East Palestine families living in limbo months after fire

Apr 25, 2023, 5:04 AM

Kyan Cepin, who now resides in a motel after being displaced by the East Palestine train derailment...

Kyan Cepin, who now resides in a motel after being displaced by the East Palestine train derailment walks his dog Opal in North Lima, Ohio, Monday, April 3, 2023. 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. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (AP) — 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.”


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.”


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.”


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

National News

FILE - Homes burn as a wildfire rips through a development near Rock Creek Village, Dec. 30, 2021, ...

Associated Press

Authorities to reveal results of investigation into how Colorado’s worst wildfire started

DENVER (AP) — Authorities say they have wrapped up their investigation into what started the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history and will announce their findings on Thursday. The blaze destroyed nearly 1,100 homes as heavy winds pushed it across the heavily populated suburbs between Denver and Boulder on Dec. 30, 2021. Two people were […]

1 day ago

Kim Adams of the SOAR Initiative, a nonprofit that seeks to prevent drug overdoses in Ohio, packs f...

Associated Press

‘Keep them alive’: More states legalize fentanyl test strips to combat surging opioid deaths

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — At Cleveland’s Urban Kutz Barbershop, customers can flip through magazines as they wait, or help themselves to drug screening tests left out in a box on a table with a somber message: “Your drugs could contain fentanyl. Please take free test strips.” Owner Waverly Willis has given out strips for years […]

1 day ago

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks during an event to commemorate Pride Month, in the East Room of t...

Associated Press

Biden invites thousands of LGBTQ+ individuals, singer Betty Who, to Pride Month celebration

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden has invited thousands of LGBTQ+ individuals to celebrate Pride Month in a high-profile show of support at a time when the community feels under attack like never before and the White House has little recourse to beat back a flood state-level legislation against them. Biden was announcing new initiatives […]

1 day ago

FILE - Former President Donald Trump greets supporters before speaking at the Westside Conservative...

Associated Press

The Republican presidential field is largely set. Here are takeaways on where the contest stands.

NEW YORK (AP) — After a trio of new announcements this week, the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential field is all but set. A handful of stragglers may jump in later, but as of now there are at least 10 high-profile Republican candidates officially seeking their party’s nomination. And with the announcement phase of the primary […]

1 day ago

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak watches a drone demonstration as he visits the Friendship Techno...

Associated Press

Biden and Sunak to focus on Ukraine and economic security in British PM’s first White House visit

WASHINGTON (AP) — Rishi Sunak for wide-ranging talks on Thursday as the British leader makes his first White House visit as premier. The leaders’ Oval Office talks are expected to cover the war in Ukraine, China, economic security, international cooperation on regulating the growing field of artificial intelligence, and more. Biden and Sunak have already […]

1 day ago

FILE - A sign outside the National Security Administration campus in Fort Meade, Md., is seen June ...

Associated Press

AP-NORC poll finds both Democrats, Republicans skeptical of US spying practices

WASHINGTON (AP) — As it pushes to renew a cornerstone law that authorizes major surveillance programs, the Biden administration faces an American public that’s broadly skeptical of common intelligence practices and of the need to sacrifice civil liberties for security. Congress in the coming months will debate whether to extend Section 702 of the Foreign […]

1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Medicare fraud...

If you’re on Medicare, you can help stop fraud!

Fraud costs Medicare an estimated $60 billion each year and ultimately raises the cost of health care for everyone.

Men's Health Month...

Men’s Health Month: Why It’s Important to Speak About Your Health

June is Men’s Health Month, with the goal to raise awareness about men’s health and to encourage men to speak about their health.

Internet Washington...

Major Internet Upgrade and Expansion Planned This Year in Washington State

Comcast is investing $280 million this year to offer multi-gigabit Internet speeds to more than four million locations.

Compassion International...

Brock Huard and Friends Rally Around The Fight for First Campaign

Professional athletes are teaming up to prevent infant mortality and empower women at risk in communities facing severe poverty.

Emergency Preparedness...

Prepare for the next disaster at the Emergency Preparedness Conference

Being prepared before the next emergency arrives is key to preserving businesses and organizations of many kinds.

SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!

East Palestine families living in limbo months after fire