As Norfolk Southern Reports Billions in Earnings, East Palestine Residents Wait for Justice

One year after the Norfolk Southern derailment, families are still struggling to relocate, find work, and access medical care.

Maximillian Alvarez

EPA contractors put on PPE before collecting soil and air samples from the derailment site on March 9, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. Michael Swensen/Getty Images

Read the full transcript below.

On Feb. 3, 2023, a Norfolk-Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, forever changing the lives of the town’s nearly 5,000 residents. One year later, the people of East Palestine continue to contend with chemical leaks and the effects of contamination on their health and livelihoods. Despite a media frenzy and bluster from politicians in both parties, East Palestine residents have largely been abandoned to their fate. While Norfolk-Southern reported billions of dollars in earnings last year, families in East Palestine are still struggling to relocate, find new work, and seek treatment for sudden and severe illness. To commemorate the anniversary of the East Palestine disaster, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez begins Season 7 of Working People with testimony from five East Palestine residents: Christa, Chris Albright, Jessica Albright, Stella Gamble, and Daren Gamble.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Christa: I’m Christa. I am an East Palestine Unity Township resident. I’ve lived in East Palestine School Districts all my life. I’ve lived in this house with my family for 28 years. This is the only home my children or grandson have ever known. We’re 1.2 miles away from the derailment site in the original evacuation zone.

Chris Albright: I’m Chris Albright. I am a 48-year-old man here. I’m a resident of East Palestine. We live about a half a mile away from where the actual train derailment was. I’ve lived here for approximately nine years. Before that I did live in the area, former gas line worker. That’s basically who I am.

Jessica Albright: I’m Jessica Albright. I’m 44. Feb. 3 this year will actually be 20 years exactly that I’ve lived in East Palestine. Like he said, we live in the house about a half a mile from the derailment site. I have three girls, my oldest is 20, and then 18, and eight.

Stella Gamble: My name’s Stella Gamble, and I’m 69 years old. We live probably less than three quarters of a mile from the train derailment. I have nine granddaughters, and I’ve lived in East Palestine most of my life.

Daren Gamble: My name’s Daren Gamble, and I live in East Palestine. And I’ve lived in the same house where I was born, I’m 60 years in the same house here in East Palestine. This has been my home for my entire life, so I know pretty much the ins and outs of the town.

And it’s just sad what’s the division that’s still going on in this town. It’s unbelievable. I don’t know how anybody can possibly think… It’s the worst chemical rail disaster in the country, and [we’re supposed to think that] everything just magically disappeared and everything’s fine when there’s still people with issues, and everything isn’t fine, and there are still unmet needs in East Palestine.

Christa: On Feb. 3, we found out about the derailment from Facebook posts. We were watching some Disney Channel with my grandson. Just a cuddle night that evening. My grandson’s dad was going to help me switch out a bed in my room, so we were waiting for that.

When we saw the posts of pictures of people’s backyards with that huge fire in the background, we didn’t know what was going on. It didn’t occur to us that the news wouldn’t break through, like Disney, just didn’t occur to us, and we figured that all the news stations would immediately be sharing what was going on online and we would be getting it that way.

My initial first concern was that the gas station was going to blow. That’s a bulk fuel station, and I could just foresee two streets’ worth of houses. That’s what I was afraid of initially.

I have a lot of close friends who are first responders. I think I had six or eight down on the scene from different departments, so I’ve always known to stay away from an emergency situation. While everybody was rushing downtown to take a peek and get some video or see for themselves, we just stayed out here on the outskirts.

When my grandson’s dad was on his way here from work, he crossed the railroad bridge at the other end of town, and he was just like, Oh my God, it’s on fire. It’s huge.” Not really panicked but shocked because we had told him there’s a big fire, and it was just… He could see it, I’d say about a mile away down the road, possibly farther, because I don’t think that end of town was in the evacuation zone. So he could see it big and bright down there at the railroad bridge.

That evening, we continued to watch Facebook for updates, check with the local news stations online, see what we were getting, and I still was thinking about major fires and explosions. There was a little bit of mention of chemicals, but, I mean, that was really late into the night and early into the next morning that that started. I don’t think they had the manifest until three or four hours after the train derailed.

The next day, we were still here. We didn’t have the money to relocate. And the way they put out the notice, since we didn’t get anything official, we never got the text message or anything like that. We saw the city updates with a circular map. And they would call our street name, which is a dead end roll route, Jimtown Road, and we were never sure if it meant everybody north of Jimtown Road evacuate or we were also to evacuate, or shelter in place, and I’m still thinking of a massive fire downtown. So I was like, well, we’re probably okay out here. We were just kind of taking it a minute at a time.

“It’s the worst chemical rail disaster in the country, and [we're supposed to think that] everything just magically disappeared.”

Christa: At some point the kids, my oldest and the baby’s dad had gone to Walmart. They took the back way down through Negley, and they said that they could smell really heavy chemicals. And at the time my daughter was in cosmetology school, and she said It smells like nail monomer. It smells like nail monomer.” And it still didn’t occur to me. I’m still thinking that everybody I know downtown, all my first responder friends are in danger, everybody’s homes that are down there, they’re going to burn.

As we sat here through the day, you heard booms kind of regularly. They seemed to have some rhythm to them. Not real close together, but maybe 20 minutes apart or something, it seemed like. It seemed like a normal thing to me with what was going on. And then when the NTBS said that the tanker cars were doing what they were supposed to, I think what I was hearing was that pressure valve releasing, and then it would build up more pressure and then it would release again. I think that’s what I was seeing.

So Sunday night, we were called, or I received a text. I was trying to watch the new update on Channel 21. I didn’t realize I had already missed it, so I was like, Oh, this is not the normal time that they do updates. It’s time to go.” And the kids had gone away for the day. They were far away — Well, like 10, 15 miles away from here. So I was okay with them. I was like, You know what? This isn’t the normal time.” So So I’m holding my phone watching that, and I’m getting a bag, and I threw a change of clothes in there, my medicine, the dog’s anxiety medicine because she’s never left home. I called the kids being like, What do you want me to grab from the house?” And then there was confusion, and they didn’t know if the house was in danger of not being here or what. I wasn’t real clear, and I wasn’t real clear what I… I didn’t even know what I was really asking at that point because I’m going to be leaving. What do you want me to grab for you?

