SPECIAL REPORT: What The Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio Can Teach Us About CBRN Events

SPECIAL REPORT: What The Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio Can Teach Us About CBRN Events

by Aden Tate

On February 3, 2023, a small manufacturing villagenamely, East Palestine, Ohio—not only made the history books, but also wrote a new lesson on the importance of preparation for CBRN events.

The story begins mundanely enough, with a train traveling through the town.

However, calamity struck when an axle issue caused the locomotive to derail and crash into a nearby gas station. Now, a train wreck is bad enough, but when you add fuel to the fire—both literally and figuratively—the magnitude of the problem multiplies.

And to make matters worse? The train was a chemical train.

So just what exactly happened here? And are there lessons we can learn to better prepare for the future?

Let's dig in.


  • 01

    What Happened with the East Palestine, Ohio Train Explosion

  • 02

    A Novel Way to Dispose of CBRN Agents

  • 03

    What Can We Learn from the East Palestine, Ohio Train Explosion

  • 04

    Frequently Asked Questions

What Happened with the East Palestine, Ohio Train Explosion

Let's travel back in time to early February of 2023.

Bearing over 100 oil tanker cars, the Norfolk Southern train was shipping large volumes of a chemical called vinyl chloride, a standard component involved in creating PVC pipes. 

At 8:55 PM EST, the crash occurred, and a large explosion followed, issuing a massive column of black smoke that some residents went on to describe as “a mushroom cloud.”

A bird's eye view of the train derailment aftermath in East Palestine, Ohio

As the fire raged over the weekend, government officials moved into the area to monitor the air quality, and fears of a massive explosion throwing shrapnel over a one-mile radius began to grow.

Because the crash site was located beside an interstate border, officials from both Pennsylvania and Ohio weighed in, with Keystone state governor Josh Shapiro joining his Buckeye counterpart in advocating for civilian evacuation. 

As Governor Mike DeWine put it, “This is a matter of life and death.”

A military vehicle is seen at an intersection in East Palestine, Ohio

(Image courtesy of twitter.com)

By Monday, the National Guard had been activated, and law enforcement officers in East Palestine were going door-to-door to encourage people to evacuate. For those who lived within one mile of the crash, the information they gave was scarce: in short, they were told that the environment was unsafe, and it was time to go.

This left many resident unconvinced, with 500 locals refusing to leave.

It would not be until the announcement of a "controlled release" of hazardous materials on board the tanker cars that the residents finally relented.

Policemen approach a woman on the porch of her house

A Novel Way to Dispose of CBRN Agents

After rapid temperature changes had been noted in the vinyl chloride tanks, it was feared that these could lead to massive explosions.

To significantly reduce this as a possibility, responders dug trenches around the tanker cars, used a small explosive charge to blast a three-inch hole into the tankers, and then threw flares into the now chemical-filled trenches so that they would combust.

A citizen's photo of the smoke plume in East Palestine

(Image courtesy of twitter.com)

Exposure to vinyl chloride can cause skin, eye, respiratory, and GI tract irritation. Though it is considered to be a possible carcinogen, the Material Safety Data Sheet states that “the toxicological properties of this material have not been fully investigated.”

Chronic inhalation of vinyl chloride is known to cause blood, liver, and lung damage.

To compound matters, as vinyl chloride decomposes, it releases several hazardous materials, such as phosgene, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen chloride.

The former is a highly toxic gas that was used as a chemical weapon during WWI.

The latter, meanwhile, is highly flammable, causes burns, and is reported to cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness.

East Palestine Doppler 10 map

(Image courtesy of twitter.com)

What We Can Learn from the East Palestine, Ohio Train Explosion

Both history and current events always have lessons embedded within them, and the Ohio train explosion is no exception.

Indeed, there are many things that we can learn from this train wreck. Let’s take a look at each lesson in turn.

CBRN events can happen anywhere.

People like to think that CBRN events only happen in busy places such as Tokyo subways, but that’s not the case. With a population of fewer than 5,000, nobody in East Palestine would have considered themselves at risk of a potentially lethal CBRN event.

