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Knoch grads return to evacuation zone, develop health issues

Knoch graduates Hayley Heckert and her fiancé, Steven Gieraltowski, were among the first residents on the scene of a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3 after hearing a loud “bang” out their window. Hayley Heckert/Submitted Photo

Knoch graduates Hayley Heckert and her fiancé, Steven Gieraltowski, live just a few blocks from where a freight train carrying toxic chemicals derailed Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio.

Nine days after being evacuated from their home, the couple returned Sunday to skin rashes, headaches, sick pets and financial woes.

“They told us it was safe,” Heckert said. “It doesn’t feel safe.”

Knoch graduate Hayley Heckert and her fiancé Steven Gieraltowski were forced to evacuate their home in East Palestine, Ohio, following a train derailment Feb. 3. Hayley Heckert/Submitted Photo

The evacuation order was lifted Feb. 8, five days after the derailment. Initial concerns over the toxic burning of vinyl chloride in five of the train cars subsided after East Palestine authorities and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that air inside and outside the evacuation zone had returned to normal levels.

The first thing that struck them after returning home was the smell.

“It’s like you sprayed a paint can in the bathroom with no fan,” Heckert said. The smell permeated everything, they said.

Heckert and Gieraltowski threw out their bed sheets, some clothing and even some containers after reading online that the chemicals could have seeped into the plastics.

Both Heckert and Gieraltowski have had headaches over the last few days, and Heckert said she has broken out with a rash. She said they both feel unwell.

“It’s just this feeling of weakness,” Heckert said, “like something’s not right.”

Their dog, Scrappy, has been vomiting the last few nights, according to Heckert. Evo, their cat, has become lethargic.

Her fiancé’s place of work in the village, Velez Engines, remains closed. Heckert said she has continued working as a certified nursing assistant, but the financial and emotional strain has been taking its toll.

“We’re not rich — I go to school full time, and I work full time,” Heckert said. “What is someone supposed to do when unexpected costs come up like this?”

A co-worker asked if she could set up a GoFundMe for the couple, and Heckert agreed. The page is seeking $5,000 to help the couple pay for their damaged items, medical bills, and to help them move away.

“We want to get out of here as soon as possible,” she said. “Nobody wants to stay here and risk getting cancer.”

Hayley Heckert and fiancé Steven Gieraltowski said their dog, Scrappy, has been vomiting and fatigued since the train derailment. Hayley Heckert/Submitted Photo
Costly exodus

On the night of the derailment, the couple was settling in for the evening.

“We heard a loud bang,” Heckert said. “We thought a train had hit a car.”

When they went out to investigate, they found plumes of smoke rising from the fiery wreckage of the train

“Nobody really knew what was going on,” she said.

When firefighters and EMS arrived on the scene, onlookers were asked to leave and return to their homes.

And not long after, they were asked to leave their homes.

“We were told to evacuate,” Heckert said. “Police officers went door-to-door.”

The couple traveled to the home of Gieraltowski’s sister. Within 20 minutes, police came knocking on her door as well.

Heckert and Gieraltowski then drove more than 20 miles north to Canfield, Ohio.

“We stayed in a hotel for the first night,” Heckert said. “Then we found an Airbnb.”

After the evacuation order was lifted, Heckert said she and her fiancé felt left in the dark. Amid the catastrophe, the lack of communication between officials and residents has taken the biggest toll.

“If they care about this little town the way they say they do, you’d think they would want to keep us informed,” Heckert said. “I just think it’s important that these people of this town, not just me, get the help that they need — they need to fix their mistake.”

Hayley Heckert and fiancé, Steven Gieraltowski, said their cat, Evo, has been lethargic since the train derailment. Hayley Heckert/Submitted Photo

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