It should have been a night like any other for East Palestine High School and its students. The Bulldogs, the school’s basketball team, played against United High School’s Golden Eagles. After the Bulldogs lost and the excitement of the game died down, students and their families began to make their way back to their homes. 

At around 9 p.m. that night on Feb. 3, 2023, several cars in a mile-long Norfolk Southern train derailed at the east side of town. Twenty damaged cars contained flammable and combustible liquids and gasses. Days later, residents within a 1-mile radius were ordered to evacuate while officials performed a “controlled burn” of vinyl chloride.  

Lainy Boso was 17 when the train tumbled off the tracks about half a mile from her house. She was on her way home after cheering for the hometown basketball team. When she found out about the derailment, she didn’t think it would be a big deal. She figured everything would be fine when she woke up on Saturday morning.  

Instead, she and her family – her mother, stepdad and younger sister – had to evacuate and live at her aunt’s house for several days until they were cleared to go back home. After that, her stepdad got sick, and the family moved into a hotel for about four months. While at the hotel, she was “constantly crying” when she was alone. The stress and her stepdad’s diagnosis of heart failure culminated in a breakdown. 

Her stepdad, Chris Albright, has frequently spoken with the media about his experience following the derailment: a year plagued with health issues and frustration with the response from Norfolk Southern. But for Lainy, it can be easier to forget the derailment and focus on her future, but it’s a future she sometimes fears for.  

“Between having risks with having kids one day, or potentially getting some form of cancer down the road from the exposure, I don’t want it to come back to affect me in the future, too,” she said in a text message.  

Her stepdad was diagnosed after the derailment. While Lainy says that life feels “pretty normal” now, she does worry that his condition could get worse from staying in East Palestine. The family moved back into their home in the beginning of July. Lainy returned to East Palestine High School after being unable to regularly attend while living in the hotel. She had to teach herself precalculus while sitting on the bed in her hotel room, occasionally helping her sister with her schoolwork.  

Missing months of school meant she didn’t see her friends. Now that she’s back, she feels that she can be a “normal teenager again.”  

She’s far from the only teenager in East Palestine who spent months isolated from friends following the derailment. Logen Guy, 16 at the time of the accident, could see it from his house. He left the area to live with his grandparents in New Waterford, Ohio.  

He was playing video games online with some of his friends when he heard a loud noise, a not uncommon occurrence for those who live by the tracks, but this time was different. His mom and sister went to see what had happened and saw flames along the tracks. Logen initially brushed it off, returning to his game with the assumption that the fire department would handle it, but soon his mom was shouting that they needed to leave. Logen packed a duffel bag of clothes and grabbed essentials and their cat Zoey. The family wasn’t certain she would survive if they left her behind. 

In the panic of the moment, Logen suggested going to his grandparents in New Waterford. He didn’t know it at the time, but he would remain there for almost a year until his single mother found a house in January that she could afford without needing to do major repairs.  

Logen, a football player for East Palestine High School, said the transition to living with his grandparents wasn’t that difficult because his family used to spend nights there watching the Cleveland Browns play. The hardest part was being disconnected from his friends and community as he struggled to find rides to school for the first three weeks. He likened the experience to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“Is life going to go back to normal? Am I going to get to go and see my friends again?” he wondered. “That’s kind of what it felt like being out here. It was like COVID again. I didn’t leave for a straight three weeks. I wasn’t able to see any of my friends.” 

Now, he lives in the new house a mile from the derailment. Logen remains positive about the experience despite being displaced for a year. Staying with his grandparents led to him growing closer with his family. Teachers being lenient toward him at school inspired him to work harder to prove that he could still succeed despite being forced out of his home. Even losing the home was something he could find good in. 

“I think we outgrew that old place a while ago, just we could never find [a new home] anywhere,” he said. “Once [the derailment] happened, like a bunch of places came for sale because everyone was bailing and like a lot of people left EP once it happened, which, understandably, it makes sense.” 

In his otherwise calm reflection on the year after the disaster, Logen expressed frustration with Norfolk Southern’s history of derailments. This year, a Norfolk Southern train derailed on March 2 in eastern Pennsylvania.  

“In my opinion, I don’t know how you let that happen,” he said. “I don’t know how you can be a big company like that and let these train derailments happen all over the country. … I think it’s a little stupid, in my opinion.” 

But he says that, for young people in East Palestine, there’s no one way to feel about the derailment.  

“A lot of us that I know, at least, are like, ‘We’re done.’ Like we’re done talking about it. We just want to move on,” he said. “There’s other people that I know that are like still very deeply affected by it, which I can understand both sides, but I lean more with, ‘I just want to get over it.’” 

He and his friends talked about the derailment when it happened, even though Logen says they rarely talk about “serious things,” but over time, they moved on from discussing it unless a new development warranted it. 

“We’re always going to remember, like, just the pictures that came out from it and, like, to think that our little town had that, like, huge fires burning through it,” he said. “There were some nights where like, we’d all just stay up and just talk about it. But then the next day, we wouldn’t say a word and just play games like normal.” 