My youngest got her favorite stuffed animal from when she was a kid in a basket of random clothes that she had just washed. My oldest, she was like, I’m just going to run up and grab a couple of things.” And as she came in the door, the first text message I ever got out on a watch: Get out of EP”, from a former first responder who was listening to the radio. I put my hand up, I said, No, you got to go. Turn around and call the dogs. We’ve got to go.” I don’t even remember if she got to come in and get the couple of things she needed.

I literally was going to meet her at the door, and at the same time I was meeting her at the door is when I got that. It was right then at the same minute. So when I told her who it was, she knew that those people don’t panic. They wouldn’t be warning us lightly. They know exactly where we live in relation to the derailment. I said, Call the dogs, get in your car, and go.” And she was still a little bit shocked like, What are we doing here?” And I said, No, seriously, call the dogs. I will be right behind you,” and I grabbed the bag. And I forgot my coat.

And I remember a few days later, Wednesday, I was in Columbiana, and I had an old work camo coat that I had lent the baby’s dad, and it was in his car, and that’s the only reason I had a coat. It was from doing firewood back years ago and stuff. Somebody commented when I went into this one meeting. They were like, Well, we can tell you really dressed for the occasion.” I’m like, we’re evacuated, you idiot. What? I don’t know. Camo coats are pretty common here anyway, but it was a rough one. It just happened to be… At least I had one. I left my good coat, my good Carhartt laying on the couch when I left.

So Sunday night we went to my grandson’s great-grandparents for the night, about 15 miles away, at least as you drive, I don’t know as the crow flies. When I got there, a loved one at the scene called me and was telling me how bad it was. She said, Please tell me you’re out of here.” And I said, Yeah, we’re gone.”

And she said, I don’t have much time. It’s really bad.” This just was very, very clear that the one mile wasn’t really enough. I told her, Please take care of yourself. If it’s not looking good, get out of there.” It didn’t sound to me like there was much that any of the first responders were going to be able to do. Now, I wasn’t there, and I don’t interpret firefighter speak very well, so I was just concerned for my loved ones that were there.

When I hung up with her, I started calling everybody that I saw was going to stay behind, whether they were in the one mile, or especially down into Negley because by that time I had heard somebody from Youngstown who was talking about heavy gasses. He was a hazmat guy and a former fire chief, and he had been talking a lot about heavy gasses, and we had seen the haze in the air, and it reflected oddly. My daughter told me about it Saturday, and it really didn’t click until I left Sunday night and I saw it.

I really didn’t smell the chemicals, and I thought that was odd because everybody else was saying they smelled stuff, and it took me a couple of months to realize I just can’t smell it. Numerous times I was with people and they were like, Oh my God, it smells so bad,” and I’d just be kind of quiet thinking, okay, I don’t smell it.

One day, I went to throw a stink bug out the door and I realized, wait, I don’t smell stink bugs either, because I thought people were crazy over that. So it took me a while to realize I couldn’t smell it.

Monday, after I had spent Sunday night calling everybody I could, trying to get anyone that would listen to go, expressing that it’s really, really potentially very bad. If it goes sideways, you’re probably not going to wake up tomorrow. Please go.

Monday, I took my family to Alliance about 40 miles west because I am kind of south, southeast-ish of the site, I think. And I watched the smoke blow into Pennsylvania all weekend. Kind of went parallel to the woodline behind my house. And over the weekend I kept thinking, well, if it comes over here, I’ll take the family and go, but if it’s staying over there, it’s okay. Again, because I couldn’t smell the chemicals, and I didn’t see the haze until I flashed the headlights into it. I didn’t see it in the light of the porch light.

So we stayed Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Wednesday we checked out in Alliance, and during that time, by that time we have all the news apps downloaded. We are following all their social media pages. We are bouncing. One of us will have one channel up, one of us having the other channel up. We’re constantly calling our family who was in Florida during the whole event, and their house was at the other end of the evacuation zone, letting them know what was going on.

I think we saw the cloud reach out that way on Wednesday night or Wednesday before we checked out. It wasn’t as dark and ominous, but it was this just huge, long, worm-like cloud coming towards it. And I thought it couldn’t possibly have gotten over here, and I don’t know for sure if it did or not.

So Wednesday I took us out of that hotel. I was thinking, well, the burn is done, the smoke is clearing, we can move closer. One of my daughters worked 30 miles into PA and the other one went to school 30 miles the opposite direction in Ohio. I had them far away from everything, and I thought, we can get closer to where everybody can go back to work and school.

So they went back to the places they were Sunday, and I took us out of the hotel. Went to Columbiana because there were a couple of meetings happening. Kept my phone on, kept watching for the update. And then I went to the assistant center. I was going to ask them like, Hey, where do you suggest I go to meet these needs?” I’m figuring they’ve set up this assistance center real quick, they must have something mapped out.

While I was pulling in there, then they brought up the thing with the governor, the new press update they were going to do, and it was like two hours before they actually did it. So I sat there. And then I went to go into the building, and I think that’s when they actually said it was released. And I thought, well, I haven’t actually talked to them about getting assistance yet. I’m only five miles from home. I should probably just go home and check on everything.

And I didn’t really realize that there was a choice to stay relocated if…I was out of the hotel. I had checked out. I didn’t have another [place to] stay. We didn’t have anything booked. I just didn’t think there was any option to stay out. I came home. The cats that we left behind all looked pretty rough. They’re inside cats, but they were stressed. They’d never been home by themselves before, let alone with all the booming and crashing and everything that was going on.

I couldn’t really smell anything, but again, I can’t smell it like everybody else can. My mouth felt funny, my nose felt funny, didn’t think a whole lot about it. It wasn’t hanging in smoke. I think a lot of people across the country were thinking the whole area was covered in a hazy fog Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and by that time it really wasn’t. It was pretty clear.

