Some residents blame gas exposure for health problems

Walter Stevenson on the edge of his property near the derailment site. "I don't like the unknown," his wife, Irma, says. A train is crossing the bridge where the accident occurred.
Walter Stevenson on the edge of his property near the derailment site. "I don't like the unknown," his wife, Irma, says. A train is crossing the bridge where the accident occurred. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 31, 2014

There was fog outside the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in Paulsboro when Jesse Campbell left morning prayer service around 7 a.m. on Nov. 30, 2012, to go home.

He said Tuesday he didn't know at the time that the fog was vinyl chloride that leaked during a train derailment or that it could contaminate the borough's air.

It was several days before he was stopped by Paulsboro police from going to his shop, where he details cars and does auto repair work, and told he needed to evacuate the area, he said.

On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board released its findings on the incident, citing Conrail errors and a lack of preparedness by emergency repsonders.

These days, Campbell said, his face occasionally starts to burn and his eyes water. He believes it is caused by his exposure to vinyl chloride. His daughter has it worse, he said.

"She has to take medication, and her jaw locks up," Campbell, 60, said. "She's got one of the more severe cases."

Others say they've experienced nothing at all, like John Taylor, who lives about a block from the bridge. It "singed my nose hairs for, probably, about two days," he said.

Responding to the NTSB's criticism about the response by emergency crews, Irma Stevenson, whose side yard borders the waterway where the accident occurred, said: "Are you ever really trained in this? No. They did the best that they could with what they had. Thank God no one was injured and no one died."

(Stevenson is the mother of Gary Stevenson, a councilman who was deputy fire chief at the time of the accident.)

Other Paulsboro residents interviewed Tuesday also said the emergency response was sufficient.

Irma Stevenson, a registered nurse, questioned whether there would be continuing health effects from the spill.

"I don't like the unknown," she said. "You have to know."

Andre Campbell - Jesse's nephew - was evacuated and taken with his children and wife to a hotel where they were given two rooms for two weeks. He's concerned that symptoms might develop in the future, though his children seem to be in good health so far.

Conrail offered residents settlement packages of, usually, between $500 and $1,000, Andre Campbell said, and many took the offer. Campbell said he did not take it.

"Three-fourths of the people really don't have money," said Jesse Campbell, who also declined the offer. "They never expected anything like this to happen. We ain't got nowhere to go."

The train derailed in the early morning after a conductor mistakenly evaluated the swing bridge to be in a locked position and therefore passable. Seven cars derailed and one of the four that fell into the Mantua Creek ruptured, releasing the toxic vinyl chloride.

"It shouldn't have happened. . . . When it says red, red means stop," Taylor said. "It doesn't mean 'the light must be broken.' It's common sense."

Taylor said he refused to evacuate when officials came through the day of the derailment and remained in his home.


cmindock@phillynews.com

856-77-3237

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