Echoes of East Palestine in the Key Bridge Collapse

Around 1:30 on Monday morning, I finally made it home to Baltimore after a long drive back from a place I’d been trying to get to for over a year: East Palestine, Ohio. East Palestine is a place like so many others in the United States—a small, sleepy town of just over 4,000, tucked away in what we call “Trump Country,” where working people like you and me live, where their family roots and histories are, where parents take their kids to school and hockey practice. Of course, East Palestine was also where the preventable derailment of a Norfolk Southern “bomb train” happened on February 3, 2023. That calamity—followed three days later by the disastrous, unnecessary decision to “vent and burn” five cars’ full of toxic vinyl chloride—upended life as East Palestinians knew it.

The bomb derailment was as horrifying to me as it was to everyone else, but I was not surprised by it; I couldn’t be. Well before I knew of East Palestine, I’d been interviewing railroad workers, who were all warning that the Wall Street takeover and decades-long deregulation of the railroads—the constant staff cuts, corner cutting, automation, and reckless stripping away of long-term safety and maintenance measures for short-term profits—would lead to a catastrophe like this. I then spent another year interviewing East Palestine residents paying the price of corporate greed and government negligence in the aftermath of the Norfolk Southern catastrophe.

But it wasn’t until last week that I finally made it there. I gathered with those who answered the call to take charge of long-neglected efforts to get the care, remediation, and justice these forgotten residents desperately need—a call put out by the newly formed Justice for East Palestine Residents & Workers coalition. This alliance includes East Palestine residents, railroad workers, residents of other “sacrifice zones” like Piketon, Ohio, people living near other rail lines, labor union representatives, environmental justice organizations, (striking) journalists, socialists, Trump voters, and more.

We heard and saw firsthand that, even though the derailment has faded from mainstream media headlines, East Palestine is not OK—and in many respects, life has gotten worse for the residents there. These people have been literally poisoned by corporate greed, exposed to toxins that continue to do irreparable damage to their bodies and their community. Many are still sick, still waiting for answers and aid from Norfolk Southern and the government, still fighting not to be forgotten. We discussed how to pressure Biden to invoke the Stafford Act to mobilize and expedite federal FEMA assistance to residents near the crash site and the surrounding area, and how to pressure his administration to issue a disaster declaration for East Palestine, which would secure immediate, government-funded healthcare for residents whose ailments and medical bills are piling up.

But what was most powerful about the gathering was seeing this diverse, working-class coalition of capitalism’s forgotten victims sitting together and discussing the basic struggles, hardships, and enemies we have in common. Everyone shared their own firsthand accounts of the many ways that this country is falling apart at the seams, buckling under the weight of more than 40 years of corporate dominance, deregulation, disinvestment, and the systematic devaluing of labor and life itself. We all showed our scars to each other, and we realized we’re all fighting off the tentacles of the same corporate monsters, corporate politicians, and Wall Street vampires.

Then, 24 hours after I got home, the Francis Scott Key Bridge, an iconic feature of the Baltimore skyline and a critical thoroughfare, was gone. Like my fellow Baltimoreans, I woke up Tuesday morning to fear, panic, and disbelief. As we’ve learned more about the catastrophic shipping vessel crash that destroyed the bridge, and about the workers on the bridge who have been pronounced dead, there’s a hole in our hearts as wide as the gap where the bridge used to be. Like East Palestine residents on the morning of February 4, we awoke on Tuesday to a home forever changed, and the families of the six immigrant construction workers who perished woke up to a life forever fractured.

Still sleep-deprived, I raced out with two Real News Network colleagues, Kayla Rivara and Jocelyn Dombroski, to get as close to the bridge as we could. We ended up at a Royal Farms parking lot near the bridge entrance, where I spoke to Jesus Campos, who works for Brawner Builders, the construction contractor that employed the crew members who were swallowed into the cold waters of the Patapsco River.

“I work for the company, for the State of Maryland,” Campos told me, “and the men who fell into the water, they are coworkers of mine, friends of mine. I know them.”

I asked Campos a question I hadn’t heard anyone else ask him: “Do you know if the workers received a warning before the crash?”