The kids didn’t come home until that weekend. And I told them, I can’t really tell you if you should or not, especially with the baby. I don’t know. I’ve never gone through this. If you think it’s better to keep him there, by all means, keep him there.”

And that’s when I started seeing dioxin and furans and PFAS, and really started hearing the fallout from the different chemicals involved and started looking at it from that angle instead of the big fire and explosion that I was seeing it as to begin with. So that’s when I started really learning that.

“On Sunday when I woke up, the sky was blue. It looked nice out. I’m thinking everything was going to be fine. But it wasn’t.”

Chris Albright: The night of Feb. 3, we were sitting here, just like any other typical night. Our middle daughter is a cheerleader, and she had a basketball game. And when she got home from her basketball game, we’re sitting here, and we started to get reports that there was a train accident. We didn’t know exactly what it was at the time or what had happened. And our biggest fear was that somebody, a student, a kid was leaving a basketball game and got in an accident with the train.

We started getting some other reports that it was a train derailment and everything. Again, didn’t think a whole lot of it, just thought that trains derail. It happens. Cars wreck, you know things happen. But my wife here went to go let the dogs out, and that’s whenever she noticed a huge fire right down the road from us that we could visibly see from our house. I’ll let her tell you a little bit about what she saw and smelled whenever she went out there.

Jessica Albright: Yeah. So I just took the dogs out to our backyard. By that time, we had been hearing a lot of sirens and things. We knew that it was somewhat close by but we didn’t know exactly where.

So I took the dogs out, and as soon as I opened the back door, the smell was atrocious. And I looked around the corner of the house because I was in the backyard. When I looked around the corner to the front, I could see the flames shooting above the line of homes a couple blocks in front of us. So I came back into the house and ready to look out the window and they could see exactly where the derailment was and what was going on.

So we spent some time on social media trying to monitor what was going on just with residents posting stuff. There were some members of the fire department that were getting close to the site that were posting some pictures. So as we were sitting on social media, we learned that they were potentially going to be evacuating anybody within a one-mile radius. At that point, I still wasn’t 100% sure how far away we were, but I kind of had a feeling we were within the range.

So the local police officer did come to the door, and he said there were some minor explosions at that point. Their fear was that there was going to be larger explosions, and they wanted everybody in a one-mile radius to evacuate.

I took the two girls that were here, my oldest daughter was working. She couldn’t get back into town because all the roads were closed. But I took the two younger girls and I went to stay with my sister, who lives about 15 minutes away from us. And Chris stayed here because we have two dogs and a cat that we couldn’t just pack up and take with us. Because, mind you, again, by this point it was after 10:00 at night. So, kind of hard to find last minute plans for four people and three animals.

Chris Albright: Yeah, I stayed here the remainder of that night there. I told her before she left if it looked like it was getting bad, I’d get out. I remember when I woke up on Saturday, there was just a black cloud over East Palestine that I could see just from the fire and everything, and she was still at her sister’s. I stayed here through Sunday.

And on Sunday when I woke up, the sky was blue. It looked nice out. I’m thinking everything was going to be fine. But it wasn’t. And before too long we had the sheriffs here telling me that he couldn’t force us to go, but that if it gets bad, they’re not coming back.

So I had called Jess up because the vehicle I had here was my work truck, which is a pickup truck, and I couldn’t just throw the dogs into that and the cat and everything. So she came back to help me with the animals. And whenever she got back here, as soon as she got in the house, she walked in and she said, You don’t smell that?” I said, Smell what?” So apparently there was a really bad smell around town that I couldn’t smell because I had become nose blind to it from staying here for the couple of days that I did.

So that was the days of the derailment and immediately following the derailment.

We left that Sunday, I left with them. We went over to her sister’s house, and on Monday, that day, they ignited the train cars. That was the day that so many people have spoke of the big death plume that was all over town.

Surprisingly, after that Monday, the following Wednesday, two days after they did that, they said that we can all come back. It was safe to come back.

It wasn’t safe. We have been living through hell since then, basically. Since that has happened, I started developing medical issues. Started off as what I thought was chemical pneumonia. I was having problems breathing, I was throwing up, was really starting to be unable to do my job and everything. So I went to the doctor and found out that I had developed congestive heart failure, which turned into severe heart failure. My heart had pretty much doubled in size and was hardly pushing any blood through my body. That was the beginning of a long road for my medical stuff.

Jessica Albright: Like he said, we left. We had all of us out by Sunday, and by Wednesday they said we could come home. We were excited to come home. I believed everything they said about it being safe to come home. I had no reason at that point to doubt what they were telling us. I didn’t think the EPA would allow us to be in a toxic environment. So we got the green light and we came home.

We were staying with my sister, who’s family — And I love her, and we’re extremely close — However, there’s four additional people and three animals now in her home, and we felt like we were intruding. My older nephew has autism and a fear of dogs, and so now we were disrupting his normal and his daily life, and he was not happy and comfortable with all the animals and the extra people and the schedule change and all the things. So when they said we could come home, we came home. And then, like Chris said, within a few weeks of being home he developed all of those symptoms.

So we decided at that point, that was when Norfolk announced they were doing the reimbursement for relocation. So we took advantage of that and stayed in a hotel. We stayed there for about four months. Four people and two dogs in a hotel was not much fun.

But in the meantime, I still had to maintain the house. So in between my work shifts — I was working two jobs. I still worked two jobs — But I’d come home, feed the fish, check the mail, do those things, and then on the weekends, cutting the grass so we weren’t cited for, you know, an overgrown lawn. We started ripping out carpeting, taking down the curtains, filling a dumpster, doing all this stuff to try to get contaminated stuff out of our home.

One of the weeks that my daughter was home with me, it was towards the end of May, she started having severe nosebleeds within less than five minutes of walking into the house, just gushing pools of blood into the toilet and the bathroom sink. Same week as our street fair. So they were inviting people into town saying it was safe to be here, but we couldn’t be in our home for more than three minutes without my daughter’s nose bleeding.

