HOOKSTOWN, Pa. — Lisa Marie Sopko had been agonizing over what to do all Sunday. Her farm, Kindred Spirits Rescue Ranch, was outside the official evacuation zone for the train derailment, in East Palestine, Ohio. But she was within fives miles of the wreck that had smoldered all weekend, and the situation was deteriorating.
An alert went out Sunday night, Feb. 5, after authorities became alarmed that some of the rail cars carrying hazardous material could explode after a “drastic temperature change” was observed in one of the cars. Those living in a 1-mile radius were ordered to evacuate, with police going door-to-door to enforce the order.
Sopko made the decision in the afternoon Feb. 6. She posted a plea on her Facebook page for anyone who had a livestock or horse trailer to head to her farm in South Beaver Township, in Pennsylvania. Most of the farm was being temporarily relocated to the Hookstown Fairgrounds. The post was shared more than 700 times.
That was all it took for people, mostly strangers, from across the area to show up to help. Kimberly Giannamore, owner of Rockin Horse Stables, in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, heard about the post from her daughter.
“When I found out, we jumped in the truck and we went,” she said. She drove her four-horse trailer 40 minutes to Kindred Spirits to help load animals and transport them to Hookstown.
Steve and Amy Daley, of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, saw Sopko’s post and called their babysitter. They have a pet pot-bellied pig that lives in their house, along with a variety of other small pets, but otherwise have no livestock experience. The couple just wanted to help. So there they were, on a freezing Monday night, pitching hay and carrying 5 gallon buckets of water.
“We’re doing the Lord’s work,” Steve Daley said.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of organizations helping the people,” Amy Daley said. “But animals usually get the short end of the stick.”
About 50 train cars, including 10 carrying hazardous materials, derailed in a fiery crash Feb. 3 in East Palestine, close to the border with Pennsylvania. East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway declared a state of emergency.
Parts of East Palestine, a city with about 5,000 residents, were asked to evacuate that night. Nearly 70 fire departments and emergency responders from three states responded to the derailment.
Officials with the National Transportation Safety Board said five cars were carrying vinyl chloride. There were also cars containing butyl acrylate, benzene residue and combustible liquids. There were also nonhazardous materials like wheat, plastic pellets, malt liquors and lube oil.
Federal investigators said a mechanical issue with a rail car axle caused the derailment. The train was heading from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine visited the city on Feb. 6 and announced in a press conference that crews would release toxic chemicals from five of the cars that afternoon. The plan: do a controlled release of the vinyl chloride to prevent the rail cars from exploding unexpectedly and sending shrapnel flying through the air, said a Norfolk Southern official.
“We can’t control where that goes,” said Scott Deutsch, Norfolk Southern Railway.
The process involved using a small charge to blow a hole in the cars, allowing the material to go into a pit dug beside the cars and burning it off before it’s released in the air, Deutsch said.
While this was deemed to be the best option, it was not without risk. Officials warned the controlled burn would send phosgene and hydrogen chloride into the air. Both chemicals can cause severe and life-threatening respiratory issues in high concentrations.
“You need to leave, you just need to leave. This is a matter of life and death,” DeWine said at the press conference.
The operation to drain the vinyl chloride began around 4:30 p.m. Feb. 6. Black smoke billowed high into the sky from the derailment site into the evening. The plume could be seen from miles away. Norfolk Southern issued a statement about three hours after the procedure saying it had been successful.
“I know it was alarming to see, but the process is proceeding as planned,” Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said in an evening press conference Feb. 6. Shapiro said no air quality issues had been detected since the release.
About 20 households in Pennsylvania were also evacuated before the release. Most of the predicted danger zone extended southeast from the derailment site into Pennsylvania.
That’s what had Sopko so concerned. Her husband is paralyzed, and her father is bedridden. Knowing their complicated health needs, she wanted to get them out before it was too late. She made sure they were taken care of and away from the at-risk area before turning her attention to the animals. As she continued to monitor the situation, her gut told her it was time to go.
Coincidentally, Sopko had recently been in contact with Beaver County’s Large Animal and Farm Machinery Rescue, a combined force of three volunteer fire departments with experience in rescuing livestock and handling farm equipment accidents, about resurrecting the county’s defunct Certified Animal Rescue Team, which would handle a wider range of animal-related emergencies. Kindred Spirits, a nonprofit 501c3 animal rescue, is often the landing place for farm animals from humane cases; Sopko works closely with law enforcement and the humane society.
Sopko and the fire departments had just met on Feb. 5 and had been talking about how to pull off a major animal evacuation, if the time ever came.
Vicki Carlton, Potter Township Fire Chief and member of the Large Animal Rescue Team, said it was a trial by fire when Sopko let her know she was ready to evacuate her farm. Carlton pulled in help from Washington County’s Certified Animal Rescue Team to get things started. Sopko also turned to social media for the rest.
In addition to the trailers and hands-on help, people showed up at the Hookstown Fairgrounds to leave supplies. Nearby farmers dropped off hay, bedding and feed. Lowe’s and Rural King, in Center Township, donated buckets for water.
By about 8 p.m, dozens of animals, including cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys and alpacas, were settled in for the night in their stalls at the fairgrounds. Sopko also has pigs and poultry that went to other locations.
“I think I got over 1,000 phone calls today,” Sopko said. “People are just amazing.”
In Ohio, the Canfield and Columbiana County fairgrounds were opened for people who needed to evacuate livestock from the area. The Ohio State Extension of Mahoning and Columbiana also offered assistance in finding trailers to move animals.
Other farmers and stables outside the danger zone offered up their facilities for those who needed a safe place for their animals.
Kaylee Ball, owner of Freedom Ranch, in Salem, Ohio, offered up her farm for animals that needed shelter. Ball and her fiance, Chase Brown, offer horse boarding, riding lessons and training. She posted the availability on Facebook on Saturday morning. The post was shared 1,700 times.
“When I saw what was happening, all I could think about was, if I was in their situation, I would want to know there’s someone out there who could help and would help,” she said. “I wanted to give them a sense of comfort in a stressful time.”
They ended up taking in three horses and five dogs from people within or close to the evacuation area. The people who reached out were strangers who had seen the post on social media.
“It gives you a sense of hope,” Ball said, of seeing the agricultural community come together to help others.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or email@example.com.)
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