Site last updated: Sunday, June 23, 2024

Log In

Reset Password
MENU
Butler County's great daily newspaper

1 year later, East Palestine refugee scrapes by in Cranberry hotel

Zsuzsa Gyenes, a former resident of East Palestine, Ohio, where the Norfolk Southern train derailment occurred, recounts her experience with the train derailment and her subsequent moves because of it on Tuesday, Feb. 13, in her hotel room in Cranberry Township. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle

CRANBERRY TWP — When Zsuzsa Gyenes and her son, Maddik, first fled their home in East Palestine, Ohio, a year ago, she believed she would be back home within weeks.

Instead, one year later, her third-floor extended-stay hotel room in Cranberry Township — the fourth hotel she’s stayed at since leaving East Palestine — is showing all the signs of being as lived-in as their old home, with “Minecraft” posters adorning the walls and cans of Prime energy drink lined up on top of the hotel’s wall-mounted flat-screen TV.

It is here they have stayed for nearly a year with no end in sight. A year after the incident which forced them to leave, the trauma has not gone away for her or her son.

“We’re on thin ice just trying to manage our emotions and try to process the trauma,” Gyenes said. “He can't go out and play in our front yard because we don't have that anymore. He can't just run around the house because we’ve just got a hotel.”

At this point, Gyenes can’t imagine ever returning to East Palestine for long, but on Friday, she did make the drive to see President Joe Biden speak at the site of the now-infamous Norfolk Southern train derailment.

Related Article: Biden praises ‘Herculean efforts’ to rebuild at the site of last February’s Ohio train derailment

“I hope it’s not just a photo op. I hope he meets with people affected,” she said. “I am afraid he will come and just pat everyone on the back for how this was handled. He needs to do more than talking.

“We’ve done enough talking. We’ve talked a whole year.”

Related Article: DEP: Samples show no evidence of contamination in Western Pennsylvania connected to East Palestine train derailment
Running from the derailment

Gyenes still vividly remembers the night of Feb. 3, 2023, the night of the train derailment which forever changed life for her and thousands of other residents of East Palestine, which is located about an hour from the city of Butler.

That night, she was helping her son with a school project when he noticed something amiss.

“We were painting his Valentine's Day box for class,” Gyenes said. “He looked at the window and noticed that the train had been stopped over the crossing, and that's not usually a thing that happened.”

Zsuzsa and her son lived in a duplex just a mile from the site where a Norfolk Southern train derailed, spilling hazardous chemicals such as vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate. At the time, neither she, her son, nor most of the town realized what was on the train; word spread that it was actually carrying malt liquor or frozen vegetables. In fact, for the first few hours, information was hard to come by.

“I had gotten an emergency alert on my phone at about 11 (p.m.), but it didn't say anything about chemicals. It didn’t say anything about hazmat, or ‘be aware of smells,’ or sicknesses or anything like that,” Gyenes said.

At first, Gyenes decided to shelter in place. Her young son, unaware of the seriousness of the situation, was excited by the emergency vehicles streaming into their hometown.

The seriousness of the situation did not fully sink in for Gyenes until she heard her son vomiting later that night. According to Gyenes, his room in the house was draftier and more susceptible to the chemicals that spilled from the train.

“I go into his room, because he doesn't normally wake up in the middle of the night,” Gyenes said. “He’s projectile vomiting off the bed, shaking, and asking for air. It became really real at that moment, and I knew we had to leave.”

Zsuzsa and Maddik left in such a hurry that they neglected to take their two cats with them. Their first stop was a hotel in Beaver Falls. While they stayed there, they took the opportunity to visit Maddik’s grandmother, who also lives there.

By then, the derailed train cars had caught fire, and the cloud of smoke was plainly visible from across the state border.

“I remember walking outside to go back to the hotel, and that black cloud had traveled at least 20 miles away, and it was a wall,” Gyenes said. “I remember turning around and going back in and telling them, ‘We need to leave again. All of us need to leave.’”

After they retrieved their cats, Zsuzsa took her son farther east into Pennsylvania. They landed in Monaca and stayed there for a week before Zsuzsa found out that Monaca was also home to a controversial ethylene cracker plant operated by the Shell oil company.

“At that point, I felt like I couldn’t escape anywhere,” Gyenes said. “There’s nowhere safe for my asthmatic son and my family to live. So we evacuated further into Cranberry.”

Zsuzsa Gyenes, a former resident of East Palestine, Ohio, where the Norfolk Southern train derailment occurred, feeds her cats in her extended stay hotel room in Cranberry Township on Tuesday, Feb. 13. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Scraping by in Cranberry Township

Her extended stay hotel room in Cranberry Township is covered by Norfolk Southern Family Assistance Center, though Gyenes worries if the space will be reimbursed for much longer. This would add further financial stress, as her only income for the past year has been the occasional DoorDash job.

Before fleeing East Palestine, Gyenes worked for the U.S. Post Office. While she is still employed with them, she is on unpaid leave due to the circumstances.

“I never expected to be off work this long,” Gyenes said. “I never expected to not have a home by now. Everything’s just been on hold.”

More than anything, Zsuzsa fears for her son and the impact the past year has left on him, both physically and mentally.

Now far away from their old home — and their old school district — Zsuzsa said she placed Maddik into an online school. Despite extra tutoring as well as constant supervision from his mother, he has had a difficult time adjusting to the new norm.

“It’s been awful, I will say that,” Gyenes said. “It was already hard for him to be able to learn in that kind of setting because he’s got ADHD … so he can't really sit and look at a little screen and pay attention and read these big paragraphs.”

Not helping matters is the fact that Maddik is the only one in his class who is new to online school.

