From the publisher: The first book to examine the rarely-acknowledged Waverly Train Disaster of 1978 – the catastrophic accident that changed America forever and led to the formation of FEMA.
Since Galesburg is a railroad town and I can hear the trains go by my house – most of us in Galesburg can – I was interested in Walk Through Fire. I was in high school when the Waverly Train Disaster happened, and even though my parents are both from Tennessee, I don’t remember hearing anything about it.
Ali was a child in Waverly when the disaster happened. Her parents are physicians who emigrated from the Middle East to Waverly and played critical roles in the one bright spot during the disaster – the triage work that took place in the small local hospital after the explosion. Ali is justifiably proud of them and interested in the disaster, and her personal interest is reflected in the book.
Ali covers a lot of ground. Some of the information did not add much to the story for me as a reader. For example, there is a long part about Union Forces in Tennessee during the Civil War and the laying of tracks by Black laborers, and the information about what caused the disaster was very detailed. But Ali really cares about the town and its people, she knows many of the survivors, and her empathy for the people of Waverly really shines through. I can tell she did a lot of research and conducted a lot of interviews. She describes the terrible burns that people suffered with compassion and her own medical knowledge as a doctor.
I actually feel better about the unknown cargo on trains coming through Galesburg each night after reading this book. A lot of mistakes were made that led to the Waverly explosion, by the railroad and by local law enforcement because they had no idea how dangerous the situation is. A full investigation led to a number of changes to regulations and standards and to the creation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
I listened to the author read much of the book. She’s not a professional reader, and some of her phrasing was a little odd. However, her own passion for the subject kept me going.
If you live near trains or are interested in how disasters shaped our lives for the better by prompting safety changes, you might want to read Walk Through Fire.
The Galesburg Public Library owns Walk Through Fire in print and as a Playaway audiobook.