Norfolk Southern’s Fort Wayne rail line runs directly through East Palestine, Ohio. (Rebecca Kiger for The Washington Post)

The testing of East Palestine

One resident left the Ohio town. Another decided to stay. Both want answers.

18 min

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Ben stayed. Jami left.

“I have some cognitive dissonance with the decision I made,” says Ben.

“We just grabbed the baby,” says Jami. “And took off.”

Their choices had to do with the creek. It meanders, from the site of the train derailment, through the heart of town. Past the copper fabrication plant and the Fraternal Order of Eagles, directly under the bakery and the mayor’s office, toward the park, where the tennis league is supposed to start at the end of the month.

Jami Cozza’s ground-floor apartment is seven paces from the creek, on the south side of the railroad tracks.

Ben Ratner’s three-story house is on the north side of the tracks, uphill a bit, which means the creek, named Sulphur Run, isn’t potentially leaching hazardous chemicals into his basement, with all those bags of T-ball and soccer gear.

The air and drinking water in East Palestine are being tested routinely. The government says it’s okay to breathe, drink and bathe. But then what about those strange smells on the breeze? What about the pallets of bottled water trundling into town?

“You can’t say that everything’s okay when people are getting sick,” Jami says. “You know, we’re not all imagining our lips and tongues tingling.”

Just stay away from the creek, the government says. Just come to the Environmental Protection Agency’s community welcome center, the government says, if you have questions.

Ben does. “Are we going to realize in 10 years that we should’ve made a bigger deal about this?” he says, standing in the converted dance and yoga studio. Each time he stops in, he is met by government representatives who want to help but can’t. Ben hits them with his logic, but in their language: Why are soil measurements shifting between pounds and cubic yards? What about the two tankers’ worth of petroleum lube oil that might be stuck to the bottom of Sulphur Run?

The government reps seem sympathetic, overwhelmed, answerless. They let Ben monologue. He refers to the Notes app on his iPhone, which is stocked with numbers, maps, terms, links, questions. After 10 minutes of science, he downshifts to pop culture. Maybe this way they will grasp what he’s asking for.

“If this were a movie,” he tells them, “this should be the part where Dennis Quaid comes out and calms everyone down.”

This is not a movie. “White Noise” is the movie, based on the 1985 novel by Don DeLillo. The movie, which came out last year, depicts a toxic train derailment in a small Ohio town. Ben, 37, was a background actor for the filming in 2021. He was fitted with 1970s attire and assigned to be a passenger in a boxy Lincoln Continental in a sequence where disbelieving townspeople finally flee a billowing cloud of toxins. In “White Noise,” the conveniences and distractions of modern life conspire to make everything seem beyond belief, even things happening right before one’s eyes.

Ben’s costume was labeled “Evacuee (In Rain).” You can’t see him in the final cut of the film, but an unnatural disaster wrote him into the real-life version. On Feb. 3, around 8:54 p.m., an eastbound freight train came to a stop on the eastern edge of town, near the head of Sulphur Run, which streams westward, back through people’s yards. Thirty-eight rail cars had derailed; 11 cars toting hazardous chemicals caught fire. Five cars carrying 115,580 gallons of flammable vinyl chloride were in danger of exploding, so on Feb. 6, after Ben and his family became real-life evacuees, authorities conducted a “controlled venting.” That is a polite way to describe the image that flashed on TV, social media and the front pages of newspapers: a soaring, burning tower of God-knows-what.

The smoke looked volcanic. It looked atomic. Some would later refer to it as “the black cloud of death.”

The evacuation order was lifted two days later.

The trains were running again within the week.

Ben brought his family back to East Palestine. His four children, ages 2 to 15, had been through enough throughout the pandemic. His teenage girls were in two separate musicals opening in March. Ben had spring sports to coach and a cafe in nearby Salem to run. His wife’s family was now five generations deep in East Palestine. Ben and Lindsay had bought their house in 2007 for $50,000 and had been slowly renovating it into their dream home.

If they left, then what was it all for? If they stayed, what were they risking?

