The Scariest Event of my Life
I had dealt with gangs, drug wars, murderers, and just about any other kind of issue you might run into in life, and while those things may seem scary to some, what happened in this event was undoubtedly the scariest in my life. The events are true as were the superstitions of those with whom I was working.
It had been a pretty good week on the Catalytic Cracking unit. The unit was running smoothly and I was working the graveyard shift running the Vapor Recovery Unit board. When the unit was running smoothly and everything was on-spec, there wasn't as much to do, so we would talk over emergency procedures, read the operating manual, or talk over safety procedures. This was pretty standard and sometimes got to be pretty boring.
Our chief decided that we needed to understand how serious things could be, so he got me to read the story about the Texas City Disaster since I read well. The story was about the longshoremen removing the hatch covers on Hold 4 of the French Liberty ship Grandcamp as they prepared to load the remainder of a consignment of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. The fertilizer had caught fire and water and steam had no positive effect on quenching the flames, so they tried battening down the hatches to starve the flame of oxygen. Big mistake. This caused one of the worst explosions in history.
The force of the explosion was so great that it blew away the firefighters who had been on the dock fighting the fire. It disintigrated them except for what was left was their boots, which still sat on the dock in their places, amazingly. I suppose they considered that picture too gruesome to put on the web, but they did, indeed, have photos of it.
Ammonium nitrate gives off a yellowish-orange smoke when it burns, so people flocked to the dike to get a closer look. Another big mistake. It killed 576 people and injured more than 5000. There wasn't room in the cemeteries, so they had to dig mass graves in which to bury the people. There wasn't enough space in the hospitals to treat everyone who was injured, so they had to set up tents to treat people who were lucky enough to get treatment.
Some of the buildings that were several blocks away from the explosion were completely engulfed in flame and the destruction to property was massive.
There were bodies and debris everywhere. People had shards of glass stuck in their eyes and in their heads among other places in their bodies. The physical pain and suffering was tremendous, but most probably not as bad as the emotional trauma caused by the disaster.
After I read the story, we discussed the tragedy and what could happen if the situation were to occur again since there were so many homes and businesses near the refineries and chemical plants. There was an ominous feeling in the control room and the story had upset us all, making us start to wonder how we got involved in such a job in the first place.
After a couple hours, everyone settled down some and started falling back into the same old routines. I kept reviewing the story in my mind and contemplated what I would do in such a situation, wondering if I would have the courage to stay and fight the situation if something like that actually occurred. Of course, everyone told me that there was no way that I would be able to stay in such a situation and that I would probably be the first one to run for the gate. Since no one really knows what they will do until confronted by such a situation, I couldn't disagree with them.
We were working graveyards, and some of the people who were working on the outside jobs came in after their rounds and shot the shit for awhile, then dozed off a bit somewhere around 6:30am. Not much longer, there was a huge explosion from Catalytic Cracking Unit #3, which was about a block away from our unit. The foreman ran outside to see what happened and a second blast occurred. The aftershock of each blast felt like a needle was stuck in every pour of your body as it knocked you back and there were particulates flying around in the air so heavily that it was like being in a heavy fog. Everyone started running but me. One person first tried to crawl into a locker that would have been impossible for him to fit in, then ran out the door. Only two of us were left in the control room.
I hadn't been there long enough to have experience operating the Catalytic Cracking board, and the person operating that board started saying he was going to run. Just when he started taking off, I grabbed him by the arm and reminded him of all the lives of the families that were nearby if we didn't try to keep things under control. He said he didn't care, so I reminded him that his family didn't live too far from the plants and that the explosion in the Texas City Disaster had caused a chain reaction throughout the other refineries and chemical plants. To his credit, he agreed to stay with me and help me fight things.
It was a good thing that he did because it wasn't long before Oil Movements accidentally shut off the flow from our propane tower and the wind was blowing straight toward our furnace. The pressure built rapidly as I quickly grabbed the phone and called Oil Movements to have them find another way to route gas. When the woman answered, she was frantic.
Cat 3 blew up! Cat 3 blew up! she screamed and cried over the phone.
I talked to her for about a minute to calm her down, but she kept repeating, Cat 3 blew up!
Yes, I know, I said, but if you don't find us another way out with our propane, you're going to have Cat 1 exploding to deal with.
Oh, oh, ok, she stammered. I'll try to see if we can do something.
The images I had seen danced in my head and I considered what would happen to the people nearby if such a chain of explosions were to occur. All I could do was grit my teeth, hope, and pray.
I had done all I could to control the pressure, but soon it would be too late if something didn't happen quickly. A few minutes later, and just before the relief valve blew, luckily, someone in Oil Movements found another route for the propane and the pressure started alleviating. I was never so relieved in my life. I remained calm through the entire incident, then drove home.
When I reached my driveway and walked to the door, it hadn't hit me yet, but as soon as I entered the doorway and closed the door, realizing everything was now safe, I broke down for awhile. If a person ever needed to smoke a joint, that was definitely the time. Luckily, a girlfriend was there to comfort me or I would have been completely alone to face my distress. It had been hard for me to believe that those who had been there and had experience had all abandoned me or wanted to abandon me as I fought to save the refinery and the lives of the people surrounding the refinery. It's not that I blamed them for running, really, because I would have liked to be able to run myself if it were safe for the community for me to do so. As it was, many homes and businesses had damage and broken glass. We were just lucky that the damage didn't continue to spread throughout the refinery.
What caused the explosion? The weekend was coming up, so instead of paying overtime and having a high pressure propane leak at Alky 2 fixed, they had the maintenance men throw on a quick fiberglass patch. They figured it would hold until Monday, then they could consider fixing it right. The patch had blown and the propane cloud traveled across the street to Cat 3's furnace. The first explosion had been the furnace exploding and the second explosion was from the fire traveling back to the propane tower, causing it to explode.
After that day, I was forbidden by the chief and the rest of the crew to read the story of the Texas City Disaster. They just knew that somehow my reading that story had caused the explosion and they credited the lucky horseshoe that was hanging in the control room with saving the day and keeping anyone from being killed. Ah, superstition. It's a wonderful thing, isn't it?
Copyright © 2008 Cal Jennings