By: Parker Reed and Trey Nitza, Staff Writers
On February 3, 2023, residents of East Palestine, Ohio were evacuated after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed. Five weeks later, two writers for the New Paltz High School newspaper, The Maroon, Trey Nitza and Parker Reed, interviewed High School juniors close to the derailment, Josh, Mackenzie, and Lainy. They wanted to hear about the lives of people who were near the explosion and how the derailment has affected their lives, all in an effort to raise awareness about their experiences.
One of the students, Lainy, says that “you could see the flames through my backyard because my house is two or three streets away from the tracks, so you could see the smoke and flames from the windows of my house.”
The flames Lainy described were from the train headed from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania. 38 of its 141 rail cars derailed; 11 of which were carrying hazardous chemicals. An overheated wheel bearing on one of the cars started a fire 20 miles away from where the train would end up derailing and was cited as the main cause of this incident. These derailed cars ignited a fire in the small town and quickly spanned the length of all the derailed cars.
When we asked what the immediate concern was when the train derailed, all three students concurred, expressing that the anxiety wasn’t surrounding what the cars could be containing but rather just the explosion itself.
Mackenzie, who was working at the time half a mile away, says, “I got a text at about 9:10 p.m. from my mom asking if I was okay.”
While some learned of the derailment through firsthand experience, after the smoke and flames blanketed the small town, Josh was one of many who heard about it through social media.
“I found out from Snapchat,” says Josh, “one of our classmates was one of the first people that called in the explosion and somebody had posted a snap story about it.”
Shortly after the train derailed and the fire broke out, an evacuation order was put into effect for people living within a mile of the crash. The cars were transporting hazardous substances that could potentially cause immediate health problems, necessitating this evacuation. One of the chemicals that were in the cars was vinyl chloride, which sparked the most concern.
And according to the National Cancer Institute of the federal government, vinyl chloride, which is used to manufacture polyvinyl, is linked to an elevated risk of liver cancer and other malignancies. This evacuation forced people like Lainy, who lived within a mile radius, to leave the night of the explosion, because of the smoke and air quality. A few days later, before the controlled explosion, 1,500 to 2,000 other residents left as well in anticipation of the fumes becoming too intoxicating.
While crews in the neighborhood carried out a controlled explosion to prevent a vinyl chloride leak, some residents, like Josh, remained in hotels although others, like Mackenize, spent the week with family. Following the controlled explosion, neither the EPA nor Norfolk Southern, the business that owned the train, noted any unusual or hazardous toxic chemical leaks.
Nonetheless, concerns about the safety and health of individuals in the community of East Palestine persisted because of concerns about water and air quality. But particularly when some residents began to discern anxiety surrounding the symptoms such as nausea, headaches, and rashes that were connected to the chemicals in the cars.
“My boss had to go back to our place of work [after the evacuation ended] and has posted many times that when she goes in for only 20 minutes she comes out feeling nauseous and having headaches,” said Mackenzie.
The students informed us that unless a person is in close proximity to where the train derailed, the symptoms indicated are improbable. Out of the three, Lainy is the only one who briefly experienced a headache after returning because of how close she lives, but aside from that, the three are not currently worried that their health is in jeopardy.
That being said, they do know some people who have experienced some of the symptoms, being Josh’s mom and Lainy’s boss who “posted a picture of a rash starting from her face to her chest.”
Now, a month after the initial derailment and controlled burn, students like Josh, Mackenzie, and Lainy have returned to school, and are hoping to regain a sense of normalcy.
“At first, I didn’t feel safe,” reflects Josh on returning to town after the evacuation was lifted, “but as time has passed, I feel safer.”
While the residents are ready to transition back to the way it was, the rest of the world is still clinging to what happened and looking for answers. Josh, Lainy, and Mackenzie almost immediately noticed this when they returned to town after the evacuation ended.
This was because the news reporters were trying to get a glimpse of what was happening with the residents and the derailment. Around this time, national news stations were constantly reporting on this incident, raising questions about how well the EPA and Norfolk Southern were handling the aftermath.
“I walked into school today with Lainy, and on the sidewalk, there was a news station,” says Mackeznie. “They are everywhere. All over town, you are most likely to see a news station.”
Along with news reporters infiltrating the town, there are also government officials and police on patrol in the school buildings. The mayor of East Palestine, Trent R. Conaway, suggested that Trump or any government official coming to the town was a distraction from what should be the sole focus. It would also draw too many people in and would distract from what needs to be broadcasted.
Trump did, however, still visit and made sure to comment on Biden’s lack of attendance to raise tensions between the two political sides. Because political leaders are visiting, this disaster is making its way into becoming a political issue, and not what it should be about: finding ways to get the residents back on track.
When we asked them their opinion on the controversial suggestion about the alleged similarity between the Chernobyl disaster and the train derailment, the three were quick to say that it was unfair. This highlights a larger question of whether the media is dramatizing this situation out of proportion.
While this derailment highlights a problem with clear communication with locals affected by situations like this, it also highlights an issue with the media and its sometimes dangerous exaggeration.
“There are a lot of questionable claims in the news,” says Josh.
Mackenzie concurred with Josh’s insight that there are divisive comments online, particularly between local and national news, because someone across the country saw in the news false information pertaining to the fire on the train.
“I don’t want this to just be a political stance for people,” remarks Mackenzie. “I think we need to take it more seriously since it’s our lives, it’s our homes, and this is where we all grew up.”
Since East Palestine is where many people have found a home, the three highlight that although the media may misconstrue the message surrounding the derailment, the people of the town have been more than generous and will go to any length to help another person out.
Residents are constantly posting online that they have bottled water to offer to various places and persons in need because of the lack of access to clean drinking water. And by doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, the residents are perfect illustrations of the often-noted fact that people tend to come together more than ever in challenging circumstances.
“East Palestine residents are always there for each other,” says Mackenzie, continuing to elaborate that, “if someones having a problem, someone will come over in a short matter of time and help.”
While these three teens’ are optimistic about the efforts to restore normalcy, not all residents share this confidence, which raises the question of differing life experiences and mindsets.
Although some adults may feel it is only right for the train company, Norfolk Southern, to pay for the damages and have a consequence for their actions and the outcome. It is clear some adults aren’t completely assured in the measures taken to protect their safety and environment.
But teens like Josh, Mackenzie, and Lainy, who have opposing inputs, are just looking to get back to their lives before the derailment.
“If [the town] wasn’t ready, I believe the leaders wouldn’t let us back in since our safety is their priority,” says Josh.
This may be evidence of teenage resilience, but it’s important to consider how the experiences of today’s youth have affected their perspectives. Students of today have already experienced a two-year pandemic that caused the entire world to be quarantined, intense political turmoil, the worry of irreversible climate change, and the current train derailment and they are only 16-17 years old.
“I did kind of feel like it was covid all over again,” reflects Mackenzie on the similarity between these two phenomenons. She continued to add, “I was afraid that with all the chemicals and gasses we might not be able to go back to school. So I am just glad it hasn’t gotten to that point.”
So in light of this, the mindset of these kids isn’t all that surprising because, after living through all that Generation Z has, it is natural to assume that one should learn to take what life hands you and make the most out of it, rather than obsess over the past after having to overcome all that they have.
This explains why Josh, Mackenize, and Lainy have such a positive outlook on what has happened and don’t intend to let it hold them back from returning to normalcy any further than it already has.
“Right now being back to school is really the only time where it’s normal,” says Mackenzie, “but I definitely can see a return of normalcy on the horizon.”