EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (AP) — Hours after being told she could go home for the first time since a train hauling chemicals derailed and later sent up a toxic plume near the Pennsylvania state line, Melissa Henry nervously walked inside her house.
First, she washed her sheets and pillow cases. Then she started throwing out everything left on her kitchen counters. She opened all of her windows too, hoping to air out whatever might have seeped inside while fearful of the air outside too.
“Was that the right thing to do or not? You just don’t know,” she said Thursday. “It was a nightmare, it still is.”
Residents forced to evacuate the Ohio village of East Palestine began trickling home after being told Wednesday that hundreds of air samples showed no dangerous levels of toxins following the controlled release and burn of five tankers that were among nearly 50 cars that derailed last Friday.
Some, including Henry, came back within the first few hours while others were waiting to see the results of air sampling inside their homes before returning.
“I was a nervous freaking wreck last night,” she said. “My kids are here that’s my biggest concern.”
Henry and her two boys had stayed with her parents for nearly five days while waiting for the derailment to be cleaned up. She left on Saturday before the mandatory evacuations were ordered because her youngest son’s “eyes turned red as tomato and he was coughing a lot,” she said.
Since coming home, she and the boys have been washing clothes, changing filters in the furnace and scrubbing down just about everything. “I don’t know if that’s going to work, but we have to do something,” she said.
Mayor Trent Conaway acknowledged people remain frustrated by lingering odors, and promised the village is “not just taking the word” of rail operator Norfolk Southern Railway and has Environmental Protection Agency representatives involved in air testing. The village’s drinking water system is being tested daily and is safe, he said.
The mayor expressed frustration that trains started running through the area again right after the evacuation order was lifted, and said that was sooner than he’d expected.
He said his primary concern is his residents and their health, and he promised to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.
“This isn’t going to get swept under the rug. I’m not going to be the country bumpkin that gets, you know, talked over by a big corporation,” Conaway said. “We’re going to hold their feet to the fire. They’re going to do what they said they were going to do, and they’re going to protect the people of this town.”
About 300 requests for air testing in homes have been received so far, Columbiana County EMA Director Peggy Clark said. The testing takes a half-hour for each home, and is being handled by four teams working 10 hours a day, she said.
James Justice of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said on Wednesday it was unlikely there be would any dangerous levels of toxins inside any homes or businesses based on readings from air monitors around the community.
Schools in East Palestine, which were closed all week because of the derailment, tentatively plan to reopen Monday but will remain closed this week to deep-clean buildings and have HVAC systems inspected.
Mallory Burkett, who lives just outside the area where residents were forced to leave but decided to evacuate on her own, said it was strange feeling to return.
“Nobody really knows what this is going to do,” Burkett said. “Ten years from now is when we’ll really know.”
Seewer reported from Toledo, Ohio. Associated Press writer Kantele Franko in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.