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Parents in East Palestine, Ohio share how train derailment has upended their family life: 'I can't think of anything else right now except if my children are going to be safe'

East Palestine, Ohio families share how the Feb. 3 train derailment has disrupted their lives. (Photo: DUSTIN FRANZ/AFP via Getty Images)
East Palestine, Ohio families share how the Feb. 3 train derailment has disrupted their lives. (Photo: DUSTIN FRANZ/AFP via Getty Images)

When officials in East Palestine, Ohio told Marnie Bistarkey and her husband they could return to the home where they are raising their three kids a week after they had been forced to leave, she says she had an emotional breakdown.

Just a week earlier those same officials had canvassed the quiet neighborhood, knocking on doors and enforcing an evacuation order for the town’s nearly 5,000 residents in response to the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials; the subsequent controlled burning left a mushroom cloud looming over the area. “By the time we were already at my sister-in-law’s home in Boardman [Ohio], they were pounding on doors and telling people that if they did not leave and had kids, they could be charged with child endangerment,” she tells Yahoo Life. Other neighbors reported their video doorbell cameras showed officials checking houses in the middle of the night, citing an unstable situation that could blow up.

Adding to Bistarkey's worries is uncertainty and distrust about the assurances she's been given about safety and air testing, particularly when they come from the company involved in the crash. Her house is only two blocks from the crash site. But when her family finally returned home two days after the evacuation order was lifted, everything felt eerily … fine. “Our houses look the way they've always looked,” she says. The family expected soot, blown-out windows or a chemical scent. Instead, their home looks and smells exactly as they had left it. The family is still drinking bottled water but is seeking to find a sense of normalcy in their hometown, which is now crawling with EPA trucks and media vans. “I can see some people are becoming divided," Bistarkey says. "I also see, though, that once all of these trucks are gone, people will just try to resume life as normal. We kind of have to."

Parenting through their own anxiety

Parents in East Palestine, like Bistarkey, are navigating how to talk to their kids about the disaster. While her youngest is a freshman in high school, many friends have younger children. Their town park, which is usually filled with kids playing, is now crawling with trucks and mobile labs. The multiple creeks children love to wade in are crowded with scientists gathering water samples. While her own children haven’t sought out the school counselor, she’s thankful that all communication from the school district has made sure students know professionals are available to work through their fears. She’s also relied on the small town she’s come to have faith in over the years. Bistarkey’s uncle and other family members are first responders in town. “I feel like I trust him, obviously," she says. "I've known him my whole life. He and my cousin put themselves on the front lines and were much more exposed than the rest of us. If he tells me he would let his daughter and grandkids in his house, I trust it.” At the same time, it’s hard not to doubt the information being shared when rumors abound and there is not one centralized source of information thus far. For now, she’s leaning into the relationships she trusts.

Jenna Harris's kids are younger than Bistarkey's, and the Ohio mom has made the difficult choice to send her two boys, who are in second and fifth grade in the East Palestine City School District, to their dad’s house. He lives about two hours away in central Pennsylvania, which gives her some peace of mind while they assess the situation in East Palestine. Driving back home from Pennsylvania without her boys, she had an emotional breakdown.

“I don’t judge any other parents for their choice to keep their kids in town,” says Harris. “I would never judge another parent for their choices. But I'm worried. And a lot of people don't have the resources to leave, but I can send my kids to their dad’s until we have more answers, so I did.” Her boys did return to their local schools for four days once classes resumed, but she felt extremely uneasy about the situation.

Harris wants to give credit where credit is due — the local officials, from the school to the emergency responders and the mayor — are doing the best they can with the set of circumstances, she says. “This has really disrupted our daily life. I can't think of anything else right now except if my children are going to be safe. If I bring them back here am I causing them harm in their adult life?” She points to the fact that several local sports teams have chosen to forfeit games since the crash rather than play in East Palestine’s school buildings. Though her house sits almost five miles from the crash site, the mushroom cloud from the controlled burn following the wreck loomed large in the sky even at a distance.

