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Reflections one year after the East Palestine train derailment

A gray house with the words "We R sick" written on the front as children on skateboards and a scooter roll by on the street.
Matthew Chasney
Ideastream Public Media
The home of East Palestine resident Courtney Miller, Oct. 6, 2023. The Miller home lies within a half mile of the site of the derailment. The heavily polluted creek, Sulphur Run, cuts through Miller's backyard. "We R Sick" is spray painted on the front porch.

Saturday, Feb. 3 marks one year since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine. For many residents, this date marks the day their lives turned upside down.

A dead white fish in cloudy water.
Matthew Chasney
Ideastream Public Media
A dead fish in Leslie Run in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 15, 2023. Dead fish, frogs and worms could be found in the creek nearly two weeks after the derailment.

Some people are living a life that would have been unimaginable a year ago. For others, life looks largely the same.

A gray house with the words "We R sick" written on the front as children on skateboards and a scooter roll by on the street.
Matthew Chasney
Ideastream Public Media
The East Palestine High School Bulldogs football team takes the field for a game against Columbiana High School in East Palestine on Oct. 6, 2023. The team applied a railroad track graphic to their helmets after the derailment.

We caught up with some of the residents we've spoken with this past year to hear their reflections on the anniversary and life after the derailment.

Life goes on

Rachel Wagoner is no stranger to how big industry can negatively impact rural towns. She pointed out the effects on her family’s farm while driving a muddied Ford Bronco through the 500 acres, either densely forested areas or wide-open fields for growing hay to feed their livestock.

She explained how empty mine shafts are in some hills, how the farm is next to an industrial complex with a looming water tower. Even in such a rural area surrounded by cows and sheep, she can't get away from industrialization.

Rachel Wagoner behind the wheel of her car.
Matthew Chasney
Ideastream Public Media
Rachel Wagoner of Tall Pines Farm in Darlington, Pennsylvania, just across the border from East Palestine, drives to their livestock pasture on Jan. 31, 2024.

Wagoner helps run her family’s farm in Darlington, Pennsylvania, just across the state line from East Palestine. Cattle roam a front pen, meandering through the driveway creating obstacles for cars. A big, fluffy dog greets visitors, leaving long white fur everywhere she goes.

Unable to pack up all their livestock in one day, Wagoner's family hunkered down with their animals while officials performed a controlled burn of vinyl chloride in the tanker cars, she said. The sheep and cattle ensured life moved on the next day.

“I came back the next day, and it was normal. I mean it was just like a normal – everyone was like, ‘Hey, I need hay. We need water. I need a little bit of grain or whatever,'" she said.

“Yeah, it was totally normal. It was strange how normal it was. I mean they had no clue. [The animals] had no clue.”
Rachel Wagoner

The animals have shown no effects from the derailment or burn off, Wagoner said.

"Could that have caused health issues later, experiencing some sort of stress? Maybe but I mean life is stressful," she said. "I mean that's all farming is is managing stress on your animals whether it's from the environment or the weather or stuff you're doing to them."

Her family took advantage of soil and plant testing that was offered, and all their tests also showed no impact from the derailment, she said.

"It all came back shockingly good considering we live in Western Pennsylvania where I mean there is a legacy of destructive industries here," Wagoner said. "I mean the field up top, some of it was strip mined. There are other mine shafts we know that go into the hill. There's acid mine drainage on some parts of the farm."

Wagoner drove up a steep and muddy hill with farm dog Kali running after the car, stopping once to let the "out of shape" dog hitch a ride in the back.

With wildlife all around her, Wagoner had a gut feeling that everything on the farm would be OK, which she felt validated by when she drove past a pack of wild turkeys near an empty field being prepped for next season's hay crop.

"When people talk about the wildlife going away, I'm like, did they all come to our farm? Because the wildlife has not diminished here whatsoever," Wagoner said. "There's some turkeys. I literally saw 50 of them behind that field where they are now. We're literally overrun with deer."

Now, nearly a year after the derailment and controlled burn, Wagoner is doing the same thing she did last year - or every year on the farm for that matter.

"It's like a replay, because everything with the farm happens cyclically," she said. "So we're back now to lambing."

Standing next to pens filled with day-old lambs and pregnant sheep, Wagoner explained last year she was doing the same thing, helping sheep give birth, caring for newborn lambs.

"Life just goes on here no matter what," she said. "For better or for worse, it's always going on."

A woman in a pink hooded sweatshirt stands cheering as she holds an American flag. Others around her including a child in a gray jacket, hat and black gloves also cheer.
Matthew Chasney
Ideastream Public Media
Supporters of Donald Trump cheer for his motorcade during the former president's visit to East Palestine on Feb. 22, 2023.


For Mary Lou Sovich and her daughter Renee Funkhouser, one of the worst parts of the derailment was losing time.

Seated at the dining room table of their house just a few hundred feet from the derailment site, the mother and daughter recounted their time living in a hotel while Norfolk Southern worked on remediating the site. Sharing a single hotel room, the pair stayed in a Quality Inn in North Lima for five months.

“It was OK, but it’s not home," Funkhouser said, adding that Norfolk Southern has been good to them, paying for their hotel and food for their entire stay.

Funkhouser fears she’s missed precious time with her 1-year-old granddaughter, whose parents don’t want her spending too much time near East Palestine out of fear it will impact her health, she said. She pulls up a video on her phone of her granddaughter playing with one of her toys.

