Two-plus months post-derailment, East Palestine residents make a tough decision
Vicki Hoffman and Doug Simpson were watching television the night of Feb. 3 when police banged on their door.
“You have to leave immediately,” the police said. Through the windows, the couple had seen fire trucks race past but figured they were responding to a crash or small fire. But when Mr. Simpson went outside, he saw flames towering in the sky.
The two live less than half a mile from where a train had just derailed. They grabbed their three dogs — one Doberman, two Bloodhounds — and fled the home that had been in Mr. Simpson’s family for four generations, the house in which he’d grown up.
More than two months after the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in the Ohio town of about 4,700 people, East Palestine residents face a tough decision: to stay or to go. Children, pets and distance from the site — not to mention financial considerations — all contribute to families’ choices regarding their futures.
Some residents have listed their homes for sale or are considering doing so.
Rollin Gosney, CEO of Columbiana, Ohio-based TG Real Estate, said he is dealing with a spike in residents approaching him hoping to sell their properties — and of offers far below asking price.
“People are going around offering repulsive offers to buy [residents’] homes,” he said. “Many are offering half.”
Mr. Gosney has also needed to post listings of rental properties outside of East Palestine more quickly than usual to meet the demand of residents wanting to get out. In cases of homeowners looking to rent outside of the town, they’ll face a financial double whammy.
“These people still have mortgage payments,” he said. “I feel terrible for them.”
Exacerbating residents’ decisions is a veil of uncertainty about what chemicals they were exposed to and whether byproducts have lingered, threatening viability of soil and well water, and still stenching the air in some pockets of town.
Extensive and recurring testing to date has not found public water to be contaminated, and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency director Anne Vogel said in a March 28 session with the U.S. House of Representatives that the Ohio EPA is working to clean up and monitor the polluted Leslie and Sulphur runs.
As of March 31, the Ohio Emergency Management Agency reported that weekly testing of municipal water continues and no contamination has been found.
Private wells are also being tested by the Columbiana County Health Department. As of April 5, 221 tested wells have been verified and show no sign of contaminants. The village of East Palestine also approved the receipt of a half-million-dollar carbon filtration system from Norfolk Southern, which will filter out organic pollutants and be installed at the town’s water treatment plant.
But these results are not a salve for many residents still burdened with symptoms and vying for answers, pushing many to question their fate and some families to flee.
A temporary exit
Vicki Hoffman and Doug Simpson returned the day following the derailment and spent one night in their home. They packed their bags, just in case.
The next morning, a Sunday, the couple got another knock on the door: It was the National Guard, with an evacuation order over concerns that the tank cars filled with vinyl chloride held an “imminent risk of explosion.”
“We gotta get the dogs, and we gotta get out of here now,” Mr. Simpson remembers saying. But one of their dogs had trouble in the hotel where they had stayed one night, so they ventured to Doug’s sister Laurie’s house in New Waterford, Ohio, about five miles west of East Palestine.
The couple stayed for four nights and then, again, returned home.
Helping Mr. Simpson’s comfort level were his 40-plus years working in wastewater treatment. He holds master licenses in the trade, so he is deft at reading water quality reports. He also is the utility chair for the Village Council, overseeing water, electric and cable issues in the town.
“I’m confident that we’re not having any problems with municipal water,” Mr. Simpson said.
The couple visited the health assessment clinic on West Main Street and requested that their metrics be included in the official database the Ohio Department of Health has created to track health and symptoms over time.
“I really think there’s going to be clusters of cancer in five or 10 years,” said Ms. Hoffman. “We’re in our 60s, so it’s not going to help us. But maybe it can help others.”
Mr. Simpson has not experienced any symptoms related to the derailment, while Ms. Hoffman has had headaches and tongue-swelling, though it has not been confirmed whether her symptoms are related to any chemical exposure.
The Ohio Department of Health surveyed East Palestine residents and first responders to the derailment site about related health issues. The most common symptoms among residents included headache, anxiety, fatigue and irritated eyes, with nearly three-quarters of people reporting headaches.
On April 7, the Ohio EPA reported that 17,400 tons of soil had been removed from the derailment site, about half of the total anticipated removal load. The effort is expected to take two months.
Mr. Simpson and Ms. Hoffman bought a 32-foot trailer to live in and are staying near Darlington, Ohio, until cleanup concludes.
They’re unsure if they will leave for good. Mr. Simpson grew up in the East Palestine house he and his wife bought one year after they were married, in 1980. He said his great-great aunt purchased the home more than 100 years ago.
