room so he could be near his wife.

One night in March, Lonnie awoke long before sunup. She saw Dave awake in the recliner beside her. He’d been thinking about chemical contamination. In those days after the derailment, he wondered, what did they breathe into their lungs? He regretted driving around town and taking pictures in the hours after the railroad cars had run off the tracks. He was concerned the chemicals could already be wreaking havoc inside his body. Would he become ill with cancer or some other disease in one year? Five years? Ten years? Dave feared he wouldn’t be around when Lonnie and Austin needed him.

Lonnie and Dave wept, then embraced and prayed that God would heal and protect them. “You have to stay strong,” Lonnie said. After a while, both Lonnie and Dave calmed themselves. Lonnie then walked into the kitchen and vomited in the sink.

“We both knew there was nothing about our home and our town that would ever be the same again,” she said. They had to get out.

Dave Miller holds a model Norfolk Southern train car that was once part of a model train set that would travel a track in the living room. It’s now stored in a box in their basement. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

• • •

Nathan Velez and his brother-in-law, Steven, returned to East Palestine on Feb. 8. The chemical smell hit Nathan “like a fist,” burning his eyes and, within seconds, giving him a headache. He visited his shop on East Taggart Street, closer to the derailment. It was even worse there — “like stepping inside a can of paint thinner,” he said.

He visited a Norfolk Southern assistance center and got into an argument with a company representative who Nathan felt was demeaning and insulting. Security escorted Nathan out of the building. Nathan was stressed and exhausted. He and Nicole were spending thousands of dollars each month, bouncing from one Airbnb to another. From the night of the derailment until June, they spent more than $12,000 in lodging; Norfolk Southern eventually reimbursed them $8,500.

Nathan was outspoken and a good storyteller, so reporters sought him out. He was interviewed a number of times on local and national news programs. For a while, he kept track of the interviews but stopped counting after a few dozen.

One day, he finished an interview with Fox News then headed to an Airbnb that was then serving as a home. He was scheduled to do another interview that evening on CNN. During the trip home, Nathan’s heart began racing. Sweat poured down his face. His hands wouldn’t work.

“Holy shit, I’m having a heart attack,” he thought. He pulled into the Airbnb driveway and called Nicole. “I think I’m dying,” he said.

Nicole rushed outside, and her training as a nurse kicked in. “Babe, you’re having a panic attack,” she said. She calmed him down. He texted CNN staffers and let them know what was happening. “I’m running on fumes,” he wrote. He ended up doing the interview, believing the world needed to see what people in East Palestine were dealing with.

Nathan Velez unloads wood pallets while making a trade with another resident outside his small engine repair shop on East Taggart Street. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The most terrifying event to strike the Velez family occurred one day in March. Nathan was at the shop doing yet another interview when son Troy called. “Cam ate something,” he said. Nathan could hear Nicole screaming in the background. “You need to get here now!” she said.

It took Nathan 20 minutes to drive to the family’s Airbnb in Poland, on the outskirts of Youngstown. He ran inside. Nicole held Cambria, who was beet red and convulsing. Cam had ingested medicine not intended for children. It all happened so quickly. Nathan called 911, and within minutes an ambulance arrived and took Cam to a local hospital. Doctors tried to calm her heart rate with medication, but it didn’t work. So she was transferred to Akron Children’s Hospital.

Nathan and Nicole spent that night in a hospital waiting room while doctors stabilized their daughter. Cambria remained in the hospital for a week.

“This almost completely wrecked us,” Nathan later said. ​​The stress and chaos of moving from one rental place to another was becoming too much. All the packing and unpacking. At their East Palestine home, everything had its place. Now, nothing had a place. “This only happened because we weren’t in our own home,” Nathan said.

Losing more than a home

Larry Davis, left, with grandson Austin and daughter Lonnie Miller during a birthday party in 2006. (Lonnie Miller)

The Millers’ home on East Clark is a narrow two-story wood structure with an American flag flying from a pole on the front porch. East Clark is lined with similar homes, modest aging structures that have been carefully maintained.

Inside, the house is cozy, the rooms decorated with antiques and collectibles: old muffin trays and rolling pins in the kitchen, vintage tins for baking soda and other cooking staples, Coca-Cola crates, classic print ads for Lionel model trains. The Millers raised their son, Austin, here and had planned on passing the house to him when they retired and possibly moved south, perhaps to the Carolinas or Florida. That won’t happen.

In the months after the derailment, Lonnie and Dave put the house on the market. They’d taken out another mortgage to purchase a house in Leetonia, a small Ohio town about 15 miles west. 

Losing the house broke Lonnie’s heart. After nearly 30 years, the place was filled with memories and markers of life, such as the pencil lines on a wall that tracked Austin’s growth. He was 5 months old when Dave built a garage — Austin’s footprints are imprinted in the concrete floor.

