In the weeks after a toxic train derailed a mile from her East Palestine, Ohio, home, Krissy Ferguson lived with her family in hotel rooms. She would wake up in the morning and drive to her job at a convenience store and then get calls from a hotel manager because her dogs wouldn’t stop barking — cleaning crews pushing carts up and down the hallways always triggered the pups.

Other problems cropped up. Ferguson’s 81-year-old mother, Norma Carr, who’s battling Parkinson’s disease, had difficulty unlocking the hotel room door with a card. So for eight hours a day, Norma and her husband, Bob, who’s sliding into dementia at age 89, never left the room.

Ferguson, 49, yearned to go back to her East Palestine home, a two-story duplex, but didn’t dare. Being there made her sick. She fears toxic chemicals that leaked from broken and burned railroad cars have made their way into a creek that runs under her house. The smell hits her as soon as she walks in the front door. She wonders, “What will these poisons do to my mother if we move back?” Already, Ferguson has thrown out the family’s contaminated furniture, including a couch and an easy chair.

She felt stuck between two bad choices: live in a poisoned house or squeeze her family indefinitely into hotel rooms. So Ferguson prayed, “God, please make a way.”

Now Ferguson and her family — it, along with the Carrs, includes her common-law husband, her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend — live in a modern three-bedroom house with a carefully groomed yard in the middle of a golf course in Columbiana, Ohio. Natural light streams in through the house’s large windows. The rooms flow into each other — the interior feels open and expansive — and the entire neighborhood, with its wide streets and single-family homes built in the past few decades, feels affluent. Even the street name, Canterbury Court, sounds upscale. Last year the home Ferguson occupies sold for more than $380,000. Norfolk Southern is paying for the bill so she and her family can stay there.

It seems an ideal resolution for someone whose hometown was jolted into the national spotlight nearly four months ago when 38 Norfolk Southern train cars careened off a set of railroad tracks in East Palestine. The Environmental Protection Agency says 20 of those cars carried hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, which has been shown to cause liver cancer. Some cars caught fire, some spilled their poisonous loads into a ditch leading to Sulphur Run, the stream that runs below Ferguson’s East Palestine house.

But the house on Canterbury Court is not ideal, Ferguson says. It’s not even close, because it’s not home, and it’s not permanent.

Krissy Ferguson’s duplex in East Palestine is located about 1 mile from the crash site. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The East Palestine duplex, although old (it was built in 1930), perfectly fit the family’s needs. Ferguson and her husband and daughter could live independently upstairs and still take care of Edna and Bob, a floor below. In fact, the house has long allowed family members to meet their obligations to each other. Years ago, Ferguson would carry her young and still-sleeping daughter downstairs, place her on Norma’s couch, and then go to work, secure in the knowledge that her daughter was safe in the care of a grandparent.

In the new home, independence is compromised, since nearly every space is shared. But what’s most bothersome is the unknown. Ferguson has no idea how long she and her family will be allowed to stay on Canterbury Court. She fears receiving a phone call informing her the railroad will no longer pay, and, once again, she’ll have to pack up her family and find someplace else to stay. Will it come next week? Next month? Later this summer?

One afternoon in late May, a visitor to the Canterbury Court house alarmed her dogs. To quiet their barking and calm the canines, Ferguson guided them into the basement and closed the door. Then she sat wearily at a table in the dining room. Sunlight gave the place a warm glow. Half a block away, three golfers in shorts and polo shirts casually strolled across a putting green.

Edna and Bob sat in the next room, watching TV news. Ferguson glanced over at her mother and then said to the visitor, “All I want is a place where she can spend her last days and know that it’s home. Now she’s getting used to it here, and she’s asking, ‘What’s going to happen?’ I’m so blessed to have this, and I did pray, and God answered that prayer. But it’s so hard to sit back and enjoy it because I have to plan what’s next. How can I keep everyone in a home? The pressure that it puts on you, not knowing how long we’ll be able to stay. …”

Ferguson isn’t certain she’ll ever be able to return to her East Palestine home. Still, she tries to stay positive. “I love that house, but I’ve learned that home is in here,” she said, tapping heart. “And even if I can’t have my family in that home anymore, I can keep the memories and I can enjoy the time that I’ve got with my family and make memories with them somewhere else.”

Ferguson’s situation isn’t uncommon. She’s one of several East Palestine residents who feel stuck in limbo, living in rented hotel rooms and houses because they fear illness from chemical contamination if they return to their homes in town. They distrust the railroad company. They distrust EPA officials who say the town is safe. They wonder: Is the town’s soil, air and water free of dangerous levels of chemical contamination? Some tests indicate yes, the town is safe. Others disagree.

Zsuzsa Gyenes’ son, Maddik, visits with one of the family’s two cats in a Cranberry hotel room. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

“It’s very much an existential crisis — reevaluating the ability to trust anyone that’s in charge of your life or your neighbor’s life and your family’s life,” said Zsuzsa Gyenes, 31, who lived a mile from the crash site. “How do you move on from that? How do you re-instill that trust?”

Gyenes moved to East Palestine last summer. She felt it was a safe place to raise her son, Maddik, 9. “It was quiet and boring; that’s what I wanted,” she said. “We had a comfortable life. Maddik was doing awesome in school. We lived in town and could walk to the park. Maddik could ride his bike to his friend’s house. Things worked out well until this catastrophe.”

She, Maddik and her boyfriend and two cats now live in a hotel in Cranberry, Pa. For a while, they lived in an Airbnb, but when the owner discovered Norfolk Southern was reimbursing Gyenes, he increased the rent by $50 a night. Gyenes found the hike distasteful. “I said, ‘Really?’ Then we left that place,” she said.