So again, we stayed on in the hotel until we just mentally couldn’t take it anymore. We came back home in August. We finished the school year with blended learning for the two girls. My daughter was teaching herself pre-calculus, things that I can’t help her with. And we knew going into the new school year, her senior year, there was just no way that we could make her do that from a hotel room again. So we came home in August.

Stella Gamble: The very first night that it happened and Daren was downstairs with the grandkids and the foster kids, and I was in my bedroom watching TV, and he called me downstairs. He said, You got to come and see this.” He said, There’s a train wreck, and you can see the flames from our porch.”

So we stood out on the porch and watched the flames for a while. And I went back upstairs, and a little while later Daren said, Come on. He said, we have to evacuate.” And I said, What do you mean evacuate?” And well, he said, Well they want everybody to go to the school, the high school,” –which is about probably four or five blocks from where we live– and evacuate to there.” And I started laughing. I said, Daren, I said, I’m not going to evacuate to the school.”

And he said, Well, why not?” He said, They ordered us to.” And I said, Well, would you mind telling me what the difference in the air four or five blocks away is going to be from the air that’s here?” There’s no sense in it.

Because we have foster kids, we kinda felt like we were kind of obligated to take them. So Daren took the kids to the high school, and then shortly after that they told us that we were going to have to leave our homes and go to stay someplace else.

So we went to a hotel in West Virginia. There were hardly any hotels to be found. We went to a hotel in West Virginia until we were told it was safe. The fire chief got on television and said, Hey, it’s safe for everybody to come back into town,” and so on. Well, in the meantime, the train had started running, and when people came back into town, they had to wait on the train to go through before they could even get into town.

It’s just been a total nightmare. And I started getting sick from the moment I came back in town.

And it’s like something out of a horror story. You’re told that this was one of the biggest chemical spills in history, and now we’re being told that it just all magically disappeared. It’s just gone, and everything’s fine, and go about your business. To me, when you see people sick, and you’ve been sick yourself, and you’re still getting sick, it didn’t just disappear. It couldn’t have. There’s no way possible that these millions and millions of gallons of toxic chemicals just disappeared.

Daren Gamble: I remember like it was yesterday. I was watching Gold Rush on TV. In a small town such as ours, 4,500 people, the first thing is that the train hit the gas station at the end of town. So me, like everybody else, jumped in the truck and ran out to see what was going on.

When I got out there towards McKim’s winery, it was bad. It was more towards the Pennsylvania state line, but you know I figured, it’s just a train wreck. They’ll put the fire out, everything will be fine.

So I came back home, and the amount of sirens just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. I forget how many fire departments were out. It was like 100 departments actually responded to it.

But I went back out maybe 20 minutes later from the first time I was there. When I went the second time, the fire was two or three times as bad. It was almost clear down to the James Street crossing now. Like others, I took a look to see what was going on.

And one thing I remember that night was the train at the James Street crossing wasn’t on fire, but there was a little creek beside the tracks and that creek was totally engulfed in flames. The train wasn’t on fire, but the creek beside it was. So evidently the chemicals in the water they were trying to suppress it.

But at the time nobody really, I guess, understood or even thought about how bad things could be. It was like obviously nothing that we’ve ever dealt with before. But looking back, when this first happened, everybody where similar disasters happened said Document everything, do everything.”

And, Oh, we’ll start that tomorrow” and it never… At least in my case, I’m guilty. I never documented all the things I saw. It was little of this and little that. But the thing is this is going to happen again. It was us this time, but somewhere, it’s just a matter of time, and I would like to just tell anybody, if it does happen, don’t start tomorrow. Take your time, document, get pictures, talk to anybody.

You know, it’s hard for me to explain how I feel, the distrust that we’ve got in all phases of our government from local through to state and federal. Sure it’s good because maybe we want to try to help the town to recover economically. But I think, first and foremost, we should make sure that it’s a viable place to live.

The EPA, everybody about all the sicknesses and this and that. Oh, it could be because you eat too many onions, or it could be you have a barbecue pit in your backyard for the elevation.” Never once have they said it could be from the train derailment. And obviously, I don’t know how they can say it could be from onions, but they’ll never mention it could be from the derailment?

And people wonder why they don’t trust the EPA. There’s been no transparency. We don’t know more about this now than we did Feb. 2, Feb. 3 last year. There’s no clear cut answers.

Just today or yesterday, the EPA come out and said, Well, we’re still waiting on Norfolk Southern to give us a plan on how they’re going to clean up the creeks.” Now it’s been a year and you tell me that they cannot come up with a plan to clean up these creeks in a year? And the EPA is just sitting back letting them do whatever they want?

First of all, they made the mess. Why are they in charge of cleaning it up? The whole thing stinks from the very beginning, and it’s not getting any better, and there’s still unmet needs that nobody will address.

Sign up for our weekend newsletter
A weekly digest of our best coverage

Christa: Since the derailment and the release of the evacuation, there’s been a lot of different reactions, from people who are having no symptoms to people who are having no symptoms but are aware that it’s dangerous, to people are having symptoms but don’t want to believe it’s from the derailment, and those who are having symptoms, they know it’s from the derailment, and those who know it’s bad regardless.

As we made national news and we made new connections with each other as we’re trying to learn about all these different chemicals and all the different ways that our health can be affected at different stages in our lives — Is it going to affect the fertility of the young children? Is it going to affect the people of childbearing age now? Is it a risk to our elderly loved ones? What about our pets? There were a lot of animals lost. So we spent a lot of time learning about all these things, reaching out.

There were so many independent experts with hazmat experience, with OSHA experience, past EPA, people all speaking out about it, and they really painted a pretty grim picture. But if you did a little bit of research, it also seemed like a very realistic picture.

Through that time, I started looking back at some of the other contaminated events and became very close to Marilyn Leistner from Times Beach. We have a lot in common, and I’m very afraid that our community is going to have a lot in common with the way things went with Times Beach and Love Canal over the 10 years that follow the contamination. And that’s what I was really, really hoping we could avoid, is if we could get people to understand the danger now before the majority of people are sick, they wouldn’t have to suffer like the other towns have. That didn’t seem to really reach as many people as I had hoped.

