Ashley McCollum lives in a camper these days. It’s parked in a campground a few miles south of Salem, Ohio. Ashley’s there with her 7-year-old son, Zayne, and her boyfriend, Matt McAnlis. The camper is old — it was built in 1988 — and life inside is a bit cramped. There’s no hot water or stove. The upside? Ashley is free of the visions that haunt her during brief visits to the home she owns in East Palestine, 20 miles away.

She bought the three-story house on East Main Street 10 years ago and had hoped to one day pass it along to Zayne. That was before the night of Feb. 3, 2023, when flames from a tangled row of derailed and burning rail cars leaped skyward on the east side of town, prompting East Palestine authorities to rush door to door in a scramble to evacuate residents.

The charred railcars and smoke are long gone, but for Ashley the wall of fire continues to burn when she visits her house, less than half a mile from the disaster’s epicenter.

“When I’m in my kitchen and looking at my back door, I can see it again,” Ashley said. “It’s vivid; it’s detailed; it’s emotional. Everything is orange and black. It illuminates every window in the back part of my house. You can’t stop it; it just happens.”

This is a difficult admission for Ashley, 34. She’s not easily rattled and takes pride in her calm demeanor. But she’s come to realize trauma is normal and shouldn’t be a taboo subject. She knows others in East Palestine and the surrounding communities have similar experiences and reactions, even if they don’t discuss them.

“I often sound like the strongest person, but the second I stand in my house, I know what trauma is,” she said. “I’ll be in the middle of a conversation and it’ll happen. I’ll relive it. It’s like an out-of-body experience. You know how they say, ‘Don’t wear camo in front of war veterans [who suffer from PTSD] because they have flashbacks’? That’s what it’s like when I’m in my house.”

‘I don’t want to make the wrong decision’

The Norfolk Southern derailment 16 months ago stunned East Palestine. Half of the town’s 4,700 residents evacuated as authorities struggled to contain the resulting fire and then issued a dire warning that some of the railcars were heating up and could possibly explode. A controversial plan to avert that threat involved blasting holes in a few railcars, allowing hazardous chemicals to flow into a ditch where they could be set on fire — a process authorities called “vent and burn.”

Residents scrambled to rental properties and hotels that quickly filled up, or stayed with friends or relatives. They watched video images of the monstrous black cloud that splayed out over their neighborhoods as thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals burned. What was in that cloud? Nobody had any clear answers. Then, a few days later, the evacuation order was lifted. Most residents returned to their homes within days or weeks. Others were so disturbed by the events surrounding the derailment that they found new places to live outside of town.

A few dozen continued to live temporarily in hotels or rental homes and tried to sort things out. That number has dwindled, according to Norfolk Southern.

“All but two families who evacuated immediately following the derailment have returned or have permanently relocated elsewhere with assistance from Norfolk Southern,” a company spokesperson wrote in an email. Some residents voluntarily relocated while contaminated soil was removed from the site, the spokesperson wrote. “All those temporarily relocated residents have returned.”

Norfolk Southern did not provide names of East Palestine families who still live temporarily outside of town, so whether Ashley and Matt fit into the company’s accounting is unknown. They were getting financial help from Norfolk Southern while at the Columbiana hotel, but they say that assistance ended in February.

Krissy Ferguson, however, seems to fit the Norfolk Southern description. She continues to reside with her family in a Columbiana rental home, with Norfolk Southern paying the bill. She’s there with her mother, Norma Carr, 82, and stepfather, Bob Carr, 90, as well as her husband, Sergio, and 21-year-old daughter, Taylor.

Krissy, 50, is staying away her family’s home on Rebecca Street in East Palestine because she is skeptical of claims by both the Environmental Protection Agency and Norfolk Southern that returning to town is safe, that whatever chemicals were released as a result of the derailment have been cleaned up to the extent that they no longer pose health risks.

Ashley, too, is skeptical of those claims and remains concerned about chemical toxicity in her house. Visits there bring not only flashbacks but also health symptoms such as nausea, muscle spasms and hand tremors.

Rail cars damaged during the derailment contained a number of toxic chemicals, among them vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, benzene, ethylene glycol. What happens when those chemicals are mixed together in a fiery crash? Ashley knows about the dangers of mixing the chemicals people store in their kitchen cupboards. What about the long-term health consequences of exposure to the East Palestine chemical cocktail? Such questions loom large in her decision to stay away from the place she once called home.