“I have to sit next to him for six hours and try to figure out how to read just the learning criteria, so he can actually learn something and not just be lost for a whole year of school,” Gyenes said.

Gyenes had attempted to return to her former home in East Palestine on more than one occasion, but each time, she found the conditions there unbearable. Last summer, she ended the lease on the duplex, committing to find a new home.

“It was impossible to step into my house,” Gyenes said. “The smell had just gotten enormously worse, and it was repulsive. I couldn’t even go in there for more than a few minutes without getting sick.”

Zsuzsa Gyenes, a former resident of East Palestine, Ohio, where the Norfolk Southern train derailment occurred, recounts her experience with the derailment and her subsequent moves because of it on Tuesday, Feb. 13, in her hotel room in Cranberry Township. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Seeking a future

On her drive to East Palestine on Friday, Gyenes said she’s ready to find a permanent home and get back to work, but is struggling to find the time and finances needed to do so.

“I’ve been looking for months, but being online with my son all day, and then, everything is out of my price range,” she said, noting that having cats adds to the challenge of finding a permanent home.

She said she knows some people in her situation who have more permanent living situations covered by Norfolk Southern Family Assistance Center, but others are without assistance at all since earlier this month.

“I’d like to find a place, but they haven’t helped us,” she said.

She said working with the assistance center has been a “nightmare.”

“They've consistently been inconsistent. It just depends on who you talk to that day, what they feel like doing,” she said. “They've never put anything in black and white of what they're reimbursing for, how they’re reimbursing, how long they're going to reimburse for.”

Norfolk Southern railroad announced plans to stop paying relocation aid to people displaced by the derailment effective Feb. 9.

Gyenes was alerted to this, but was later told by the assistance center she would continue to be reimbursed for the Cranberry Township hotel at least for the immediate future.

According to a December report by the Associated Press, the railroad is offering to pay to clean the homes of anyone who hasn’t returned home yet as long as they didn’t already take advantage of a similar program earlier. And for residents who decided to move, Norfolk Southern has offered to compensate them for any lost value in their homes as long as they agree to give up any other property damage claims against the railroad.

At that time, a Norfolk Southern spokesman said fewer than 100 households were still receiving aid because most residents have already returned to East Palestine.

Norfolk Southern has promised to spend $25 million refurbishing the town’s park and another $4.3 million to upgrade its water treatment system — things East Palestine would likely struggle to afford itself. The railroad is spending another $20 million to build a regional training center for first responders to help prepare them to deal with the kind of hazardous materials that spilled in this derailment.

Still, Gyenes has pointed the finger at multiple agencies, including Norfolk Southern, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the state of Ohio, accusing them of failing to take responsibility for the incident and downplaying it at every opportunity.

“The lack of action just has me questioning a lot of things,” Gyenes said. “We're still waiting for a real response and for people to really talk to us.”

Despite her best efforts, Gyenes said she could not convince the EPA or anyone else to do a comprehensive test of the interior of her old home.

“When they did that first walk-in … I was crying, because there's still something here. You can’t tell me there’s nothing here,” Gyenes said. “They just said, ‘You’re all good here. Go ahead and live in your house.’ I couldn't even exist in my house for more than a few seconds, and I would just get so viciously sick every time we went to town.”

In whatever free time she has, Gyenes has done what she can to bring attention to the plight of East Palestine residents, taking her case to the nation’s Capital on more than one occasion.

“I was able to do a meeting with the Federal Railroad Administration,” Gyenes said. “I was able to go in there and talk to them, and it felt kind of like they were just thinking, ‘it's not really our problem.’”

Gyenes also recounted a time she confronted Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in person at a press event and tried to speak to him about her situation.

“He literally just booked it,” Gyenes said.

Despite the circumstances, Gyenes is grateful for the support of those at the hotel, and has found Cranberry Township to be a welcoming place to stay. She has even considered making Western Pennsylvania her next permanent home.

“A lot of my family live in Beaver County or Butler County or Allegheny County. My post office job is in Beaver County too,” Gyenes said. “So it makes sense for me to stick around a little bit in the area.”

Wherever life takes Gyenes and her son next, she is not likely to return to East Palestine anytime soon.

“I don’t feel like it’s ever going to be safe to go back because they've been completely downplaying the situation,” Gyenes said. “We’ve gotten nothing but pushback and being shut down. It’s hard to know who to trust.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Zsuzsa Gyenes, a former resident of East Palestine, Ohio, where the Norfolk Southern train derailment occurred, recounts her experience with the train derailment and her subsequent moves because of it on Tuesday, Feb. 13, in her hotel room in Cranberry Township. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Zsuzsa Gyenes, a former resident of East Palestine, Ohio, where the Norfolk Southern train derailment occurred, recounts her experience with the train derailment and her subsequent moves because of it on Tuesday, Feb. 13, in her hotel room in Cranberry Township. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Zsuzsa Gyenes, a former resident of East Palestine, Ohio, where the Norfolk Southern train derailment occurred, recounts her experience with the train derailment and her subsequent moves because of it on Tuesday, Feb. 13, in her hotel room in Cranberry Township. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Zsuzsa Gyenes, a former resident of East Palestine, Ohio, where the Norfolk Southern train derailment occurred, gets emotional as she recounts her experience with the train derailment and her subsequent moves because of it on Tuesday, Feb. 13. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle
Zsuzsa Gyenes, a former resident of East Palestine, Ohio, where the Norfolk Southern train derailment occurred, recounts her experience with the train derailment and her subsequent moves because of it on Tuesday, Feb. 13, in her hotel room in Cranberry Township. Morgan Phillips/Butler Eagle

More in Local News

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter

* indicates required
TODAY'S PHOTOS