The cloud was orange. It lifted above the cranes and smokestacks, a giant toxic mushroom lit from within by the industrial halogen beams emanating from the Port of Tacoma’s sprawling terminals.
The location of the spill itself was hidden inside the opaque orange mass settling gently over a large portion of the rail yard. As I headed towards the site, I passed a stream of semis and smaller trucks moving steadily away. I also passed several groups of Tacoma firefighters, all of them donning HAZMAT suits alongside their fire trucks. A lone firefighter wearing an oxygen mask waved my patrol car along, past the relative safety of the command post and into the ragged edges of the cloud. I looked over at my equipment bag, wondering if I should wrap a dirty T-shirt around my face.
This, I thought to myself as I gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, is going to suck.
That was many years ago, before agencies outlined proper HAZMAT response guidelines and, more importantly, before they issued protective masks to nervous cops. Fortunately, I have not developed cancer or grown a third eye in the interim. Knock on wood.
I was reminded of this long ago incident while chatting with a buddy recently, a firefighter in Snohomish County. We were sitting on the bench at the hockey rink, which is located on the Tideflats and close to the spill site (yes, there is an ice rink there), when I asked if he had been out to the Oso mudslide. Surprisingly, my buddy, a veteran firefighter and normally a loquacious guy, had little to say. But what he said communicated volumes.
“You have no idea what it looks like,” he said in a hushed voice. He briefly described a scene reminiscent of Hollywood’s vision of a large asteroid strike. What is by now clear to everyone is that Oso, a once pristine alpine community nestled along the Stillaguamish River, is now a wasteland.
The latest report on the slide (TNT 4/1) provides an exclamation point to the devastating news coming from the impacted area: 29 are confirmed dead while 20 remain unaccounted for.
Rescuers climb atop this moonscape, careful to keep the mud from sucking the boots off their feet, and painstakingly dig through the toxin and bacteria-encrusted muck searching for the grisly remains of human beings. It is a daunting, disgusting task. And yet it is extremely noble.
If there is a silver lining to this catastrophe, it is the selfless response of these men and women – firefighters, police officers, professional SAR crews and community volunteers – who labor in perilous conditions for the sole purpose of restoring mortal remains to the families of those who perished.
Their efforts are worth noting, especially in an era when the actions of public safety officials are under constant scrutiny. From heavy-handed cops to firefighters plundering overtime accounts, such stereotypes – which represent a small minority in these professions – often cloud the true picture. That reality is an image underscored by Oso’s rescuers, who rushed in to help while everyone else fled.
It reminded me of that orange cloud so many years ago. What might I have done if I had been given the time to consider the consequences? Had I weighed the risks, would I have made a quick 180 and gotten the heck outta there? I’m not sure I want to know.
But that is why I am so impressed with the men and women patiently plodding through the toxic heap that used to be Oso, Washington. They know the risks, and yet they keep on driving.
Well done, guys.