"I thought, 'I'll never have these memories of my granddaughter being at her grandma's house,'" Funkhouser said.

Funkhouser take trips to Hilliard, a city outside of Columbus, to visit her granddaughter, and her daughter has even brought her to their house in East Palestine a couple times for short visits, she said.

Renee Funkhouser cuddles her cat, Ashes, in the kitchen of her East Palestine home.
Matthew Chasney
Ideastream Public Media
Renee Funkhouser with her cat, Ashes, in the kitchen of her East Palestine home on Jan. 31, 2024. Renee, her mother, Mary Lou Sovich, and Ashes spent six months living in a pet-friendly hotel in North Lima, Ohio, while cleanup efforts took place.

But some of their family, like Sovich's sister, refuse to come near East Palestine after the derailment or buy any products from Ohio. Sovich doesn't share this concern.

"My grasscutter said to me, 'Oh, I see you've planted tomatoes.' I'm like, 'No, I didn't plant those. They came from last year,'" she said. "Those little cherry tomatoes, grape tomatoes. We had a lot of them. I ate them. I don't think I was affected by them."

Funkhouser shook her head. Although she loves tomatoes, she didn't eat the crop that came from her backyard so close to the derailment site.

Sovich and Funkhouser have been back in East Palestine since August but have been weary about being so close to the remediation site. Neither woman said they smell anything in their home, but Funkhouser can sometimes smell an odor from the road.

An elderly woman stands in the middle of a living room with a fireplace, a round wooden table, and a wall covered in family photos.
Matthew Chasney
Ideastream Public Media
Mary Lou Sovich in the living room of her home in East Palestine, Ohio, on Oct. 12, 2023. While living in a hotel, Sovich longed to return home and cook for friends and family, something she loved to do. But by the time she returned home, she'd grown accustomed to eating out.

Sovich plans to put the house on the market due to worries about long-term health effects.

“I wanted to get back to normal, whatever that is," Sovich said.

The decision didn't come lightly, she added.

"Even right before all this happened, we were back and forth about staying and leaving, staying and leaving," Funkhouser said, "and we had actually decided to stay."

Now, they plan to rent an apartment outside of East Palestine, but not everyone in town understands their decision, Funkhouser said.

"Some people couldn't understand why we left, and why are you having such a hard time readjusting?" she explained.

There is a light at the end of leaving Sovich's home of nearly 20 years, with walls plastered with pictures of her family and palm leaves stuck behind a framed picture of Jesus. She plans on adopting a dog once they settle into their new apartment, who will keep Funkhouser's 16-year-old cat, Ashes, company.

"I wouldn't want to be in East Palestine. I'm getting out," she said. "I'm getting me a dog, and I'm getting out."

An elderly stands in a church looking up with pews and stained glass windows behind him.
Matthew Chasney
Ideastream Public Media
Bill Sutherin, Lay Leader for Centenary United Methodist Church in East Palestine, Ohio, on Jan. 31, 2024. Norfolk Southern signed a one-year lease to set up its headquarters in the church.

Is it time to move on?

Since the derailment, Bill Sutherin has helped people connect. As lay leader of Centenary United Methodist Church, he helped Norfolk Southern and its contractors move into the church mere weeks after the derailment.

"People have told us that work here, 'This is a rarity. When we go to smaller places, we're all over the town,'" Sutherin recounted. "'It is so much beneficial to us to be able to communicate with one another in the same building.'"

Sutherin has served on community groups giving feedback to government agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He's offered to participate in studies looking at the long term impact of the derailment on residents' health. A year later, he thinks most residents are ready to move past the derailment.

"Most of the people I talk to are either fine or want to move on," Sutherin said. "They're not seeing any health effects."

Neither Sutherin or his wife have had any side effects from the derailment, and he thinks Norfolk Southern has done a good job of making things right in the community on every front but one.

"For those who need it, there should be health monitoring five, 10 years down the road, because you don't know," he said. "Sometimes it takes a long time for your body to react to something like this."

But when he looks around town, he sees all the good that the railroad company has done in the past year.

"They're doing things in town this town could have never afforded," Sutherin said. "$25 million improvements to the park, money to businesses, money to put new waterlines in the older parts of town that's been needing it for years."

A woman with a toddler, a boy in a yellow shirt and a girl in an orange shirt each slide down a yellow slide in brown sacks.
Matthew Chasney
Ideastream Public Media
Hanna Gaither of Newcastle, Ohio, and Miles McCoy (in her lap) ride down a slide at the East Palestine Street Fair on May 27, 2023. The annual Memorial Day Celebration was paid for by Norfolk Southern.

Sitting in a room adjacent to the church's sanctuary with light pouring through stained glass windows, Sutherin said he wants people to know East Palestine is just like any other town in rural America. It has rich people, poor people, businesses, parks, schools, churches, blue and white collar workers, and it shouldn't just be defined by the train derailment.

Updated: 11 a.m., Friday, Feb. 2, 2024: An earlier version of this story misidentified Rachel Wagoner's dog as Kala. Her name is Kali.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.
Matthew Chasney is a photojournalist and artist from Cleveland who tells stories about housing, community, health, the environment, politics, LGBTQ rights, and culture as seen through a working class lens.