EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Jami Wallace stood in the parking lot of a car wash in East Palestine on Friday afternoon when a caravan of black SUVs rolled past. Inside one of those vehicles rode President Joe Biden, making his first trip to the Ohio town stricken by a toxic train derailment more than a year ago. 

For a few moments Wallace just watched and filmed the caravan. Then she began to call out, “Help us. Save our kids.”

Others who stood nearby joined in. These were people whose lives were upended after last year’s rail disaster, and many of them have not returned to homes they fear were poisoned by the chemicals that spilled and caught fire when the train ran off the tracks. They held signs reading, “President Biden, we need a safe home” and “We want out.”

The vehicles passed, then turned off the main road and headed toward the Norfolk Southern tracks for a visit to the site of the derailment. Wallace then became overcome and wept.

The wave of emotion surprised Wallace. She’s seen the derailment and its aftermath divide her community. 

“I used to be so proud to live in this country, and now I feel so abandoned,” she said. She hoped Biden heard from residents but feared his visit to East Palestine was merely a photo opportunity.

Ashley McCollum hugs a friend after President Joe Biden’s caravan had passed on East Taggart Street in East Palestine on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Ashley McCollum stood with Wallace, and she, too, wept after the vehicles had passed.

“I made eye contact,” she said. “I hope it made a difference.”

McCollum and her son have been living in a Columbiana hotel room for a year.

“I can’t move on with my life,” she said. “I wake up in the hotel thinking, ‘How will this end?’”

Christa Graves, who lives in Unity Township, a mile from the site, held a sign that tied the East Palestine derailment to other toxic events in the United States.

“Learn from history,” it read. “Buy us out. Love Canal, Times Beach, Ground Zero 9/11, Gulf War burn pits.”

She hoped the president took the time to speak with those most affected by the derailment. “I would like for him to hear from the residents,” she said. “I wish there had been a forum, where people could speak for a minute or so.”

Graves and another resident, Krissy Ferguson, who left her East Palestine home after the derailment and has been living in a rental unit in Columbiana, both said residents who fear their homes have been contaminated should be offered buyouts, and that they should be offered enough money to move into a similar situation elsewhere. Homes are inexpensive in East Palestine, and sale prices won’t cover the cost of homes in other areas.

“Fair market value is not enough,” Graves said.

A police officer stands inside Greersburg Tavern during President Joe Biden’s visit down the street at the Darlington, Pennsylvania, Fire Department on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Biden pledged the government’s continued focus on East Palestine but left the village without issuing a federal disaster declaration. 

Such a declaration would release federal funds for things such as environmental testing through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and is one local leaders have called for in the year-plus since the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern train derailment. 

“While there are acts of God, this was an act of greed that was 100% preventable,” Biden said during a briefing that was attended by only local leaders and pool reporters. “We were pushing railroads to take more precautions to deal with braking and a whole range of things that were not dealt with. Norfolk Southern failed its responsibility.”

Ohio U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, first called for a disaster declaration a year ago Friday. Aboard Air Force One bound for Pittsburgh, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan said that option is still on the table, but Ohio still “has a few boxes it needs to check to provide the federal government with the level of detail needed to pursue that. And so, the ball is in the state’s court.”

Biden’s visit, at about 4 p.m. Friday, came more than a year after the derailment in the village of 4,700. Twenty cars, some carrying hazardous chemicals, toppled off the tracks and burst into flames. Three days later, railroad officials decided to burn off the remnants in the derailed cars, sending a giant black cloud plume over the village and region.

Biden observed the crash site and met with local leaders — including Mayor Trent Conaway, who invited the president to the village despite endorsing his likely November opponent, Donald Trump — before the briefing speech. He then visited 1820 Candle Co., where the shop owners presented him with a floral-scented candle. There, he drank from a cup of coffee, which pool reporters noted was brewed with the tap water many in the village are still skeptical of.

“We will not be defined by this single event, rather our response to it and our perseverance,” Conaway said at the briefing. “President Biden, your long-awaited visit to our village today allows us to focus on the things we agree with — acknowledging this disaster should have never happened, address the long-term health concerns and the economic growth of the village, and ensure this never happens again to another community.”

A motorcade makes its way down Darlington Road as President Joe Biden arrives at the Darlington, Pennsylvania, Fire Department on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Some village residents and others have felt the president’s visit was long overdue as he was quick to visit other disaster areas, such as Hawaii after the wildfires and hurricane-ravaged areas in Florida. Biden said in March he would visit the village, but firm plans only materialized in the last two weeks. 

While the Environmental Protection Agency was in contact with local officials after the derailment, the Biden White House has faced criticism for his long-delayed visit. Former President Donald Trump visited the village three weeks after the derailment to offer his support; Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg arrived the next morning to observe the crash aftermath.

Federal regulators in a report said the derailment occurred likely because of an overheated bearing that got as hot as 253 degrees Fahrenheit above the outside air temperature, but the crew couldn’t stop the train in time after the sensor warning.

Biden departed East Palestine about 6 p.m. Prior to his visit to the village, he stopped at the Darlington Township Volunteer Fire Department in Beaver County, where he met with officials. That station has served as a command post on the Pennsylvania side of the border and was the site of health screenings, resource giveaways and fairs and political visits. 

U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio, D-Aspinwall, rode with the president on Air Force One and attended his meeting in nearby Darlington with residents, local leaders and first responders. The EPA’s Regan also attended. Deluzio said the president made clear that his administration will “fight to make folks whole and hold Norfolk Southern accountable, no matter how long it takes.”

Biden also reiterated his support for the Railroad Safety Act, a House bill Deluzio introduced with Republican U.S. Rep. Nick LaLota of New York last year. The bill has bipartisan support but is being held up in the House by Republican leadership.

“The railroad lobby is powerful and doesn’t want to see it move forward,” Deluzio said. In the U.S. Senate, the bill lacks support to overcome a filibuster by Republicans that “are doing the bidding of the railroad companies.”

Several people in the Darlington and East Palestine communities have voiced concerns over health problems caused by the derailment, something Deluzio said the president acknowledges. “If folks have lingering health concerns, they should never be left holding the bag,” he said. “That should be Norfolk Southern’s responsibility. People all over the country expect the railroads to operate more safely and not treat us as collateral damage as they profit.”

This story is a continuation of a collaboration on East Palestine coverage by the Union Progress and the New Castle News. The two outlets’ coverage of the year anniversary of the derailment there was partially supported by a grant from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.

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A motorcade makes its way down Darlington Road as President Joe Biden arrives at the Darlington, Pennsylvania, Fire Department on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at smellon@unionprogress.com.

Pete Sirianni

Pete Sirianni is the editor of the New Castle News. Email him at psirianni@ncnewsonline.com.