And it’s hard because you don’t want to scare everybody out of their wits, but you also want them to be aware that there can be things done. They can force a buyout. They can protect us from this. There are actual things in place that can be done to protect us.

And so many people don’t want to leave their cozy little home or their version of Mayberry. And it’s just a lot of responses, and it’s a lot of things that nobody ever expected to learn about. I don’t think I had ever heard of vinyl chloride before Feb. 3. I didn’t know what dioxin was, and my dad’s an Agent Orange vet. So I knew Agent Orange and herbicide, and like I won’t use RoundUp, but I never dug into it enough to get down to what the actual root was.

So I learned a whole lot more than I planned to. Made a lot of connections. Some connections got strained. You try to be respectful of how other people are experiencing this, and it’s hard, because you’re afraid that they’re putting themselves or their family at risk and you don’t want that, but you also don’t want to overwhelm them with negative information. It’s not easy.

So I’ve spent countless hours on the phone with Mark Durno, with Alfred. I didn’t deal with Norfolk Southern. They refused to let me relocate. Then they told me I could relocate, then they told me I couldn’t relocate, so I just wasn’t fighting with them.

I didn’t know where I could go that would suit everybody’s needs and take two dogs and a baby because I just couldn’t find it on my own. And they were telling me, Oh, you’re out of the zone.” I can send you a picture of the map because I’d love to see what the actual addresses are, because it either cuts off at a house before mine or at mine. It’s just absolutely ridiculous. When you look at it, it’s all jagged, and there’s some straight lines and some curved lines. I don’t think chemicals do that. When I think of clouds, it’s just not a shape I think clouds make on their own.

And Norfolk Southern and the local officials, I’m not sure specifically which ones, had said a one-mile radius for contamination. I guess that was done in another instance with one car of vinyl chloride being breached but not burned, not five tanker cars breached and multiple other train cars burned.

The cloud didn’t know. The gasses from Feb. 3 through the burn did not know to stay within their one mile. They did not know to follow these routes that they drew out on this map that eventually it ended up being a one by two mile, and it mostly covers the village of East Palestine, even though the accident initiated in Unity Township and extended into East Palestine, they didn’t do a whole lot for people outside the city limits even if you were in the evacuation zone. And not a whole lot was covered about that in the next town below me, Negley, where that haze was super thick, and nobody was warned about it. Nobody was told to do anything.

If you were lucky, you had a loved one who was a firefighter who said close up your house. But nobody was prepared to properly shelter in place by shutting off your outdoor heat ducts to keep from bringing fresh air in because it was terrible.

And they didn’t say anything to Darlington Township. They didn’t cover them at all. I had loved ones about a quarter mile right across the state line, and they did not allow them to leave. They blocked them in until Sunday night. I had a loved one 300 feet from the derailment in Unity Township. Nobody said a word to that person. He stayed there until Sunday night when he got the first notification to leave.

It’s been really, really poorly handled as far as where the plume went, which we have videos, videos from the weather channels and stuff showing where the plume went. So to try to put it into a one-mile — And then when they stretch it out — And I think I have images of both of those that I’ll try to send you to show you.

Originally, it was one circle. Then they stretched it out, but it makes no sense the way they stretched it out. If they were going to do a one-mile radius, then they should have opened it up to two to five… It should have been somewhat symmetrical, unless they could say, Well, because this area is a higher elevation, it’s less at risk, but the low…”

And what it seems like they did was the higher elevations they covered because they could look down on the derailment site. The lower elevations didn’t get that because we can’t see up over the hill to see it. That’s what it seemed like to me. But it’s just my observation, and it could just not be anything.

“Other than the reimbursement for the hotel, we have not gotten any assistance from Norfolk Southern or the government in any capacity.”

Jessica Albright: Other than the reimbursement for the hotel, we have not gotten any assistance from Norfolk Southern or the government in any capacity. The government does not want to declare it a disaster so that we can’t get any kind of government assistance. They feel because there is a responsible party that they should pay for all of that, which is fine. But in the meantime, the money that they’re bragging about spending, the billion dollars that they’ve spent to this point is not being allocated in the appropriate ways to help the families that need it.

Chris Albright: I haven’t been able to trust a lot of agencies, whether it is, I mean, obviously, Norfolk Southern, the EPA, our government, anything like that. There are a lot of things that they tell us it’s safe but living proof that it’s not. When they were testing, they weren’t testing at the time for the dioxins that were here.

And it’s definitely been an uphill battle getting any kind of answers. We were actually featured in The New York Times on a front page article at one point. And it was funny because after that article came out in August, I had a phone call from the EPA, and the day after that they were at my door.

And it took an article being published in a nationwide newspaper that actually went worldwide, international, for them to come and see how we were doing, to check on us. What about everybody else since then? Nobody was being checked on. Nobody was being dealt with. It was everything here is safe, and it’s not.

During this process, we have met some great people, like yourself Max, and some other people like that there we’ve met, which have been great. People willing to help who put our voices and our stories out there for us, which has been phenomenal. I think, without any of that, we would definitely not be heard by anybody, whether it be Norfolk or the EPA or government or anybody like that, or people across the nation.

And for a lot of people wondering too across the country and everything, it’s still going on. I know that the media hasn’t covered it a whole lot, especially national media, but we’re still dealing with… They’re still down here in our town. We got everything still down there, and we are still dealing with the effects of it.

Jessica Albright: And just as recently as two days ago, we had severe fog in the area, and the stench was awful again. So it was pooling from wherever. But that chemical odor was just hanging in the air and lingering with the fog. And people from all over town were commenting on social media saying, does anybody smell that today? So it was not just us, it was everybody even over a mile away commenting on how bad it smelled in town just two days ago.

I read somewhere, they’ve said they were supposed to have their cleanup done by the end of February, but I don’t see how, if you drive past the site as it is now, it doesn’t look like our town in that little section anymore.