“If there are a group of people that want to stay, then stay,” says Jami, 46. “You know, live this pretend life that everything’s fine.”

In high school, just south of East Palestine, she was voted biggest bully in her senior class but also runner-up for Sweetheart Queen, she says, and was the first member of her family to go to college. She got a law degree and a masters in public administration and moved to East Palestine to give her daughter, now 3, a familiar kind of childhood. She has 47 relatives living in a one-mile radius in East Palestine.

When Jami saw that black cloud of death, she saw her past and future burning up with that vinyl chloride.

“All the memories with my dad. All the memories that I wanted to share with my daughter.”

She moved her family — her fiance and her daughter — downriver to a hotel in West Virginia.

After the derailment, she took a new job, with River Valley Organizing, to raise hell. People are desperate to get out of East Palestine, she says, and they’re coming to her. There’s not much she can tell them right now, other than: We have to organize against this profit-over-people thing.

“My life,” she says, “went from my peaceful little quiet town — you know, the American Dream of going to work and coming home and spending time with your family — to chaos.”

Texts and phone calls every minute. Lists of demands on behalf of citizens. Interviews, spreadsheets, door-knocking. Contaminated materials are being sent from East Palestine to nearby East Liverpool for incineration, so she’s confronted the hotel manager about the haz-mat trucks in the parking lot, the workers tromping mud of unknown origin into the foyer and the elevators. So they’re poisoning the whole county now, she thinks. She connects her own dots to Flint, Love Canal, Camp Lejeune.

“Mommy’s got it,” Jami has been reassuring her daughter at their hotel in West Virginia, and her daughter now repeats it often, like a toddler mantra: “Mommy’s got it.”

Over the past month, East Palestine has persevered and unraveled at the same time. Some evacuees don’t plan to return. School sports teams from neighboring towns forfeited games rather than come play. The mayor asked angry residents to please not accost village employees at their homes. Some people are speaking out about the possible dangers in the air, water and soil. Some people think the real poison is panic. They are saying, “Quiet down.”

Ben has not been quiet.

“My business is suffering,” he says. “I’m not focusing on spending time with the kids. I’m reading and researching. I’m getting pulled into it.”

He’s done media interviews about the “uncanny” similarity between fiction and fact. He accompanied a TV crew to a spot near the derailment, then vomited so much that he ruptured a vein under his tongue. From the relative safety of his home, he would set his phone on the roof of his daughters’ old dollhouse and talk to news outlets. These incidents always follow a pattern, he would say to viewers. The company at fault creates confusion. The government doesn’t want a panic, emotional or economic. Citizens don’t know how seriously to take anyone or anything.

“We’re basically the same people in different clothes,” Ben told Eric Bolling of Newsmax, two weeks after the derailment, comparing the people of “White Noise” to the people of East Palestine. Meanwhile, online conspiracy theorists went further. They thought that the movie was “predictive programming,” that the government wanted to condition people to be complacent, to ask fewer questions, to be unable to distinguish entertainment from reality. It didn’t help that Ben’s last name happens to appear in the title of one of DeLillo’s earlier novels: “Ratner’s Star.”

Dumb coincidence, Ben knows. He’s more interested in facts. He monitors an engineer’s TikTok that dissects the derailment’s aftermath. He goes to news conferences to ask questions. He sits in the front row of city council meetings to record audio. Sometimes his mind draws him into a maze of suspicions having to do with corporate portfolios and campaign contributions. But when it comes down to it, if there is a conspiracy, he thinks, then it is obvious and pedestrian: Under-regulation, understaffing and corner-cutting in the railroad industry had allowed train axles to overheat, he says, then Norfolk Southern’s priority was not cleaning up the site but getting commerce moving again as quickly as possible.

“Our original plan would have effectively and safely remediated the soil under our tracks,” Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan H. Shaw said in a statement last month, but the company decided to “enhance” its plan after hearing from citizens. Norfolk Southern’s mantra is “making it right,” and it is now removing the train tracks to excavate the soil. Government agencies are acknowledging a “deficit of trust” and are promising to stay in East Palestine “as long as it takes.” Contractors have staged a testing and cleanup station where the creek borders the park.

