As I began writing about the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment, my computer screen got blurry.
Yours might, too, if you take eight minutes and do what I did — watch the following video.
Frustrated by government and corporate inaction following the toxic hazardous materials train wreck of Feb. 3, conservative Benny Johnson took $20,000 his YouTube channel earned last month and gave envelopes filled with $1,000 in cash to 20 residents living by the railroad tracks.
Hugs, tears, and even a kiss from a big German shepherd greeted his efforts.
And the true spirit of America arose as several people tried to decline the gift, urging Johnson to give the money to someone needing it more. Johnson refused, urging the reluctant recipients to “pay it forward” themselves.
It’s been hard to determine what’s been going on in East Palestine. News coverage has been minimal and the federal government has been indifferent.
But people in that small community near the Pennsylvania border are hurting.
Having done a lot of academic research on railroads and having done some specialized news reporting of that industry, I, like many others, have been closely following the story.
Consulting general media, railroad trade press, and online comments from active and retired railroaders, I can list some things which seem to be facts, following by incidences and coincidences from which conclusions arise based on speculation.
The facts seem to be the following:
A malfunction known as a “hotbox,” an overheated bearing, seems to have caused the derailment.
Although the National Transportation Safety Board won’t have a preliminary report for several weeks, they’ve hinted at a hotbox and there is online video from WRAL depicting what seems to be a security camera showing sparks and flames coming from beneath a passing railroad car shortly before the derailment.
While railroads have heat-sensing hotbox detectors every 10 or 20 miles, the train that wrecked in East Palestine apparently was reportedly in good shape at the detector 20 miles before the crash. Upon reaching East Palestine the crew received a hotbox alarm, applied the brakes, but the train derailed before it could be stopped.
Concerned about high pressure in a tank car causing an explosion, a controlled burn was set to release pressure, throwing a giant mushroom cloud into the sky.
Fearing for their safety, Norfolk Southern railroad officials refused to attend a town hall meeting in East Palestine. However, CEO Alan Shaw has made at least two visits to the city, Trains News Wire reported.
While Johnson said each resident was receiving only $5 from the railroad, Shaw has pledged $1 million in what NS calls a “down payment” toward making restorations in East Palestine, a company news release said.
From speculation it perhaps can be concluded:
Media coverage has been minimal because it occurred outside of a major media center and because the number of reporters is not what it was decades ago when newspapers held powerful commercial monopolies and oligopolies and television networks saw news coverage as a public trust not a profit center.
A disaster involving low- to middle-class Trump voters (71.7 percent in the county in the 2020 election) does not fit leftist media narratives.
Major railroads like Norfolk Southern are clueless regarding public relations and optics since, unlike consumer-oriented industries, they have minimal contact with the general public.
FEMA has been dragging its feet in responding and even Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has been laggard, as represented by the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Yet, when former President Donald Trump announced he would personally visit East Palestine, FEMA said they’d get involved. Seems like Trump has a talent for getting things done even when he’s not in office.
Trump’s action is especially notable given President Joe Biden’s current visit to Ukraine while confusion and fear reign in East Palestine.
And then there are the unknowns, especially regarding the environment, even though the federal EPA and state environmental officials have not seemed as concerned as local residents concerning and water quality, according to Fortune.
As blame has been thrown around, now might be the time to look to the future.
Railroads and regulators need to do what the airline industry does following a plane crash or some serious incident — carefully review the situation and develop methods to prevent it from happening again.
As a result, U.S. airline safety has immensely improved with no serious plane crashes for more than two decades.
There needs to be a review of the characteristics of massive amounts of toxic materials daily moved through American cities, big and small. While there have been improvements in safety standards regarding tank cars, perhaps there needs to be an examination of how many hazardous materials an individual train can carry and at what speeds.
Perhaps there need to be dedicated trains of hazmat operated at slower speeds and with stricter safety standards.
That would be a radical departure from current railroad operations, especially in the wake of recent moves toward a concept known as Precision Scheduled Railroading which has boosted railroad stock prices but alienated both operating unions and railroad customers.
Whatever, the dangers of hazardous material movements are real and while all risks cannot be eliminated, there must be efforts toward continuous improvement.
If you doubt that, talk to the people of East Palestine, Ohio.