When it's a real train wreck, you should definitely look away.

May 27, 2021

A train car on its side and parts scattered on the ground after a derailment
People rushed to the scene of a train derailment in May 2021 and put themselves — and first responders — in harm’s way. Three of the cars contained hydrochloric acid — and that’s just the beginning of the dangers that untrained people on the scene faced.​

We've all heard the term “train wreck" used as a metaphor for an awful thing you just can't look away from. But like many such metaphors, it has its roots in truth: Some people are fascinated by disaster. When you hear about a train derailment or other type of emergency, your first thought might be to rush to the scene with your cell phone on camera mode.

That very thing happened in Albert Lea in mid-May, when a train carrying hydrochloric acid derailed. The incident caused 40,000 gallons of the dangerous chemical to spill into the soil and surrounding wetlands. Not long after, videos and photos of the incident started showing up online. People excitedly recorded themselves​​ walking next to toppled cars and shredded railroad tracks. They probably didn't realize it — or maybe didn't care — but they were putting themselves and first responders in harm's way.

Emergencies like this — not just train derailments — can involve hazardous substances you aren't even aware of or that you can't see, taste or smell. In this case, hydrochloric acid is the obvious culprit, and the people who were walking through the wreck to see and photograph it could easily have damaged their eyes, lungs, and skin by being in close proximity to so much of the corrosive chemical.

But the rail tracks that were bent when the train derailed are also a huge safety concern. Why? Those massive steel beams can curl up and bend when a trail derails. The problem is, they can spring back at a moment's notice with tremendous and potentially deadly force.

That's why trained professionals — like those on our State Emergency Response Team, fire departments, law enforcement and others — respond to these scenes and keep people away. These trained professionals understand and can recognize the dangers. They spend thousands of hours training on how to respond to emergencies, and they have the proper clothing and protective gear to keep themselves safe.

If a first responder sees you rushing into a scene like this​ with your phone, they'll come after you to get you to safety. So if you decide to go into the scene of a train derailment, a fire, or another emergency, you'll put not only yourself in danger, but those who have to rescue you.

Yes, it's hard to look away from a train wreck. But for your own safety and that of first responders, resist the temptation. It's not worth the likes on social media.