EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Hundreds of Ohio residents gathered in a school gym on Wednesday night to demand answers about the ongoing fallout from a derailed train carrying hazardous chemicals, transforming what had been billed as an informational meeting into a heated town hall where officials with the railroad company didn’t even show up.
The mayor pleaded with the crowd at East Palestine High School to remain civil as they called out questions and occasionally booed after answers. The meeting was the latest effort to quell concerns and ballooning distrust, nearly two weeks after a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed and a controlled burn of chemicals onboard forced residents to evacuate temporarily.
Linda Murphy, 49, who attended the meeting with her husband, Russell, pressed officials about the difficulty of getting her water tested. Dead fish were turning up in a creek near her house, Ms. Murphy said, and the smell of chemicals hung in the air. “I don’t understand how we can have this issue and everything is O.K.”
State officials have continued to recommend that some residents drink bottled water as testing continues in private wells, municipal water and streams, and fears have percolated over the possible dangers of long-term exposure to the chemicals.
For many of the roughly 4,700 people who live in East Palestine, the extent of what is unknown about the disaster and what consequences could emerge years from now have fueled their fears as they return to their daily routines.
Many residents were angry that officials had changed what had been billed as a town hall meeting to an “informational” session with representatives from state, county and local agencies, who sat at separate tables and fielded individual questions.
But Norfolk Southern officials were not there. They pulled out hours earlier, infuriating some residents who said they wanted answers from the company.
About 10 minutes in, Lenny Gravan, a tattoo artist in attendance, pulled Mayor Trent Conaway aside and urged him to turn the event back into a question-and-answer session.
Mr. Gravan shouted for everyone to “listen up,” a microphone was found and the town hall meeting began again, with the mayor, Representative Bill Johnson of Ohio and agency officials taking questions.
After one man called on the politicians to stop taking money from the railroads, Mr. Conaway shouted him down, reflecting frustration with the national attention and the swirling online rumor mill. The mayor bellowed, to applause: “Are you from town, sir? Are you from town? Because I don’t care about your opinion. I care about the residents.”
“We have become increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties,” a spokesman for the railroad company said, though the nature or origin of the threats was unclear. The spokesman added: “We are not going anywhere. We are committed to East Palestine and will continue to respond to community concerns.”
On Wednesday, that was clearly not enough to satisfy the throngs of people gathered in the gym, who shouted demands to know where the company was. Citing the statement from the company, one man stood up and declared, “We’re scared, too.”
The company has faced stiff criticism from elected officials in Ohio and Pennsylvania and on Capitol Hill. In a series of news conferences and letters this week, lawmakers pledged to hold Norfolk Southern accountable and asked agencies to investigate both the potential impact of the hazardous chemicals on the community and how to prevent another derailment.
“I’m just as frustrated,” Mr. Conaway said at one point during the meeting. “I’m trying to get you answers.”
He said he stood by the decision to allow the company to perform a controlled release of chemicals on the train when there were concerns that one of the cars might explode and cause widespread damage, echoing comments from Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio this week as he described it as the lesser of two evils.
People raised questions about how such events could avoided in the future and whether the water was safe to drink, describing their fears for their health after they had found rashes on their children and grandchildren and heard complaints of headaches and other symptoms from others. Earlier Wednesday, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said it was “confident that the municipal water is safe to drink” after a series of tests did not show contaminants, but the agency encouraged those with private wells to test their water.
But on Wednesday night, residents demanded specifics about the testing process, as some people complained that they had struggled to get their water tested.
Mr. Conaway and Mr. Johnson, a Republican who at times fielded questions alongside Ohio health and environmental officials, pledged that they would ensure the questions would reach the company or the appropriate person.
“Why are people getting sick if there’s nothing in the air or the water?” one woman yelled out, to applause. A boy stood up to ask how children could feel safe as the stench of burning chemicals still hung over parts of the town.
Another woman, to cheers and applause, stood up to implore reporters and those watching not to dismiss the town as a poor and diminished community.
“This could’ve happened to thousands of communities just like ours,” she said, adding: “We’re just trying to figure it out. We just want answers.”