Prove your humanity

This story comes from our partners at WHYY.

Trisha Dello Iacono was preparing to host a children’s playdate on Nov. 30, 2012, when she received a phone call from her mother, telling her to tune in to the news.

A train carrying a colorless flammable gas called vinyl chloride derailed less than four miles from her home, in Paulsboro, N.J. After researching the carcinogen, Dello Iacono placed towels around her windows and doors.

But it wasn’t long before she felt a sugary burn in her mouth.

“I remember it so vividly. It tastes sweet, but it tastes like a chemical sweetness that you know something is not right,” Dello Iacono said. “And then I started feeling like a tight band was around my head.”

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Trisha Dello Iacono at her home in Mullica Hill, N.J.

Trisha Dello Iacono at her home in Mullica Hill, N.J. Photo: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

An hour or so earlier, Glenn Roemmich, the captain of the volunteer fire department, was sleeping in on his day off. He woke up to an urgent dispatch about a train that had partially fallen off a bridge.

Roemmich, now retired, remembers the sight of railcars in the creek and a collapsed bridge. At the time, he and his fellow first responders thought it was a foggy morning. But in reality, they were wading through a toxic gas that evaporates quickly.

Thick fog-like cloud hovers at ground level on a street.

Residents of Paulsboro, N.J., thought vinyl chloride clouds were fog after a train derailment caused a rupture in a tank carrying the chemical on Nov. 30, 2012. (Photo courtesy of Paulsboro Fire/Rescue)

“Living in Paulsboro all my life, we know that there’s the train that goes through, and it needs to go through,” Roemmich said. “But you don’t think [a derailment is] going to happen here. And that morning it did.”

At 7 a.m., a Conrail train began to cross the century-old Jefferson Street railroad bridge. The bridge was not in its fully locked position, causing the train to derail and sending four cars filled with vinyl chloride into the Mantua Creek. One of the cars punctured, and released 24,000 gallons of the gas into the air.

Derailed train cars dangling off a low bridge into a river.

A train derailed in Paulsboro, N.J., at the Jefferson Street Bridge on Nov. 30, 2012. (Photo courtesy of Paulsboro Fire/Rescue)

The accident led to the evacuation of hundreds of residents, and dozens of people seeking medical attention. Conrail offered cash settlements after hundreds of residents filed lawsuits against the company.

More than 10 years later, some residents still worry about long-term health impacts — and question whether enough has been done to prevent more accidents from occurring.

These questions were heightened recently, after a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying the same product derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, in February. The railcars caught fire and burned for more than two days, before emergency crews conducted a controlled burn.

“Watching a train go by a railroad as you’re sitting in your car is triggering,” said Dello Iacono, whose family is dealing with health problems she believes are related to the Paulsboro accident.

“It is really hard that my community’s experience wasn’t enough to force action to fix these problems.”