“It means a lot to him,” Ms. Hoffman said. “To leave, after living here over 60 years, it won’t be easy, but it may be necessary.”
Combating misinformation on social media about the derailment has been frustrating for some. Mr. Simpson said it “really beats you down,” and he has seen a lot of fear-mongering. The couple said the energy in the town is very tense because of this, and they want to get away from that for a while.
For now, they’ll wait for more information about whether they will need to leave permanently or can return to a house brimming with memories.
They’ve received inconvenience checks and reimbursements from their one-night hotel stay but are still waiting for others.
“It’s going to be a long process,” said Mr. Simpson.
Despite some of Ms. Hoffman’s symptoms, the couple hopes to stick around if it remains safe. Mr. Simpson’s water treatment experience has bolstered his trust in data being released about the town’s water supply.
But not every East Palestine family feels that way.
‘I don’t know how people are still living there’
Kasie Locke and her family have not slept in their house since the incident.
“I don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re not going back,” said Ms. Locke, 26. She was home with her 1-month-old, Lucas, the night of the derailment, when she got a call from her husband coming home from work. On the 165 highway, he could see the fire.
“I had a sick, gut feeling that we had to go,” she said. Then, she recalled, a “chemically, burnt-rubber, alcohol smell” began to permeate her house.
“Do you smell that?” she asked her husband, Nate Locke, once he got home.
“No, I don’t smell anything,” he said.
Ms. Locke said they argued about whether to leave that night.
“We never argue. It was probably our first fight,” she said.
The couple left with baby Lucas around 3 in the morning, with receiving blankets tied around their faces since they didn’t have masks on hand.
The Lockes married in October 2021 and bought their house Feb. 3, 2022, exactly one year before the Norfolk Southern train would derail and spill chemicals one mile away. Their house was only half-renovated the night of the incident, Ms. Locke said.
It’s an old house with drafty windows. If Ms. Locke is sitting by one, it can feel like she’s outside, she explained. The fact that she could smell chemicals inside her home that night makes her worried that her belongings were tainted. She said her husband brought a shirt from the home to where they are staying and washed it. Even then, once he put it on, he broke out into a rash near the collar.
“I don’t know how people are still living there,” she said. “My next-door neighbor said she’s not experiencing any symptoms. No two people are the same with their experiences with this.”
Lucas is now 3 months old, and Ms. Locke is concerned about long-term exposure. They both have experienced coughing and congestion since the derailment, though she’s not sure the events are related.
The family currently is living with her mother in North Lima and looking for a new home in the nearby Ohio communities of East Liverpool, Youngstown and Boardman, something close enough to be able to drive to the salon she runs with her mother in East Liverpool.
“We’re going to buy all new things,” she said. “It’s just not worth it.”
Ms. Locke said she hasn’t heard anything about being paid by the railway to relocate, but she would accept if that was an option. Her family received inconvenience checks, but during a visit to the Family Assistance Center — a resource hub set up by Norfolk Southern for residents to get supplies and speak to officials about reimbursements — she saw their case was marked “final” and was confused by that.
She feels lucky for an outpouring of donations from the foster care community her sister’s involved with, so that the family can start to rebuild their life.
But even amid certainty at each end of the extreme — staying or leaving — doubt has crept in for others.
Ties that bind
Shawna Lewis didn’t want to leave her East Palestine home. It’s been in the family for more than 60 years, and she planned to raise her daughter, 7-year-old MacKenzie Davis, there, too.
But then came the daily headaches, the chemical odors, the unrelenting fear and anxiety, and the neighbors and friends who started to leave or discussed doing so. The place hasn’t been the same, not since the train crashed one mile away.
“Between social media and the news, you don’t know who to blame or what to believe,” she said. “You have people saying, ‘Get out right now. It’s unsafe.’ And then, on the other hand, you have people saying, ‘Oh, no, it’s good. You know, everything’s OK.’ I just can’t take it anymore.”
For about a month after the derailment, Ms. Lewis, her daughter and fiancé Jesse Greathouse bounced in and out of hotels in Boardman, along with their dog and two cats.
The EPA cleared their home within that time after testing for VOCs — volatile organic compounds — in the air. But there were other concerns. Ms. Lewis noticed a rainbow sheen on the water that occasionally leaks in the basement. A putrid chemical smell worsened when it rained.
MacKenzie developed skin rashes, and she was sent home twice from school, Mr. Greathouse said.
Mr. Greathouse felt somewhat skeptical of the symptoms people initially reported until his family began experiencing them. He and Ms. Lewis also found out that their close neighbors were getting intense nose bleeds.
