(EAST PALESTINE, Ohio) — Ben Ratner has spent a lot of time thinking about what it would be like to survive a freight train chemical disaster. After all, he appeared in a movie about it.
In 2020, Ratner and some family members traveled from his home in East Palestine, Ohio, to a nearby town, to be extras in “White Noise,” a film about a train crash that unleashes environmental havoc on a small Ohio community, forcing locals to evacuate their homes.
Now, the plot is too real.
“I tried watching [the movie] shortly after all of this,” he told “Start Here”. “I got about 10 or 15 minutes in and… it’s no longer entertaining.”
Ratner lives with his wife and four children in East Palestine, less than a mile from the site where the Norfolk Southern rail cars barreled off the tracks on Feb. 3. While they spent the first night gazing at flames, they began choking on fumes the next day.
“You could taste it in the air. It was like a mix of gasoline, paint thinner and nail polish remover,” he said, describing his rush to escape as officials ordered evacuations.
In recent days, as the EPA has declared the air safe, many residents jumped at the chance to return. Ratner says his family took a few extra days, but eventually made the decision to come home. There weren’t many other options.
“You know, our kids go to school here,” he said, adding it would be nearly impossible to sell his home or the cafe he runs nearby. “[I’m] definitely feeling very trapped by the situation, [it’s] hard to balance the safety and well-being of everybody with the kids wanting to kind of get back to their normal lives.”
As for East Palestine, this town of 5,000 people has always revolved, in one way or another, around these train tracks. They cut right through the center of town, with trains running “every 13 minutes.” But in recent years, Norfolk Southern has cut thousands of jobs — leading to many locals wondering if this rail car’s broken axel could have been avoided.
“They call them bomb trains,” said Ratner, describing trains barreling through town at high rates of speed with flammable materials.
Now, the trains are back — even more often than days past, as freighters try to make up for delayed deliveries.
“Not to sound overly like emotional about things, but I mean, there is a level of PTSD whenever — it’s like, ‘oh, God, why do we have to hear these trains again already?"” Ratner said. “Like, there’s no understanding of the level of chaos that people went through. And… immediately they’re back. [Most] people aren’t even back into their homes.”
From his home, though, Ratner can hear the trains — every few minutes.
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