And that’s part of the problem. Conventional wisdom holds that the only CBRN events are nuclear strikes, bioterrorist attacks, or World War I chemical releases. They forget (or refuse to recognize, perhaps) that they are surrounded by dangerous CBRN event potentials every day.

Remember: if it can happen in East Palestine, Ohio, of all places, it can happen where you live too.

A street in East Palestine, Ohio

East Palestine, Ohio (Image courtesy of 636Buster at Wikimedia Commons.)

It’s usually best to leave sooner rather than later.

With any emergency, it’s typically best to leave as soon as possible. Think back to the 500 East Palestine residents who refused to evacuate, and then changed their minds upon hearing the government's plans. In a small town like East Palestine, Ohio, this wouldn’t cause much of a gridlock.

But imagine how this would play out in a larger city. All it takes is one car accident to cause a miles-long traffic jam. Meanwhile, time is of the essence if there’s a lethal CBRN problem behind you. If you hesitate before evacuating, is it worth the risk to get stuck with what you're trying to flee?

A dark plume of smoke

(Image courtesy of twitter.com)

Bug-out bags have practical applications.

Once more, we are reminded that having bug-out bags for the family has both historical precedent (read Anne Frank’s diary) and modern-day applications.

A man travels on a winding road

Just look at the example of one East Palestine resident. When he heard that the National Guard had been activated over the course of the weekend, it was then that he decided circumstances were dire enough to leave.

“We are getting stuff ready now. We are going to go to [my wife’s] mom’s out in News Castle, packing up clothes and dog cages for the dogs. I don’t know if it’d reach way up here, but they’re talking about moving the radius out because there is a danger of it exploding out, because the safety features are failing,” the man explained.

Note that if the man had had a bug-out bag at the ready, he would have been able to leave immediately, with no time to answer questions from reporters.

You need to know how to shelter-in-place.

As soon as some residents heard about the burning chemicals, they decided to shelter-in-place until further notice. At least one of these residents did so by putting tape around his doors to keep chemicals from coming in.

For more information on how to ride out a CBRN event while staying at home, we highly recommend that you read our deep-dive on the subject.

Stocking gas masks and filters for your family isn’t so far-fetched of an idea.

When the gas cloud generated by the burning vinyl chloride loomed over East Palestine, Ohio, it's a certainty that residents wished they had a gas mask on hand. As the backpacker’s mantra goes: “Spend the money when you’re not in the woods.”

In other words, when you’re out camping, you'll wish you had spent that extra fifty bucks for an upgraded sleeping pad with a better R-value. But by the time you’re in the woodswell, you’re in the woods.

The same principle applies to preparing for a CBRN event: purchase PPE before a crisis ensues.

A long street leads up to a dark plume of smoke

(Image courtesy of twitter.com)

If you have come to the same conclusion, we highly recommend you look at our package deals, as these kits will get you better prepared without breaking the bank in the process.

The first option is our Military Gas Mask and NBC Survival Kit. Here, you’ll get a military-grade gas mask (either our CM-6M or our CM-7M—you decide), a drop leg pouch to put your mask in, one of our NBC-77 filters, a canteen, and a box of Thyrosafe.

With this simple grab-and-go kit, you’ll have the thyroid, respiratory, and eye protection that you need in order to survive a host of lethal CBRN events.

The MIRA Safety Military Gas Mask and NBC Survival Kit

The MIRA Safety Military Gas Mask and NBC Survival Kit

And if you have kids?

In that case, we recommend taking a look at our NBC Kids Survival Kit. The drop leg pouch, NBC-77 filter, and Thyrosafe are still there, but you can also get the only mask on the market that fits kids from two to twelve years old.

The NBC Kids Survival Kit

The NBC Kids Survival Kit

Remember: a gas mask only keeps you safe if it fits. Ergo, giving a child an adult-sized gas mask does not protect them when it matters most.

