For Mom Who Survived East Palestine Train Derailment, Nightmares About Catastrophe Are Part of Daily Struggle

The high, lonesome wail of a train whistle no longer comforts Maura Todd. Now it haunts her, blaring through her dreams, giving her nightmares. What she and her family need is hope.

And enough money to live and eat. And a house that isn’t on wheels.

The Todds used to live in a nice home in tiny East Palestine, Ohio. Now Maura, her husband, Philip, and their young son, Warren, live in a camper parked in Kentucky.

For more than a year, the Todds and their 8-year-old boy have tried to rise above the toxic cloud that shrouded East Palestine when a Norfolk Southern freight train careened off the tracks on Feb. 3, 2023. Crippled cars spewed chemicals and smoke billowed for miles.

The most worrisome leak was vinyl chloride, a highly dangerous and volatile chemical that is a known carcinogen in humans. Rail carrier officials decided to set fire to the fumes, saying it was necessary to avoid a catastrophic explosion.

Mandatory evacuations were ordered before the fire was ignited two days after the crash. The flames shot black clouds so high and so vast they could be seen in satellite photos.

Aerial photo of East Palestine Chemical Burn – Reddit

The National Transportation Board, capping a 16-month federal investigation, said June 25 that blowing up the leaking chemicals was not necessary. The board’s final report said the rail carrier and its contractors wrongly handled the crash and interfered with federal investigators.

Members noted first responders were unsafely exposed to the dangerous chemicals because Norfolk Southern didn’t tell them for at least an hour about the kinds of hazardous waste in the cars.

EPA

Agency chair Jennifer Homendy slammed Norfolk Southern’s “unconscionable” behavior during the investigation and accused the company of delaying and withholding information from federal investigators. 

“This derailment and hazardous-material release was devastating,” Homendy said. “We can’t change the past. What we can do, based on facts, is work to ensure this never happens again.”

Norfolk Southern had “resolved not to wait for the NTSB’s final report before taking decisive action,” said the company’s chief safety officer, John Fleps. “We will continue to build on our strong safety culture through partnership and innovation to be the gold standard of safety for the rail industry.” 

Days after the train tore into East Palestine, the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in. So did inspection crews from the NTSB. President Biden’s Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, came to town. So did news crews from around the country.

Public hearings were held. Residents were frightened and frustrated. They packed town hall meetings, demanding to know what was happening to them, their families and their property.

What were the effects of vinyl chloride exposure? Would they get cancer? Would their children? Would their pets? What about their livestock? Was their water safe to drink? Were their homes now worthless?

There are no ready answers to such questions.

Norfolk Southern eventually agreed to pay $600 million to settle dozens of lawsuits filed by residents who demanded financial protection for what toxic chemicals may have done to their bodies, their homes, their water and their loved ones.

In June, new research revealed that toxic chemicals from the crash rained down on 16 states, from South Carolina to Wisconsin and New England. According to an analysis published in the Environmental Research Letters journal, pollution spread across 540,000 square miles, or 14% of U.S. land area.

“We are dealing with the aftermath of a disaster that has affected thousands of lives,” said Wisconsin scientist David Gay, the study’s lead author who is also a coordinator with the National Atmospheric Deposition Program. 

Researchers estimated that 110 million residents, or one-third of the nation’s population, were impacted by pollution in the weeks following the crash. The pollution dissipated after a few weeks and continued testing has shown no dangerous levels in the area, scientists said.

Officials have said it is safe to live in East Palestine. Maura Todd does not believe them.

The Todds will never return to their former home in a town they loved, she says. Life has not improved for her family, and they struggle every day to find a reason to believe things might get better.

“None of us matter,” she tells Inside Edition Digital. “It’s very sad because that community is very patriotic. We have a lot of people who are very proud to be American,” she says. But residents including herself learned hard lessons in the derailment’s life-changing aftermath, she says.

“I couldn’t trust anything these people were telling me,” she says. “That’s what I learned — I cannot trust what people are telling me.”

The Night That Train 32N Blew Into Ohio on the Fort Wayne Line, Hauling Hazardous and Highly Flammable Chemicals

The East Palestine High School basketball team had a game that Friday night. The first sign that things weren’t normal came when Maura’s phone started pinging. One text read, “Hey, did you realize a train derailed about a mile from your house?”

Her husband walked outside. “All we could see was like a glow in the distance,” she says. They turned on the TV. There were fires everywhere. Residents were told to stay inside.

Maura Todd

“There was a shelter-in-place order issued. So we felt like, ‘Well, we’ll just stay here in the house.’ I’m a rule follower, so I did what they said,” she says.

The next morning arrived, and none of the Todds felt well.

Philip thought he was getting a cold. He took some DayQuil, “and just went on to work. That’s the kind of guy he is,” his wife says. After Philip left for his job as a fry cook, Maura and Warren started their day, feeling like they were coming down with something.

Driving to get breakfast, Maura and Warren saw their community dripping in smoke, with big trucks lumbering through town. The stench was God-awful, she says. “Just every possible noxious-type chemical smell that you can imagine,” Maura says.

It made their eyes sting and their noses run. 