Since the derailment, Gyenes has stopped by her East Palestine house a few times to check up on things and get the mail. Once inside, she’s overwhelmed by the smell. Depending on the weather, it’s a sour chemical odor or a sweet glue stench. Other times it smells like nail polish remover or formaldehyde.

“I can’t be there longer than 30 seconds without feeling like I’m going to vomit,” she said.

The odor has seeped into her books, her tapestries, even her Alexa smart speaker. She’s tried cleaning some of the items with dish soap, and she’s opened the windows to air out the place. It hasn’t helped. She’s thinking maybe she’ll place her books in a bin with activated charcoal to see if that does the trick.

Her Cranberry hotel room, by contrast, is free of odors. It’s really a suite, with a bedroom and a small living room. She’s placed a cat perch in front of a window so the family pets can look outside. Early one afternoon, Maddik sat on a couch with a computer to do his online school work. Gyenes settled in beside him.

“I feel like we’re on top of each other,” she said. “Our lives are on hold here. We’re in this purgatory. We can’t get on with our lives, can’t live in a normal home, go to a normal school. We can’t relax and know that next week things are going to be OK. We’re just holding our breath, waiting for Norfolk to do something. We’re just abandoned. It feels very abusive, very insulting and dehumanizing.”

Zsuzsa Gyenes’ son Maddik carries his pet cat while his mom and her partner, Brian Crossman, look on. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

She’d like to move out, find a house that will accept pets and get on with things. She wants to stay in the area, since Maddik’s father lives in Beaver County, but wherever she looks, she sees nearby railroad tracks or industrial facilities, and then she envisions a repeat of what she experienced in February.

“Once you’re looking for them, we see them everywhere,” She said. “How is that happening in the richest, most powerful country in the world? It’s so much bigger than East Palestine. It’s global. It’s profit over people. These chemicals last forever — they’re called ‘forever chemicals’ for a reason.”

The derailment and its aftermath have divided the once tight-knit town. Gyenes said some East Palestine residents accuse her and others who refuse to return of simply wanting to get money from the railroad company. It’s not about money, Gyenes said. She wonders how those who stay can dismiss the symptoms she and others experience when in town. How can they ignore the derailment’s potential long-term health consequences?

East Palestine resident Jami Wallace, 46, says some residents and businesses are trying to bring people back into the community too soon. She draws a comparison with towns hit by natural disasters.

“Some people say we can be the biggest comeback story in history,” she said. “I want that, too, but you start moving forward after the hurricane is gone. Don’t invite people back in middle of a hurricane. You put them in danger. A lot of businesses are trying to bring people back into town not because it’s safe but for a profit.”

Passions run high. And this can result in some bizarre and disturbing behavior. A few weeks after the derailment, Krissy Ferguson stopped by her East Palestine house to pick up the mail — she remembers because it was the day former President Donald Trump visited the town. Ferguson noticed something odd on the cushion of an outdoor sofa on her front porch. Upon closer examination, she discovered a red mass that turned out to be a bloody tongue, perhaps from a lamb. She took a picture with her phone. The image shows a red piece of flesh and blood smears on sofa cushions. 

Ferguson isn’t sure who placed the tongue on her porch, or what message it was supposed to send. Was it placed there by someone who felt she was being too quiet about the impact of the derailment, or from someone who believed she was causing too much trouble for the railroad?

All of the uncertainty — the sense of dislocation, as well as the stress and conflict — is taking a toll on residents. 

“There are a lot of people really struggling,” Gyenes said, “a lot of relationships falling apart, families falling apart. It’s so infuriating and shocking and hurtful. The human mind can only tolerate so much.”

Ashley McCollum, left, with son Zayne, 6, at a hotel pool in Columbiana, Ohio. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Ashley McCollum sees the stress on her relationship with boyfriend Matt McAnlis. The couple and McCollum’s two sons have been living in a Columbiana hotel for the past several weeks.

“We never really fought or argued, but we’ve fought and argued more here than we ever have,” McCollum said. McAnlis doesn’t like to be cooped up in a small room. “He’s like, ‘I can’t do this, I’m not an animal, I don’t need to be in this little hotel, this is not OK.’ And he’ll get upset, and we’ll argue. I understand. I’m also going through that. My son is hearing that, and then he’s stressed. It’s tough.”

McAnlis, who works 12-hour shifts as an inspector at a steel mill, has on occasion returned to the family’s East Palestine home. McCollum will see him on a security camera and tell him he needs to leave, that it’s unsafe.

“Depression is through the roof,” McAnlis said. “You just want to go home.”

McCollum and McAnlis met with a few other East Palestine residents at their hotel’s pool several days ago. An outsider could easily have mistaken them for families on vacation — McCollum’s son Zayne, 6, splashed in the water nearby while the adults sat around a poolside table and chatted.

Ferguson, however, knew the reality.

“My heart breaks for them,” she said. “It’s the most depressing thing in the world to go home to a hotel. There’s no sense of home, no warmth. I used to love to go on vacation and stay in a hotel. If I never stay in another one in my life, it’ll be too soon.”


Several weeks ago, a number of residents affected by the derailment banded together to create a Unity Council for the East Palestine Train Derailment. Jamie Wallace, former president of an SEIU local in Cleveland, led the organizing effort. 

Residents were already working in organically formed small groups, she said, and those groups sometimes duplicated each other’s efforts. The unity council’s goals include sharing information and making certain every resident with a concern is heard.

On May 16, more than 100 people packed into a room at the East Palestine Country Club for a community news conference organized by the council. Several residents told their stories, and the group issued a set of demands. At the top of the list is a call for Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to immediately issue an emergency or major disaster declaration to provide critical emergency resources to the community.

“It’s picking up momentum lately,” said Gyenes, a unity council member. “It’s been giving me hope, to see more and more people involved.”

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at