Friday, August 26, 2011

Disaster on our Doorstep

Photo courtesy of Debbie Brown Photography
We had a brush with disaster this week in our sleepy, little Northern California town. On Tuesday afternoon, only three miles from our home, a railroad tanker car containing 29,000 gallons of propane fuel was being inspected when a spark ignited it. The inspector was taken to the hospital for burns, but later released. Homes and businesses within a mile radius of the tanker were immediately evacuated, putting approximately 10,000 residents out of their homes for two and a half days, from about noon on Tuesday until midnight Thursday night. All of the schools in town, which had been scheduled to start on Wednesday, were closed until Monday.

The potential for disaster was real and scary. Firetrucks sprayed 5000 gallons of water per minute on the tanker car to keep it cool, hoping to avoid an explosion. An elite crew was flown in Tuesday night from Houston, Texas, to advise local firefighters on the best and safest way to proceed.

I hadn't previously heard of a similar incident (which ended much worse) in Kingman, AZ, on July 5, 1973, but learned all about it from links provided by news sources. We became familiar with the horrifying acronym "BLEVE" (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion) and why firefighters were working so vigilantly to prevent it from happening in our town.

As we watched events unfold on TV and exchanged information on our neighborhood Facebook site, I wondered what it would have been like had we been just two miles closer and ordered to leave our home.

As a child on the autism spectrum who has difficulty with change or any disruption to his routine, how would Jack have handled being asked to leave his familiar surroundings, his possessions, his PS3? We had a power failure last December that lasted a couple of hours. He nearly had a panic attack from being deprived of his electronic stimuli just for that short period of time. Two and a half days would have been a real struggle for all of us.

As we were riding in the car with friends, my girlfriend mentioned the possibility of the tanker exploding and how devastating that would be. Immediately we heard a voice in the back seat, "It's going to EXPLODE?!" I did my best to explain to him that the firefighters were working as hard as they could to keep it from exploding and to keep everyone safe. I assured him that our house was far enough away from the site that we would be safe, along with Cookie and Buddy (our dogs).

Any parent knows how important it is to remain the face of calm and composure for your child in a dire situation. They look to you for reassurance and comfort. How are they going to get that from you if you allow yourself to fall apart? With Jack it's especially important, because he has a tendency to overreact. He freaks out over a fly in the house. He thinks he's going to bleed to death from the tiniest scratch. That's why I always have to try and be strong even if I feel like crying sometimes. There have been times when I'm thinking on the inside, "Oh my freaking gosh! That's a really deep cut and an awful lot of blood! Deep breaths!" But on the outside I'm saying to him, "It's not that bad. We'll fix you right up. Don't worry." I'm not allowed the luxary of losing it. He would be terrified knowing I was scared.

My heart went out to those who were kept from their homes, many of whom hadn't had time to get medications, a change of clothing, beloved pets. Some were away from home at the time, shopping or at work, and hadn't been able to make sure their pets had adequate food and water. Multiple agencies cooperated to keep everyone safe and cared for: Lincoln Police Dept., Rocklin Police Dept, Placer County Sheriff's Dept., California Highway Patrol, Cal Fire, the Red Cross and many others. Animal agencies were helping people get in to care for their pets and providing a safe place for them to stay, as animals weren't allowed in the three evacuation centers.

As scary as it was, it was really wonderful to see a community come together and help each other get through a very tough time. I'm proud of my town and my neighbors. I'm thankful for all those who did their jobs and averted a disaster, even though it meant endangering their own lives. It's been quite a week.

Photo courtesy of Debbie Brown Photography

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