The Ratner family is performing normal rituals while recognizing that everything is tainted, somehow. A costume company reneged on supplying rentals for the high school’s upcoming production of “The Lion King,” and Lindsay wonders whether it’s because it’s worried about its materials being contaminated. One of their daughters threw up three times the other day; how could Ben not consider all the potential causes?

“I think we’re entering a new chapter with things,” Ben says, “where everybody is getting kind of burnt out, and there’s going to be almost a complacency that’s going to slip in.” The story of “White Noise,” he says, is about a lot more than just a train derailment.

“If you weren’t choosed to be an extra in the movie, none of this woulda happened,” Ben’s 6-year-old, Simon, says one day, out of the blue, while shaping modeling clay at their kitchen table.

“That’s what you think, huh? Or did you hear that from someone?”

“I heard that from mom.”

“Is she saying people say that?”

“Yes.”

“People have too much time on their hands.”

The track-and-field season started recently, and one of Ben’s daughters sent an uneasy text to her parents: They told us to run to the park.

“My mom is so sick, she can barely move, which is completely unlike her,” Jami says. “The woman never sits down. If dishes sit in my mom’s sink longer than an hour, there’s something seriously wrong, you know? And she’s had dishes that sat overnight.”

Lawyers are cataloguing rashes, bouts of diarrhea, dull headaches. One employee in the copper plant — 2,000 feet downstream of the derailment site — says that he could barely breathe at work, that when he operated his machinery, skin fell off his hands.

In some homes, the smell is intolerable. Car windshields are smudged with a filmy dust; is it coming from the remediation of the derailment site? Why does it suddenly hurt to chew? Lately there are reports of swollen fingers downstream in the community of Negley.

Farther down, along the Ohio River, Jami visits a brick rental house on Main Street in Wellsville, Ohio. It has hardwood floors, battered but handsome. Maybe this is their new home? It’s about 30 minutes south of East Palestine. That feels safe enough.

“I’m in love,” Jami says, touring the upstairs. “Look at the closet space. This could be an office. There’s a closet in every room.”

She applies to rent it. She can’t believe that she’s been technically homeless for a month now.

“It’s not knowing from day to day what’s going to happen,” she says. “It’s, you know, constant worry about my mom, my nieces. You know, they’re getting sicker and sicker each day. Now my focus is on getting my family and my friends out.”

Back in town, Ben walks to the EPA’s welcome center. The older kids are at school, and Lindsay is watching the 2-year-old, so he might as well try to get some answers.

“It’s just really trying to unravel the omissions mixed with rosy information that they give us.”

In the distance, a train blares a baritone warning.

“I don’t think anybody’s out to hurt anybody.”

The train is getting closer. Ben raises his voice.

“But I do think there’s an overarching issue. ‘Systemic’ is the word.”

The train appears behind him, metal screeching over metal. It bisects the town, stops traffic on six different streets, heads toward the derailment site.

A couple of blocks farther, at the welcome center, Ben talks to EPA and Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives about “holes in the timeline.” He wonders about testing for pollutants such as dioxins. He asks about the elevated levels of acrolein, a hazardous byproduct of the fire, measured in town by researchers from Texas A&M University who otherwise corroborated the EPA by finding no hot spots of benzene or vinyl chloride.

“Vinyl chloride is going to go away quick, and they’re not talking about the ‘forever chemicals,’” Ben tells the government reps. “That’s going to be a problem after I’m gone.”

The reps have nothing much to say to him except to ask, warily, whether he’s a journalist.

“No,” he says. “I’m just an informed citizen.”

Ben had planned to attend the government’s daily 4 p.m. news conference at the park, but when he arrives, no one is there. So he returns a second time to the welcome center, wondering what’s up, wondering why the government reps were allowing themselves to be put in a position where they couldn’t answer his questions.

Ben is emotional but level. He is tense but nonconfrontational.

