Kara Holsopple contributed to this story.
This story is the first in a series examining the aftermath of the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, funded in part by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Before the Norfolk Southern train cars derailed last year in East Palestine, Zsuzsa Gyenes lived in an apartment downtown with her then 9-year-old son. She said before the derailment, things weren’t perfect in their lives, but they were going pretty well. Her son was thriving since he’d been back in school after the COVID-19 pandemic.
LISTEN to the story
“He was doing really great,” she said. “We were really happy.”
Then on the night of February 3, as they were up late crafting in the living room, Gyenes and her son noticed flames from outside their front window. It was past 9 p.m.
They had no idea what was going on. She texted back and forth with her neighbors, and that’s how they found out there had been a train derailment about a half mile from their house. People were speculating about why there were flames. Someone even suggested there might be liquor on board.
“I wasn’t really scared yet because I felt like if it was that serious, there would be more urgency and more action or information,” Gyenes said.
Because she didn’t think it was a big deal, Gyenes and her son walked outside into the dark, frigid night to check things out.
“We saw these huge flames, hundreds of feet tall. And I was like, this is bad,” she said.
They rushed back inside and watched from the window as lights flashed and sirens blared through the night. Gyenes’ son loves fire engines and police cars.
“So he was like reenacting it with his toys and was running back and forth to the window,” she said. “And he’s like, ‘This is exciting, but it’s scary at the same time.’”
Thankfully, her son finally fell asleep. But at 3 a.m. she was still awake, worrying and trying to figure out what was going on. She and her neighbors heard multiple explosions, but nobody had any information.
Then, Gyenes heard a strange, loud noise coming from her son’s room. She rushed in to check on him. She said his room smelled like a closet where half of a container of bleach had been spilled. But more concerning was her son’s behavior.
“He is up in his bed coughing, projectile vomiting, shaking,” she remembers. “He’s gasping for air, begging for water.”
Gyenes was terrified, and she could feel it in her body, too.
“You immediately get this film on your mouth and your tongue,” she said. “You know there’s something in there, and your body’s telling you. It was like a huge warning sign.”
Gyenes didn’t yet know that 11 of the derailed train cars were carrying hazardous materials, including butyl acrylate, vinyl chloride, ethylhexyl acrylate, which can cause burning on the skin and in the eyes, coughing and shortness of breath, and isobutylene, which can make people dizzy and drowsy.
But within a few minutes, she knew what they had to do: leave. She grabbed a bag, and they hopped in the car and drove 20 miles east to a hotel in Chippewa, Pennsylvania, near her son’s grandmother.
The race to find a safe place
Gyenes and her son arrived at a hotel in Beaver County at about 5 a.m. Her son threw up one last time, and then they were able to rest.
When he woke up later that Saturday morning, she said, he seemed fine at first.
“But he started developing these rashes on his arms,” Gyenes said. “Which was weird because he hadn’t been in contact with anything like that.”
Over the weekend, they spent time with her son’s grandmother. That Monday, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and other public officials held a live-streamed press conference to explain that afternoon they planned to vent the chemical vinyl chloride from five of the rail cars, and purposely burn it. Otherwise, they worried the cars could explode, sending metal shards into the air.
DeWine and PA Governor Josh Shapiro ordered an immediate evacuation in a one-by-two-mile radius surrounding East Palestine.
In the video, DeWine pointed to a map of the area. There was a red circle around the streets closest to the derailment site. He said people in the red area faced a grave danger of death. An orange circle covered a wider area, where there were risks of skin burns and severe lung damage.
That afternoon, after the chemical burn had taken place in East Palestine, Gyenes was saying goodbye to her son’s grandmother.
“I stepped outside to go back to the hotel, and it was literally like a black wall in the middle of her street,” Gyenes said. “It looked like fog, but very, very dark. It was like a whole wall.”
She turned around, went back inside, and told them they all had to go. Her son’s grandmother, who has health issues, stepped outside to see for herself.
“Her face just turned white and we left. We all left,” Gyenes said.
As they drove off, Gyenes thought government officials would expand the evacuation zone to where she and her family were now. But they didn’t. She wondered how what she had seen could be safe.
Gyenes said she was scared, and they rushed to get further away, to Monaca, PA, where her son’s father works. But that’s also where Shell’s ethane cracker plant is located. Gyenes worried that the pollution from East Palestine was mixing with the emissions from Shell, and she didn’t want to be there with her family, so they kept going.
A new home and a lot of questions
They landed at a hotel further east in Cranberry, Pennsylvania, and that is where they have been since. They no longer rent the apartment in East Palestine.
Gyenes said her son has been going to school online, and though he has hardly been back to East Palestine, he’s had mysterious health issues since last February.
“Two or three months later, he started getting these splotches on his face,” she said. “They would show up and last for anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour.”
Gyenes said none of his specialists can tell them what it is or what’s causing it.
This has all been difficult for Gyenes herself to process and understand. It has been even harder to talk with her son about it and help him make sense of what’s happened. How can she explain why he’s not with his friends at his old school or why he is living at a hotel miles from home?
“How is this shaping a child’s viewpoint of what the world is and what it means to be good or what it means to find justice or, you know, safety even?” she asked. “Who can he trust?”
That is a question many adults who have been impacted by the derailment are asking themselves, too.
Special thanks to our Fund for Investigative Journalism mentor, Pete Carey, retired Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist with the Mercury News California, for his advice and guidance on our East Palestine coverage.