EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — A Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train crash erupted into a massive fire after multiple rail cars carrying hazardous materials derailed.
The derailment turned life upside down for residents of East Palestine, a city of 4,700 near the Pennsylvania border.
Three days later, to prevent the risk of a catastrophic explosion, toxic vinyl chloride from a rail car was burned, causing a huge black smoke plume.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution traveled to East Palestine to hear from residents about how their lives have been affected by the derailment of the train operated by Atlanta-based Norfolk Southern.
Thousands evacuated as air, soil and water were contaminated by the chemicals. Some residents have since returned and officials say the air and municipal water are safe, but others are worried there could be long-term health and safety concerns.
Here are some of the residents who shared how their lives have been altered by the train derailment and fallout in their town.
‘People just want answers’
“It’s been heartbreaking for us,” said Kathleen Unkefer, a floral designer at Flowers Straight from the Heart in the center of the village. “A lot of people are scared, skeptical. ... People just want answers, the truth.”
She has been wanting to get her well water tested, and has been drinking bottled water, as state and federal officials have recommended for residents who aren’t municipal water customers.
The flower shop where she has worked for years had to temporarily close due to the evacuation after the derailment. It reopened a couple of days before Valentine’s Day, welcoming customers who came in to support the business. “It’s been very emotional,” she said.
“Right now, I feel like I’m living in a ghost town,” said Michelle Graef, who lives just north of East Palestine and depends on renting out her property on Airbnb for income, but lost bookings after the train crash. “Pretty much everyone has canceled,” Graef said. “I have concerns it won’t ever bounce back.”
“Even if they magically get this mess cleaned up, how safe and secure will anybody be feeling about ever coming to East Palestine,” Graef wonders. “The level of devastation is far reaching.”
‘Simple, quiet, safe life’
Tammy Tsai grew up in Pittsburgh, about an hour from East Palestine, and her husband grew up in nearby South Beaver, Pennsylvania. They were living in Los Angeles and decided 27 years ago to move to the East Palestine area and build a house in a rural area just outside of town.
“We wanted to come back here to live a simple, quiet, safe life,” she said. “We built this house from scratch. It started just one little side, then we added on, and we added on and we added on to make it like our home.”
They have well water, and after seeing the contamination of a nearby creek, Tsai said her husband is “talking about leaving.”
But, “there’s no way you can sell at this point,” Tsai said. “You just never know if it’s going to be in our well. ... That could take months to leach into our system.”
The derailment “should have never happened,” Tsai said. She worries about her well water, and about the nearby farms and the potential effects of soil or water contamination.
“It’s just sickening. ... It doesn’t just affect our community,” Tsai said. In the farms near her home, “They grow food.”
‘So many people affected’
Chaney Nezbeth, executive director of the Way Station, a faith-based nonprofit that runs a thrift shop in East Palestine, said her organization gave out clothes in the initial days of the evacuation to people who escaped their homes wearing nothing but pajamas.
“So many were forced to evacuate late at night on Friday,” Nezbeth said. Some had to leave pets behind.
More recently, they’ve been distributing bottled water to residents.
“There are so many people affected and are not drinking the water,” she said.
Those with private wells were told by officials to use bottled water for drinking until they can get their water tested to determine it is safe. Some are also using bottled water to wash dishes and brush their teeth.
Officials spoke in East Palestine on Tuesday, giving voice to some of the concerns residents have.
“We just want to go back to living our lives, you know, the way they were,” said East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway.
Conaway was a part-time mayor thrust into the spotlight when the train crashed in his town. His Facebook profile lists him as mayor of the village and an assistant plant manager at a factory in town, but he has spending much of his time over the last few weeks responding to the crisis.
“We don’t want to have press conferences on our community center,” Conaway said. “We want to be having picnics here and you know, go back to small-town America.”
‘We hear you’
“We are here. We’ve been here since day one,” said Will Harden, a senior director for Norfolk Southern who is running the family assistance center. “We’re not going anywhere.”
After railroad officials skipped a town hall Feb. 15, Alan Shaw, Norfolk Southern’s CEO, wrote a letter to the community, saying the railroad would stay in East Palestine to clean up the mess and help the community heal.
“I hear you. We hear you,” he said. “I know you also have questions about whether Norfolk Southern will be here to help make things right. My simple answer is that we are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive.”
Shaw has made the rounds of network and cable news programs and recently appeared on a CNN town hall fielding questions from residents.
As of Friday morning, the railroad said it has committed more than $8 million to the community, a figure that will grow.
Way of life has been shattered
EPA Administrator Michael Regan has made at least two in-person visits to East Palestine. He’s pledged to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.
“Tragedy struck this small town,” Regan said Tuesday while in East Palestine. “The way of life, the sense of comfort that comes with living in a community like East Palestine, has been shattered. I recognize that no matter how much data we collect or provide, it will not be enough to completely reassure everybody. It may not be enough to restore the sense of safety and security that this community once had.”
Regan said EPA will continue to support the community through the cleanup.
“We’re going to work together, day by day, for as long as it takes to make sure that this community feels at home once again,” he said.
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