But Lonnie and Dave felt they had no choice. They could no longer trust East Clark Street to be safe.

For Lonnie the decision was especially difficult because the house represented a special connection to her father, Larry Davis.

On Sunday afternoon, Oct. 8, 2006, Lonnie’s parents were traveling along Route 551 in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, east of New Castle, when their pickup was struck by a vehicle that had run a stop sign. Three teenagers in the vehicle died, and Lonnie’s father received serious injuries. A medical helicopter transported him to a hospital in Youngstown, where he spent much of the next several weeks in a coma.

Larry Davis regained consciousness a few times and always asked about his grandson Austin, then 4. “They were best of friends,” Lonnie said. “I made my dad a promise in the hospital to do everything I can to make his grandson safe.”

Larry Davis died of his injuries in late January 2007. As a result of a settlement, Lonnie and Dave were able to pay off their home. Lonnie felt that was her father’s final gift to her. A home was something he was never able to provide for his wife. Larry Davis worked as head of maintenance at a local factory. He could fix anything, and he was a hard worker. Lonnie has pictures of him, exhausted after his shift and asleep on a couch. But he never made much money.

“I watched Dad struggle for years and years, trying to provide for my mom and my sister and I,” Lonnie said. “We lived in a trailer, a mobile home, and he regretted that. He wished he could have built my mom a beautiful house.”

In death, he was able to provide a house for his daughter. Now, Lonnie had to part with that gift. “I feel like I’m losing my dad all over again,” she said.

Lonnie Miller is comforted by her husband Dave as she becomes emotional recounting the days following the train derailment that upended her life in her familyÕs home on East Clark Street in East Palestine, Ohio, Monday, Jan. 15, 2024. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

‘We couldn’t make it’

The Miller’s new place in Leetonia needed a lot of work. Interior walls were punctured by holes; junk filled the rooms. Lonnie knows antiques and collectibles, and the only thing of value she found was a lamp worth about $50. Mice infested the place. Racoon droppings littered the floor.

Outside, the yard was littered with trash — everything from toothpaste tubes to pantyhose. While cleaning up the property, the Millers filled two dumpsters with debris. The house needed a roof and electrical work. But at least it was safe, and it was nowhere near a railroad track.

By October, the family had moved out of the East Clark Street home and were staying at the Leetonia house. Lonnie enjoyed watching Dave and Austin work together to fix it up. Lonnie emptied out her Market Street antiques store, Mama’s Attic. She’d decided long before to close the business, although owning the shop had been a dream of hers. So much had changed in the town. It wasn’t just the chemicals. The derailment had created divisions in the community, in many cases turning friends and neighbors against each other. To Lonnie, it was unbearable.

Lonnie cleaned up the East Palestine house and put it on the market, something that would have been inconceivable a year ago. All of those things that made the house special had been poisoned. “If I had the money, I would tear it down myself,” Lonnie said. “I wouldn’t even ask for a permit.”

Deane and Debbie Cope chat in the living room of their house. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Deane and Debbie Cope moved back into their East Clark Street house after staying 11 days with their friend in Unity Township. Debbie still worried that air inside the house could be hazardous, so the couple requested testing. A few men stopped by and used hand-held devices to sample the air in several places. Results revealed no hazards. Months later, though, the Copes saw news reports that indicated the testing devices were faulty. Now they don’t know what to believe.

The house has been a thread connecting Deane to his family’s past. His great-aunt lived there decades ago. As a child, Deane cut the grass in the summer and in the winter shoveled snow off the sidewalk. In 1984, he and Debbie were married in the living room. It’s the only place the couple ever owned.

“We’re not living like kings, but our needs are met here,” Deane said. He would like to stay in the house, but he’s concerned for Debbie’s health. She’d like to leave, but the couple can’t afford to move. They live on Social Security benefits and Deane’s small pension. The 2008 financial crisis wiped out their 401(k). 

“If we had to go someplace and pay rent or a house payment, we couldn’t make it,” Deane said. The couple found a place in nearby New Waterford that would suit their needs — it was a ranch home with a garage. The price: approximately $170,000, much more than the Copes can afford.

“We’ll never get that out of this place,” Deane said while sitting in his living room in January. Who wants to buy a house a hundred feet from a railroad track, especially one in a town now known for a toxic derailment? “We’re stuck.”

Debbie and Deane Cope hold a photo from their wedding in the same location in their home that the photo was taken 40 years ago. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Frustrations and feathers

In the weeks after the derailment, Bob Figley grew increasingly frustrated with the response by government agencies and by Norfolk Southern.

After the burn-off, some residents grew concerned about dioxin, a highly toxic pollutant created by burning vinyl chloride. Dioxin is known to cause cancer. But the EPA didn’t test East Palestine soil for dioxin until weeks after the burn-off. Those tests found the levels to be normal, or what would be expected in any community, but independent tests discovered much higher levels. Who was right? 

