Home is the place you want to run to, not from. But home may never feel the same for the people of East Palestine, Ohio, who found their quiet small-town life turned upside down in one night of disaster.

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On the evening of Feb. 3, Stella and Daren Gamble watched from their front porch as a fire escalated rapidly less than a mile away. About 50 Norfolk Southern train cars had derailed, including 11 tank cars carrying hazardous materials that ignited, fueling fires that damaged another dozen cars.

Later that night, city officials instructed residents to take shelter in the high school when there was fear of explosions. Then, on Feb. 5, those living within a mile of the disaster were ordered to evacuate so crews could execute a controlled burn of five cars hauling cancer-causing vinyl chloride. The chemical was drained into a trough and burned, sending a giant plume of smoke over the town.

Seeking Safety

The Gambles, with their 14-year-old twin granddaughters and three foster children, frantically packed a few essential items and fled to a hotel where they stayed for three months before moving into a rental house 31 miles away.

Daren made daily trips to take care of the pets and check on their five-bedroom house where three generations of Gambles have lived, and where over the years, they raised five kids and cared for hundreds of foster children. Later he would tell Stella about their garden — the rhubarb that was ready to cut but couldn’t be eaten for fear of contamination, and Grandma’s rhododendrons blooming without his wife there to admire them.

Stella wanted to be there, and tried to visit a few times, but it wasn’t long before her coughing would start, nausea would set in and a rash would form around her burning nose. But she wasn’t the only one experiencing health issues after the disaster. One of her granddaughters would get nose bleeds, and numerous people reported having similar conditions in addition to others, like migraines.

Facing the Uncertainties

“It’s so very stressful. You think it’s all going to be better and then they find something else,” says Stella. “You don’t know what to do. You can’t bear to keep thinking about it, but you can’t not think about it. Can we live there again? Are we going to be constantly worried about what’s contaminated? That is our home.”

They feel fortunate to have found a vacation rental house to escape to — although none of this feels like a vacation. Their son, still in East Palestine with his children and dogs, hasn’t been as lucky.

“People don’t come to Columbiana County on vacation,” says Stella. “This is a rural area (on the Ohio-Pennsylvania line). There aren’t many places to rent.”

News of the disaster spread across the country in the days and weeks following the derailment. Environmental activist Erin Brockovich came to town. Donald Trump stopped for a day. But it didn’t take long for the media and politicians to move on to other stories and issues.

What has not disappeared, though, are the residents’ questions, uncertainties, health problems and fear of dangers they can’t see but suspect are there.

Despite reports that the water is safe, most people were still not drinking it in June. Thousands of fish were found dead in the waterways that meander throughout their town. Frustrated by conflicting reports of what’s safe and what isn’t, residents rely on those they know and trust — neighbors, friends and people like the Lions.

Lions Lend a Hand

“Dealing with disaster relief isn’t something they taught us in DG school,” District Governor Carol Snyder told PDG Wayne Christen, a member of the Calcutta Ohio Lions Club. After disaster struck, Christen immediately began coordinating donations from clubs in the district.

Snyder asked that financial donations be made to the Ohio Lions Foundation (OLF) and that clubs collect nonperishable food, cleaning supplies and personal care items.Photo 5 Train Lions Water Cases

Together, Lions used OLF grant money and club donations to purchase more than US$35,000 worth of US$50 gift cards to help residents with immediate needs. In the spring, they distributed US$4,000 in gift cards for a local grocery store.

“Nearly every zone and club in District 13 OH4 contributed in some form, in addition to the donations to OLF from other districts around the state and country,” Snyder says.

West Point Lions Mary Duris and Violet Mellon, who live three towns away, volunteered to deliver their club’s donation of personal care items and hand out gift cards even though tons of contaminated soil were being removed from the derailment site that day and the wind was kicking it up in the air.

“We just wanted to help,” says Duris. “The rashes, the headaches, the stress of everyday life is overwhelming. I feel so sorry for these people.”

Despite not knowing what the future holds for her family, Stella Gamble says they are thankful for the kindness that has come their way from people near and far. The Lions were more than happy to do their part.

“What a great feeling to be hands-on doing something that’s needed,” says Christen. “It was especially heartwarming to have an actual part in assisting those in need from East Palestine.”