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Crowds gather to remember derailment disaster, commit to move on

East Palestine residents and those from other states hold a banner Saturday declaring their solidarity and determination to move forward one year after the Norfolk Southern train derailment in the village. A series of events took place in the Columbiana County village Saturday to mark the anniversary. Correspondent photos/ Sean Barron

EAST PALESTINE — It didn’t take Walter Call long to become emotional as he recalled the premature loss of his girlfriend.

“She got sick in September and was on antibiotics,” Call, of East Palestine, remembered, referring to his late girlfriend, Wendy Groves. She was 63.

From there, she developed pneumonia and, after a few trips to the hospital, Groves had lung cancer and was in the intensive care unit before she died, Call explained.

Even though neither he nor Groves’ doctors can definitively prove it, Call is convinced that the effects of the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern 38-car train derailment contributed to her series of illnesses and played a role in her death.

He also was among those who shared testimonials Saturday regarding the disaster during a somber ceremony, titled “We Refuse to Die: East Palestine Rising,” which was one of several events in and near the village of 4,700 to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the tragedy.

The ceremony was in the former McKim’s Honeyvine & Winery, 735 E. Taggart St., which has been shuttered since shortly after the derailment. The closed business is a few hundred yards from the site.

Also sharing a heartrending story was Jess Conard of East Palestine, who said she wrote a letter to her 4-year-old son who developed asthma after the derailment, which she read aloud. The mother of three held back tears as she recalled apologizing to her son in the correspondence for not having been able to protect him from the chemical aftereffects of the disaster.

In a moving show of solidarity, others who spoke at the program in support of East Palestine residents were from Mississippi, Washington County, Pa., and an 85-mile portion of Louisiana often referred to as “Cancer Alley” because it contains more than 200 petrochemical plants and oil refineries. All of those who spoke related stories about being adversely affected by environmental disasters.

Several locals and those from out of state also made vows to work with and be in contact with one another in a display of unity that somewhat resembled a support group. The resolve also appeared to resemble the idea of a phoenix rising from the ashes and emerging stronger.

CRITICISMS SOUNDED

“The U.S. government has given Norfolk Southern free rein” in handling the cleanup site, said Hilary Flint of nearby Enon Valley, Pa., who’s vice president of the Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment grassroots organization.

Flint, who referred to herself as “an affected resident,” and also was critical of what she sees as a largely inaccessible reimbursement system from Norfolk Southern, recalled a “strong smell” emanating from her home before she relocated to western New York. In her remarks Saturday, Flint called for a major disaster declaration for the village and Medicare for life, a provision in the Affordable Care Act to help those affected by toxins.

“It’s an important door to open other opportunities to get residents a lot of what they need,” she said about the disaster declaration.

Beka Economopoulos, who leads the We Refuse to Die campaign, outlined three key takeaways from the program: commemorating all that the village has endured in the past year, framing the disaster as a symptom of a larger problem and not an isolated incident and shining a light on “the beauty borne of the ashes of tragedy.”

After the ceremony, many attendees traveled to the Garfield Avenue home of Daren Gamble, who volunteered to have a 5-foot monument of a deer head installed in his yard. The skeletal, rather macabre looking wooden structure, which points in the direction of the derailment, is one of many such monuments that are placed in other parts of the country that have faced environmental upheavals.

Gamble, who has lived 60 years in the home his grandparents owned, said his wife, Stella, has gotten sick, likely in part because of the chemicals the controlled burn released. For a 10-month stretch during site remediation work, they lived in hotels, but her symptoms soon appeared each time they returned home, he added.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most difficult aspect of dealing with the aftermath is having no clear-cut answers, he said with frustration.

“Hopefully, everything will be OK,” Gamble continued. “It’s the uncertainty of everything. We’re trying to survive.”

RESILIENCY PROJECT

Earlier Saturday, several people representing the East Palestine Resiliency Project hosted a two-hour event at The Way Station Inc., 109 W. Rebecca St., that was set up to provide activities for young people, along with a wide array of resources and opportunities to share their feelings about the derailment. Also hosting the program were The Ohio State University Extension office and Ozer Ministry.