Bob wondered whose side the EPA was on. “Are they the Environmental Protection Agency or the Empire Protection Agency?” he asked. It bothered him that after the derailment Norfolk Southern “took over” a portion of the town without consulting the business owners whose property was directly affected by the disaster. It felt like big businesses and institutions were pushing people around.

What’s the future for him and Marilyn, and for his business? Bob grew up in East Palestine; he’s not going anywhere. His store, Brushville Supply, has been at its current location on East Taggart for 20 years.

“Where am I going to go?” Bob asked. “Everything’s here. We’ve got 30 acres, a house, barns, maple trees. That’s our retirement home. Do I want to start my life over somewhere? If there was something here that was going to kill us in a year, then, yeah, I’d leave. But we just don’t know.”

In the months after the derailment, he and Marilyn lived in a number of rental places. They were concerned about toxins in their home. “We lived out of suitcases for five months,” Bob said. Eventually, the railroad paid to have their home cleaned and the interior rooms painted, something the couple felt they needed to do in order to make the place safe.

Bob was told by the EPA his business needed to be cleaned, a monumental task in a place packed with thousands of tools, fittings, hoses, connectors and other items. He spent a lot of time getting estimates, coming up with a plan. Then he was told the cleaning was voluntary and would have to be done by a separate company. Such interactions leave people confused — Is there a hazard that needs to be removed or not?

Bob wants the railroad company as well as government agencies to “come in and be straightforward and tell us the truth. Come in here and be responsible and take care of the mess you made.”

A sign is posted near Sulphur Run on West Street. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

• • •

Like the Miller family, Nathan and Nicole Velez decided to look for a new place to live. By April, their home on East North Street had been vacant for nearly three months after being exposed to whatever chemicals had been released into the air during and after the derailment. 

Nathan spent months traveling to the East Palestine house, packing the family’s belongings into plastic bins and then renovating the place — finishing a bathroom project he’d started before the derailment, repairing floors, replacing a ceiling, painting the interior walls. He and Nicole found a house they liked in New Waterford, and their offer was accepted. All of this proved costly. Nathan sold his beloved El Camino and drained money from his business, which remained closed to regular business until summer.

By November, Nathan and Nicole had sold their place at 327 East North St. One of the last items remaining in the house was a calendar that had hung for years in the family’s kitchen. It was Nicole’s habit to draw a line through the current day before she went to bed at night. The first and second days of February 2023 are marked off — those turned out to be the last days the family would spend in the house.

“So long, 327,” Nathan wrote in a Facebook post. “You were a great first house.”

Once his family’s move from East Palestine was complete, Nathan contemplated the future of his shop, located in a one-story shed packed with tools, engines, motorcycles and ATVs. Should the business remain on East Taggart Street? The chemical odors had dissipated, but what about other forms of contamination? Sulfur Run, which some residents feared was still polluted, flowed past the back door. Nathan had much to figure out.

After the derailment, as he and his family navigated various crises, Nathan began writing about his experiences. His entries were at times achingly personal and often reflective. In the fall of 2023, he wrote about the lessons he’d learned since returning Steven’s phone call on the frigid Friday evening of Feb. 3. 

“No one is coming to save you,” he wrote. “The government, the railroad, the lawyers, no one. Whatever it is you wish would happen probably won’t. Not unless you shut up and do it yourself.”

A sign on West Main Street. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

• • •

One day last winter, Lonnie found feathers on the ground while taking her dogs for walks around her East Palestine neighborhood. She’s a spiritual person and considered these signs from angels telling her she and her family would be safe. Then a friend in nearby West Virginia told her she’d found dead birds in her yard after the burn-off. Now Lonnie thinks those feathers may have been from birds who’d flown through airborne chemicals.

Other things Lonnie once considered real turned out to be illusions. Friendships she thought were resilient fell apart over disagreements about the derailment and its aftermath. She looked at the home that once protected her and wondered if it harbored invisible hazards. Even the signs posted around the village — “EP Strong” — seemed to tell a lie. Neighbors and friends had turned on each other.

Eleven months after the derailment, Lonnie’s nightmares remained, but she no longer woke up screaming. Counseling proved a big help. The East Clark Street house had been on the market for weeks, but no potential buyers had emerged. Still, Lonnie and Dave were relieved to be in Leetonia. “We’re getting away from the threat, and this is the best we can do,” Lonnie said.

The place came with more than 2 acres, so the dogs had room to run. And perhaps its most important amenity: no nearby railroad traffic to rattle the house or nerves. Quiet dominates the landscape. Still, if Lonnie walks to the edge of the property and listens carefully, she can hear it in the distance, perhaps carried by the wind: the sound of a train, blaring its warning.

This story is part of collaborative coverage of East Palestine between the Pittsburgh Union Progress and the New Castle News, funded in part by a grant from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.