Maura Todd

Still, the family ate together that night at their dinner table. They prepared for the next day’s work and school. They went to bed. The order to run came around midnight.

Gov. Mike DeWine ordered residents to leave, warning “there is now the potential of a catastrophic tanker failure, which could cause an explosion with the potential of deadly shrapnel traveling up to a mile.”

Families with children who ignored the evacuation order were subject to arrest, the governor said. The National Guard was called in.

“We just piled into the car and began driving away,” Maura recalls. “We drove through the night.” They headed for her parents in Kentucky. Warren was in the back seat, with a thick, comfy blanket. His mother was driving fast, determined to get away from the horrible smell and the heavy smoke.

Warren began to vomit. His mother told him to put the blanket over his head. “He was barely able to stay awake at that point,” Maura says.

She drove on.

The evacuation order was soon lifted, and people headed back to East Palestine, where all types of soil and air testing was being conducted by various entities including state and federal environmental agencies, the National Transportation and Safety Board and Norfolk Southern investigators.

The Todds came back to pick up a few things. Maura, 45, and Philip, 33, stuffed clothes and important papers into bags and loaded the car. Just being inside their old house had made them feel sick again, she says.

East Palestine after the evacuation order and explosion. – Getty

They haven’t gone back. 

“It broke our hearts,” she says. “Because everything that we had, materially, was in East Palestine.”

But their well-being depended on getting out of there, she says.

“Even if we had to live out our car, we would rather start over than go back,” the mother says. “Our health is worth more than you could put a price tag on.”

The Train Has Gone, But Fear Remains

In the 16 months since train 32N flew off the tracks and into infamy, about half of East Palestine’s 4,000 residents have come back, Maura estimates.

Some have moved back to the area, but not to town. “They can’t leave,” she says. “They have family there, they have jobs there, they have businesses there. They can’t just leave.”

Getty

The EPA remains at the contaminated site, where testing and sampling continue after several tons of debris and dirt were trucked to hazardous waste sites. The most recent EPA report says 65% of the affected area has been sampled.

No dangerous levels of harmful chemicals are currently present, environmental officials said.

Collecting chemical samples in East Palestine, Ohio. – Getty

The $600 million settlement proposed by Norfolk Southern resolves all class-action claims by residents and businesses inside a 20-mile radius of the crash site. It also settles all personal injury claims within 10 miles, according to a summary of the agreement filed in court.

Many residents question whether that is enough. “I’m not sure what outcome to hope for, because it’s hard to put a dollar amount on what we lost,” Maura previously told Inside Edition Digital in April, when the settlement was approved by a former federal judge.

“This resolution comes shortly after the one-year anniversary of the disaster and will provide substantial compensation to all affected residents, property owners, employees and businesses,” read a statement released at the time by attorneys for the plaintiffs. 

Federal investigators have said an overheated wheel bearing was the likely reason a car jumped the track, dragging other chemical cars with it.

The EPA has ruled Norfolk Southern is financially responsible for the clean-up. The rail carrier recently said that it would lead an industry work group in examining the “vent-and-burn” policy that Norfolk Southern followed at the crash site. 

Other improvements are also being considered, Norfolk Southern said in June.

In May, the rail carrier settled lawsuits filed by the U.S. Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, and agreed to pay $310 million in clean-up costs and penalties for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act.

The company denied any wrongdoing in connection with the settlement.

That settlement, and the proposed $600 million pay-out to residents who sued separately, brings the total owed by Norfolk Southern nearly $1 billion.

“This is another promise kept by Norfolk Southern to make it right for the people of East Palestine and the surrounding communities,” the company said in a statement. The rail carrier said it remains committed to cleaning the site and caring for those affected by the devastating derailment.

Maura is not able to work these days, she says. She had thought her earlier battle with bladder cancer was over, but it has come back since the train derailment, she says.

“I will be on chemotherapy the rest of my life, so I’m not really sure how that’s going to look for me working,” she says.

With ever-increasing housing and food prices, Maura despairs that three people cannot live on just one income. 

“We can’t afford to buy anything right now and we can’t really afford to rent, either,” she says.

So for now, they will stay in the camper. The Todds have moved from spot to spot over the past months.

Near their current spot in Kentucky is a train crossing.

Homes are right near the tracks, their windows just feet from the barreling locomotives, she says.

“Every few minutes that train goes by,” she says. She wonders whether folks fully realize what’s blasting by their beds as they sleep.

“I feel the low rumble,” she says. “I can hear the gates and the little ding, ding, ding as the arm goes down.” Those sounds used to make her feel safe.

When she was a little girl, her grandmother would take Maura down to the tracks to watch trains heading through their town. The caboose was her favorite car, bobbing behind a long caravan headed for new territory.

It was thrilling, seeing the cars rush by and hearing the caravan’s long whistle.

Now that sound angers and annoys her. 

“It’s like ‘there’s that life-ruiner, the one who took all my peace,'” she says. It doesn’t make her feel safe at all.

“I wish I could live in some place where there wasn’t a train around,” she says. “Day and night, it wakes me out of my sleep. 

“It’s in my nightmares. I have nightmares about the train.”

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