Lessons on Local Heroism

What the Amtrak Derailment Teaches about the Value of Community

Last Saturday afternoon seemed like an ordinary weekend for residents outside the sleepy town of Joplin, Montana. With a population of only 200, nothing much happens in this small farming community 150 miles northeast of Helena.

Around 4:00 pm in the afternoon, Joplin farmer Trevor Fossen was traveling on a dirt road near rail tracks when he saw an unusual site: a wall of dust hundreds of feet high.

“I started looking at that, wondering what it was and then I saw the train had tipped over and derailed,” Fossen later recounted.

The derailed train was Amtrak’s “Empire Builder,” traveling from Chicago to Seattle with 141 passengers and 16 crew members. It had veered off the tracks after crossing a switch where the track narrows from a double-track to a single-track. The two cars in the front of the train continued as normal while the remaining eight cars derailed. Some of the derailed cars remained upright while others toppled on their sides, creating chaos for the passengers within. At least 50 people were injured while 3 were killed.

As Fossen approached the disaster, he saw passengers climbing through the windows of the cars tipped on their sides. He called 911, then phoned his brother to bring ladders to help the stranded passengers climb off the top of the toppled cars.

Soon Fossen and his brother were joined by other residents of Joplin and the nearby village of Chester as they worked to evacuate the passengers and tend to the injured.

Local inhabitants showed up with food and water, doing everything they could to help, from wiping dirt off the stunned faces of the passengers to providing emotional support. The injured were taken to hospitals while the rest were put in hotels and a make-shift shelter set up at a school. A grocery store and church provided food.

Jacob Cordeiro, a passenger in the crash, commented, “The locals have been so amazing and accommodating. They provided us with food, drinks, and wonderful hospitality.”

What can we learn from this tragic accident?

Our world has seen enormous changes over the last hundred years. But the glue that holds us together is the same as it has been for thousands of years: local community. Jesus addressed the importance of community when he placed the injunction to love our neighbors right next to loving God (Matthew 22:36-38).

This is not a popular truth in the modern world, which fosters the illusion of self-sufficiency and individual autonomy. As we increasingly look to experts, technology, and government to make problems go away, it is easy to forget our need for local community. Sometimes it takes a tragic event to remind us that we still need one another and always will.

After last Saturday’s disaster, nobody told these men and women to come to the derailment site and help. Nobody paid them to open their  kitchens and hearts to the stranded passengers. They did it because that is the normal human thing to do.

Don’t wait for a disaster to underscore the importance of local community. Start today by strengthening the connections with those in your town, your street, and neighborhood. Here are five tips.

  1. Get to know your neighbors by inviting them to dinner, coffee, or perhaps initiating a local book club.
  2. Support local businesses even if you have to pay a little extra.
  3. Try to be friends with the people God has placed in your life, even if they aren’t the friends you would have chosen.
  4. Oppose policies and ideologies that create division and undermine local community and relationships.
  5. Find out what the people in your life need without them having to ask.

UPDATE: We are collecting stories from those who were involved in the Amtrak disaster and its aftermath for a longer story. We are especially interested in learning more about the effort of local villagers to help the stranded passengers. If you have any information you would like to share, even if you think it isn't "newsworthy," please email us with a good phone number and someone from our magazine will be in touch with you.

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and writes for a variety of publications. He has a Master's in history from King’s College, London, and is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is editorial assistant for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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