It was an October day in 1971. I was at home with my one year old daughter while my husband was at work. Our apartment faced Interstate 45, so I became concerned when I heard an almost continuous wailing of sirens along the highway. As I stepped outside I witnessed a long string of firetrucks and emergency vehicles racing toward the south. I knew that something terrible must have happened, so I went back inside and turned on my television. I learned that a train had derailed along Mykawa Road and that there had been an explosion.
I stayed tune for more details. My interest was more than just vicarious. I had grown up only a block or so from the train tracks that ran along Mykawa. Many a night the sound of cars rumbling along the metal tracks lulled me to sleep. I had crossed those iron roads and walked alongside them hundreds of times. My mother and two brothers still lived near them. I needed to know if they were in danger.
I was only slightly relieved when I heard that the accident had occurred a few miles south of my family’s home at a rail yard on Almeda Genoa. There was talk of unknown hazardous chemicals burning and filling the air. I worried that winds might carry the toxic fumes north to my family. The reporters mentioned the concern of the firefighters who had no idea what they were battling because the contents of railcars were not labeled back then.
The scene was chaotic as film crews covered the incident live and civilians gathered to see what was happening. The firefighters were blindly doing their jobs with little thought of what kind of chemicals might have caused the explosion and fires that had resulted in the train yard devolving into a state of chaos. One firefighters was engulfed in flames and another had died with the impact of the explosion. Little did anyone know how dangerous the environment actually was as fumes from vinyl chloride and butadiene filled the air. Ultimately there was only one death, but thirty seven people were injured.
The horrific incident was one of the worst train accidents in Houston’s history. Eventually it prompted the passing of legislation requiring companies to label the hazardous material contents of every car. Those strange looking letters on the sides of railcars and tankers instantly alert first responders to potential hazards that they might encounter. All firefighters now also undergo hazmat training and in most cities have special Hazmat units. The Houston Fire Department learned from that disaster and would later incorporate improved safety measures deemed necessary after other incidents that indicated a need for even more caution.
I don’t recall anyone coming from Washington D.C. to reassure the citizens of Houston who lived near the tragic accident of 1971. Nobody made the incident a political cudgel. Instead the powers that be understood that additional precautions were needed for the future and passed the necessary legislation to fix the problem. It was a bipartisan effort, not one designed to grandstand for votes. It was all done quietly and without rancor. Then life moved forward.
I’ve been thinking about this as I read about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. My understanding is that the reason for the accident had to deal with braking systems on trains. Evidently stricter requirements became law during the Obama administration, but they were rescinded during the Trump administration when Railroad companies complained. Now the issue is a political football when all that is necessary is for legislators to admit that the stricter rules were no doubt needed. It should take little discussion or effort to put them back into effect with appropriate revisions to make certain that they are work in the majority of situations.
Our politicians seem to have lost the ability to come together with common sense to help the citizenry. Instead every issue becomes a public disagreement that is fodder for the media. The blame game for incidents over which nobody has any real responsibility is slowing down the ability to quickly react. Nobody should be using such tragedies to further their own political ambitions. The ridiculousness of the present day political impasse is frustrating and unreasonable. It’s long past time for our legislators to bury the hatchet and work for the common good. Frankly the focus has too often been on non-issues rather than the difficult topics that matter most. This recent train wreck is in many ways a metaphor for our Congress which has become a playground for adults acting like children and bullies in the hopes of grabbing attention from the reporters holding cameras. Instead, they need to get back to work and demonstrate some common sense.
I would much rather write about joyful topics that inspire people than complain about our broken government. We the people have allowed those that we elect to go astray. We sense that our branches of government at both the federal and state levels are not working for all of us. We are weary of the disagreements that our elected officials and the media stir up continuously for attention and ratings. It should not be that difficult for all of us to work together to get things done rather than quarreling to the point of inertia. I for one, would prefer to see quiet but swift and effective responses that take all of our needs into account.
We are a large and diverse nation of many different beliefs, but some things like train safety are universal. I urge our Congress to work together to create the proper legislation that may reduce the tragedies that are now occurring. It may be more difficult because our government has derailed. It’s long past time to make repairs and changes and move forward again.