For Logen, it hasn’t changed his plan of staying in East Palestine for the long term. He plans to go to college to play football and return after. 

“Obviously, there’s other caring communities out there, but I’ve known EP my whole life, like I know every little nook and crevice around there,” he said. “And I bet my friends are probably most likely going to stay there as well. So, I would like to stay there and, like, grow up with my friends still. And, like, I don’t know, if we ever had kids or something, they get to hang out, like stuff like that. I want to be close to all my friends and family.”

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Owen Jurjavcic with his girlfriend, Taylor Foster. Jurjavcic says his hometown of East Palestine, Ohio, has remained friendly and unchanged since a toxic train derailment in early February 2023. Still, he recognizes that some residents struggle. “I really know almost everyone in the town, so just seeing everyone struggle was hard.” (Owen Jurjavcic)

One of his friends and fellow East Palestine High School football player, Owen Jurjavcic, echoed many of Logen’s sentiments. Owen, also 16 when the derailment occurred, lives a little over a mile away from the site. Like Lainy, he was on his way home from the basketball game when he saw the smoke. His parents turned on the news but only realized the gravity of the situation when they woke up hours later and heard about the chemicals.  

Owen, his parents and sister stayed in a hotel over a half-hour away for a few weeks after evacuating, but his parents continued going to work, and his sister spent most of her time with her boyfriend, leaving Owen alone with the family’s three dogs. While he was worried that his house, which he has lived in his entire life, might be damaged, the primary emotion he felt inside that hotel room wasn’t anxiety, it was boredom.  

His family returned to East Palestine and didn’t consider moving away permanently because “we’ve always lived here.” Owen, the fourth generation in his family to live in East Palestine, plans to return after attending college. He said the small community is friendly and mostly unchanged after the derailment.  

“There’s definitely times where, you know, everyone would argue and stuff, but I think ultimately, it brought everyone together as a community,” he said. 

Owen points to a divide based on location: Those who lived closer to the derailment were more affected and, in his opinion, feel stronger about the impacts it has had.   

“I really know almost everyone in the town, so just seeing everyone struggle was hard.” 

Claire Evans, then 16, stayed home while her family went to the basketball game. After they all got home, her younger sister said that her friends had texted there was a giant fire in East Palestine, about a mile and a half away from Claire’s house. Claire didn’t think much of it, but fire engine after fire engine passed her house. Her dad drove to the scene and reported that it didn’t look good. Claire wanted to leave, but her parents decided to wait to see if things would improve.  

The house smelled like metal that night. Claire’s mother woke her up to give her a face mask to sleep in so she wouldn’t breathe in fumes. Claire and her family left two days later, spending a few days in a hotel before returning home. Claire has lived in the house for as long as she can remember; her father had started an addition on the house prior to the derailment, so they didn’t consider moving away.

Claire says she wasn’t affected nearly as badly as some of the people she knows. One friend who lived close to the derailment stayed in a hotel for four months. Claire was still weary upon returning and worried about whether the chemicals were still there. If she was breathing them in, what would the health effects be? 

About a month after the derailment, she opened her desk and the inside reeked of the metallic odor she smelled the night of the disaster. Her family cleaned the house, drank bottled water and added a third air purifier – two were in place before the derailment. After a few months and with the smell going away, Claire started to feel safe again, but questions linger about the effect the derailment could have on her health. 

“I am worried for the future. Just if something later down the road, whenever I’m older, in my 50s, 60s, whatever, something happens, but I mean, nothing I can really do about it right now,” she said. 

She remembers following the news closely in the immediate aftermath of the derailment, but now she rarely looks. She doesn’t talk about the derailment much anymore. 

“Things are better now, so we’ve all kind of just moved on, I guess,” she said. “I think a lot of people got together, and everyone just tried to, like, lift each other up, help each other where they needed.”  

She says the reaction to the one-year anniversary of the derailment at East Palestine High School was “nonchalant,” with people acknowledging the insanity of the situation but moving on. She said even her friend who stayed in a hotel for four months just wants to forget about it. 

“I would say there are a lot of people that are probably still concerned,” she said. “But I mean, for me personally, I’m just, I’m ready to move on.” 

Jenna Cozza is one of the people still concerned about the effects of the derailment. She quickly made headlines for becoming an outspoken 17-year-old activist in the immediate aftermath of the derailment. Just two weeks after the disaster, Jenna began going door-to-door with a team offering soil testing.  

She listened to the concerns and fears of her neighbors. Some were glad to be offered testing, and they shared frustrations about the derailment and its handling. Others shut the door in her face. This contentious environment was new to her and has soured her view of the town.  

Jenna divides those still living in East Palestine into three categories: people who believe everything is fine; people who say everything is fine because they’re paid by Norfolk Southern; and people who don’t think it’s fine but can’t afford to move. 

