Spill Stories is a Terrain.org series that fuses the interactive climate justice story maps of the Climate Alliance Mapping Project with the creative writing of students and faculty at the University of Arizona to bring oil and gas pipeline spill data to life.
 
Each week Terrain.org will publish new writing coupled with a map. This is the third publication in the Spill Stories series.

     
WRITER NOTICED A SET OF WHAT LOOKED LIKE TRAIN CARS AS SHE SAT IN THE PASSENGER SEAT OF A PICKUP TRUCK ON THE WAY TO VISIT A HYDROELECTRIC DAM IN RURAL WEST VIRGINIA, JUST SOUTHEAST OF CHARLESTON. THE TIME WAS APPROXIMATELY 9:55AM EST ON MARCH 16TH, 2018 AND WIND WAS DISSHEVELING THE OTHERWISE CALM SURFACE OF THE KANAWHA RIVER, WHICH SAT DIRECTLY BEHIND THE FENCED-IN TRAIN CARS.

WRITER INQUIRED ABOUT THE CARS, PRESSING THE TIP OF HER FINGER AGAINST THE WINDOW AND LEAVING A SMUDGE THERE. SHE COUNTED AT LEAST 20 OF THEM BEHIND THE FENCE, AND FIGURED HER HOSTS, LOCALS FROM THE AREA, MIGHT KNOW WHY THEY WERE THERE. “THOSE ARE FROM THE BIG TRAIN DERAILMENT THAT HAPPENED BACK IN FEBRUARY…. WHAT WAS IT… 2015?” ONE OF THEM SAID, AS THEY ALL PEERED OUT THE WINDOWS TOGETHER. AS WRITER LOOKED AT THEM, SHE NOTED THAT THE METAL CARS WERE THE SHAPE OF ENORMOUS PILL CAPSULES, AND MANY WERE RUSTED AND CRACKED OPEN, AS IF SOMETHING HAD HATCHED OUT OF THEM. SHE WOULD LOOK LATER ON GOOGLE MAPS AND, WITH THE HELP OF SATELLITES, SHE WOULD SHIFT HER METAPHOR. FROM THE AIR, THEY LOOKED LIKE DISCARDED CIGARETTE BUTTS. SOME WERE ENTIRELY CRUMPLED AND FLATTENED, SOME NEARLY WHOLE. FROM THE SATELLITE IMAGES, SHE SAW THAT BLUE TARPS HAD BEEN DRAPED OVER SOME OF THE CARS TO COVER THEIR GAPING, RUSTED HOLES.

IT WAS INDEED FEBRUARY 16TH, 2015, AT 13:15 EST, WHEN THE TRAIN CARS LAST RAN. SNOWFLAKES FELL THAT NIGHT, LACY CRYSTALS SOFT ON THE TRAIN TRACKS. THE SNOW ACCUMULATING ON THE TRACKS MAY HAVE CAUSED THE DERAILMENT, SOME SAY. OTHERS SAY THE TRAIN TRACKS THEMSELVES WERE ALSO TIRED AND RUSTED, MAYBE ON THE EDGE OF BREAKING. OTHERS SAID THERE WAS SOME ERROR WITH THE TRAIN CARS, WHICH HAD TRAVELED ALL THE WAY FROM THE BAKKEN SHALE REGION OF NORTH DAKOTA, AND WERE HEADING TOWARDS YORKTOWN, VIRGINIA, WHERE THEIR SLICK BLACK CARGO WOULD BE SHIPPED ACROSS THE OCEAN.

BOOMS IN BAKKEN SHALE OIL HAD OVERLOADED THE TRAINS OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS, AN ABC NEWS REPORTER WOULD FIND HIMSELF SAYING ON THE NEWS THAT NIGHT, AFTER THE FIRST CAR EXPLODED. HENCE SOME OF THE LOGIC BEHIND BUILDING A WEB OF PIPELINES ACROSS THE COUNTRY, WRITER WOULD REALIZE, AT APPROXIMATELY 9:57AM ON MARCH 16TH, 2018, AFTER SHE HAD PASSED THE DISCARDED CARS. STILL, SHE REASONED, PIPELINES THAT MIGHT REPLACE THE TRAINS WOULD SPILL, TOO; PIPELINES WOULD EXPLODE, TOO.

