Willard chemical spill evacuees share a meal of Thanksgiving

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

WILLARD, Ohio — Thanksgiving didn’t feature the stay-at-home holiday meal the Gibsons had planned, but they and others displaced from their homes after a railroad chemical spill made the best of the holiday.

Chassity Gibson, her daughters Karlee, 8, and Emilee, 10, and her mother Rita King sat down Thursday to a Thanksgiving meal at a long table in the Willard High School cafeteria surrounded by scores of neighbors.

Three generations of the family chatted with each other and briefly with Gov. John Kasich, who greeted residents of the southern Huron County city as they waited for word that they could return to their homes.

“I’m thankful that they fed us,” said Karlee, of the spread that included ham with pineapple slices, stuffing, corn, potatoes, rolls, cranberry sauce, and desserts.

About 400 houses were vacated early Wednesday morning after a derailment at the CSX Transportation rail yard led to the spill of about 13,000 gallons of styrene monomer, a flammable chemical used to make plastic.

Most residents were allowed to return to their homes around 3 p.m. Thursday after air testing showed it was safe. For about 10 percent of residences closest to the spill site, however, access was closed as cleanup efforts continued late Thursday.

Willard city manager Brian Humphress said he hoped the remaining displaced residents could return no later than Saturday.

“Everything with the cleanup ... has gone better than what we hoped,” he said.

The Gibson family spent two nights at a hotel in Tiffin, more than 20 miles west of Willard. They arrived at the high school cafeteria for the Thanksgiving meal and to wait for the official OK to return to their house on West Pearl Street.

Ms. Gibson had finished her grocery shopping to make a holiday meal with turkey, ham, and all the traditional dishes when their Thanksgiving plans were disrupted. They postponed their homecooked feast until today, and she still planned to shop holiday sales Thursday night in Mansfield.

“A little mini-vacation,” Ms. Gibson said of the unexpected turn the previous two days had provided. “Make the best of a bad situation.”

Mr. Kasich stopped by the cafeteria to shake hands, pose for pictures, and wish people a happy Thanksgiving.

Paper turkeys decorated the tables, while a television showed the Detroit Lions’ Thanksgiving football game, this year against the Green Bay Packers.

Concessions by Cox, the Columbus catering company hired by CSX, started cooking about 6 a.m. About 250 residents attended the meal, according to the city.

“The public seems to be fine. I mean, I think they like the chocolate cake more than the turkey. That’s my observation, and … it’s an example of a great community,” Mr. Kasich said.

He praised the response from residents, city officials, CSX, and state and federal environmental agencies, and said he expects lessons will be learned from the evacuation.

“I hope we’ll use Willard as an example of how in a crisis like this people are … supposed to behave,” the governor said.

Rusty Orben, CSX director of public affairs, said air-quality testing will continue during the cleanup and an “exhaustive investigation” to determine the accident’s cause will occur after cleanup is complete, which he said likely would take “a few days.”

Four railroad tank cars involved in the derailment late Tuesday night had been rerailed by Thursday morning, which allowed CSX to move train equipment out of the way and begin digging out ballast stone and soil beneath the tracks that was soaked with the spilled styrene. Two of the other derailed cars also contained flammable chemicals.

Gary Sease, another railroad spokesman, had said Wednesday the derailment investigation would be a thorough and prolonged process. The accident brought train traffic on CSX’s busy main line across Ohio to a halt, with some trains diverted to other routes. No passenger trains use the CSX tracks through Willard.

Governor Kasich mentioned a valve on the leaking tank car’s underside had been sheared off by the derailment.

Gary Ousley, Huron County’s chief dog warden, said his office responded to calls from people who left pets at home during the evacuation.

It is housing 20 to 25 dogs at the dog warden’s office and the Huron County Humane Society until their owners can retrieve them.

He said all the animals the agency had assisted seem to be in good condition.

Debbie Reeder and her family expected to be able to return to their house on Thanksgiving Day, and friends invited them to a holiday meal in nearby North Fairfield, Ohio.

Had they not been forced out of their house, Ms. Reeder said she had planned to make a Thanksgiving meal at home.

Despite the inconvenience, Ms. Reeder is satisfied with the response from CSX, which paid for their hotel stay and for their dogs to stay in a kennel at a local veterinary clinic.

She also was pleased the governor made the trip to Willard.

“That shows that he cares, or he wouldn’t be here,” Ms. Reeder said.

Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@theblade.com or 419-724-6056, or on Twitter @vanmccray.