“If we want to save money and live the life we had before, and possibly get sick and deal with hospital bills and all that, then we can go back to my house,” she said. “I don’t want to take that chance. I don’t want to make the wrong decision and then 10 years down the road hear the EPA say, ‘Oh, we were wrong, it wasn’t safe.’”

‘I’m afraid to keep anything’

Krissy Ferguson looks through an old newspaper while cleaning out her East Palestine home on Thursday, May 30, 2024. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Bad luck bedevils Krissy Ferguson these days. This year alone she’s been involved in two automobile accidents, one of which resulted in a neck injury — she wore a brace for weeks and just recently returned to work. Then, on Memorial Day weekend, someone broke into her East Palestine house and ransacked the place. During their investigation, police found a gas leak, which she had to fix.

Finally, one afternoon in late spring, she stood in the dining room of her Rebecca Street home and began the difficult process of saying goodbye to many of the beloved fragments of her past. 

Everything had to go. Decades-old record albums, family pictures, recipe books, hand-written letters, yellowed newspaper clippings. At one point, she discovered a certificate she’d received while a student at Captain Taggart Elementary School, which no longer exists. In bold lettering, the certificate declared that Krissy had “read more than ever before during Ohio Right To Read Week.” The date: April 20, 1983.

Krissy paused for a moment to reflect on that day more than four decades ago, when kids watched the cartoon show “Smurfs” on Saturday morning TV and Michael Jackson’s thumping “Billy Jean” dominated radio airplay. Then Krissy shoved the certificate into the trash bag.

“I’m afraid to keep anything,” she said. 

A big problem for Krissy is the creek flowing in a pipe under her house. Before reaching her house, waters from that creek ripple past the derailment site. Krissy wonders what hazards the creek has brought. The chemical smell inside the house has, on some days, been unbearable.

She doesn’t trust air testing conducted in the Rebecca Street home by the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, a contractor hired by Norfolk Southern. Independent testing has shown elevated levels of toxins in the house, she said. While at a command center in East Palestine last year, she heard a recommendation that her home be torn down. Krissy considers it unsafe.

Still, leaving the home is painful. Krissy grew up there, and as an adult she lived on the second floor while her mother and stepfather lived on the first. Taylor took her first baby steps in the house.

 “It’s  such an agonizing emotion,” Krissy said. “That was our home for so long. It’s all my family’s history. When you lose a home by fire, it’s gone, it’s leveled and that’s it. You don’t drive by and see it still standing, knowing you can’t go back in. This house looks safe. It looks like home. My home is ruined, and it’s still standing here. Every time I clean it out, somebody will drive by and say, ‘I miss you, are you going to move back home?’ And I say, ‘We can’t come back home.’ “

The Rebecca Street home in which Krissy Ferguson was raised. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

On this day, a friend named Beth Kosar helped Krissy clean out the first floor. Beth found a cut-glass bowl and held it up for inspection. Back in the 1950s, Krissy’s grandmother owned a glass factory in town. Krissy has been told she should toss everything that could absorb chemicals. Fabric, for example. But what about glass? Can Krissy salvage the glass?

“I’ve had chemists tell me they can’t say yes and they can’t say no,” said Beth, who works for an attorney representing Krissy’s mother. “Some have said to me, ‘I’d throw away everything.’ “

That’s a conundrum. There’s too much conflicting information. Billboards and signs declare the town open for business. East Palestine is experiencing the “greatest comeback in American history,” they read. Some residents, too, say everything is fine. They experience no health symptoms and want a return to normal life in East Palestine.

Others, however, point to revelations that cast doubt on the credibility of institutions such as the EPA and Norfolk Southern. Here are few recent examples:

  • News organizations reported in March that, when testing indoor air in some houses, the EPA and Norfolk Southern used handheld devices that couldn’t detect butyl acrylate, a key chemical spilled in the derailment. 
  • Also in March, Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, indicated the burning of chemicals at the derailment site was unnecessary, a statement that Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance followed up by stating East Palestine “very well may have been poisoned to facilitate the rapid movement of freight.”
  • Last month, the Associated Press reported a whistleblower claim that the EPA delayed sending a specialized plane that could have provided valuable information about the spilled and burned chemicals, reports that the “vent and burn” of hazardous materials three days after the derailment was unnecessary.
  • Last week, the investigative news organization Status Coup News reported the EPA failed to disclose the discovery of vinyl chloride in soil at the derailment site. 

And then there are health symptoms some residents continue to report. They range from rashes to headaches to loss of hair and passing of blood in stools and urine.

