The Columbus Dispatch
Family finds temporary home in Kentucky after train derailment
When a grease fire damaged her Newport apartment and ruined almost everything she owned, Jessica Helpy took her two sons and started over.
She found comfort moving to a familiar place: Her hometown, East Palestine, Ohio.
“It was the first house that I’ve ever had because we always lived in apartments,” the 35-year-old mother said. “It was just the perfect thing to work out at the time it did.”
The family reveled in their new home. They had found stability. Calm after chaos. But less than five years into her new life, Helpy once again found herself seeking refuge and deciding to move her family hundreds of miles away.
She and her family were among hundreds of victims in the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment.
The train, traveling from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, derailed when it passed through East Palestine, an Ohio village of less than 5,000 residents near the Pennsylvania border. An overheated wheel bearing caused a dangerous derailment that spilled more than 100,000 gallons of toxic chemicals into the air and a fire burst into flames that night.
Residents have faced disruption, financial strain, health concerns and uncertainty ever since. Helpy is no exception.
Since her East Palestine home is within a mile from the derailment site, Helpy received a text message on the night of Feb. 3 recommending that she evacuate. She decided to go.
She gathered her teenage sons and rented a hotel for the night 11 miles away in North Lima, Ohio. Having just paid monthly bills two days earlier, however, she was starting to feel financial pressure mount due to the unplanned disruption.
“We were sitting ducks,” she said. Out of money, having nowhere to go and facing temperatures in the single digits, Helpy decided she would have to return to her home the next night after passing some time during the day. Though the initial derailment looked bad, Helpy said she wasn’t told about the hazardous materials. The village seemed unaware of the dangers, she said. Many even went down to the site to see what was going on. When she returned home, she could smell something strong in the air. That’s when she started to become concerned.
“Hindsight is, it should have immediately been a contained area,” Helpy said. “And not allow residents and media to come in and speculate and photograph things.”
The next day she awoke to a loud banging on the door. Sheriff ’s deputies were at her door. They told Helpy she had to evacuate again because a controlled chemical burn was going to take place. Residents in the immediate area were cleared out.
The controlled burn, a practice in which an intentional fire is set off to burn off dangerous chemicals, took place Feb. 6. and residents watched the news from remote locations after evacuating, horrified at the scene of their village. Many described it as a war zone or a scene out of a movie. The decision to conduct the controlled burn came from government officials including Ohio Gov. Mike Dewine, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway and East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick. Norfolk Southern Chief Executive Officer Alan Shaw was also part of the decision under what he called “unified command” and said the burn was necessary to avoid a massive explosion.
“The fact that we knew at that time that the pressure relief valves on the cars had failed, the temperatures were rising, caused our independent expert to become very concerned about the potential for an uncontrolled explosion that would shoot harmful gas and shrapnel into a populated community,” Shaw said in an interview with CNBC.
Helpy had evacuated her home and stayed with a relative in Pittsburgh for a few days. She watched videos of the burn from Pittsburgh in horror.
“It was scary,” she said. “When you hear about the things that were going to be released when they did this controlled burn. You detonated it and you saved things from getting hit by shrapnel, but what about the environmental tragedy that happened?
“Waterways, soil, air.”
Picking up the pieces
Helpy was devastated by the images she saw. She had endured a long struggle to get to a stable environment and realized years of uncertainty might lie ahead.
Bob Bowcock, a leading water expert and hydrologist, gave East Palestine residents a sobering warning that the aftermath of the derailment and chemical burn won’t go away anytime soon.
“You’re in a situation that you’re going to be dealing with for the rest of your lives if you stay here,” Bowcock said to a large gathering of residents at a town hall hosted by environmental activist Erin Brockovich.
Since the derailment, Helpy said she has maintained an optimistic outlook for her kids, but she fears what lies ahead and what her sons may have already faced or been exposed to. They reported some mild symptoms and Helpy herself had rashes show up on her arms.
“Mentally and visually I was trying to project strength and normality for my kids,” she said, “Like, ‘this is something that happened but we’re OK, so let’s be grateful for that and just wait to see what the outcome is.’ But honestly, I’m human, I was beside myself. This is my home, this is everything I worked so hard for. This is my little life that I built that brought me peace.”
Helpy stayed with relatives for a few more days after the burn before concluding she needed some temporary stability while the situation in East Palestine continues to unfold. Concerned about the health impacts that remain, she gathered her kids and cats and returned to Northern Kentucky where she’s currently staying with her great uncle.
“We’ve been here once and started over, we can do it again,” she said. “And now we’re here.”
The move is a temporary solution to an uncertain future. In order to get reimbursements offered by Norfolk Southern, Helpy has to drive back and forth from Newport to East Palestine to submit claims. She said her new reality is one that’s “flipped upside down” and she often has to think about what day of the week it is because so much occurs within a single day.
She works as a freelance interior and exterior painter for homes and buildings and is trying to gain some clients in the area after she built a network in East Palestine. Her kids are taking online classes for now. And every day she gauges whether it’s safe to return to East Palestine or if she needs to stay put in Northern Kentucky for awhile.
She doesn’t know what the immediate, short term and long term future will be for her family. Instead, she has one thing top of mind: her children’s safety.
“Until we have clear-cut answers, I know that I am not going to wager my kids’ health for the benefit of being back in a place that I’m not sure is safe,” Helpy said. “My main concern is making sure that my kids are OK.”