EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Like a lot of residents reeling from the massive Norfolk Southern train crash, 26-year-old Lindsay Johnston, a mother of two, tends to smile — even when she’s angry.
“Local officials and Gov. [Mike] DeWine have been telling us it’s safe to go home,” Johnston told The Post Wednesday as hundreds of people flocked to see former President Donald Trump in a county where 71 percent voted for him in the 2020 presidential election.
“But how do they know it’s safe? They don’t … They think we’re all dumb hicks who voted for Trump and they can pull anything over on us,” said Johnston, whose family has been staying with relatives and in hotels since the crash.
“They do know we can’t vote against them if we’re dead … It’s not surprising [President] Biden chose going to Ukraine over us. Why would he care about us? He knows we’re not going to vote for him.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg finally made the trip to the town Thursday, 20 days after the disaster, following huge backlash aimed at him and the Biden administration for seemingly ignoring the spillage.
Johnston, who is married with two little girls, Paisley 4, and Cora, 1, fled the house she and her husband bought just three years ago hours after the Feb. 3 disaster because it’s located in the infamous “one-mile zone” surrounding the rail crash site where 1.1 million pounds of toxic vinyl chloride were spilled and later burned, sending thick black plumes of smoke into the air and contaminating soil and water sources. The two have only gone back a few times to pick up things since.
Though Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and the EPA told residents it was safe to return to their homes five days after the derailment because the water had been tested and is no longer showing signs of contamination, Johnston and others now know the data they were using came from tests paid for by the railway company.
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“We don’t even know the correct way to clean our home to get rid of the chemicals on the furniture and in the rugs and floor because no one will tell us. We have a 27-year mortgage on a home we might never be able to live in again — or sell. And it’s like no one cares.
“Every time we’ve been back we get rashes and sore throats,” Johnston said. “My husband had trouble breathing for three days the last time. Imagine if we brought the baby home. A 1-year-old can’t tell you if she has a sore throat or can’t breathe. We could never risk our kids’ lives like that.”
The mothers of East Palestine feel especially vulnerable.
Erin Neiheisel, 29, is 35 weeks pregnant with her third child, a girl she and her husband have already named Ivory.
Neiheisel works as a waitress at the Sprinklz restaurant in downtown East Palestine and like Lindsay Johnston, she smiles when she talks about the disaster that’s befallen their town – but admits it’s because she’s afraid to give in to the fear.
Neiheisel lives on a small farm a little over a mile from the epicenter of the train derailment and hopes she and her family are far enough away so as to be safe.
“I worry about the baby but I’m also a gardener and a farmer and I worry about the crops and my animals,” she said. “I want to think everything will be OK. I know Ukraine is having a very tough time so I can understand why President Biden is there. I don’t think he’ll come here to see us but if he did, that’d be nice. I’m just hoping that everybody will just come out and be honest and that we get some help.”
Shelby Walker, 48, has five kids and four grandchildren, a number of whom live with her and her husband, Paul, in a small wood frame house that sits directly across from where the mile-long train derailed and later exploded into a big fire.
Walker showed The Post the area behind her house, fronting the train tracks, where she said workers bulldozed all the trees and shrubs. At one point, workers moved two tankers with the label “Hazardous” on them and left them pointing right at the Walker house, she said.
“The bad smell comes and goes,” Walker said. “Yesterday was the first day in probably three or four days that I could smell anything. I lost my smell and my sense of taste. I had an eye infection in both eyes. I was having respiratory issues like I was just out of breath. Other members of my family have had eye infections and strep throats.”
The Walkers can’t afford to leave their home, especially with such a large family. But Shelby said she could even deal with that — if she were just given some real information and help.
“When I went to ask the workers at the crash site, they wouldn’t speak to me,” Walker said. “Not a word. It was creepy. I work in a hotel one town over and there were some of the [train crash] workers staying there. But when we asked them for help about what was going on, they said they weren’t allowed to say anything. The cleanup crew drives past us at night and won’t even look at us. It’s like we don’t exist. No one has reached out to us or told us anything.”
Walker and others told The Post Tuesday their town is very close-knit which, they said, is why so many locals appear outwardly cheerful and friendly. One 20-year resident said the town, prior to the train accident, “was like something out of Norman Rockwell.” At a diner on Market Street, an unknown person paid for a Post reporter’s lunch.
“I love East Palestine and I love my home, but now I’m in a situation where I don’t even want to come back to it,” Lindsay Johnston said.
“It’s such beautiful little town where everybody works together. and helps one another but now none of us is safe. It’s interesting that the left is usually so pro-environment, like everything should be green and all that. Kind of strange that they want us all to go green and drive electric cars but they don’t care that there are chemicals burning in our small town.”