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What We Learned From The Forgotten Train Disaster That Sparked FEMA
Meet Dr. Yasmine Ali, Author Of A New Book About The Train Disaster That Changed America
It was the worst train explosion of its time, and most tragically, it was a disaster that never had to happen. The explosion made news throughout the world, as millions could not avert their attention from the train wreck that consumed the heart of a small town.
Today, we’re talking with Dr. Yasmine Ali, author of Walk Through Fire.
Dr. Yasmine is a cardiologist, award-winning medical writer, and former president of the Vanderbilt History of Medicine Society.
She grew up in Waverly, Tennessee, where the explosion of a tank car full of liquid propane devastated her town, shocked the nation, and led to the creation of transformational laws and regulations, which have since been adopted by countries around the world as a template for disaster management.
Her book was released in February, just weeks after the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio. Dr. Yasmine said she could have never predicted that there would be five derailments since the book was published. In fact, in the book she mentions several other derailments from the last decade.
The July 2020 train derailment that sent a bridge to a fiery collapse in the Phoenix, Arizona suburb of Tempe Town Lake, leaking hazardous material into the surrounding area.
The July 2013 crash that destroyed the small town of Lac-Mégantic in the Eastern Townships region of Quebec, Canada, when a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) Railway train carrying 7.2 million liters of crude oil jumped the tracks and exploded in the town’s core.
The explosion near Baltimore, Maryland, in May 2013 when at least a dozen rail cars on a CSX train derailed after colliding with a truck, setting hazardous chemicals, including sodium chlorate, aflame.
We spoke with her last week about the book and the lessons learned from The Waverly Train Disaster of 1978.
“I really am aghast,” she said. “It’s eerily similar. A wheel overheated in Waverly. In East Palestine, a wheel bearing overheated. These issues can be managed with advanced training and protocols.”
The town of Waverly is a similar size to East Palestine with more than 4,000 people.
On that night in 1978, a Louisville and Northern (L&N) Railroad train heading from Nashville to Memphis derailed when a wheel on a gondola car, overheated from a handbrake left in the applied position, and eventually 24 of the train’s 92 cars left the tracks in the center of downtown Waverly.
We asked Dr. Yasmine what it was like growing up in the shadow of this tragedy.
“It’s interesting because if you were alive, it’s something you never forgot,” she said. “I had just turned 2 years old, when it happened. My father and mother were on call for the emergency dept that day. My mother never wanted to talk about it. In fact, I had never heard her story until writing this book.”
It was national news at the time—a huge story. Dr. Yasmine describes the explosion as looking like an atomic bomb going off for miles around, which reminds us of the pictures from East Palestine.
You can see images from that day here.
“Everyone who grows up in Waverly knows about the train disaster,” she said. “The police chief and fire chief were killed, 16 people died, and more than 200 injured. It happened in a section of town that had a thriving business district, which never recovered. I never got to see that part of town. I learned about it from researching this book looking at old maps and photos.”
The disaster is taught in local schools, and the town has a monument dedicated to those who died. But Dr. Yasmine was inspired to tell the whole story after bumping into one of her father’s patients, Toad Smith. He told her about what happned to his hands that day and he’s such an incredible storyteller that it inspired her to learn more.
Today when disasters strike, most Americans think of FEMA, the federal agency, responsible for coordinating the nation’s response to both natural and manmade accidents occur. But few know its origin story.
“Prior to 1979, disaster response was carried out by a chaotic hodgepodge of state and local agencies and civil defense forces,” Dr. Yasmine writes in her book. “The Waverly Train Disaster served as a catalyst for the establishment of FEMA, recommended by the National Governors Association just two business days after the disaster, and created by President Jimmy Carter’s executive order the following year, in 1979.”
We asked her about the FEMA connection.
“Yes, I discovered it in my research,” she said. “No one in Waverly knew this FEMA connection. I spent 8 yeats collecting stories from locals, and I actually read one line in the Journal of Emergency Management about the recommendation from the National Governor’s Association. We didn’t have a 24-hour news cycle back in 1978. No one really saw the recommendation when it came out, so it never made it into the history books.”
We talked about the various wins and misses for the agency since its creation in 1979, most famously in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, with serious failures to meet the urgent and emergent needs of the victims, resulting in Congress passing the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006.
“The fact that FEMA is a federal agency means that Congress can pass laws to help improve it,” she said.
The Waverly disaster prompted more than just FEMA, it inspired the overhaul of the U.S. railroad industry from top to bottom; resulted in the implementation of new standards for hazmat handling, containment, and training; and served as a new model for firefighter and first-responder training across the globe.
The federal and local response in the aftermath of the explosion in Waverly changed hazardous materials handling and transportation across the nation. The hard-learned lessons gleaned from tragedy helped mobilize lawmakers, fire chiefs, first responders, hazmat handlers, railway inspectors, and many more.
Yet, here we are decades later needing to review the lessons learned from the many missteps, errors, miscommunications, and poor regulations from then and now.
“In the 45 years since, a lot has been forgotten about the lessons of Waverly, so few people knew about it, so many have forgotten it,” Dr. Yasmine said. “There has been a lot of history forgotten, and I encourage everyone to read the book and get to know what happened.”
The more recent incident in East Palestine has prompted the Department of Transportation to consider new safety regulations, as the spacing of hot-box detectors and the temperatures at which they trigger alarms are not currently regulated by federal law.
“There are differences from railroad to railroad, from company to company, in terms of how they're used,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in February. “I think that’s another example of something that needs to be looked at to try to prevent things like this from happening again.”
Dr. Yasmine agreed that we need to re-examine the rail system, infrastructure, transportation protocols, and how we handle hazardous materials.
“If we want people’s lives and suffering to not be in vain, we need to take the lessons learned in these disasters and apply them forward,” she said. “It’s not about having the knowledge but applying it.”
Ultimately, all of these disasters are about real people. We forget the people who have to live with this for the rest of their lives.
“The people I interviewed for the book, about 35-40 years after the event, remembered it as if it had happened yesterday,” she said. “Many were still emotional about it when sharing their stories, all this time afterward. I think that speaks volumes about the lasting and devastating impact these preventable tragedies have on our communities.”
She writes in the book, “But in the end, after the tales of metal and machine have had their turn, we always, eventually, find that what it comes down to is the people involved. The people who lived, the people who died, the people who endured with uncommon bravery, who cleaned up the mess, and who were left to deal with the aftermath and all that entailed.”
We must continue to tell these survivor stories and hold those who put communities at risk accountable. As those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.
Did you know about the Waverly Train Disaster? Let us know in the comments below.