On Feb. 14, 2023, a Reddit user posted a picture with the caption, "Passenger photo while plane flew near East Palestine, Ohio ... chemical fire after train derailed." The context of the photo, purportedly, was that it had been taken from an airplane flying at cruising altitude, where black smoke from the Ohio train derailment was visible in the layer of clouds down below.
The post accumulated more than 142,000 points and rocketed to the front page of the website, making it one of the most popular posts of the day.
We approached the picture with some caution, as social media users have been known to make fake or unrelated photos go viral following disasters. For example, we recently reported about how several years-old pictures were shared with the misleading claim that they were taken after the earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria in February 2023.
We initially rated this fact-check claim as "Unproven," adding that it was entirely possible that it was real, but more data would be needed in order to confirm its authenticity.
On the day after we published this story, we were provided with enough new evidence to change our rating from "Unproven" to "True."
In this story, we've documented our journey to discovering the origins of this and other similar, seemingly ominous photos.
Photos from Controlled Burn
There's no question that the train derailment that occurred on Feb. 3, 2023, led to massive amounts of smoke filling the air around East Palestine, Ohio, not to mention various concerns over the environmental impact of the disaster. Such concerns were discussed in another Reddit post that showed a different aerial picture, one that we were able to authenticate as real.
In the days following the disaster, journalists and professional photographers shared multiple pictures taken from the ground that showed a massive smoke cloud coming from the site of the derailment. This smoke was the result of a controlled burn that was occurring. The controlled release of toxic fumes was seen to be safer than the possibility a large explosion, according to officials.
On Feb. 6, The Associated Press reported that Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine had ordered temporary evacuations to allow the controlled release of toxic fumes to occur.
Officials warned the controlled burn would send phosgene and hydrogen chloride into the air. Phosgene is a highly toxic gas that can cause vomiting and breathing trouble and was used as a weapon in World War I.
Scott Deutsch of Norfolk Southern Railway earlier said doing this during the daytime would allow the fumes to disperse more quickly and prevent the rail cars from exploding and sending shrapnel and other debris from flying through the neighborhood.
"We can't control where that goes," he said.
The process involves using a small charge to blow a hole in the cars, allowing the material to go into a trench and burning it off before it's released in the air, he said. The crews handling the controlled release have done this safely before, Deutsch said.
Officials lifted the evacuation order two days later on Feb. 8.
The Reddit Post
As for the Reddit post with the photo taken from an airplane, we initially found some reason to dig deeper to find out if it authentically showed what it said it showed.
The user who made the Reddit post later said in a comment, "I didn't take this photo - I found it on Twitter." They then linked to the tweet from Feb. 14. However, that tweet has since been been deleted.
According to an archive of the tweet from Google cache, the Twitter user who posted it originally shared the following caption: "This is a picture from a airplane flying above the East Palestine area on the day the chemicals were released from the train car."
Two Additional Photos
A different tweet from Feb. 13 showed the same photo, along with another one. The user claimed, "This is more than #Ohio. I'm across the lake (Lake Erie) in southern Ontario Canada by Niagara Falls and me and my family have had non stop head aches for about 7 days straight now. We can literally smell the chlorine over here in Canada. This is bigger than they are telling us."
According to replies, this user hadn't responded to requests for information regarding where they claimed to have obtained the pictures.
Another Twitter user named @BillyM2k also reposted one of the photos, but later tweeted, "Note that the source is 'from Reddit' and his source was 'from Twitter,' so it's quite possible that this pic is a bunch of crap."
Additionally, a third photo was going around that also supposedly showed the same dark clouds from far away. Newsweek later reported that its team had established contact with Jared McLuhan, the person who captured this wider picture.
One of the replies under the tweets from @BillyM2k came from the popular Zoom Earth account. The Twitter bio for @zoom_earth says that its website, zoom.earth, allows users to "track storms in real-time."
The account noted of the skies above East Palestine on Feb. 6, "A black area can be seen here but not very clearly due to the day-night imagery overlap." This was a helpful piece of information, but wasn't quite enough data for us to be able to say whether or not the photos and their captions were authentic.
The same user also later sent a "clearer view" of the same area.
This authentic satellite data indicated that there had been an isolated area of darkness above the site of the train derailment.
A Fourth Photo
On the day after this story was originally published, a reader named Colin Sullender contacted us about a post they had made on Octodon.Social. The information pointed to Twitter user @dj23white, an account with an airplane emoji after their display name, "Charlie 3 Sticks." Sullender told us they believe this user may be a commercial airline pilot.
On Feb. 6, the @dj23white user tweeted the photo that would later appear on Reddit. This was the same day that the controlled burn began. The tweet's caption read, "From the sky." In other words, this was the best evidence yet that the picture may very well have been authentic.
That tweet from @dj23white was later deleted, but was archived by Google cache. That Google cache information was then saved to archive.today by Sullender. We reached out to @dj23white but did not immediately receive a response.
Sullender posted that they believed this source "appears to match the timeline of events," but that unless the user can provide information to confirm the origins of the photo, "it's impossible to determine its legitimacy."
Hours later, Sullender uncovered a Reddit post from Feb. 7 that only received a little over 500 points. This post said that it showed a fourth photo of the skies above the Ohio train derailment.
Again, we first rated our story as "Unproven," as there initially appeared to be a lack of enough evidence to confirm the claim. However, within the 24 hours after we published our article, several new pieces of data came to light.
There are four photos of the dark clouds, at least three that were shot from different angles. None of them showed up in reverse image searches as being older than the train derailment. Newsweek interviewed a person who said they took one of the wide shots out of an airplane window. We also had the satellite images from Zoom Earth that showed a dark spot in the clouds above East Palestine on Feb. 6. Additionally, we ran the photo in question through the technology on FotoForensics.com and found no signs that it had been doctored.
All of these pieces of data combined lent significant credibility to the idea that these pictures were authentic. For this reason, we have rated this fact-check claim as being "True."