Friday, June 24, 2005

March 31, 2004 Welcome Home

I have returned to my native habitat upon quitting my job. Texas City is a far cry from Houston. No public transportation system, no fancy shopping malls, no nightlife. Nothing. Being back home again, I have a few adjustments to make. One is getting to know the alarm schedule at the nearby refineries. Mondays at noon is the British Petroleum alarm test, Tuesday morning is Dow Chemical, and then Wednesday are the civil defense alarms. There are also certain noises to get used to again.
Ambulance sirens, traffic noises, and storms are mundane city sounds. Here in Texas City, it’s a different animal. Living a little more than a half mile from the refineries, there’s the sound of steam being released that’s so loud, it’s sometimes almost impossible to hear the television. The one that always keeps me on my toes is the rumbling noises. Sometimes, it’s enough to rattle doors and windows, but other times, it’s enough to feel like the house is going to fall in on itself. I usually get some kind of welcome home when I return, and not necessarily from my family.
Most of the times that I have come home, it has flooded. Mother Nature’s little way of saying, this is why you left home in the first place .The first time, it was Tropical Storm Allison. We only got two or three inches compared to the two or three feet some people received. Another time it was a mezzo low that formed over us, and then around Christmas last year, it was a drenching wet cold front. There are other times I’ve come home and there’s been a mishap at one of the refineries.
Most of the time it’s a power outage, causing black smoke to belch forth from the flare stacks. One evening back in March, I was at my computer getting ready to start some revising and editing. To kill some time, I had decided to play solitaire in hopes of loosening up the ol’ gray matter. As I sat there, the British Petroleum refinery began rumbling louder and louder until there was a dull thud like something crashing into the house.
I thought at first it might be the neighbors running their lawn mower into our house, but impossible. There’s no way a little bitty push mower could make that much noise. My mother asked me what that sound was, and my stomach lurched, making me feel queasy all over. I had known exactly what that was. Some ten summers ago, I remembered the same dull thud and seeing that nothing had crashed into the house. That time it was a small explosion and fire at the Amoco refinery.
Rushing to the window, I could see through our trees that yes indeed, there was a fire. Something had gone terribly wrong at British Petroleum. Fire and smoke shot more than a hundred feet in the air. Not panicking right away, I calmly asked my mother to get my niece and nephew out of the house. I decided to stay behind to make sure my house and my neighboring grandmother’s house hadn’t sustained any damage.
Back in 1981, a similar mishap at the same refinery in almost the same location shattered windows and blew open the back door of my parents’ house. This time, we were luckier. No windows were broken, no doors had been blown open. I stood outside taking pictures of the fire. What a spectacle this would be. I could show all my friends and family and relate the story of how I’d lived through yet another one of these accidents.
As I stood there taking pictures, the civil defense alarms crackled to life. Normally, in this kind of situation, it means to go inside and not come out until an all clear alarm has sounded. Like many of my neighbors, I was standing outside watching the fire, not thinking anything of my personal safety. Hydrocarbons, the substance burning, doesn’t have that adverse of an affect on anyone.
As I joined my neighbors to watch the fire across the street from my parents’ house, the fire shot another two hundred feet or so into the air, sending sparks and debris flying. Luckily, nothing landed in our backyard this time. During a fire in 1996, our backyard was littered with foam and little bits of black debris from a tank fire. So, I traipsed back inside to wait and see what would happen next There was a steady stream of traffic in and out of our neighborhood , and there was nothing I or the police could do about it. It wouldn’t be until two hours later that the police would close off roads around the refineries.
I would think that people would have learned from the 1947 SS Grandcamp explosion that running to see a fire can have deadly consequences. Eventually, the fire died down and the traffic thinned to only a few stragglers. The fire didn’t kill or maim anyone. Only minor exposure to the fumes. What was a cataclysmic looking fire turned out to be a flare lighting that went horribly wrong.
Now, as ever before, every time that refinery rumbles, I can only wonder when the next one’s going to be. When will it happen again? I ask myself. By then, it’s already months, sometimes years down the road. When it does happen, I can only stand there helplessly watching another refinery accident and pray that it isn’t as serious as it looks.

1 comment:

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