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

On February 3, 2023, East Palestine, Ohio, not only made history–but also wrote another lesson on why the American public needs to be prepared for CBRN events.

As the train traveled through the town, an axle issue caused it to derail and crash into a nearby gas station. A train wreck is bad enough, but anytime you add fuel to the fire, you have quite a problem. 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 take a look…


  • 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

With over 100 oil tanker cars attached, the Norfolk Southern train was shipping large volumes of a chemical called vinyl chloride, a standard component involved in creating PVC pipes. As soon as the train crashed, a massive explosion occurred, with a huge column of black smoke that some residents have referred to as “a mushroom cloud.”

Government officials moved into the area to monitor the air quality as the fire raged over the weekend, and fears of a massive explosion throwing shrapnel over a one-mile radius began to grow. The crash site was right alongside the Pennsylvania border. Governor Mike DeWine and Governor Josh Shapiro advocated for civilians to evacuate from the area, with DeWine stating, “This is a matter of life and death.”

(Image courtesy of twitter.com )

By Monday, the National Guard had been activated, and law enforcement officers in East Palestine, Ohio, were going door-to-door to “encourage” people to evacuate. All people within one mile of the crash were told where they lived was unsafe and that it was time to go.

About 500 of those who approached said they weren’t leaving. Then, when the plans were released for a “controlled release” of the hazardous materials on board the tanker cars so that they could be burnt, several of these residents decided it was time to go.

A Novel Way to Dispose of CBRN Agents

Rapid temperature changes had been noted in the vinyl chloride tanks, and 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 3” hole into the tankers, and then threw flares into the now chemical-filled trenches so that they would combust.

(Image courtesy of twitter.com )

Exposure to vinyl chloride can cause skin, eye, respiratory, and GI tract irritation and is considered to be a possible carcinogen. However, according to the Material Safety Data Sheet on this substance, “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 carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, phosgene, and hydrogen chloride.

Hydrogen chloride is highly flammable, causes burns, and is reported to cause nausea/vomiting, headaches, and dizziness.

(Image courtesy of twitter.com )

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

Both history and current events always have lessons ingrained within them. The Ohio train explosion is no exception to the rule either. 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. East Palestine, Ohio, has a population of less than 5000, and nobody there would have considered themselves at risk of a potentially lethal CBRN event.

But that’s part of the problem. People think that the only CBRN events are nuclear strikes, bioterrorist attacks, or World War 1 chemical releases. They forget (or refuse to recognize) that they are surrounded by dangerous CBRN event potentials every day.

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

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. Many of those 500 people who refused to evacuate later changed their minds on Sunday when they heard the government’s plans. In a small town like East Palestine, Ohio, this wouldn’t cause much of a gridlock.

But think about how this would play out in a larger city. All it takes is one car accident to cause a miles-long traffic jam. Time is of the essence if there’s a lethal CBRN problem behind you. Would you risk getting stuck with what you’re trying to flee because you waited too long to evacuate?

(Image courtesy of twitter.com)

Bug-out bags have practical applications.

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

When one resident heard that the National Guard had been activated over the course of the weekend, it was then that he decided things were severe enough to leave.

“We are getting stuff ready now. We are going to go to her [his 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 said.

Had the man had a bug-out bag at the ready, he would have been able to leave. No reporter would have ever had the time to ask him questions. Why? He would have been gone.

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 some type of CBRN event while staying at home, we highly recommend that you read our take on the subject.

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

The gas cloud generated by the burning vinyl chloride could quickly prove lethal. Do you think that East Palestine, Ohio, residents wish they had gas masks and respirators now? An everyday backpacker’s mantra goes something like, “Spend the money when you’re not in the woods.”

In short, when you’re in the woods, you wish you had spent that extra $50 for the upgraded sleeping pad with a better R-value. But by the time you’re in the woods, well, you’re in the woods.

The same principle applies to preparing for a CBRN event. “Spend the money when you’re not in the woods.”

(Image courtesy of twitter.com)

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

First would be 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 you need to survive a host of lethal CBRN events.

(Image courtesy of The MIRA Safety Military Gas Mask and NBC Survival Kit)

And if you have kids?

Then 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 2-12 years old.

(Image courtesy of The NBC Kids Survival Kit)

A gas mask only keeps you safe if it fits. Giving a child an adult-sized gas mask does not protect them. For these types of situations, you want to make sure that you can protect your kids.

Both of these kits are well under $450 and will help to make you much better prepared for CBRN events than you would be otherwise.

Have a plan for your pets ahead of time.

As one resident near the East Palestine, Ohio, train wreck noted, he had to get his dogs all geared up for evacuating. (Note: evacuating is “bugging out.”)

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. When combined with our MB-90 PAPR and appropriate filters, your pets will be much more protected from CBRN events while you evacuate than if you just tossed them into the trunk of your car.

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

Have some means of gathering information.

Thankfully, in this case, people in East Palestine, Ohio, still had power and cell service. They could get information from their TV, phones, and the internet. But that’s not always a given. The “state of nature” is to have nothing in this regard.

What if this 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.

People would have seen the massive cloud of smoke, but other than one-on-one communication in person, how would people have known what was going on? Would they have all had to wait for the police to show up door-to-door? And if things got terrible, would the police even have had the staff (in a town with less than 5000 people) to spend going door-to-door?

This is why it’s so vital that you have some means of off-grid communication. It would be best if you had two-way radios, the knowledge of how to use them, and somebody else with both of those things as well. This is one of the powers of the ham radio. In our hypothetical case where the people of East Palestine were also trapped in a major blizzard, ham radio would enable people to know what roads are still usable, what needs to be done, who needs help, and so on.

But, like prepping with specific CBRN survival gear, you have to spend the money when you’re not in the woods here too. In short, you must put in the training time well ahead of the disaster. You need to have frequencies chosen, knowledge of how to use your radio, some antenna theory knowledge, and 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 that things are much more complicated than they ever had to be.

Have a bug-out plan ahead of time.

After the evacuation orders came down in East Palestine, Ohio, the East Palestine Junior and Senior High School were opened up as community shelters. Any cursory study of disaster history will teach you that you virtually never want to head to a government-run shelter if you can help it.

(Image courtesy of A FEMA camp)

The living conditions and the stories that came out of the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina were terrible. Savage Continent will tell you more about how these “community shelters” played out in the aftermath of World War 2 Europe. They were terrible. Any public health student can tell you how these centers breed disease.

Are we saying this will be the case with East Palestine, Ohio?

No, we’re not. But we are making the case that things are better when you can avoid ever having to go to a community shelter in the first place.

If you haven’t put the time into the process ahead of time – thinking through where you would go if a disaster hit your town – it’s one of these community shelters that you may very well find yourself hunkering down at.

Looking Through the Smoke

When you’re in the event as it unfolds, it can be hard to know exactly what to do and what you should use to stay safe if you haven’t done any prep work ahead of time. And it doesn’t matter what this event is, either. It could be a car crash, a mugging, or an overt act of war from another nation. You must have thought through at least some of what you would do ahead of time if you want to make as fast and safe a choice as possible.

Famed military theoretician Clausewitz spoke of the “fog of war” – the uncertainties in a world filled with fast-moving, dangerous consequences caused by a lack of knowledge. Within a CBRN disaster, perhaps it should be smoke rather than fog. Want to better see through that smoke? Then, once more, do the prep work ahead of time.

But what are your thoughts on all this? Do you have other advice our readers need about surviving a CBRN event? Do you think there was a way to have prevented any of this from ever happening in East Palestine, Ohio? Did the mandatory evacuation or the means of removing the vinyl chloride make sense? 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?