Joe Samek opened a repair shop in his own garage in East Palestine, Ohio four years ago.
“Pays the bills and keeps the family afloat,” he said. “I’ve got two kids, both under two. I’m not making as much as I used to, and I’m struggling to make ends meet.”
Samek’s full calendar has emptied out, leaving him — and so many in the town — elements about the future.
“I had appointments set up, and customers called and they canceled,” Samek said. “They don’t want to be here, and I don’t blame them.”
Samek Automotive Repair is less than a mile from the Norfolk Southern train derailment that turned the small town into a disaster zone.
“I could see it from my house,” Samek said. “I gave my oldest a bath; she’s a year-and-a-half. She ended up getting rashes all over her body, she was coughing, hard time breathing, and we just didn’t feel safe. So we sent her back out, and they haven’t been home since.”
Samek, along with more than a dozen others, have filed a suit against Norfolk Southern. Samek’s class action lawsuit says the rail company acted with “negligence, carelessness and recklessness” and has “reduced the value of their land.”
“This lawsuit is to try to make things work,” Samek said. “They’re destroying our business, our homes. Our home values have decreased significantly since this all happened.”
SEE MORE: NTSB launches special investigation into Norfolk Southern safety
Meghan Ritchie is a realtor in northeast Ohio. She says since the accident, some families are moving out of concern for their children, even though the market is uncertain.
“This is their forever home,” Richie said. “This is where they planned on being. They are moving because they have two small children that they are taking into consideration here, and they don’t want to wait around to see what happened with that.”
After the derailment, more than 2,000 residents were ordered to evacuate during a “controlled burn” of chemicals released from damaged tank cars.
Residents were allowed to return a couple of days later after the air was deemed safe, but some homeowners don’t plan to come back.
Jim Warren is from the area and has been working in real estate for 20 years.
“Just like everybody in the country, they’re all anxious, worried. We all are,” he said. “This is a big thing. You don’t see this every day. It doesn’t affect your community every day.”
Warren says despite the incident, this is still a desirable place for buyers, and it will take at least six months before anyone knows the real impact.
“Real estate is a long game,” Warren said. “If information comes out that there’s an issue with the homes, then that’s where it would really begin to affect the market.”
Norfolk Southern is under investigation by the EPA and NTSB. The company has been ordered to conduct continuous long-term water and water monitoring and remediate the area until it’s safe.
But Joe Samek says if his business doesn’t survive, he may not stay long enough to find out.
“Family makes me whole,” he said. “Working and supporting and giving them what they need, that makes me whole.”
SEE MORE: Ohio still plagued with toxic chemicals 1 month after derailment