A Train Derailed, a Community Poisoned

By Milo Jones | Posted February 20, 2023

How often does a train derail? On average, nearly three times a day in the United States. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, it happens about 1,000 times per year. If that number seems high, consider how derailments have substantially decreased over the past five decades—from 6,328 in 1975 to 1,044 in 2022.

Because most of these derailments are usually minor incidents, seldom leading to injury or death, they’re not “breaking news.” That all changes, of course, when they cause an environmental disaster, as what happened on February 3, 2023, when a Norfolk Southern train derailed in the small town of East Palestine, Ohio. About three dozen cars jumped off the tracks, 11 of which contained hazardous chemicals. A line of flames erupted from the wreckage.

Two days later, firefighters feared that a temperature increase in one of the cars could cause a deadly blast, sending shrapnel flying up to a mile away. This imminent danger led officials to approve a “controlled release” and a “controlled explosion.” So, on February 6, vinyl chloride was drained from five cars into a trench and then ignited.

Hence the “dramatic plume of black smoke” that made headlines across the country.

Anxious and Angry Residents

After the fire was extinguished on February 8, officials lifted the evacuation order, telling residents it was safe to return to their homes. Yet one week later, those residents crowded the bleachers of a high school gym to vent their frustrations and doubts at a town hall meeting. Among the officials not present were representatives of Norfolk Southern, who were supposed to provide updates on air and water testing conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Why are people getting sick if there’s nothing in the air or in the water?” shouted one resident.

Let’s start with the air quality after the evacuation ban was lifted. Despite the EPA’s claim that hazardous chemicals were not detected outdoors or in homes, some residents reported experiencing headaches and nausea. Others complained of irritation in their eyes, nose, and throat. All these symptoms can be caused by exposure to the vinyl chloride and other chemicals released in the controlled explosion. “If it’s safe and habitable,” one resident told CNN, “why does it hurt me to breathe?

About 11 miles away in North Lima, Amanda Breshears found her five hens and one rooster lying dead the morning after the controlled burn. “My video camera footage shows my chickens were perfectly fine before they started this burn,” she told local news WKBN. “If it can do this to chickens in one night, imagine what it’s going to do to us in 20 years.” 

In addition to air quality, the safety of drinking water has been a concern. Amid the risk of contaminants seeping into wells, residents were urged to drink only bottled water. But on February 15, after receiving new testing results, state officials reported that the water from municipal wells was “safe to drink.” Those wells, unlike private ones that still needed testing, were at least 50 feet underground and covered by solid steel.

But the residents of East Palestine remain skeptical, given the dead fish filling their local waterways. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, an estimated 3,500 fish among 12 species have died. On February 16, Ohio Senator J.D. Vanceposted a video on Twitter of a local creek containing dead fish. As he scraped the creek bed with a stick, toxins came to the surface in a swirling rainbow.

Spiritual Derailment

Just as trains can jump their tracks, so Christians can derail as they journey to heaven.

Our natures are full of hazardous chemicals; “in [our] flesh nothing good dwells” (Romans 7:18). As we begin our journey to heaven, God gives us the rail cars to properly contain our sinful chemicals. Some of us need more of these cars than others, but all of us are given the power to keep them on the track—to travel “not … according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). Choosing to leave the track will cause a chemical spill, poisoning the lives of everyone around us.

 As Christians, we must be watchful conductors, for a derailed Christian is much more useful to the devil than someone who has never left the station. Regarding those who “have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of … Jesus Christ,” the apostle Peter says that if “they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning” (2 Peter 2:20).

A spiritual derailment is not only “worse for them,” but for everyone in their circle of influence. Think about how many lives were poisoned when King David derailed by committing adultery and murder. Uriah lost his life, along with other soldiers in his company (2 Samuel 11:24). Bathsheba “mourned for her husband” (v. 26). Hers and David’s child “became ill” and died (12:14, 15). Amnon, emboldened by his father’s sin, disgraced his half-sister Tamar (13:1–22). Absalom then killed him in revenge (vv. 23–33). And finally, Absalom’s estrangement from David (vv. 34–38) eventually led to a civil war (2 Samuel 15). So many lives were forever changed by David’s derailment!

And yet, even a sinner like David could repair, by God’s grace, his train and resume his journey. When confronted by Nathan the prophet, the king confessed, “I have sinned against the LORD” (2 Samuel 12:13). Nathan replied, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die” (v. 14). If that was good news for David, it’s good news for anyone else who experiences a derailment.

It’s a solemn thing to consider—that we can lose our salvation. If it weren’t possible for us to “[depart] from the living God” (Hebrews 3:13), the apostle Paul would not have exhorted us to “hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end” (v. 14). But if you still have doubts that a believer can choose to be lost, just as surely as an unbeliever can choose to be saved, this article from Joe Crews will enlighten you: “Can a Saved Man Choose to be Lost?” 

Milo Jones
Milo Jones is a writer and editor for Amazing Facts International and lives in College Place, WA.

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