Stella Gamble: What I’ve been experiencing is some of the fear that I’ve never known in almost all of my 70 years. I am so afraid for my grandchildren and for the other children in this town. My granddaughters have rashes on their skin. They’ve been having female issues. They get massive headaches.

And when you watch these kids and you know that they’re sick, and people are just… They’re telling you, oh, everything’s fine, everything’s fine. Everything isn’t fine. And there’s not a night that I don’t go to bed and wonder, are my grandkids going to be able to have kids? Or when they’re 16 years old and they should be going to the prom and the homecoming, are they going to be going for chemo for the cancer that they’re going to get from this?

And people say, well, why don’t you move? Daren and I could move. Our house is paid for. We could pack our stuff up out of here and we could go find someplace for the two of us to live. But I have nine grandchildren. I can’t leave my grandkids in this mess and not be here to support them. And financially, we can’t afford to take all of their families with us if we do leave.

And the look on their faces sometimes. The one granddaughter has a rash on the back of her head that’s spread clear down to her neck, and she said, Grandma, she said, do you know what this is?” She said, you know, Mom took me to the doctor, and he gave me cream, but it won’t go away, and it just keeps getting worse.” I said, You guys want to come over?” No grandma, I’ve got a really bad headache. I’m just going to stay in bed.”

To me, I don’t think anybody understands what it’s like to watch people that you love and to know that nobody will help you, and you’re just being told, Oh, this isn’t really happening. Everything’s fine.” No, everything isn’t fine. And these kids are going to pay the price.

And not just my grandkids. I look at these other kids in town, they’re standing down there by the creeks. They’re walking around, and somebody put a thing on Facebook: He keeps getting nosebleeds, and the doctor gave me this nasal spray for it. If anybody else’s kids have nosebleeds, try this nasal spray.

That’s not normal, and people are just acting like it’s normal. And there’s not a night that I go to bed that I don’t fall asleep thinking about their future, and if they even have one. That’s what I’ve been living through.

Daren Gamble: It’s, you know, it’s the same thing. The local drugstore can’t keep inhalers in stock that the doctors have prescribed for people for these respiratory problems. We got so much support from the outside world. Not the government or not Norfolk Southern, but just different orgs and people that was trying to help us through.

I think we have six or seven air purifiers in our house. And on any given night, they’ll be green all day, but at night they spike and they’re all red, like 800. They go from zero to 800 at night, and there’s still no… They will not do any indoor testing. They say, well, the outside air is fine, so it can’t be bad. If there’s nothing there, why won’t they take the time just to appease the people and do some indoor air testing and find out what’s going on here?

There’s definitely pathways exposure. The EPA said that, well, we have several businesses that we know that off-gassing is occurring in these businesses, and we’re going to address that. But we also know that there’s no residents that we’re getting off-gassing. I guess these chemicals know the difference between commercial properties and residential.

But everything, the divide that… When this first come out, people say,
Well, the first thing the responsible party’s going to do is they’re going to try to divide your town.” And I thought, well, that might work somewhere, but probably not here in town. 4,500 people, pretty much everybody knows everyone else at some point.

And I didn’t think that it could be possible, but boy, they did that, hands down. They succeeded there more than anything else. They knew who to come into and who to talk to, who the community elders I guess, were, or who they could get on their side. And the divide is something that I could never even imagine.

I’m still getting people that reach out to me because I don’t care about the boiling. I can take care of that. But there’s other people, they don’t want their kids to go through it. They talk to us. They talk to the Unity Council in confidentiality.

And it’s just, we shouldn’t have to… We didn’t do this. This isn’t our fault. We shouldn’t be the ones having to bring all these independent scientists in and trying to get to the bottom of this. We’re just basic folks here in East Palestine. We don’t know anything about this, but I guarantee you we know a lot more about it now than when it happened.

It’s like a nightmare that never ends. I compare it to COVID. What we know about COVID is just exactly what they told us, no more, no less, and the same thing’s happening here. Somewhere, somebody knows the truth on how bad this is or what was actually going on with that train, but there’s been so many smoking guns on what they did wrong but nothing seems to matter. It’s just sweep it under the rug, it’s okay.

Obviously, the transportation board, they said that the people that owned the vinyl chloride said these things didn’t need to be blown up in the first place, but they concurred that it was just to get the tracks up and running again. The CDC, they came to town, they got sick and left and never come back. And then they told us, Well, yeah, you was all exposed to vinyl chloride. We don’t know how to get rid of that, but we can sure treat the cancer it’s going to cause.”

That should be enough. How…how…If this was a trial and you was on the jury, how would you feel to hear these things? How would you feel if this was your town? It’s easy to turn a blind eye and say, Well, it didn’t happen to us. It’s not us.” But it is going to be you next time.

The whole system, something needs to be done. It’s just unbelievable that we’re supposed to live in the greatest country in the world, and we can’t even get a basic indoor air test where they had the worst chemical disaster? It’s just mind-boggling that the things that…Especially being here, living here, hearing every little piece of information, and the news, like you said, was big in the beginning and got our story out. And there’s still a few people that are interested. I’ve done more talking in the last year than I have my whole life. But I just keep hoping that maybe the right person somewhere along the line will hear this and get to the bottom of it. But with every day, the hope just keeps fading and fading.

I’m sure that we’re going to have a lot of media back around town for the year anniversary, but it’ll be the year… It’ll be gone again and it is going to go right back to the same old crap. The air is safe, water is safe, don’t worry about it. So I just can’t believe that we’re still living this nightmare a year later. It’s unbelievable.

“I want everybody across the country, across the world, to know that this could happen to you.”

Christa: At the one-year mark, I want everybody across the country, across the world, to know that this could happen to you. Whether it would be trucks, semi-trucks wrecking, or train, we were an invisible town, an invisible region, and we liked it that way. None of us ever wanted to be on the news, on a podcast. We were very happy being invisible.

