EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Jeff Drummond spends days and nights alone in a tiny room with fake wood paneling, two small beds and a microwave atop a mini refrigerator that serves as a nightstand — his pickup truck parked just outside the door at the roadside motel where he's taken refuge since early February.
Shelby Walker bounces from hotel to hotel with her five children and four grandchildren while crews tear up railroad tracks and scoop out contaminated soil near their four-bedroom home.
Almost 3 months after a fiery Norfolk Southern train derailment blackened the skies, sent residents fleeing and thrust East Palestine into a national debate over rail safety, residents say they are still living in limbo. They’re unsure how or whether to move on from the accident and worry what will happen to them and the village where they have deep family roots, friendships and affordable homes.
“I have no idea how long we can continue to do this,” says Walker, while washing clothes at a laundromat.
Walker, 48, also works at a small hotel where many workers are staying, so is constantly reminded of the accident. She remembers the scorched rail tanker at her property line and a backyard flooded with water from the burn site. “Sometimes I just break down,” she says.
About half of East Palestine’s nearly 5,000 residents evacuated when, days after the Feb. 3 derailment, officials decided to burn toxic vinyl chloride from five tanker cars to prevent a catastrophic explosion.
Most have returned, though many complain about illnesses and worry about soil, water and air quality. Some are staying away until they're sure it's safe. Others, like Drummond, are not allowed back in their homes because of the ongoing cleanup.
The retired truck driver and Gulf War veteran misses mowing the lawn, puttering around his yard and chatting with regulars at the tavern next door.
“I have nothing here,” says Drummond, sitting on an orange plastic chair outside the Davis Motel in North Lima, Ohio. “So it’s trying to find something to keep yourself busy, to keep from going crazy.”
FEARING THE UNKNOWN
Norfolk Southern Railroad is paying for lodging for some families but won’t say how many still are out of their homes while the railroad excavates tens of thousands of tons of contaminated soil, a process the Environmental Protection Agency expects to take another 2-3 months. The railroad also must remove toxic chemicals from two creeks, which could take longer.
“I pledge that we won't be finished until we make it right," Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw told an Ohio rail safety committee last week.
The railroad also handed out $1,000 “inconvenience checks” to residents within the ZIP code that includes East Palestine and surrounding areas, but most did not qualify for further assistance and went home.
The EPA's Mark Durno says continual air monitoring at the derailment site and in the community and soil tests in parks, on agricultural land and at other potentially affected areas have not yet detected concerning levels of any contaminants.
“Nothing jumped off page for us yet,” Durno says, adding that testing would continue just to be sure.
The railroad says testing shows drinking water is safe, though it's establishing a fund for long-term drinking water protection. It's also establishing funds for health care and to help sellers if their property value falls because of the accident.
But it’s the unknown that worry people.
Jessica Conard, a 37-year-old speech therapist, wonders whether her boys — ages 3, 8 and 9 — will ever be able to fish in the pond separating their property from the railroad tracks. Or play at the park where the chemicals are being removed from a stream. Can they remain in the town where “generations upon generations” of family have lived?
“You want them to be able to have those memories,” says Conard, who returned to East Palestine six years ago to raise her family where the sound of trains was the backdrop to her own childhood. “I just kind of feel like those memories are tainted because when you hear a train now it kind of makes you cringe.”
This is the kind of place where everyone seems connected to everyone else, residents say. Parents don’t worry about their kids because they know other parents are looking out for them.
Summer Magness chokes up recalling how the community held benefit dinners after her eldest daughter, Samantha, suffered multiple cardiac arrests playing softball four years ago, resulting in a brain injury that left her paralyzed and unable to speak. Samantha, now 16, gets all A’s, attends homecoming and still has her circle of friends.
“We couldn't have made it without them,” Magness says.
Eighty-one-year-old Norma Carr raised four children in the cedar-sided 1930s duplex she moved into 57 years ago and where three generations lived together before the derailment. She knew everyone in her neighborhood, walked to church and always felt safe among friends.
For now, she's staying in a condominium 10 miles (16 kilometers) away that the railroad rented the family for six months because Carr, who has Parkinson’s, fared poorly during a month in a cramped hotel room.
“I miss being able to look out the window and not see a stranger,” says Carr, choking back tears.
Most of Conard's relatives work in factories and, like many here, live paycheck to paycheck, putting aside money to buy and fix up homes, she says. “I mean, this is what we strive for. It’s the American dream."
She and her husband sold their first East Palestine home last year to move into their “forever home” a couple miles away, on a road named for one of her ancestors. “Then all of a sudden, overnight (the dream is) gone.”
STAY OR GO?
Small businesses like Sprinklz on Top and The Corner Store line the main drag, North Market Street, along with chains like McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. The Chamber of Commerce, library and post office are there, too. Statues of bulldogs, the high school mascot, are placed throughout town.
There also are signs reflecting the hardship the village has been through: “Y’all OK?” says one. Others say “Get ready for the greatest comeback in American history.”
But many wonder if they should stay or go.
For Summer Magness, it would be difficult to leave the community where her family has lived for generations. She doubts her home could sell for what it would cost to buy elsewhere. Still, she would move if she could, because the feeling of security has been upended and “the safety of my children is my only concern.”
To stay, Carr's daughter Kristina Ferguson, 49, says she would want independent testing and a thorough cleaning of their home. But she isn't sure if the family will ever feel safe there again.
Ferguson also worries whether living there could affect her mother's Parkinson's.
“There's ... no home in the world that is worth losing one family member over," she says. "I know as long as we're together we will have a home in our heart.”