“I’m sorry we have not been able to accommodate your concerns,” one rep tells him, as another ducks behind a barrier and calls the police. Something about people feeling uncomfortable? It’s hard to tell why.

Ben leaves the welcome center as three East Palestine police officers arrive. Ben knows one of them from the school, another from coaching his daughter.

“My wife’s got to take our girls to their show,” he tells the officers. “I got to watch my sons.” He gives his address. He shrugs to the heavens. “I’ll be there if you want to come get me.”

That night, the government holds a pair of events: a “resource fair” in the gym and an “update meeting” in the auditorium.

Ben goes to the gym. Jami goes to the auditorium.

She sits third row center, arms crossed. She just heard that she didn’t get the brick rental home. And earlier, around the time the welcome center called the police on Ben, Jami’s hotel called the sheriff on her, after a disagreement over credit-card charges, and officers arrived to politely oversee her as she packed up and left to find a new hotel.

Now, in front of her, government officials are taking their seats onstage against a painted panorama of the African savannah at sunrise. (“The Lion King” opens in two weeks.) One by one, they try to placate the townspeople.

Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who gave the East Palestine fire department the $18,000 his campaign received from Norfolk Southern’s political action committee, tells the audience “how proud I am of you,” then leaves the stage after his remarks.

“This is a special place, and you are a special people,” says a regional EPA manager, after declaring that there is a “low probability” that dioxins were released by the burn.

Speakers are interrupted by heckling, by rueful cackling. When it’s time for questions, a dozen people line up at the microphones. When she reaches the front, Jami and the mayor, Trent Conaway, begin to argue about unreturned phone calls, alleged payoffs from Norfolk Southern, the safety of municipal employees working right above the creek. The audience begins to boo Jami, who is taking up precious time. Eventually, the mayor says, sternly, “Do you have a question for somebody on the stage?”

“They’re all scientists sitting up there, telling us nothing is wrong,” Jami says. “I want you to tell me why everybody in my community is getting sick.”

“I want the same answers,” the mayor says.

“Well then let’s get ’em,” Jami says. The mayor yields to a representative from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is conducting hundreds of “assessment of chemical exposures” interviews.

“How long is it going to take?” Jami asks. “I’m watching my family dying slowly now in front of my eyes. It’s been a month.”

“I understand your concerns,” the rep says, “and it’s going to take us about three weeks to collect the data that we need to make sure that we have a good understanding of the whole picture.”

Jami surrenders the microphone to residents who speak about their gardens, their property values, their vomiting and insomnia and difficulty breathing. Some beg the government to evacuate them from East Palestine. One man pleads for blunt honesty about the town: “Tell us it’s destroyed. Tell us it’s ruined.”

Jami walks out of the school, into the cold night. A train is coming.

“I have to have a cigarette.”

Journalists pursue her. Jami isn’t having it.

“I’m a redheaded Italian. I got to cool down a minute.”

Journalists persist. The train horn is getting louder. Jami raises her voice.

“I have to get a cigarette before I kill somebody. And I ain’t joking.”

She walks past the gym entrance. Inside, at the resource fair, Ben is in his third hour of calmly grilling scientists and contractors about discrepancies in information, about the difference between “evaporate” and “sublimate,” about how agencies focused on their own lanes might miss the bigger picture.

In front of him are handouts about maintaining a “self-care wheel” and “coping with a disaster.” There is show-and-tell with an apparatus that can detect volatile chemicals in the parts-per-trillion range. Norfolk Southern has a long table with a flier that says, underlined and in bold: There have been no health risks detected by any test conducted by government and independent labs.

Still, Ben came with questions for the contractors, the EPA reps, the railroad guys: Who authorized trains to be running before cleanup was completed? Can you explain the elevated levels of particulate matter and why they’re not a concern?

Eventually, around 9 p.m., he and other remaining citizens are asked to leave. The gym has to be cleaned up. There’s school tomorrow.

Ben walks outside, into whatever part of the movie this should be. Normally he has many words to describe any situation, but right now he has just one.

“Sisyphus,” he says, as the next train approaches.

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