Smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio on February 4, 2023 ( AFP / DUSTIN FRANZ)

Ohio train derailment prompts baseless 'planned' conspiracy theories

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After a derailed train in February 2023 sparked a massive fire and the release of toxic chemicals in a small Ohio village, some social media users are claiming the disaster was an intentional act -- with a number of them citing a fictional Netflix film about a train crash in the US state. This is false; the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which has pointed to an overheated wheel bearing as a likely culprit for the incident, told AFP there are no indications of sabotage or foul play.

"Environmental disaster intentionally caused by the federal government," says one post about the derailment on far-right forum 4chan -- the birthplace of the QAnon conspiracy theory -- that was re-shared on Instagram on February 13, 2023.

Screenshot from Instagram taken February 17, 2023

Similar claims spread across the internet, from fringe websites such as "The Donald" to the mainstream platforms Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Some posts claimed the derailment was a "false flag" attack -- designed to disguise responsibility. Other posts pointed to the 2022 Netflix film "White Noise" -- a movie, based on a novel of the same name, in which a collision between a train and a tanker truck sends toxic fumes airborne near a fictional Ohio town -- as supposed evidence the crash was premeditated.

"This film takes place in and was shot on location in East Palestine, Ohio," says one widely viewed Instagram video. "They did this shit on purpose."

The posts come after a Norfolk Southern cargo train derailed on February 3, setting off a days-long fire and the release of hazardous chemicals including vinyl chloride, a colorless gas that the National Cancer Institute has deemed carcinogenic. Residents continue to raise concerns about their safety and health despite reassurances by the government and the lifting on February 8 of an evacuation order, which had been put in place while crews performed a controlled release of the toxic fumes to avert a potential explosion.

"False flag" conspiracy theories asserting various events were staged as distractions or pretexts for government intervention have a long history and are routinely spread about mass shootings, natural disasters and other high-casualty or crisis events. After the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol, for example, Fox News host Tucker Carlson and others promoted baseless claims that the assault was a "false flag" operation instigated by the FBI and anti-fascist activists to entrap supporters of former president Donald Trump.

But there is no evidence the wreck in Ohio was a planned, deliberate act by the government, Norfolk Southern or another party.

"No indications of sabotage/foul play in the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern freight train derailment near East Palestine, Ohio," the NTSB, the independent agency tasked by the US Congress with investigating major transportation accidents, said in an emailed statement to AFP.

Footage shows likely wheel malfunction

In a February 14, 2023 press statement, the agency wrote: "NTSB investigators have identified and examined the rail car that initiated the derailment. Surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment."

The surveillance footage -- published by CNN and other news outlets -- shows sparks around the train's wheels nearly an hour before it rolled off its tracks.

"I have seen no evidence of this derailment being an intentional act," said Allan Zarembski, director of the railway engineering and safety program and an expert in derailment analysis at the University of Delaware, in an email to AFP. "In fact, it very much fits the profile of an overheated bearing/axle rupture class of derailment."

The NTSB investigation into the cause of the derailment remains ongoing as of February 21, 2023.

NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy cautioned against speculation over what caused the train to jump its tracks in a February 17 tweet: "Anyone speculating about what happened, didn't happen, or should've happened is misleading a suffering community -- PLEASE STOP SPREADING MISINFORMATION."

Cory Gattie, a public affairs specialist for the Federal Railroad Administration, added in an email to AFP: "Before NTSB issues a final report, we strongly caution all parties against premature speculation regarding the probable cause, methods of prevention, potential contributing factors to the accident."

The Netflix connection

The "false flag" claims surrounding the Ohio train derailment appear to have been fueled by parallels to director Noah Baumbach's November 2022 movie, "White Noise."

Derived from a 1985 book by American novelist Don DeLillo, the film depicts the chaos in a fictional Ohio college town called Blacksmith after a tanker truck carrying hazardous materials crashes into a train, causing a toxic airborne event. The movie's trailer on YouTube has racked up 2.4 million views, up from 1.9 million before the real-life train derailment.

The movie was shot around Ohio, including near East Palestine -- although not in town itself, according to an IMDb catalog of filming locations. At least one family affected by the disaster in East Palestine has publicly discussed the similar plotlines after having participated as extras in the movie.

Jesse Kavadlo, an English professor at Maryville University in St Louis and president of the Don DeLillo Society, told CNN the movie's resemblance to recent events is "coincidence."

There were 1,574 train accidents in the United States in 2022, including 1,049 derailments, according to data from the Federal Railroad Administration's Office of Safety Analysis. The numbers, and similar data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, show higher accident and derailment counts in previous years.

AFP reached out to Norfolk Southern for comment, but no response was forthcoming.

AFP previously debunked other misinformation about the Ohio train derailment here and here.