East Palestine, Ohio: A Town Transformed

Published: Mar. 29, 2023 at 12:57 PM EDT
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EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WNDU) - East Palestine, Ohio, is a small village that was thrust into both the national and worldwide spotlight due to the recent train derailment.

But for First Alert Meteorologist Chuck Heaver, this is personal. This is home to his family. He grew up there.

During a recent visit, Chuck described it as a town suddenly transformed, as it was swarmed with media, politicians, attorneys, and environmentalists.

That’s when Chuck knew there was a story missing here — a story about the people.

The People and the Disaster

East Palestine is about 45 minutes northwest of Pittsburgh, which is just across the Ohio border, and it only has around 4,500 people.

It’s a village also where the downtown is bisected by a creek and a railroad, and who could have ever imagined that the convergence of the two would forever change the landscape and fabric of this community?

“I still go to church here, come back and forth. It’s just part of my history,” said Charlene Heaver, Chuck’s mother. “East Palestine has never been a real wealthy town. It was all people that worked in potteries and grocery stores. It was always a safe, good community to be in, and that’s about it.”

“I’m 82 years old. I grew up in East Palestine, went to schools here, played sports,” said Bill Meek, East Palestine resident. “We used to go to trapping at 5 o’clock in the morning and run these cricks that they’re that they’re treating right now. You can see what happened here even now with all this. Everybody’s helping each other out. But now I notice the last few days, they’re talking about other things going on in the world.”

Locals Pushing Through the Derailment

After looking at the impact on the senior community, Chuck also spoke with the people who are in the current workforce and see how they are pushing through this.

Kathleen Unkefer is a local florist who has been making smiles with flowers for decades.

“I’ve been here my whole life,” she said. “My mom, my dad, my grandma, my grandpa, my four kids grew up in school here. So, I’ve been here a long time.”

Out of all the things that have happened in East Palestine amid the train derailment, the one thing that really stands out in Kathleen’s mind is the love for one another and the human capacity to help each other.

“There’s so much wrong in the world, and all you hear is negativity, and you just want to be here and be the positive because we love our little town,” she said. “We are just not going to go anywhere. We want to make our town better than what it was. We want to be stronger than what it was, you know? So, we’re thankful for the people that come in and are trying to help and do things for us.”

Kristen Dyke is a local occupational therapist. She is a working mom with two kids in school and sports.

“We have so many friends here. My family is here. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve never lived anywhere outside of East Palestine,” she said. “This is my hometown. This is where I grew up, and this is where I want my kids to grow up.”

Kristen said she does have some ongoing concerns but is hopeful that things will soon be back to normal in East Palestine.

“This is a big year. My daughter started as a freshman, and she’s involved in a lot of sports, and my son is in basketball here, and we’ve had a lot of schools that have opted to not come here and play because they’re scared to come into town.

“As this goes forward, everybody wants to come back here,” she continued. “My daughter is ready to start track, and we want to make sure people come here so they can have their track meets at their own school.”

And while times are tough right now, Kristen said it’s the support that keeps her here.

“When something bad happens, everybody — whether they know you or not — comes together, and they support you as best as they can,” she said. “It’s just a great community. Everybody sticks up for one another. Everybody gets along, and you just build lots of friendships here.”

Cleaning Up the Town They Call Home

In tough times, you need leadership and a positive attitude. And if you grew up in a small town, you know what happens when tragedy strikes — people typically pull together.

Chuck spoke with a couple of people who wake up every day and try to lead their community forward.

Doug Simpson has lived in East Palestine and is on the village council.

“Growing up here, you don’t even notice the trains. But if you sit and watch, a train comes through about every 12 minutes,” he said. " If the train would have derailed at the main intersection of Market Street, it could have had horrible consequences. Our fire chief had not been here quite one year when this happened. He has had experience in in emergency situations, so thank God we had him here. He knew how to handle it, and he did a fantastic job. The fire department, I can’t say enough about them. They saved that end of town, they really did.”

Doug says it will take some time, but he is confident that East Palestine will become stronger because of the derailment.

“This is a nice little community. We’ve got industry coming in, we’ve got businesses coming in, but this place, it’s different,” he said. “We have a lot of people coming from Pennsylvania here now to live. We’re an affordable community. We’re going to come back, there’s no doubt about it.

“It’s going to take time,” he continued. “This is not something that happened overnight. . . it’s going to take us time to get back to where we were. I think we’ll come back stronger and better, and I’m thinking a lot of other people in town are thinking the same thing.”

One of those other people in town is DJ Yokley, a local sports broadcaster and reporter.

“I was born and raised here my entire life,” he said. “I just turned 38. I served on village council at one point, built a house here after college, brought my family here, and now I own a business.”

DJ says you can look at the train derailment in two ways — you can look at it how the community is going to suffer, or look at the opportunity that’s ahead.

“When others see challenges, some of the people here in East Palestine see opportunities,” he said. “I’ve got two kids at home and a wife. I looked at them last night and I realized they’re what I’m fighting for. this is home to me, I brought them here, so I have to defend East Palestine.

“I’m going to be the first in line, my hand is going to be on the bottom of that pile,” he added. “East Palestine is going to be home for me, no matter where I am in the world. Everybody now knows where East Palestine is, and now it’s my chance to let people know that we’re a city with a big future.”

In today’s world of fast news and quick reels, this story continues to make headlines. The government, big companies, attorneys, environmentalists, and the politicians will all disappear.

But in the end, when all the chaos leaves town, the people that call East Palestine home will still call it home. They will move on with their lives, and Chuck is confident that good things will come out of this current situation.

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