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‘White Noise’ Shares Eerie Similarities with Ohio’s Recent Train Derailment

When art imitates life and vice versa

Actors Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig and others in a still from the 2022 movie 'White Noise.' Photo: Netflix

Strange things happen. It’s a fact. Stranger still are coincidences that are unexpected; predictions rather. There’s a word for it coined by Jung “to describe circumstances that appear meaningfully related yet lack a causal connection”- synchronicity. Much like The Police song of the same name, where the lyrics go:

Synchronicity/ A connecting principle/Linked to the invisible/Almost imperceptible/Something inexpressible/Science insusceptible/Logic so inflexible/Causally connectible/Yet nothing is invincible.

Again. Synchronicity, it happens more often than you think.

White Noise, Don DeLillo’s 1985 breakout novel was recently made into a Netflix film starring Adam Driver, Don Cheadle and Greta Gerwig among others. Set in Ohio in a fictitious ‘College-on-the-Hill’, it follows the life of a ‘Hitler-studies’ professor Jack Gladney (who incidentally speaks no German). Gladney does a fine act of balancing his marriage and family. He’s on his fifth marriage (but fourth wife) and has a brood of his and hers and their kids. Out of the blue, a train accident occurs in their neighborhood and a noxious cloud forms over their little town, prompting a mass evacuation for public safety. It occurs in part two of the book and is referred to as The Airborne Toxic Incident.’ White Noise (2022) was nearly shot entirely in the state its set in and many of the residents in East Palestine, Ohio worked as extras in the film.

Now to real life.

On February 3rd, 2023 at precisely 8:55 P.M. EST a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Out of the 150 freight cars, 20 of them were carrying hazardous materials including vinyl chloride (chloroethene), ethylhexyl acrylate, butyl acrylate. ethylene glycol monobutyl ether. From the 50 train cars that were derailed, 11 of them were carrying these toxic chemicals. This derailment caused a massive fire which led to the evacuation of nearby residents that were within 1.6 kilometers of the site of the incident. Officials decided to carry out a ‘controlled burn’ of vinyl chloride to prevent an explosion.

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Now vinyl chloride when burnt gives out two byproducts, hydrogen chloride and phosgene.

A little history lesson to refresh your high school organic chemistry memory on phosgene COCl2 – this was the gas that was responsible for 85 percent of the 90,000 gas deaths in World War I. Since it is simple to produce and heavier than air, it quickly filled the trenches full of soldiers. It’s poisonous, resulting in pulmonary edema.

It’s a sinister, this gas called phosgene. You can’t see it, it is colorless. If you’ve got a particularly keen sense of smell, you might be able to discern the smell of freshly cut hay. Phosgene exists as a gas and slowly degrades in the air, and because of this slow degradation time, it can spread easier. However, it degrades faster in the soil or in water.

Hydrogen Chloride (HCL) on the other hand, something you’ve no doubt seen in the chem lab, is also a colorless gas, which when inhaled can turn into hydrochloric acid, which is incredibly corrosive. In severe cases, inhaling the dense fumes of HCL can lead to the failure of the circulatory system, pulmonary edema and ending at death.

Now that chem 101 is out of the way, back to what this has to do with White Noise. Coincidentally the book was released a year after the Bhopal gas tragedy that occurred in India (1984), which is considered the world’s worst industrial disaster. The toxic fumes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked by the Union Carbide pesticide plant blanketed Bhopal on a cold December night. It resulted in an estimated 16,000 deaths and over 500,000 injuries.

Drone footage of the train derailment in East Palestine Ohio in February 2023
Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Photo: NTSBGov/Handout

At the time of his book’s release, Don DeLillo had said this in a radio broadcast interview: “I kept turning on the TV news and seeing toxic spills and it occurred to me that people regard these events not as events in the real world, but as television — pure television.”

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There it was, art imitating life.

Fast forward to thirty-seven years later. The Noah Baumbach-directed film based on the book is out. Barely three months later, in a bizarre case of déjà vu, East Palestine, Ohio is witness to a real ‘Airborne Toxic Incident’. Brought to life by a Norfolk Southern freight train.

And now, life imitating art.

An eerily similar toxic cloud hung over the town, forcing over 2,400 residents of East Palestine to flee their homes. Some of these residents, like the Ratner family, had even acted out these scenes for the film where they were told to appear ‘forlorn and downtrodden’. One could say that this is a case of reverse method acting!

The images released on the actual disaster mirror the actual scenes in the film, just slap on the cinematic filter and voila – can you tell the difference?

A scene of train derailment from the film 'White Noise' on Netflix
‘White Noise’. Photo: Netflix © 2022

In White Noise, the confused and terrified residents who fled their homes in a hurry had to take shelter at a barracks. Their real-life counterparts did so at the Red Cross evacuation center. In the film, Professor Gladney’s nerdy son Heinrich enlightens the baffled crowd with his knowledge of the toxic chemicals released. Now however, who needs Heinrich, when people can check their smartphones instead?

In the film and the book, life returns to normalcy (well as normal as it gets for Jack Gladney) pretty soon. But real life is not going to be as smooth as turning a page or transitioning to the next frame. Residents have complained of nausea, burning sensation in the eyes, respiratory issues and headaches. Fish have also been spotted floating dead in the local creek and chickens have been dying. Though officials have deemed it safe for residents to return, people are wary of what awaits them.

Synchronicity is not always serendipitous. 


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