“(Deep) breathing helps – bringing thoughts to the present moment from the future and past that are not in your control,” Ashleigh Davis, a psychotherapist, yoga instructor and hospice volunteer, said, referring to methods for relaxing one’s nervous system and coping with anxiety.

She also brought to the event Cedric, a Tibetan terrier and certified therapy dog.

One year later, East Palestine remains a largely “divided community,” meaning that many residents continue to struggle with anger, anxiety, stress and other negative emotions, yet others feel it’s time to move forward and stop dwelling on the disaster, Davis observed.

Another key coping tactic is empathy that includes being kind to one another, offering aid and comfort to those who need them and recognizing that no two people process and deal with grief in precisely the same ways, she explained.

Among those who have gone through the grieving process was Shawna Lewis, who’s part of the East Palestine Resiliency Project. The young mother recalled putting away groceries in the kitchen after having brought her daughter home from an Urgent Care center before someone appeared outside.

“My neighbor knocked on my door and she’s like, ‘Look outside, there’s a big fire.’ From my porch, I could see flames blazing,” Lewis remembered.

She was evacuated twice – after the derailment and the controlled burn a few days later.

“We spent lots of time in and out of hotels,” Lewis said, adding that one of the most difficult aspects of the aftermath was having to change her daughter’s school.

Today, Lewis helps people know that whatever they’re feeling, it’s “100% valid,” and they’re not alone, she continued.

THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES

Echoing that view was Miranda Abel of the resiliency project, who said the children she saw Saturday seemed to display a lot of resilience. Nevertheless, many residents of all ages are still struggling, so it’s vital to listen to them nonjudgmentally while offering encouragement and validation to their emotions, she noted.

Abel, Lewis and Davis stressed that a large array of resources are in place to help those of all ages who are still struggling one year later.

Paige Irwin of the OSU Extension office staffed a table on which were a variety of coloring exercises, balloons and other visuals, some of which contained words such as “fear,” “anger,” “joy” and “disgust.” They were aimed at allowing young people to work through their feelings in healthful ways, yet not allow negative emotions to “take over their life,” she said.

“A lot of the kids are handling it pretty well. Some of the little kids are on edge,” Irwin observed.

In a recent video recording, Gov. Mike DeWine stated his commitment to continue assisting residents and businesses that have been adversely affected financially, emotionally, physically and mentally after the train derailment.

“The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency continues to do weekly water sampling and air sampling. To date, more than 175,000 tons of soil has been removed, and more soil samples will be collected and tested this year,” he said.

In addition, the Ohio Department of Agriculture collected a variety of plant samples last spring that have shown no contaminates. Also, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is continuing to monitor area waterways, the results of which so far reveal no long-term adverse impacts on fish and wildlife, DeWine noted.

ADDITIONAL OUTREACH

Other outreach efforts include a clinic that opened in the village, in conjunction with the Ohio Department of Health, monitoring residents’ health and well-being.

The state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services is providing mental health support with local partners. This spring, a new community care center is set to open, the governor continued.

He also said that 18 East Palestine businesses will receive forgivable loans to help them with ongoing expenses and recovery efforts.

According to recent figures, DeWine’s office released, an estimated 35.7 million gallons of hazardous wastewater has been removed from near the derailment site and more than 100 million air-monitoring tests have been collected, as have about 1,100 samples from private wells in Columbiana County. In addition, 20 monitoring stations continue to sample surface water from streams in the village, the email shows.

The East Palestine Fire Department recently was awarded $10,000 from a 2023 State Fire Marshal Equipment grant to buy personal protection equipment, according to the Ohio Department of Commerce.

In November, DeWine, along with the Ohio Department of Development, announced that the state would award the village $150,000 to buy new emergency response equipment.

“We will continue to support (residents and businesses) as long as it takes,” he added.

Also Saturday, a “Together in Unity” event took place at the former McKim’s Winery.

news@vindy.com

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