“That was kind of the line in the sand, like, ‘OK, we gotta do something,’” he said.
As more people they knew began expressing doubts about safety, the worry that came with staying became overwhelming.
The couple decided to lease a condo in Salem, about 18 miles west of East Palestine, for a year.
“I had to move because it just felt unsafe,” Ms. Lewis said. “The anxiety and the stress, living in fear constantly. I almost allowed my emotional attachment to become detrimental to our lives, and that’s scary.”
The pair hasn’t always agreed about next steps. Some days, he’s wanted to move out of East Palestine and she’s wanted to stay, and vice versa.
Ms. Lewis dwells on all the memories made in a house that her grandparents bought decades ago, where her mom grew up and where she lived on and off throughout her life.
She has an affinity for its small quirks, too: The kitchen boasts two ovens, because her grandma was “the baker of the town” years back.
“My grandparents and my parents passed away,” she said. “I have some aunts and uncles still alive, but this is like the last little part of my mom or grandma that I might have. It’s a big emotional struggle.”
Ms. Lewis only left East Palestine once, to live in Lisbon, Ohio. She came back a year later to move in with her grandmother, who was diagnosed with early onset dementia. She took care of her until she passed away last August at age 90.
After her grandmother’s passing, Ms. Lewis and her fiancé planned to buy the house from her aunts and uncles, rather than selling it and splitting the money.
It’s an old structure in need of serious renovations — the basement is made of old sandstone and leaks severely when it rains — but they wanted to make it work. According to Zillow, the house was built in 1900.
“That’s the home I’ve always known,” she said. “I was just going to remodel it and raise my daughter there. That was my plan.”
Their current lives are a far cry from that plan. The family is pulled in numerous directions: They reside in Salem. She works in East Liverpool. He goes to work in Austintown and MacKenzie attends school in East Palestine.
Ms. Lewis’ commutes to work and MacKenzie’s school — roundtrip, five days a week — can total up to 2½ hours a day.
The family remains active in their church, just down the road from their East Palestine house, and MacKenzie participates in a youth basketball team. Not fully distancing the family from the town is a way to keep some stability in her daughter’s life, she said.
“I question that often, just making the right decision with that,” she said. “I don’t really know; I’m just trying to keep it as normalized as possible for her and just keep us safe at the same time. She’s too young to completely understand what’s going on.”
The derailment has disrupted other parts of life, too, including wedding planning. The couple had hoped to schedule their nuptials for sometime this year.
Even when she’s outside of East Palestine, the stress of the derailment follows her. At work in East Liverpool, people talk about contamination in the Ohio River, though recent tests by Ohio Environmental Protection Agency detected no butyl acrylate and vinyl chloride there.
She can’t get the situation out of her mind.
“It’s constantly there,” she said. “I can’t concentrate. I can’t pay attention at work.”
Ms. Lewis and Mr. Greathouse both work for an outpatient behavioral health facility — a job that has taken on new meaning as Ms. Lewis has sought out mental health counseling herself since the derailment.
“I’m supposed to be the one helping people, and I can’t even help myself,” Ms. Lewis said.
When thinking about the future, Mr. Greathouse can see the family staying in Salem. It still has the small town vibe, with plenty of parks and good schools, and Ms. Lewis has some family there. But he’s grown to love East Palestine too, so the couple hasn’t ruled out a full return.
Then there are the financial considerations. Moving out of East Palestine means the family home would have to be sold, but they don’t know who would buy it. And if someone did, it would probably be for much less than its value before the derailment.
Staying in a devaluing home would feel like a financial risk, too.
“It just seems like we’re going to be in a big hole if we bought it,” he said. “It’s just tough all the way around.”
Similar to Doug Simpson, Mr. Greathouse saw more divide in the town about whether to leave earlier on. He’s found older generations tend to want to stay, but even that’s changing. He now believes more people would move out, at least for now, if they could afford it.
He’s seen even the most staunch believers in staying change their mind.
“There’s a strong sense of community and that’s what keeps people there, so I think it’s tough for a lot of people to actually leave,” Mr. Greathouse said. “But even talking to people at church, they were the ones to calm us down, like, ‘Oh no, everything’s fine. It’s going to be good.’ And now they’ve left, too.”
For now, the house sits in probate court. The couple plans to make a more concrete decision about their future in another six months.
“I just have to go with the flow and thank God every day that we’re alive and are safe,” Ms. Lewis said. “Go day by day.”
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