“We used to be one whole, good community that we were all there for each other, and then ever since then, everybody has divided. They laugh when you say you’re sick,” she said.  

Jenna is no stranger to sickness. She began having seizures in February of this year and spent a week in the hospital. She was not tested for chemicals there, but she previously tested positive for benzene and vinyl chloride. Her three younger sisters did, too. 

Her entire family has faced health issues since the derailment. They’ve experienced a laundry list of symptoms: headaches, diarrhea, stomach pain, vomiting, blurry vision, dizziness, leg cramps, puffy eyes, hair loss and weakness.  

She lives with her grandparents and their three foster kids less than half a mile from the derailment site. They have air purifiers throughout the house that mark the air quality with green, yellow, orange and red lights. Whenever it’s red, they get sick. For the first two weeks of March of this year, the lights shined red every day.  

“To be honest, I really don’t want to walk around this town because every time I do I get sick,” she said. “Even when I was doing that stuff I had a respiratory mask on me, and I still felt sick when I was doing canvassing.” 

The derailment disrupted almost every facet of Jenna’s life. She transferred to an online school after feeling sick the first two weeks back home. The school had the familiar scent of chemicals from the derailment. She recounted seeing kids at school crying, terrified of what the derailment meant for them. She tracked concerns and questions in a Google Doc.  

“East Palestine was like a madhouse. Like, everybody was going crazy and just so scared, traumatized,” she said. “Almost like chickens with their heads cut off.” 

She saw divisions even among families and friend groups. Some kids’ parents divorced as a result of the stress of the derailment, she said. Jenna lost all of her friends after the derailment because of how outspoken her family has been about its consequences. 

Her aunt Jami Wallace is the president and founder of the Unity Council for East Palestine Train Derailment, an organization that advocates for East Palestine residents’ health and well-being post-derailment. Jenna occasionally helps out but avoids the media because of the response her family has gotten.  

“We have gotten death threats and all this crazy stuff because of what my aunt does, so it just really just separated all of us,” she said. “This derailment has really separated us in so many ways. It truly has affected our lives so much in so many ways.” 

Jenna didn’t shy away from calling out Norfolk Southern by name and action. She pointed to the company’s announcement in 2023 that it would spend $25 million to renovate East Palestine City Park.

“We don’t need a $25 million park. We’re not asking for above and beyond things. We’re just asking to have things back how they were before the train derailment,” she said. “We’re not asking for all this fancy stuff. We could care less about that. What we want is justice.”

Jenna said that the stress of life after the derailment led to its fair share of fights between her family and with her boyfriend.  

“I’ve always had stress and anxiety problems but not nearly as bad as how they are now,” she said. “I feel like all this just traumatized me, and I feel like it traumatized a lot of people.”  

Coping with the derailment is not easy and often requires more than a little apathy.  

“I feel like most people, honestly, my age, are just doing what they have to do and just, we’re just trying to live life,” she said. “We’re trying not to stress even though we know it’s not OK. It’s just what it’s doing to us all mentally. It’s just that we can’t take it no more, so we’d rather kind of fake it.”  

But she doesn’t fault anyone for adopting a nonchalant mentality.  

“I’m kind of at that point. Because, like, what else can you do, you know? Sit and cry all day? Like, you just have to live your life,” she said. 

Jenna said that those who stayed in town may not feel that much of anything has changed because of the derailment, but those whose lives and routines were altered like hers can’t say the same. 

Jenna and her family bounced from hotel to hotel in the weeks following the derailment before she and her grandparents and their foster kids got an Airbnb paid for by Norfolk Southern two months after the derailment. Ten months later, they moved back into their house in East Palestine because Norfolk Southern would no longer pay the rent for the Airbnb.  

Her mother and sisters live just a few blocks from the derailment. Now, the whole family is looking at relocating. Jenna’s grandparents are trying to sell their house. 

“We’re trying to get as far away as we can,” she said. “That really screwed up my plans, but maybe it’s for the best, you know. I’m thinking positively, my grandparents are, you know, getting old, and they deserve to be happy. They deserve, you know, to feel good every day and not sick every day.” 

It’s a difficult process to say goodbye to a house that has been in their family for five generations. Jenna remembers helping her grandpa tile and renovate the house. It was going to be given to one of the grandchildren. 

Now, Jenna is looking toward her future beyond East Palestine. She’s planning to attend college when she graduates next year. Prior to the derailment, she had planned to move back to East Palestine after college to spend a few years in the town she grew up in. Now, she worries that the town will never be clean of the chemicals it was exposed to — or the damage done to the community. 

“East Palestine, ever since this happened, does not feel like home anymore,” she said.

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Abigail is a Pittsburgh-based freelance multimedia journalist and senior at Chatham University. Email her at abigailhakas@yahoo.com.

Abigail Hakas

Abigail is a Pittsburgh-based freelance multimedia journalist and senior at Chatham University. Email her at abigailhakas@yahoo.com.