Ohio Train Derailment Evacuee Is Living a Real-Life Version of the Disaster Movie He Appeared in as an Extra

Ben Ratner, who lives less than a mile from where a train derailment caused a massive toxic chemical spill, had no idea how closely his life would parallel a Netflix movie he worked on in 2021

Ben Ratner
Ben Ratner on the set of "White Noise" in October 2021. Photo: Courtesy Ben Ratner

Ohio resident Ben Ratner was excited when he landed a gig as an extra in a Netflix movie about a toxic disaster in October 2021.

But now the 37-year-old father of four — who lives in East Palestine, Ohio, less than a mile from the site of a train derailment that led to a massive toxic chemical spill and forced residents to evacuate — is living out a real-life version of the movie's plot that's continuing to unfold.

"Talk about art imitating life," Ratner — who plays an evacuee in the film adaptation of Don DeLillo's novel White Noise about a freight train explosion that releases deadly toxins into the air — tells PEOPLE.

"This is such a scary situation. And you can just about drive yourself crazy thinking about how uncanny the similarities are between what's happening now and in that movie."

With a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio are still on fire at mid-day Train Derailment Ohio, East Palestine, United States - 04 Feb 2023
Crash site after a Norfolk and Southern freight train derailed on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio. Gene J Puskar/AP/Shutterstock

Like nearly half of the residents in the Ohio village of East Palestine (population over 4,700), located about 50 miles from Pittsburgh, the Ratner family's life was upended around 9 p.m. on Feb. 3 when 50 rail cars filled with chemicals and combustible materials ran off the track.

One of those chemicals was vinyl chloride, a toxic flammable gas. And shortly after the derailment, a massive fire erupted, sending enormous clouds of pitch-black smoke into the air, forcing evacuations on both sides of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

Two days later officials were so fearful that the rail cars filled with vinyl chloride would explode, potentially sending shrapnel over a mile-wide radius, that they vented the chemical into a trench and burned it.

Ratner — who owns a coffee shop in nearby Salem — along with his wife and kids, spent eight days living with friends, relatives and in an Airbnb property before finally returning home three days after the evacuation order was finally lifted.

"Once we got back, we did a lot of cleaning and let the house air out, but all those chemicals that burned create byproducts, like hydrochloric acid, in the form of a film that's been left on the surfaces of our homes," says Ratner, who is not only worried about the long-term health impacts of the disaster but fears how it will affect the economy of his community.

With a drone shows the continuing cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed Friday night in East Palestine, Ohio Train Derailment Ohio, East Palestine, United States - 09 Feb 2023
Gene J Puskar/AP/Shutterstock

"We still need answers about how to keep our families safe while also maintaining some sort of a regular existence for our kids."

The environmental fallout from the derailment is clearly still unfolding. On Feb. 10 — seven days after the disaster — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter notifying the Norfolk Southern, the rail line's owner, that three additional hazardous chemicals were in the train cars.

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"Approximately 20 rail cars were listed as carrying hazardous materials….butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether are known to have been and continue to be released to the air, surface soils, and surface waters," the letter stated.

Not surprisingly, Ratner can no longer stomach watching White Noise. "I went and tried to watch the film a few days ago and couldn't," he admits. "It wasn't something I wanted to be entertained by because for us, it's a real-life situation."

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