Monday, March 28, 2005

Words cannot begin to describe the immense tragedy I witnessed on the afternoon of March 23, 2005. It seemed almost unfathomable that less than a year later, lightning would strike again almost in the same place. I had just entered the kitchen with my grandmother to prepare lunch. She cried out my name as though something had happened to her. I held on to her to make sure everything was okay. As I held her tightly against me, something massive struck our house.

What sounded a bomb going off was in reality another refinery accident a week before the anniversary of last year’s fire. I looked out my back door, but did not see anything yet. My grandmother called me to the backyard as a column of white, black, and bluish gray smoke rose above the refinery half mile or so away. Police cars raced to the scene, lights and sirens going.

Something had gone horribly wrong at the British Petroleum refinery. Black smoke swirled away from the neighborhoods and over the other refineries as flames shot up from the fire. Dow Chemical, next door to BP, quickly sounded an alert at their refinery and then sounded an all clear as they realized it was not their refinery ablaze.

Within fifteen minutes of the explosion, as I stood in front of my grandmother’s house on the corner, the community alarms sounded. That meant that anyone, like myself, standing outside should go in their houses. Not me though. What others were watching on TV I was watching live. News helicopters circled overhead to get a better vantage point of the drama unfolding in Texas City. The sounds of rescue vehicle sirens filled the streets en route to render aid to those in need.

A quick check of my parents’ house and the neighbor’s houses revealed that our windows were intact. Only one at my parents’ house had shattered, but it paled in comparison to the lives that would be shattered by the tragedy. I watched an ambulance tend to a neighbor up the road. Apparently that person’s nerves got the better of them.

A frantic wife stopped at my grandmother’s house to use the phone to see if she could find out anything about her husband, who was working in the refinery at the time of the accident. Even as she sat there, she still had no word on what had happened to him. I never thought to ask her to call us if she found out anything. Apparently she had been working in a clinic in Dickinson, about 15 miles away, when she felt the explosion.

In speaking with a TV news reporter, he had unconfirmed reports of injuries, but then he told me something I wasn’t expecting. He had been told by an official that there had been four fatalities. It didn’t seem possible that in all the years that these accidents had happened someone would actually die. The last time I had heard of anyone dying in an explosion was in May of 1978 at Texas City Refining. That time it was only seven fatalities, but still tragic nonetheless.

I returned to my home and finally decided to take a rest. The fire was out, and the only thing left to do was wait. News helicopters were joined by rescue helicopters airlifting the injured to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. I watched on TV as reports of injuries steadily flowed into news rooms across Houston. The most seriously injured went to Galveston. Those with less severe injuries went to Texas City and Clear Lake. Then, my worst fears were confirmed during a news conference. There were fatalities, but officials didn’t know until later there were at least 14 dead and one missing.

By that night, the only helicopters overhead were news choppers surveying the debris field. What were later confirmed to be office trailers were obliterated by the blast concussion. That’s where helicopters focused their cameras as rescuers sifted through debris in search of bodies. I went to bed emotionally drained and prayed that that 15th person would be found alive.

By noon Wednesday, when Lord John Browne, CEO of British Petroleum, addressed the public, a company spokesman had confirmed 15 fatalities. The thing that came to my mind immediately is that for 15 families, the Easter holiday would never be the same.

Within 48 hours of the accident, 15 families’ worst fears were confirmed. Their husbands, mothers, wives, daughters, or sons would not be coming home again. Even in the face of tragedy, many of these families showed resilience. They clung tightly to their faith, their family, and their friends in the community for support. Congregations gathered to pray for the dead and the injured. This community came together to begin the healing process.

Never mind the speculation about rising oil and gasoline prices. Fifteen people were dead, 100 people were injured, at least 20 of them very seriously. I did not take pictures of the fire as I have in the past. That image of the smoke rising above the refinery is forever etched into my mind. The sound and the fury with which the explosion slammed into our house will live with me forever. My thoughts and my prayers are with the families of the victims.

Even days later, it’s hard to sit here and not get up every time I hear an ambulance. It’s hard not to wonder if that rumbling coming from the refinery is something more than just a flare or an upset. And then, as time goes on, my mind is lulled back into that sense of complacency. That thought that this tragedy will occur again is stored at the back of my mind and forgotten until it happens again.

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