Last Friday night, exactly seven weeks after the disaster that eventually engulfed his family’s home in a black cloud of what he fears was toxic smoke, Zack Chamberlain and his wife, Melissa, decided their family needed to get away from the property they believe is sickening them.
So Zack borrowed his parents’ motor home, and the Chamberlains headed south. By Monday evening, they had traveled more than 500 miles, to Gatlinburg, Tenn. There, at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the family’s future remained a bit uncertain, but they could at least trust that the air would not make them ill. Zack laughed. The idea of health made him joyous. “We’ve all been feeling better,” he said.
For weeks, the Chamberlain family — Zack, Melissa and their four children — suffered disturbing symptoms. No one was terribly sick; they were just “constantly feeling pretty heavy,” Zack said. There were sore throats, rashes, shortness of breath. In addition, the family’s new puppy lost all energy. “She would lay down and couldn’t get back up,” Zack said.
The Chamberlains live on 40 acres in New Springfield, Ohio, about 5 miles north of East Palestine, where a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed on Feb. 3. Three days after the derailment, officials conducted a controlled burn of the chemicals in an attempt to prevent an explosion. The resulting smoke unexpectedly drifted north and covered the Chamberlain property. Darkness that evening was so thick that “if you didn’t have a flashlight, you wouldn’t be able to see your boots,” Chamberlain said.
Shortly after, the family began experiencing symptoms. Melissa kept a chart detailing the family’s health. Zack lost 8 pounds — he says he just wasn’t hungry, so he didn’t eat well. And 12-year-old daughter Larah, who’s learning to play the trumpet, couldn’t complete a solo because she became short of breath. Zack and Melissa hoped the symptoms would dissipate. They didn’t — until the family got out of town.
“I don’t know if it’s the sun or what,” Chamberlain said during a phone conversation from Gatlinburg. “I hate to be downer on my hometown, but the air feels better here. The dog’s running around. I feel like taking a jog.”
When the Chamberlains return home in the next several days, they’ll find a soil testing kit waiting for them — Zack received notification that it arrived a few days ago. Test results will play a large role in determining the family’s future.
The Chamberlains maintain a large garden that supplies the family’s vegetables, and they raise pigs, sheep, turkey, chicken, rabbits and a few egg-laying hens. Chamberlain figures his family is 60% to 70% self-sustaining.
“So much of our food comes out of this ground,” he said while standing next to his garden a few weeks ago. “You think it’d be a good thing.”
Zack has been careful to keep his land chemical-free. Now he wonders if the Feb. 6 “chemical bomb” that landed on his property contaminated the soil.
Zack and Melissa bought the property seven years ago. The then-vacant house had fallen into disrepair. The garage doors were collapsing, and grass had grown through concrete outside. The couple have since remodeled the place with an eye on making the property self-sustaining. An outdoor wood-burning furnace heats both the house and a nearby greenhouse. To fuel the furnace, Zack cuts up fallen trees on his property. And with the food he and Melissa raise, the family makes few trips to the grocery — “just to get fruits, a couple bags of chips and an RC Cola on occasion,” Zack said.
He now wonders if they’ll be able to continue the life they’ve built.
“That’s a toughie,” Zack said. “This is pretty much my dream place, and this is how I wanted to raise my kids. We’ll have to see. We’ll do what we’ve got to do. I really don’t know what the future holds.”
A few weeks ago Nathen Velez drove to an assistance center about 5 miles from East Palestine. He’d been there only once before, to talk to someone about getting reimbursed for the cost of lodging after the derailment forced his family from its home.
This time, the visit didn’t go well. Velez felt the Norfolk Southern representative was giving him a hard time, even belittling him.
“I was beyond stressed out,” Velez said. “I just lost it. I stood up, I was irate. He had no reason to get an attitude with me. You know, it was your train that crashed into my backyard.”
Police intervened and told Velez to leave. As he drove back to the Airbnb he had rented for his family, he puzzled over his immediate future. When would his money run out? How would he pay for rent, groceries, the small engine repair shop he’d established in East Palestine? Velez grew light-headed, he developed tunnel vision, his hands fingers curled and tightened into a claw shape.
“Son of a bitch, this is it,” he thought. A heart attack.
He called his wife, a nurse. “You’re have a panic attack,” she said. She told him to calm himself and breathe. After several minutes, the symptoms subsided.
The incident shocked Velez. “I’m usually level-headed,” he said. “Any time there’s a problem in the family, I’m the guy everyone goes to because I’m always calm, I’m always monotone.”
On Feb. 3, Velez had just arrived home when a friend called him shortly after 9 p.m. with urgent news: A train had crashed nearby. So Velez and his 9-year-old son, Troy, made a short drive down to the tracks to check it out.
“We saw the flames,” Velez said. “Something blew up while we were there. We whipped the truck around and hauled ass.”
He and his family packed up a few things and left town. Since then they’ve stayed in hotels and Airbnb rentals.