Krissy tries to keep her visits to the Rebecca Street home short, to minimize her exposure to any chemicals that remain in her home. On the day she cleaned out her house, she stayed for little more than an hour. At one point, she leaned against a wall and read a newspaper she’d stored away years ago.

“Here’s my daughter’s name, for being on the honor roll in 2001,” she said to Beth. “She was in second grade.” Krissy set the newspaper aside so she could later take a picture of the notification.

Krissy’s mother owns the Rebecca Street home. Norma, 82 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, has been told by a representative of the rail company that she needs to sell the house and move into a place she can afford. That won’t be easy.

Even if the Rebecca Street house sells for a decent price, it probably won’t be enough to purchase a similar home elsewhere. Krissy found a place that would work for her family in Columbiana, but the cost was too high at $219,000. She doesn’t think her house will sell for anywhere near that price. 

Norfolk Southern has instituted a voluntary program to make up for any loss of home value as a result of the derailment. The program compensates homeowners for the difference between a home’s market value and sale price, but both Krissy and Ashley are wary of language in the agreement that indicates those who sign up will waive some legal rights. Ashley has talked to attorneys about this and gets varying opinions.

Once Krissy does find a place she can afford, moving will be a struggle. Her stepfather, Bob, is 90 years old and struggles with dementia. At the Columbiana rental, he initially had difficulty remembering which rooms were which. “He’d open up the wrong door and he’d become embarrassed and depressed,” Krissy said. So she made wooden signs to label each room — “bathroom,” “game room,” “Norma and Bob’s bedroom.” Krissy added ornamental flourishes so the signs would appear as decorations, not guides to assist Bob.

Bob has now lived in the house long enough to become familiar with the layout and no longer needs the signs. When he’s moved to a new place, the process of learning rooms will begin again — something Krissy dreads. 

As she and Beth prepared to leave the Rebecca Street home for the day, a neighbor called out Krissy’s name. The two met in the street and hugged. The neighbor promised to provide Krissy with a clipping from a magnolia tree Krissy’s family planted after her father died in 2014. That way Krissy could start another magnolia tree at a new home, when she finds one, and preserve a small piece of her family history.

‘This isn’t much, but it’s a huge step’

Nearly a year and a half after a toxic train derailed near their East Palestine homes, Ashley McCollum and partner Matt McAnlis now live in this 1988 camper parked at a campground near Salem, Ohio. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Ashley and Matt knew they’d need a new place to stay in February, when Norfolk Southern indicated they’d stop paying the rent at the Columbiana hotel where the couple had been staying for more than a year. Ashley did some research and found a camper on Facebook Marketplace. It was old — the camper rolled off the factory floor when Ronald Reagan was president — but affordable. They used funds from a GoFundMe account to make the purchase.

Matt called a buddy to ask about borrowing a ball hitch so he could tow the camper from its location in Pennsylvania to Ohio. His friend said don’t worry about the hitch, he’d go get the camper himself. Matt says his friends will do anything to help.

A previous owner painted the camper bright green, so neighbors in the campground call it the Big Pickle. It needed a bit of work. A window leaked every time it rained — that had to be fixed. Ashley resealed the roof. New septic and water lines had to be installed.

Still, it’s better than the Columbiana hotel, which was surrounded by fast food joints and other chain businesses — a Rite-Aid, an auto parts store, a BP gas station. It was no place to raise a son accustomed to catching crayfish and playing in creeks. Ashley worried when Zayne rode his bicycle in the hotel parking lot, with cars zipping in and out.

The campground, on the other hand, is surrounded by trees. The location excited Zayne.  Ashley shot a video of his first impressions of the campground. Zayne is sitting in the backseat of Ashley’s car when it rolls past a pond and a playground with a yellow slide and swing set. “Wow! Wow!” Zayne says, over and over. “Mom, am I dreaming this?”

Zayne can now resume the activities he enjoyed in East Palestine — fishing, gathering sticks for campfires, catching crayfish. One day after moving in, Zayne saw something that surprised him. He rushed to Ashley and said, “Mom, there’s birds here.”

The camper’s refrigerator is larger than the hotel’s mini fridge, so Ashley can buy groceries and prepare meals. She was so proud to have food in the refrigerator that she made a video and shared it with friends. The camper has a propane stove, but Ashley and Matt are worried about its safety so they prepare meals in a slow cooker and an outdoor grill.

