Sitting in the balcony of the Ohio House Chambers early Wednesday afternoon, Jami Wallace could hear lawmakers gathered below discussing the importance of making heart defibrillators easily available so lives could be saved.

Wait, Wallace thought, “OUR lives need to be saved.”

Earlier that day, Wallace and dozens of others had driven from the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, and surrounding areas to the Ohio State Capitol in Columbus. Their goal was to meet with Gov. Mike DeWine and persuade him to declare a state of emergency — an action that would unlock federal resources to assist residents who were, as one resident said, “doused with a toxic chemical cocktail” when a Norfolk Southern train derailed in early February.

With Ohio’s elected leaders sitting in the glow of ornate bronze chandeliers and discussing health, Wallace thought, “Now is the time.”

She stood up and called down to lawmakers, interrupting the official proceedings. Hours later, while driving home, she could not recall exactly what she said — there was a lot of adrenaline involved in the moment — but it was something about the town’s children being sickened by spilled chemicals. Perhaps it was “Save our kids.”

Her outburst definitely got the attention of lawmakers. And security officers. Within moments, two men in suits descended upon her.

That’s when fellow East Palestine resident Ashley McCollum stood up and joined in. By then, a TV crew on the House floor had taken notice and focused a camera on the protest. The video, aired later on a Columbus TV station, shows McCollum calling out, “Our houses aren’t safe. I can’t breathe in my house.”

Men in suits escorted both women up a set of steps and toward the balcony exit.

Then came Jess Conard’s turn. She lives 2 miles from the crash site. The toxic train was ablaze as it passed her house on Feb. 3. She stood and held aloft a handmade sign reading, “Declare Emergency Now.” She called out to the legislators about the dangers of vinyl chloride, one of the toxic substances spilled in her town. A tall bald man in a suit quickly approached Conard and began escorting her out. While walking toward the exit, Conard continued speaking. She listed symptoms residents are experiencing.

“Nosebleeds,” she said. “Neurological symptoms. Tremors. Seizures.” Now she was standing at the back of the balcony, with Wallace and McCollum. “Please declare an emergency declaration,” she called out.

That’s when the bald man grabbed her by the arm, yanked away her sign and began pushing her toward the exit. 

“Don’t put your hands on her,” Wallace demanded.

As the three women were escorted through an exit door, Wallace made one last plea: “Save our kids!”

Once outside the chambers, McCollum felt numb. She’d never done anything like this. A year ago she was living a quiet life, now she was yelling at legislators. She found it impossible to discuss the moment — “I couldn’t make words,” she said.

The women’s protest had upset a boy visiting the chamber. As she was exiting the balcony, McCollum saw the tears in his eyes. “I pictured my own son crying,” she said — crying because his family had to leave home in the aftermath of the derailment, crying when a fire alarm went off in a hotel where the family has been living temporarily. “I relived all of that,” McCollum said. “It hurts to see kids crying.”

Afterward, the women apologized to the weeping boy’s mother. “I didn’t mean to scare your child while fighting for mine,” Wallace said.

Wallace later recalled the mother’s response: Don’t worry about it. The mother said she knew what was happening in East Palestine and had explained it to the boy. She used the women’s protest to explain to him the importance of using your voice to stand up for yourself and others.

Wallace doesn’t think of herself as a natural protester. To her, however, this extraordinary situation required an extraordinary effort.

“As parents we all say we’d fight to death for our children,” Wallace said. “Now is the time to back up those words. We’re literally fighting for our children’s lives.”

• • •

After being escorted from the House Chambers, the three women made their way to the capitol rotunda to join other East Palestine residents and supporters who were holding signs and chanting, “This is what democracy looks like,” and “We want an emergency declaration today.”

It was part of a day of activism conducted by about 50 East Palestine residents and their supporters. Those affected by the derailment feel political leaders and the news media have forgotten about them and the dangers they face.

“We really wanted to help people understand there is still a very serious need in East Palestine,” Conard said. “Our lives have been disrupted, and no one is listening.”

A number of East Palestine residents continue to face financial hardships, health issues and uncertainty, she added. On Wednesday they were determined to leave an impression, even if it offended some.

Ohio Speaker of the House Jason Stephens told a TV reporter he felt the women’s disruptive tactic in the balcony was counterproductive. “I think when folks do that, they actually lose the influence as opposed to the real impact of having meetings and sitting down,” he said.

McCollum was having none of it. “We’ve tried that,” she said. “We’ve been trying to get in touch with our representatives for 4½ months now. We’re being left behind.”

• • •

Conard, who grew up in East Palestine, is frustrated on several levels — by inadequate testing that she said fails to answer residents’ questions about the safety of their homes, their water and their air; by DeWine’s reluctance to declare an emergency; and by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC, she said, has indicated it can do little once dioxins are already in a person’s body. “The plan is to wait until we get cancer because they can treat our cancer,” she said. “That’s what we’re dealing with. That’s why we came to Columbus.”

Conard said she wants everyone in the community to be covered by Medicare for life. That’s what happened in Libby, Mont., where a vermiculite mine unleashed deadly airborne asbestos that killed hundreds. In 2010, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., made certain Medicare covered the entire community. 

Zsuzsa Gyenes, who lived a mile from the crash site and is now staying with her family in a hotel, said Wednesday’s actions were a good first step but more needs to be done. “I definitely feel we’ll need to go back,”  she said. “I don’t think DeWine will take action from this, but we definitely got his attention. He can’t run from us forever.” 

At one point on Wednesday, the East Palestine residents walked to DeWine’s office and asked to speak to him. The governor wasn’t in, they were told. A DeWine staff member “acted like he’d never heard of us,” Gyenes said. This left her disappointed — East Palestine residents have reached out to the governor’s office on a number of occasions. “At least we got on their radar today.”

Gyenes worries about what she calls the “chemical cocktail” residents have been exposed to in the aftermath of the derailment. The mix of chemicals spilled from damaged rail cars is more dangerous than the individual chemicals themselves, she said. Exactly what is that danger?

“There is no data,” she said. “Typically towns are not doused with all these chemicals. We’re the guinea pigs.”

She feels some urgency in getting DeWine’s involvement. She’s heard Norfolk Southern will soon cease reimbursements to families living hotel rooms because of unsafe conditions in their homes. 

“I still don’t have a home to go back to,” she said. “Norfolk Southern brags about all the money they’ve spent, but it’s only putting us in purgatory life.”

• • •

Among those who traveled to Columbus were six people from Pittsburgh, including Andrew Woomer, advocacy coordinator for Pittsburgh’s Clean Air Council, which has been furnishing high-quality air purifiers to people in East Palestine.

“We try to support these folks by coming out,” he said. “The media has moved on, and in many ways it’s not a hot button issue for officials anymore. So continuing to show up for people is really important.”

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