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Cristobal SpielmannFebruary 15, 2023
A man takes photos as a black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains.A man takes photos as a black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The Rev. David Misbrener welcomed a near-return to normal for residents of the village of East Palestine, Ohio, after “a really scary week.” He and his parishioners celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving on Feb. 10, in gratitude for how well the community came together during a crisis that began on Feb. 3 when 50 cars from a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed near this small community of about 5,000 people.

The derailment included 10 tank cars carrying a number of different hazardous materials, and a fire broke out soon afterward. Millions of tons of such chemicals are carried across the country every year. Photos of scattered, smoldering train cars and a black tower of smoke looming over East Palestine have been shared across social media, depicting the enormity of the situation.

Residents were still allowed to drive into the village, and the Rev. David Misbrener drove past Our Lady of Lourdes to see what was happening near “ground zero.”

Father Misbrener serves two parish churches: St. Jude in the city of Columbiana, where he lives, and the smaller Our Lady of Lourdes in East Palestine, a few miles west of the Pennsylvania border. He learned about the derailment on Saturday morning, Feb. 4, just before Bishop David Bonnar of the Diocese of Youngstown called to find how the people in East Palestine were doing. At that time, residents were still allowed to drive into the village, and Father Misbrener drove past Our Lady of Lourdes to see what was happening near “ground zero.”

“The church was right in the center of the derailment…so it was affected by the [first] evacuation order,” Father Misbrener said in an email to America. That order was initially limited to a one-mile radius around the site of the derailment, but it meant canceling weekend Masses at Our Lady of Lourdes.

With fires burning and smoke rising over East Palestine on Feb. 5, Bishop Bonnar issued a statement acknowledging the efforts of first responders at the scene and reiterating the evacuation orders, asking for prayers for those involved in the disaster.

“Given the magnitude of this event, it is miraculous that there were no fatalities or injuries,” Bishop David Bonnar of the Diocese of Youngstown said on Feb. 5.

“Given the magnitude of this event, it is miraculous that there were no fatalities or injuries,” the bishop said. “I cannot help but think that the Blessed Mother was watching over this community.”

Beyond the frightening images of a vast plume of black smoke and burning tank cars, what has been most concerning about the accident was the release of dangerous chemicals into the air and waterways. In an effort to avoid further explosions and fires that would threaten nearby residents, officials conducted a controlled release of toxic chemicals on Feb. 6.

But that preventative measure came with its own costs. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is tracking the presence of two volatile organic compounds: vinyl chloride and hydrogen chloride. The chemicals threaten to contaminate groundwater and can lead to long-term health problems like immune disorders and nerve damage.

“Right now bottled water has been the most needed [supply for parishioners], as the drinking water still is affected,” the Rev. David Misbrener said.

“Right now bottled water has been the most needed [supply for parishioners], as the drinking water still is affected,” Father Misbrener said. He said state officials are still asking residents to boil water and “to not drink the water until things are hopefully safe to be able to do so.”

Father Misbrener said that the church’s water system had been tested and cleared.

The evacuation order ended on Feb. 10 and people were able to return to their homes and Our Lady of Lourdes, where the church hall had become a distribution center for supplies like food, water and diapers. It will continue to serve that role this week. The church celebrated the Feast Day of Our Lady of Lourdes this past Sunday, with an anointing of the sick administered by Father Misbrener.

Other faith-based organizations in the area have come to the aid of East Palestine evacuees. The Way Station, a Christian nonprofit based in eastern Ohio with locations in East Palestine and Columbiana, organized donations of water, food, clothes, pet food and cleaning supplies to East Palestine evacuees. Local parishes in the diocese dropped off donations at St. Jude parish. Parish council members and local parishioners volunteered to take those supplies to East Palestine.

The Midway Mennonite Church and First Presbyterian Church of Columbiana joined forces to provide dinner at St. Jude on Feb. 9 to first responders and East Palestine evacuees. And while the Catholic Charities branch for the diocese has been “on stand-by” with an offer of monetary assistance, Father Misbrener said that so far no parishioners have sought that aid.

Here are some aid organizations you can support:

More: US Church

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