Even household chores bring Ashley joy these days. “I love doing dishes,” she said. “Fixing meals, cleaning up. You don’t realize how much you miss doing these things. This isn’t much, but it’s a huge step.”

‘It’s a beatdown’

Matt McAnlis now lives with his partner, Ashley McCollum, in a 1988 camper parked at a campground near Salem, Ohio. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Ashley and Matt met in 2019. One day Matt was sitting in the passenger’s seat of a friend’s pickup truck as it rolled down East Main Street. Ashley was standing on the front porch of her house. Her hair at the time was dyed bright red. She wore blue jeans and a T-shirt. Matt leaned out the window to get a good look.

“Who is that?” He asked his friend. “That’s my niece,” his friend said.

Ashley noticed the guy leaning out the window of her uncle’s truck and was intrigued. The next day, she visited her uncle. She knew Matt would be there — he and her uncle had worked together and were good friends. Ashley put on a dress, curled her hair, put on makeup.

Matt wondered why she was looking at him. He couldn’t figure it out. “I wear the same jeans for a week straight,” he said.

The two clicked, and spent every day together. Ashley liked the way Matt acted around Zayne — the two could talk about superheroes for hours.

During the pandemic, the two passed the time by shooting videos and posted them online — Matt attempting to help Ashley apply makeup, Matt twerking while putting away dishes. They were popular in East Palestine. People would see Matt in town and say, “Hey, do the dishes!”

At the time, Matt worked at a Tenaris steel mill in Koppel, Pennsylvania. He inspected steel tubes. In his spare time, he took Zayne fishing and crayfish hunting, all the typical small-town stuff.

Then came the derailment. For a few weeks, Ashley, Matt and Zayne lived with Ashley’s mother, then moved into a series of hotels. That was a nightmare. Most hotels in the area were full. Lots of people needed rooms — residents who evacuated their homes, workers hired to clean up the mess created by the derailment, employees of various federal and state agencies.

On a few occasions, Matt and Ashley found vacancies, but the hotels were located near strip clubs and sex shops. In one hotel parking lot, Matt used a stick to pick up a discarded condom and toss it in a garbage container. He and Ashley would not subject Zayne to this type of thing, so they moved on. 

They bounced from hotel to hotel, securing rooms when they were available. In March 2023, they stayed in three different hotels on three consecutive days. Matt was working 12-hour shifts, and the constant moving created a lot of stress. He was passing blood in his urine and stool. One day during this chaotic time, Ashley developed tremors. Matt took her to St. Elizabeth Hospital in Boardman, Ohio, near Youngstown. She stayed there until 3 a.m., with Matt by her side. With all of the moving and Ashley’s health symptoms, he missed three days of work in a row. He felt too weary to do his job effectively and eventually was fired by Tenaris.

“I tried for three years to get that job, and once I finally got it, I was there for nine years,” he said. Losing the job added to the stress. “It’s a beatdown,” Matt said.

He’s searching for work now but, as of yet, hasn’t been successful.

“Out here, these jobs don’t pay anywhere near what I was making,” he said. “Some of them are steel jobs. I’ll talk to them on the phone and they’ll say, ‘We start at $15 an hour.’ How can you even feed yourself on that? And two other people? That’s ridiculous. Especially if I have to work 12-hour shifts and weekends. I’m not trying to sound picky, but I have a pretty large skill set. I can run heavy equipment, light duty equipment, I can do ultrasonic testing, I can work in a melt shop. There is a lot that I can do. But some of these jobs, they’re asking the world of you and paying you pennies.”

Matt sold a one-story bungalow-style house he owned about a mile north of Ashley’s place. He didn’t get much for it. “It wouldn’t even be enough to buy a car,” Ashley said. Matt sold his dirt bike, too. 

The couple are getting accustomed to living in a campground. “The neighbors here have been so nice in helping us, fixing issues with the camper, getting on the right track,” Ashley said. But the Big Pickle isn’t a permanent solution — it’s not an all-season camper.

“We have to make something happen before winter hits,” Ashley said. She’ll have to deal with her East Main Street house and, like Krissy, say goodbye to the life destroyed the night of Feb. 3, 2023, even as she deals with recurring images of flames and smoke.

“I know I can’t enjoy the life I had before,” she said. “You can see it, you can feel it, but you can’t have it. You get a memory that overwhelms you, and there’s nothing you can do.”

RELATED STORY: The young people of East Palestine, Ohio, reflect on derailment after 16 months: anxiety, apathy and acceptance.

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