East Palestine Seeks Help for Firefighters

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – Standing in a fire truck-length area between the back of the Clark Street fire station and where trains continue to operate, East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick explained to a visiting delegation of state legislators that if the Feb. 3 derailment had happened less than a mile sooner, firefighters wouldn’t have been able to get to their firetrucks, equipment and gear.

Drabick said one of his concerns has been the close proximity between the tracks and the Clark Street station, which is the main station for the fire department. The other is located on Main Street and is shared with the police department. Drabick thinks it may be time to move the station.

“Everything going on down there is very important,” Drabick said of the derailment site. “We need to get this area cleaned up for the safety of our residents. Then something needs to happen here and, quite frankly, I don’t have it in my budget.”

As usual on a Friday night, the department had no one at the station. All the firefighters had to respond from home. Drabick, the only full-time firefighter in the department, told the state representatives the department still was able to respond to the scene in less than 10 minutes.

“My guys are phenomenal,” Drabick said. “They may be volunteers. We may only pay them by call. I would put this group up against any other department in the country.”

Since the derailment, many legislators are proposing regulations that would require Norfolk Southern and other railroads to put in an alert system that gives firefighters information to know when hazardous chemicals come through town.

“In all honesty, knowing that a train coming through has a hazmat on it, probably every train coming through here at one point or another during the day probably has at least one car that does,” Drabick said. “It’s not going to change how we’re going to operate. … I can’t upstaff based on an incident that may never happen again.”

Difficult Choices

When firefighters responded to the blaze, which went the length of many of the derailed railcars, Mayor Trent Conaway said he could see it from his house many blocks away and went there to help.

Firefighters struggled to get close to the flames, and it was impossible to get close enough to read the placards on the side of the railcars that alerts firefighters about the contents inside and whether they should be put out with water or not. Within two hours, they knew the contents of the train cars but still could not tell from the pile of twisted, flaming railcars if the ones carrying the vinyl chloride, the ones most likely to explode, were the ones on fire.

Based on concerns of an explosion, a determination was made to back away and let them burn for the safety of firefighters. Conaway said the 1-mile evacuation the night of the fire resulted from the knowledge of the chemicals.

As the fire chief, Drabick made the decisions that night, as well as the final decision for the controlled detonation, with information provided by experts about what would happen if they did it – and did not.

Conaway said they had two choices – do the controlled detonation or wait for it to explode. Based on EPA air and water tests, Drabick also got to make the announcement that it was safe for residents to return.

Conaway said he has agreed with every tough decision Drabick had to make the past two weeks.

“Every decision Keith has made, I have his back and he has had mine for everything. And I’ve consulted him on stuff that was not fire-related either, because of his knowledge of everything going on.”

The past two weeks have been full of difficult choices for officials in a town of 4,700 and for a mayor who has more than earned his $200 monthly salary.

Conaway said he hopes the state legislators who were in town will help them set up a fund for residents and firefighters, if any develop health problems from the derailment.

Working through the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, firefighters including those in surrounding departments who responded, will be tested for heavy metals for the next seven years, according to Conaway. Additionally, he said he would like to see help in possibly relocating the fire station away from the tracks.

Help from Norfolk Southern

Norfolk Southern has been helping the village with many of the expenses at this point, and Drabick told the legislators Norfolk Southern has always offered training for train-related incidents, something they do for all the towns and cities along the tracks.

“This is a whole different magnitude than anything anyone has had to deal with,” Drabick said.

On Saturday, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw visited the derailment site to check on the cleanup efforts and visited first responders at the fire station. Conaway said he was there once before, on the day of the controlled detonation, which was the path Shaw also was confident in. Shaw stayed that day to make certain it went well.

During his most recent visit, Shaw continued to offer his concerns for the village and a pledge to help, and right now Conaway believes him.

“I get the feeling he is 100% sincere,” Conaway said, “So did the first responders in the room with me and the county commissioner. I definitely think he’s a man of his word, but we will have to see. We’ve just met him.”

Health Clinic and Visitors

The Ohio Department of Health, in partnership with the Columbiana County Health Department and with support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will open a Health Assessment Clinic at noon Tuesday at First Church of Christ, 20 W. Martin St., for any East Palestine area residents who have medical questions or concerns related to the train derailment.

Registered nurses and mental health specialists will available. A toxicologist will either be on site or available by phone.

Community members can begin scheduling appointments today by calling 234 564 7755 or 234 564 7888.

Former President Donald Trump will visit the village Wednesday, followed by a visit from Erin Brockovich on Thursday, who plans to host a town hall event at East Palestine High School sometime Friday. Conaway said he had a long conversation with Brockovich about the situation. The environmental activist was involved in building a case against a utility company accused of groundwater contamination in Hinkley, Calif.

“She made me feel a lot better about some of the stuff we did,” Conaway said. “I definitely think she will be a good asset to this whole thing.”

Sunday’s visit by the bipartisan delegation of state representatives was the latest among public officials. This includes two trips here by Gov. Mike DeWine, a visit from both of Ohio’s U.S. senators and the U.S. EPA administrator. U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Marietta, R-6th, state Sen. Michael Rulli of Salem, R-33rd, and Columbiana County Commissioner Tim Weigle have regularly attended meetings and informational sessions about the situation.

Legislators visiting Sunday included Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens of Getaway, R-93, and Minority Leader Allison Russo of Upper Arlington, D-7. Local state representatives included Monica Robb Blasdel of Columbiana, R-79, Lauren McNally of Youngstown, D-59, Al Cutrona of Canfield, R-58, and Mike Loychik of Bazetta, R-65.

The group traveled to the command center at the Centenary United Methodist Church, the fire station and to the site where cleanup continues more than two weeks following the derailment.

Pat Melton, the director of strategic communications for the majority caucus, said the bipartisan group was there to see the situation for themselves and support the community.

Many others who support the community continue to arrive as well. On Sunday, a woman brought 400 dinners for people and was serving them at the Studio 25 Arts Center.

A man who identified himself only as Mike from No Buddies was manning one of at least two places downtown passing out cases of bottled water to residents. He was being assisted by two troopers from the Ohio State Highway Patrol in Lisbon, but said he came from 30 miles away and was making his third trip. He had brought 11 pallets to give away on a flatbed trailer.

“It’s just free will and donation,” he said. “We’re all Christian people. What would Jesus do?”

Pictured at top: East Palestine fire Chief Keith Drabick, left, speaks with Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens, center.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.