With both of these kits clocking in under $450, MIRA Safety provides a cost-effective and comprehensive means of preparing for a CBRN event.

Have a plan for your pets ahead of time.

Think back to the East Palestine evacuee that we quoted above. One of the tasks that he mentioned having to complete was getting his dogs all geared up for evacuating. (Note: evacuating is “bugging out.”)

Now, if you’re going to strap a gas mask on your face, it’s because you recognize that there are inhalational threats in the area. But what about your dog or cat? Can you keep them safe as well?

This is where our FirstBreed Collapsible CBRN Animal Ark comes into play. When combined with our MB-90 PAPR and appropriate filters, your pets' lungs will be in safe hands.

Dogs with gas masks

Don’t resort to an ad hoc solution. Get your pets the gear they need.

Have some means of gathering information.

Thankfully, in this case, the people of East Palestine, Ohio still had power and cell service. This means that they could get information from their TV, phones, and the internet.

But that’s not always a given. 

This raises the question: what if this disaster had happened shortly after a week-long power outage caused by a snowstorm?


There’s a chance this type of infrastructure may not work without electricity.

Granted, people certainly would have spotted the massive cloud of smoke, but other than word of mouth, how would people have known what was going on? Would they have had to wait for the police to show up door-to-door? And if things grew particularly dire, would the police even have had the staff (in a town of fewer than 5,000 people) to spend going door-to-door?

These hypothetical questions demonstrate why it’s essential that you have some means of off-grid communication. Ideally, you should be equipped with two-way radios and knowledge of how to use them. In our imagined scenario where the people of East Palestine were also trapped in a major blizzard, ham radio would enable people to find out which roads are still usable, what needs to be done, who needs help, and so on.

And remember: you have to spend the money when you’re not in the woods, too. In other words, you need to have frequencies chosen, knowledge of how to use your radio (as well as some antenna theory), and a firm grasp of standard operating procedures for you and your buddies when it comes to communicating over the air.

And if you don’t have this in place before you’re “in the woods"? Well, you may find the proverbial forest to be very dark indeed.

Have a bug-out plan ahead of time.

After the evacuation orders were issued in East Palestine, Ohio, the East Palestine Junior and Senior High School were opened up as community shelters.

But as any cursory study of disaster history will teach you, you virtually never want to head to a government-run shelter if you can help it.

FEMA camp

A FEMA camp

Recall the spine-tingling living conditions and the stories that came out of the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. 

Or refer to historian Keith Lowe's Savage Continent, which features similarly hair-raising stories of “community shelters” in the aftermath of World War II.

And if these cautionary tales aren't enough, any public health student can tell you how these centers breed disease.

Are we saying this will always hold true?

No, we’re not. But we are nevertheless making the case that it is prudent to avoid community shelters if possible.

If you haven't done any prep work, however, it is likely that this is exactly where you will end up.

Looking Through the Smoke

When you’re in the midst of a traumatic event, it can be challenging to know exactly what to do and how to stay safe if you haven’t done any prep work in advance.

And it doesn’t matter what this event is, either. It could be a car crash, mugging, or even an overt act of war from another nation. No matter what, it's best to make preparations ahead of time if you want to act fast and remain safe.

A man in camou wearing a gas mask

In this vein, famed military theoretician Carl von Clausewitz spoke of the “fog of war”i.e., the uncertainties in a world filled with fast-moving, dangerous consequences caused by a lack of knowledge. To be sure, this phrase is deeply applicable to the topic at hand.

Then again, during a CBRN disaster, perhaps it would be smoke rather than fog. But either way, you'll want to do prep work in order to navigate through the haze.

But what are your thoughts on all this? Do you have other advice for our readers regarding CBRN events? Do you think there was a way to have prevented any of this from ever happening in East Palestine, Ohio?

And what of the mandatory evacuation, or the government's plans to remove the vinyl chloride? Did they act appropriately?

Let us know what you think in the comment section below.


If I can only afford one piece of CBRN survival gear, what should it be?
Aren’t CBRN events rare?