Each week Terrain.org will publish new writing coupled with a map. This is the second publication in the Spill Stories series.
A boy takes a box of matches to an empty street. He grabs a matchstick made of cyprus, a slow burning wood, its red top a mixture of potassium chlorate and other mysterious compounds. He takes the match in his fingers and feels the friction gather as he strikes it. There is a pop and a light. So satisfying, he does it again. He drops the stick when the flame bites his fingers. He grabs another. He savors the charred wood aroma with a hint of sulfur, pungent yet appealing. He hears the faint whoosh of ignition, that opening note of combustion. Boom. Flash. Darkness. Burns cover his face and the tender skin around his eyes. His mother takes him to a hospital in Eagle Pass, a west Texas border town sitting on the Rio Grande. It is Tuesday, March 18, 1986. It’s about 6:50 p.m. There’s an hour more of daylight left to burn.
On that same day in 1937, a shop teacher in New London, Texas, turned on a sander in a basement classroom saturated with natural gas. Boom. Hiss. Splinter. The walls bulged, the roof soared up into the east Texas sky where it paused for a moment before coming back down. One witness recalled seeing his teacher, giving a lecture on Edgar Allan Poe, killed by her own blackboard. Men rushed in from the oil fields surrounding the school to help with rescue and recovery. Two fathers fought over a little girl without a face, believing her their own child. Dazed children walked around covered in concrete and plaster dust like animated statues. Workers used peach baskets to collect the body parts.
An accident sometimes gets called an “unscheduled event.” It cannot be predicted; hence, tragedy often occurs more by accident than design. The unpredictability of accidents makes the same-day occurrence of two explosions from gas leaks seem like a coincidence. But that’s a stretch. Sure, same day, but 49 years and hundreds of miles apart? I noticed the dates though. Paying attention enables the acknowledgement of coincidence. But if we consider a map of “accidental” spills and leaks in Texas, we would be looking at a mortally wounded body. Can coincidence carry the weight of such frequency? Can an event occurring so regularly still be considered an accident? Texas has always been dangerous not only in its consumptive excesses but also in its lack of attention to hazard. I would say that this is by design and not by accident.
As a child growing up in Texas, we heard about “accidents” often. Oil accidents. Car accidents. Farm accidents. In March of 1986, Jessica McClure was born in Midland, Texas. In fall of 1987 she fell into an old well. Out-of-work oil drillers helped rescue her. During the Texas oil boom, people dug for water and often found oil instead. This water well had been abandoned until a whole nation watched the rescue of Baby Jessica. I sat and watched with my sisters and parents from Lockney, Texas. We all thought her dead.
It took ten days to recover, identify, and bury the 294 bodies of New London. After New London, the Texas legislature passed a law requiring that odorless natural gas be detectable by smell. Refiners added the chemical mercaptan to give natural gas its rotten-egg stink.
Did the nameless boy in Eagle Pass smell anything funny? Did the competing scents of asphalt and car exhaust hide the danger lurking down below? In 1986, was he an eight-year-old like me, playing with matches in the alley behind my house? I roasted mini-marshmallows on toothpicks. The boy with the exploded face likely played with the same strike-anywhere matches. The costs of the gas explosion in Eagle Pass didn’t amount to much. The leak was repaired, but somewhere a little boy walked around with a burned and blistered face. It could have been worse. Still, that doesn’t mean the worst hasn’t already happened or that it won’t happen again.
After years of silence, New London survivors began to tell their stories before old age took them. In the museum dedicated to the disaster, a blackboard recovered from the rubble reveals the writing exercise from that March day: “Oil and natural gas are east Texas’s greatest mineral blessings. Without them this school would not be here and none of us would be here learning our lessons.”
Can we call a regularly occurring event an accident when we refuse to learn what it teaches us?
Header photo by Miriams-Fotos, courtesy Pixabay.