And then they poisoned our town, and it has changed everything, forever. The cleanup, I heard lately, that EPA says that a certain amount of it is done and they’re claiming that as a victory. Yet I heard from somebody else who was talking to Norfolk that they don’t think they’ll be done with a certain phase until the end of next summer. It’s just a certain phase.

Just the other night, Dr. Tsai came through town, and he could smell the chemicals again, and he turns up under that post. A lot of people could smell them. I have been having horrible migraines, and I’ve had a few that are unusual for even a migraine, and there’s no doctors that are helpful. They don’t know what to do with these symptoms. They don’t have the time to sit and do the research. They don’t have the experts backing them up.

I don’t believe anybody should be forced to live here. I don’t believe we should be selling our homes to other families because what the news is showing is the greatest comeback ever.

What we have here can’t be replaced with fair market value. I can’t buy another home like what I have here in another similar setting for fair market value here. This is a uniquely affordable area. You can get a lot for your money if you’re well off, and if you’re not as well off, you’re still doing a lot better than you would be in a lot of other areas. But they ruined it.

A lot of our lives out here had to do with nature and being in the creeks and being in the woods, and there’s a lot of hunters and a lot of fishers, and that’s all been changed. I’ll say that there are some people who don’t think there’s much of a risk to hunting, I’ll tell you, I won’t eat at those houses. I wish them well, but I could not. Knowing what they’re drinking out of the creeks, knowing what they’ve breathed in, knowing how many animals have died, it’s just a shame.

I don’t want anyone else in the country to go through this. But I do want them to write the representatives about what they would want done. Write the representatives because we’re stuck here. We’re in contact with our reps all the time. We are always telling them. And they can’t do anything unless you tell them what you need them to do for you.

So many people I’ve talked to said, I don’t know what to say. I’m not qualified to talk to them. I’m like, they are everyday people and they’re literally there to do what you want done. So you have to tell them. So tell them to help us. Tell them to protect your area from the same thing.

The rail’s very important, we all know that, but they have to treat it safely. They have to treat their employees safely. They have to treat their equipment safely. And honestly, I didn’t know the first thing about railroads prior to this. Train went through, I stopped. Train was done, I went. That was all I needed to know about the railroad.

What people need… It was never treated properly as a hazmat site. So everything’s been recontaminated constantly. Every time we go out, we track something in. We don’t know. In Times Beach, they were told not to go back, don’t take anything out of your home. And they buried family heirlooms, and all their picture books, and their toothbrush, and their underwear, and their Christmas tree that was set up.

When I look around, I don’t know. I don’t know if we’re at the same level of contamination or not. And nobody will tell us because they’re not doing swipe tests, they’re not doing anything like that to help us gauge that. So I think everybody should be able to replace as much as possible, whether they’re staying or going, and that’s hard to do. It’s really a lot to do.

Chris Albright: Me, personally, I’d love to see everything get back to how it was. It’s a very nice, quaint, small town, but I would definitely like to let people know, again, that we are still experiencing everything here. After the media coverage stopped, it didn’t stop here. Nothing stopped here. We’re still living through everything that we shouldn’t be living through.

Some of the things I would like to see happen from this year is I would like to have stricter regulations for the railroad. I don’t want to see this happen again anywhere else.

Jessica Albright: Norfolk has more money and more power and more influence than a tiny little town of 4,000 people. So their narrative is going to be broadcast much more prominently than ours. So the propaganda that they are putting out there, bragging about the billion dollars that they’ve spent so far, just know that that billion dollars is not going directly to the residents here for the most part.

They’re doing a lot of superficial things to make themselves look good, and there are families still suffering. There are families that are fine, and they’ll tell you that they’re absolutely fine and this has not impacted their life in any way, and I wish I could say the same. I wish we could go back to Feb. 2 and pay our bills the way we used to pay our bills and all those things, but that’s not the reality for some of us here.

Chris Albright: Due to the train derailment and the medical conditions that I’ve been dealing with since then, prior to the derailment, I had a very good job, making good money doing a job that I like doing. As you can see, I’m not an obese gentleman. I’ve always been healthy, very active. I’ve never had to take medications in my life. Now we have a whole bunch we’re taking.

And I have not been able to work since April because of this. And that’s just not my nature. For the majority of my life, I’ve always worked at least two jobs at a time. I’m a worker. That’s what I do. That’s how I live. I’m old school. The man provides. He does the work. And I can’t do it.

I have not been able to do it. We have been struggling paying bills, medical stuff, with everything that’s been happening. And like I said, it still is not over. As of Dec. 31, due to me not working, we’ve lost our health benefits. I don’t know what’s going to happen because of that. I still obviously have a heart condition. That’s not going to go away. My wife has high blood pressure. It’s been a huge uphill battle we’ve been climbing.

We are in the planning stages, as of right now, to have a national event here in March. We’re looking at March 23. We’re working in conjunction with some people around the country to have East Palestine declared a natural disaster area, with the amount of toxins and toxic chemicals that they dump on our town and really haven’t done a whole lot about it. We’re really hoping that this will be taken care of and that we’ll get the help that we need.

The event we’re planning on, we’re looking at having hundreds of people, national media, and hopefully we’re going to do a lot of good with that. So keep your eyes and ears open for that there.

If there’s anything that anybody out there would like to do, there are different organizations around town that people can donate to and send things to, and just keep thinking about us and make sure you guys know that we’re still dealing with it.

Stella Gamble: Before this derailment happened, everybody in this town, like Daren said, everybody kind of… If you didn’t know the person, you knew somebody who knew them, and if there was a benefit going on for somebody’s family member, the whole community stepped up and knew who it was. It was like you go in the grocery store and everybody, Good morning, Stella,” and dah, dah, dah, dah, dah.

And since this derailment happened, it has divided us to the point where people that were friends for years and years and years, they’ll look the other way whenever you walk by. And you used to be able to let your kids out. My foster kids, hey, go over to the park. Take your bike, go over to the park and you can go riding, go hang out with your buddies, go play basketball, and so on. And now, every time one of my kids wants to leave the house, I feel this guilt for even letting them outside.

