Twin towns of tragedy in neighboring states

East Palestine, Ohio, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Fire and flood.

Tragic twins? Acts of God? Acts of man?

Time divides these destructive events by 134 years, but the human and environmental pain that these two events evoke catapults them toward each other like electrons in a collider.

“Why?” becomes a demanding master that must be served.

Who is responsible?

“Success has many fathers and failure is an orphan.”

Before both events occurred, there were forces at work in Johnstown and in East Palestine that precipitated the tragedies.

In a metaverse-like time warp the Johnstown and East Palestine tragedies are intertwined.

The Johnstown Flood of 1889 killed 2,208 people, and cost $513 million in property damage in 2023 value. A torrential rainfall resulted in a sudden failure of the South Fork Dam 14 miles above Johnstown. The 931 foot-long and 72-foot-high earthen dam held a one-mile by two-mile reservoir. It breached at 2:50 p.m. May 31, 1889, sending 3.8 billion gallons of water in a wall 40 to 60 feet high thundering toward Johnstown at 40 mph. The deluge was a lethal cocktail of rocks, soil, barbed wire, railroad cars, tracks, buildings and trees.

The dam emptied in 45 minutes.

The East Palestine Norfolk Southern Train derailment of 2023 resulted in 38 of the 150 railroad cars derailing. Eleven of the 20 cars carrying hazardous chemicals leaked. Preliminary theories indicate that a wheel bearing failure resulted in the 8:54 p.m. spillage of a hazardous cocktail of vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, ethelene glycol, and monobutyl ether, not including hazardous, dioxin-laden plume of black smoke generated by a “controlled release” fire Feb. 6. Some 43,700 animals were killed; surrounding creeks were contaminated; lives of 4,700 East Palestine citizens now are disrupted as they dread long-term effects of pollutants. Near-by Pennsylvanians also are on alert. Vinyl chloride baptized the Ohio River.


The Johnstown dam that failed was poorly maintained by a group of railroad, steel and coal industrialists who owned the dam and the adjoining South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. They lowered the dam by 3 feet, screened the spillways to keep fish from escaping, thereby clogging them, and sold the dams relief pipes and valves thus creating an undrainable lake. The dam’s failure became a given. Afterword, Johnstown citizens sued the industrialists, but the club’s wealth, influence and creative financial structure kept the industrialists’ assets separate from the club’s assets. No damages were collected.

Norfolk Southern and the railroad industry employ government lobbyists to maintain their profitability with tiny crews, lengthy trains, unfortified tank cars, ambiguous signage regarding chemicals and an insufficient number of wayside defect detectors. The public’s welfare is not on that list.

Corporate priorities trump citizen safety.

Investigating the Johnstown Flood, the American Society of Engineers delayed and finally released a report in 1891 concluding the disaster was a natural event and, therefore, an “Act of God.” The Society did not want to “start any litigation.”

Norfolk Southern labeled the train that contaminated East Palestine a “general merchandise freight.” It also branded the Feb. 6 burn-off of contaminants as a “controlled release.”

Safe labels, safe life.

There was no “strict liability” in American law in 1890; therefore, the industrialists and their club won all the plaintiffs’ legal suits. “May” triumphed; Johnstown drowned.

The railroad’s mindset in 2023 seeks to self-regulate its industry, keeping the governmental, regulatory “shall” to a comfortable, manageable minimum. Norfolk Southern’s $4.8 billion operating income last year is a “shall” that shall not be compromised.

There are 265 railroad lobbyists, 78 percent of which are ex-government employees. Corporate self-regulation won. East Palestine burned.

East Palestine and Johnstown — fire and flood.

Are they tragic twins? Acts of God? Or acts of man?

Without governmental oversight, corporate spin might be that Johnstown merely had a passing spring shower, and East Palestine merely had a friendly visit from Thomas the Tanker and Friends.

Sheldon Firem is a retired school psychologist and high school history teacher who resides in Chardon.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *


Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today