“No, no they did not,” he said. He then went on explain how the catastrophe unfolded from a worker’s eye view: “I am of the understanding that they were on their half-hour break given during the shift. They were in the trucks, four or five that were in that location. They were supposedly in the trucks.… I feel very hurt by what happened. These are the men I work with, my friends. You know, they come to work every night to earn their living. We have people who love us, who wait for us to come home, and to receive devastating news like this of what has happened, it’s very sad. Because imagine, the workers—I don’t know if they’ve been recovered from the water, what’s going on…. I’ve been working on the bridge for a month. For a month, we’ve been working on the bridge, and then we were changed to day shifts. It could have been us that that happened to on that bridge…. This is a very difficult situation. Especially for their families. We all feel it, but not like they do.”

Campos’s account is corroborated by the real-time record of the emergency response: His coworkers didn’t receive a warning. You can hear the succession of events on the police scanner: Officers were racing to stop traffic from driving onto the bridge, and that saved lives, but no one told the workers on the bridge.

To be clear: Baltimore is not East Palestine, and the Key Bridge collapse is not the Norfolk Southern derailment. The real investigative work to uncover the causes of the bridge catastrophe is just beginning. Nevertheless, it’s significant that East Palestine residents, together with the other members of this new coalition, recognize a deep and troubling parallel here. Many of them have been messaging me for the past 24 hours to express their solidarity and their thoughts about why their disaster-marred town feels so connected to ours right now. Because of what we know about East Palestine, we have all been asking the same questions about the bridge, questions that I think anyone investigating this story should be asking:

  • Why were these workers sitting in harm’s way with no direct line to emergency dispatch? Norfolk Southern’s self-regulated “hot box” detectors, which clocked the rise in ambient heat in the faulty bearing on the freight train miles away from East Palestine, did not alert the train crew of the problem until it was too late, helping ensure that the train didn’t stop in time. That lag spelled disaster. Maybe those workers still wouldn’t have had enough time to get off the bridge even if they had received the Mayday alert—they would have had about 90 seconds. But they would have had a chance. If you had 90 seconds to try to save your life and see your family again, you’d take every one.
  • Why was a ship of that size (with a spotty record on safety and worker rights)—in a dense population center, experiencing an extremely hazardous level of electrical failure minutes after leaving harbor—permitted to leave harbor in the first place? And in East Palestine, the same basic question resounds: Why was a freight train that long, carrying that many chemicals, permitted to be on the track with a faulty bearing in the first place?
  • These immigrant construction workers were already next to invisible in our society—only in death have they become momentarily visible to so many. But will they, too—and will our city—be as quickly forgotten by our government, our media, and our country as East Palestine residents and workers have? Anyone who has experienced tragedy in this country, or at the hands of this country, knows how quickly this country forgets its victims. When will we rise together to say, “We will be forgotten no more”?
  • Why are our lead institutions, business concerns, and opinion makers so accustomed to devaluing these jobs (and the lives of the people doing them) that it felt perfectly normal up until this week to have these subcontracted workers marooned on the Key Bridge in the dead of night, mega-ships passing beneath their feet, without a direct line to emergency dispatch? Why are we still so unwilling to listen to the voices of forgotten railroad workers and East Palestine residents that we can comfortably carry on ignoring the ongoing failure to address the systemic problems that continue to menace and endanger our supply chain and our communities? The derailment in East Palestine was one of the greatest industrial accidents in our country’s history, and, because of this inaction, an accident of equal or greater proportion could happen again at any time.

I see the real-world consequences of this posture of inaction and resignation before a collapse of regulatory and moral authority across our society every week, in the people I interview and the stories of struggle we cover at The Real News. I hear the sounds of shattered souls, broken bodies, and decaying communities in the stories of our fellow workers. But I also see in them the light guiding the way to something better than this—and there has to be something better than this.

I was reminded of that in East Palestine this weekend, and I was reminded of it once again when I received this text from Chris Albright, an East Palestine resident, member of LIUNA 1058, and a former gas pipeline worker who has been disabled by the toxic fallout of the derailment. “Watching the video of the bridge collapse has been heart wrenching,” Albright wrote. “Seeing another catastrophe happen that could’ve been avoided hits close to home. I’ve been there. To the people of Baltimore, the residents of East Palestine are here with you. Our hearts go out to you, and we WILL stand with you. You will not be forgotten or left behind.” This is a moment when all of us should be saying the same thing to the traumatized residents of East Palestine, Baltimore, and scores of other overlooked communities who’ve found their lives and livelihoods ravaged by the predations of global capitalism. We will be forgotten no more.