And on the other hand, I know I can’t keep them inside. I can’t make them stay in the house for the rest of their life. But every time they go out, I know they’re being exposed to the chemicals, you know. If I see kids walking down the sidewalk anymore, it doesn’t make me smile. It makes me half sick to my stomach thinking, there those kids are walking beside those creeks that are still covered with that toxic sheen.

And as far as what can be done to help, I don’t know that anything can be done. Those chemicals got into those creeks, the water. It’s been a year. That water’s seeped into the embankments. It’s underneath the buildings, it’s underneath the homes, it’s down in the sewer drains. To me, there’s no way feasible that they can get those chemicals out of there.

But the way I feel about it, if they would just test our homes or somebody would just be honest and let us know what we’re dealing with, and to just say that, Hey, I’m sorry, but there’s nothing we can do. Maybe you’ll get sick and maybe you won’t, but we can’t do anything about it.”

And truthfully, I think that the whole thing behind everything that’s happened here is the same as it is everywhere else in this country. It’s all about the money. If you follow the money, it’s BlackRock owns the railroad, the railroad’s hauling military equipment for the government. It’s all connected, who owns stock in BlackRock, it’s our politicians. Everything about it is the money, and they will gladly sacrifice a few thousand Appalachians to keep their trains going through here.

And sooner or later people are going to quit listening. Sooner or later, people are going to quit talking about it. We’re just a sacrifice. That’s how I feel. And I feel like my grandkids are being sacrificed, too.

Daren Gamble: Like I said, I was born and raised here. As a kid it was definitely a better time. All the young boys, we would go to the park every Saturday morning and we had what was called minor league, and that was before there was any parents. It was just a bunch of boys and the coaches who were playing basketball or playing baseball every Saturday.

And it was just… I don’t know. Like I said, there was no parents there. It was just kids being kids, and it was a great place to grow up. I’ve worked all over the country as a bricklayer, in refineries and what have you, and I’ve saw a good bit of this country, and I never once thought about moving someplace else. This is home. This is where I’m going to be until I die.

It’s the same way as being in my house. It’s been passed down four or five generations in my family. This is my house. This is my legacy. This is my town. And the town’s changed so much after this.

Sure, I, with everyone else, would like to see the town succeed and be better. And the one thing that this town always had was one of the nicest city parks around. It’s a great city park. And, sure, we could use some minor updates here or there, but it’s just flabbergasting that Norfolk Southern wants to put $25 million into something that maybe just might need a bit of a facelift, not a complete remodel when the people that are in need are still not getting any reply.

And luckily in East Palestine, there has been some sort of relocation. But if you live two miles from this you’re not getting anything from anybody. Norfolk Southern’s not helping, the government’s not helping.

So I just wish that, I don’t know, if there was things that could change, I don’t really know what I would even… If somebody said you have a magic wand and you can do whatever you want, I think maybe what I’d want is get that train stopped before this happened, but obviously that’s not going to happen and not even remotely to even think about something like this, because it did happen.

It’s just, like I say, every time I do an interview or talk to people, the same points come up, but there’s always new ones. There’s so much information that we’ve processed in this year.

Maybe some of the people getting sick is post-traumatic stress syndrome or what have you, but that would be few and far between. When there’s numerous people having the same issues, it’s more than a red flag. I just can’t understand why nobody is taking the bull by the horns and trying to figure out what actually is going on here.

Obviously something’s going on, but what it is, I don’t want to be the one in 10 years to say, well, I told you so 10 years ago. Nobody listened to me.” They say, Oh, shut up. Move. There’s nothing wrong.”

But unfortunately, I think that in 10, 15, 20 years… I’m over 60. What happens to me in 20 years is probably pretty much irrelevant. But there’s a lot of people around this town that aren’t 60. Young families starting out. They’re a piece of the American pie here in East Palestine. What’s going to be coming to these people in 20 years, in 30 years? I don’t know.

Instead of just sitting back and waiting to see what’s going to happen, I think there should be way more things to be done to find out what’s happening now. Let’s not wait and see if it’s okay. It might be, it may be, it could be. Well, let’s put all that to rest and what has happened, what is going on here? That’s what we need to know. Not, well, we think everything’s fine, and the water’s fine.

The water’s fine, but Norfolk Southern spent $4 million on a new water treatment for our water. It’s good that they do that, don’t get me wrong, but if that’s like a year later, there’s still…

The temporary relocation’s coming to an end, but it’s been a year. They’re not relocating, by their accounts, a hundred families until this date. They’re not relocating these families just because they’re being nice and they don’t think that… They have to know that something’s going on here or they wouldn’t be spending the money they’re spending on this temporary relocation. If everything’s peasy fine, okay, then why is this relocation still going on?

Every corner you turn, there’s more red flags than there are green flags. We live it every day. I know you’ve been a big part of it and you hear a lot, but you hear from some of the same people. The world as a whole, yep, a train wreck, there was some chemicals on it, and that’s the end of the story for most people.

But unfortunately, it’s not the end of the story for us. It’s been a year. I don’t think the next year is going to be any better than this year. We can always hope and pray. But East Palestine, in my opinion, although it may recover somewhat, it’ll never be the same place it was prior to Feb. 32023.

Additional information

Post-Production: Jules Taylor
Featured Music: Jules Taylor, Working People” Theme Song; Dark and Synthy music by Jules Taylor

Help In These Times Celebrate & Have Your Gift Matched!

In These Times is proud to share that we were recently awarded the 16th Annual Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. The Izzy Award goes to an independent outlet, journalist or producer for contributions to culture, politics or journalism created outside traditional corporate structures.

Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

In These Times is proud to stand alongside our fellow awardees in accepting the 2024 Izzy Award. To help us continue producing award-winning journalism a generous donor has pledged to match any donation, dollar-for-dollar, up to $20,000.

Will you help In These Times celebrate and have your gift matched today? Make a tax-deductible contribution to support independent media.

Maximillian Alvarez is editor-in-chief at the Real News Network and host of the podcast Working People, available at InThe​se​Times​.com. He is also the author of The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke.

The War on Protest Cover
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.