“I am just sad for my kids, and for the future," Harris tells Yahoo Life. "We’ve seen all over the country how scary it can be once a toxic disaster occurs.” She’s particularly worried about how her oldest child will react to the natural environment being harmed. “He is very into hunting and fishing and the outdoors, so he is very worried about the fish, deer and wild animal population," she shares. "We aren't letting them do any of those things right now.” At the moment, Harris says their conversations are temporary, but she is already thinking about how to explain the long-term impact to her outdoor-loving children. “They were anxious to start the spring baseball season, and now I don’t even know,” she adds.

Even further out from the disaster's epicenter, other parents are worried too — but in less immediate ways. Kori Shearer is a licensed professional counselor and mom of a preschooler in Monaca, Pa. Living about a 30-minute drive from the disaster scene, she says she doesn’t have the same immediate panic as residents in the town, but she still feels uneasy. “When I received the emergency evacuation alert on my phone about the controlled burn, I got a bit more alarmed," Shearer says. "They were not evacuating as far out as us, but we were too close for comfort.” Her family did stay put, though they wonder if that was the right choice. “Honestly, it has just been an increase in anxiety since then as more information rolls out.”

Shearer has questioned whether days with bad allergies are the result of the chemicals, anxiety or another environmental cause. Shell’s ethane cracker plant, which makes plastics using volatile chemicals and has also come under fire recently for violating environmental standards, is nearly in Shearer’s backyard. A history of coal mining, fracking and other damaging environmental actions has plagued this region for decades. But Shearer's young son doesn’t know any different, she says. “He came into the world during the pandemic so I feel like he's probably seen me in a minor state of concern for his whole life,” Shearer notes. Shearer says her family does plan to try to leave the areas due to growing environmental concerns, though she knows not everyone has that option.

Parenting once the panic dies down

While onlookers far from the disaster comment that residents should run and never look back, most residents can’t — or don’t want to. “We have kind of always been a community that if someone's house catches on fire, everyone gets together,” says Bistarkey. “Of course, there are people that say this is a crappy little town and we should just leave, but our whole lives are here. Everybody helps when it comes to tragedies, whether it be personal tragedies or something of this nature.”

That leaves the families with the monumental task of parenting through yet another monumental crisis on the heels of the pandemic. Shearer shares some advice she’s gleaned from her years as a therapist for children and teens. “It's my belief as a therapist that we should aim for our kids to feel as reassured as possible," she tells Yahoo Life. "Freak out and process outside of the time you spend with them. They need to feel that the adults in their life are secure.” It’s more than OK to go have a good cry or vent to friends or your own mental health professional, but when possible let kids see adults who are in control of the scary situation.

“The best method to tackle this with kids is acknowledging that there is an environmentally dangerous situation happening,” says Shearer. In her opinion, it's important to let kids know that adults are handling things. “We as parents are in charge of taking in information, and we will do everything we can to maintain their safety.” The ins and outs of the process, including wading through misinformation or feeling tension in the community — that is best left to adults. That's especially true when there is bipartisan bickering or argument over responsibility for the disaster; Shearer advises parents to keep kids far from those discussions.

She also says that it’s important to give kids a way to process what they are going through in tangible ways. “Giving children something to do in a hard situation, even if you don't personally feel like it will help, is a source of comfort," Shearer suggests. "Show them how to write letters where they can express their feelings to those in charge. Help them make art to express themselves.”

Some parents might be concerned if they see their children acting out train crashes or toxic spills with their toys, but Shearer urges parents to see this as a good thing. In the same way a mother might pour her anxiety out to a close friend, play is how many children release anxiety and understand the world around them. “Don't shy away from processing through play with little ones,” she says. “For parents of kids who are old enough to be aware of the situation, I really feel for them.”

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