He now spends a few days each week in the garage he rents for his business. It’s packed with motorcycles, lawn mowers, tractors, weed-whackers, quads. “Anything that’s not a car,” Velez said. Many are in the process of being rebuilt or repaired. Others are machines he owns and is trying to sell.
Velez started the business in 2014. At first, he worked out of a one-car garage at his home. It was a part-time gig, something he loved doing while he worked full time as a service manager for an auto dealership. He turned his business into a full-time affair during the pandemic. Things were going well until the derailment.
“It’s ruined my business,” he said one day in mid-March. “I’ve not had a customer since.”
The machines he’s repairing in his garage now were dropped off before the derailment. He’s posted other items for sale online but gets no responses other than trolls asking sarcastically about vinyl chloride contamination.
The town will always be remembered as the place where a toxic spill took place, he said. “Nobody wants to buy a dirt bike from a business next to that,” he said.
It’s something he’s already experienced. One potential customer interested in buying a tractor contacted Velez last month. Velez remembers it was Wednesday, Feb. 22, because that’s the day former President Donald Trump visited.
As the customer was en route, he called Velez, and the location of the shop came up in the conversation. Velez remembers the conversation.
“I didn’t know you were right by that train derailment,” the customer said.
“Yeah, it’s right out back,” Velez said.
“You know what, I’m going to pass,” the customer said.
By early this week, business began to pick up. A TV news crew had interviewed Velez, and the resulting publicity brought in some customers.
Velez doesn’t spend much time thinking about the future. His house is more than halfway paid off, but now he feels it’s worth little — “It’s a paperweight.” he said. “What are we going to do with a house that’s worth nothing?”
He looked at all the vehicles and lawnmowers in his shop.
“I don’t see hope in anything,” he said. “I see choices I have to make, things that need to be done. One of the things right now is to find a new house, then move the business somewhere. My biggest fear is that the money runs out. I don’t care who you are, there’s not one problem in this world that a few bucks can’t solve. You want to know how to fix the town? You buy it.”
Ashley McCollum’s life seems to be forever changing these days. Before Feb. 3, she enjoyed a “normal, boring life.” She took her boyfriend’s mother to church, attended Wednesday Bible study and played bingo at the Moose Lodge. The derailment four blocks from her home destroyed that routine. For a while McCollum and her children, Zoey, 10, and Zayne, 6 — along with a collection of dogs and cats — moved in with her mother, about 4 miles outside of East Palestine.
After a while, that situation became too chaotic, so McCollum and her children and dogs moved into a Beaver Falls hotel room. The cats stayed with her mother because the hotel limits the number of pets. The family carried what they needed — four or five plastic garbage bags filled with clothes and a backpack of toys.
Through it all, McCollum has maintained an informal network of East Palestine residents seeking answers, discussing health issues, sharing information, venting their anger, and sometimes weeping. Residents communicate by phone, text, social media, online video meetings. In fact, the phone seems one of the few constants in McCollum’s life.
“I had two people cry on the phone with me today,” she said during a momentary break on Tuesday. “And it’s only 12:47 in the afternoon.”
“We want everyone to be comfortable and OK with sharing things,” she said. “It’s a safe place to talk. Some compare it to rehab. A trauma thing. People talk and express themselves. That helps.”
All that communication is a lot of work, but McCollum said it helps her cope with the stress she’s experienced the past several weeks. She’s concerned about symptoms she and her family experience — everything from headaches to numbness of the mouth. And she fears her home and everything inside is contaminated as a result of the derailment and the chemical burnoff.
“I can’t even go there and grab the things my kids want, because I don’t know what’s safe for me to take out of the house,” she said. Many of the items she’d like to recover have no monetary value but remain important to her — they help form her identity. For example, there’s a present she received when she was 3 years old, her daughter’s first gymnastics uniform and her family’s collection of board games.
“It’s all sentimental,” she said. “Those are things that make ‘me’ me.”
Staying in a hotel, storing food in a minifridge, cooking in a microwave, eating dinners at restaurants — it’s all temporary, not like home.
“When you’re a kid, you think staying at a hotel is the greatest thing, but it wears off a lot quicker than you think,” she said. “You miss home-cooked meals, family time around the table. My kids don’t even want to go to the pool anymore.”
McCollum doesn’t know what comes next. And she feels she’s getting no answers from Norfolk Southern. “When the hotel is done, where do we go?” she said. “Their answer is, they’re only dealing with the short term. They don’t have a long-term plan.”
She feels she can’t go back home. Officials say they’ve found no hazardous levels of chemicals in the air or drinking water, but if that’s the case, McCollum wonders, why does she and her family get sick when they return?
The lack of firm answers is sometimes overwhelming.
“I do have times where I get depressed and down and feel I need to move on, but I didn’t want to give up on people,” she said. “I can look at my phone, see people reaching out to me. They’re here to be supportive. They’ve not given up on me, so I can’t give up. We are in a terrible situation, but if we’re doing something, then we’re moving in the right direction.”