WHEN THE FIRST TRAIN CAR EXPLODED, AN 87-YEAR-OLD WOMAN NAMED JUDE WAS JOLTED FROM HER AFTERNOON NAP BY THE BLAST, WHICH RATTLED HER ENTIRE HOME. JUDE, WHOSE OWN FATHER HAD DIED IN THE NEARBY HAWK’S NEST TUNNEL DISASTER IN 1927; JUDE, WHO HAD WORKED IN THE SAME SHOP IN TOWN FOR 40 YEARS UNTIL THE COAL MINING WANED AND THE SHOP HAD TO CLOSE; JUDE, WHO WOULD LATER APPROACH WRITER AT A PARTY, AND SHOW WRITER WORN, CHERISHED PHOTOS OF EACH OF HER FAMILY MEMBERS; JUDE, WHO WAS A STRANGER TO NEITHER THE FOSSIL FUEL INDUSTRY NOR DISASTER. WHEN THE FIRST BLAST HIT, JUDE PICKED UP HER PHONE AND CALLED HER DAUGHTER.

BAKKEN SHALE OIL IS KNOWN FOR ITS ENERGY POTENTIAL. AND SO WHEN THE EXPLOSIONS STARTED, THEY FORMED BEWILDERING FIREBALLS, CLIMBING UP INTO THE SKY WITH MASSIVE FORCE. THE FIREBALLS, EACH FUELED BY APPROXIMATELY 30,000 GALLONS OF CRUDE OIL PER CAR, SOUNDED LIKE ARMY JETS RIPPING THROUGH THE AIR, AND LOOKED LIKE TOWERS OF MAGMA ERUPTING IN ON ITSELF. IF YOU WATCH THE NEWS REPORTS OF THE TRAIN EXPLOSIONS FROM THAT NIGHT, YOU’LL HEAR PEOPLE COMMENTING ON THE BLASTS, SAYING THINGS LIKE, “I CAN FEEL THE HEAT FROM HERE” AND “SHOULD WE GET OUT OF HERE?”

WHAT IS THE PROTOCAL, EXACTLY, FOR FIREBALLS? FOR TRAINS EXPLODING IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD?

BACK IN THE PICKUP TRUCK, ONE OF THE HOSTS, SARAH, TOLD WRITER THAT HER 87-YEAR-OLD MOTHER WAS RIGHT ACROSS THE RIVER FROM THE TRAINS WHEN THEY EXPLODED. WHEN SARAH GOT THE PHONE CALL, SHE SENT HER HUSBAND IN HIS PICKUP TO GO RETRIEVE HER. “MY WIFE WILL KILL ME IF I DON’T COME HOME WITH HER” HE SAID TO THE POLICE, WHO HAD BLOCKADED ENTRANCE TO THE TOWN. AND SO THEY LET HIM THROUGH.

HE REACHED THE MOTHER, AND TOGETHER THEY WOUND THEIR WAY BACK THROUGH THE TOWN, DOWN RIVER AND TOWARDS SAFETY. AT THAT POINT, OIL HAD BEGUN TO POUR DOWN FROM THE TRAIN CARS AND INTO THE WATER OF THE KANAWHA, AND AS SARAH’S HUSBAND AND MOTHER LOOKED OUT THE WINDOW, THEY SAW THAT THERE WERE SMALL FIRES FLICKERING ALL ACROSS THE SURFACE OF THE RIVER. SARAH WOULD TELL WRITER INDIGNANTLY, AND ALSO WITH A LAUGH, “THE COMPANY SAID THAT NOTHING SPILLED INTO THE RIVER, BUT I’VE NEVER SEEN WATER CATCH FIRE ON ITS OWN!”

WHEN JUDE RETURNED TO HER HOME LATER IN FEBRUARY, 2015, SHE FOUND THAT THE EXPLOSIONS HAD SHIFTED THE FOUNDATION OF HER HOUSE, AND EVERYTHING WAS MISALIGNED. SHE COULDN’T FOLLOW HER SAME QUOTIDIAN RHYTHMS, SHE COULDN’T OPEN SOME OF HER WINDOWS ANYMORE; HER METAL DOOR SCRAPED AGAINST THE CEMENT OF HER FRONT STOOP. THE DISASTER HAD, JUST AS DISASTERS BEFORE, SPILLED INTO HER MUNDANE. AND THAT’S WHERE THE DISASTER WOULD REMAIN, AT LEAST FOR THE TIME BEING.
   

* BASED ON A TRUE STORY, though pseudonyms are used here.

  

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Kathryn GougeletKathryn Gougelet is an MFA candidate in creative writing (nonfiction) at the University of Arizona. She currently serves as the nonfiction editor at Sonora Review. Follow her on Twitter @kgougelet.
 
 

Header image by kahll, courtesy Pixabay.

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