Monday, January 13, 2014

We do more than just respond to spills

By communications staff with narrative by Carl Andersen, Spills Program, Department of Ecology, Lacey

As 2013 came to a close, many people were making resolutions and setting new goals. Carl Andersen, a lead spill responder in Bellingham, was also reflecting on the past and how it’s shaped his passion/perspective toward his job. Below he shares his touching account of an incident that happened nearly 10 years ago:
Carl Andersen, responding to a spill.

I was paged around 2:30 a.m. to respond to a fiery semi-truck/pickup truck incident that destroyed both vehicles. The collision occurred over a large area of I-90 and ended just east of Issaquah in the westbound lanes.

When I arrived on scene all three westbound lanes were closed and traffic was getting by on the far right shoulder. The collision was still generating heat and smoke, and fire-fighting foam covered the roadway, making it appear as if it’d snowed. 

I was told the semi-truck had lost control and pinned the pickup truck up against the left wall. For several hundred feet they travelled west – the pickup stuck between the semi and its’ trailer, and the concrete wall of the bridge. With all the metal scraping against the concrete and sparks flying a fire was ignited as both trucks came to a stop. 

Two occupants in the pickup were able to get out and jumped off the bridge. Not realizing in the dark how high up they were, one ended up with multiple fractures from falling 25 feet. The truck driver walked away unhurt. 

I checked in with the Washington State Patrol (WSP) Incident Commander who was concerned with the diesel and foam/water runoff into the nearby creek. He was also unsure of what was in the trailer, which had completely burned.

The fire burned so hot that the top of the semi-truck diesel-saddle tanks melted, exposing the diesel still inside. My job was to get the remaining diesel in the tanks pumped off prior to the morning commute. I also needed to assess the creek for fuel and any damage due to the fire-fighting runoff that went directly off the bridge to the creek. 

WSP gave me the green light and I started working with the trucking company to get a contractor mobilized to take care of the remaining diesel fuel. Once the contractor was en route I began investigating the creek.

I noted some fire-fighting foam, but with my flashlight only detected a sheen on the water. I did not see any recoverable product. It was still dark so with safety in mind, I decided to wait until daylight to do a further assessment. Meanwhile, WSP accident investigators were documenting the scene and continuing their work on the bridge above me.

That’s when it happened.

Troopers uncovered a small car trapped beneath the burnt shell of the semi trailer. Next they discovered a charred body and a sad gloom fell over the scene. 

Suddenly all activities came to a crawl as the scene grew to a large-scale fatality investigation. As responders carefully removed the semi trailer to get to the hidden vehicle, a white sheet was placed over the deceased so passing vehicles could not see the young man’s remains.

It was just starting to get light out and the scene was now covered with crime-scene tape and photo ID location markers. A flurry of WSP investigators were surveying the accident, documenting every piece of metal, glass, and skid mark.

As I walked to my truck I passed three troopers talking with a man in plain street clothes. I was just a few feet from the man when he fell to his knees crying, his head in his hands, “Oh dear God no. Oh dear God NO, it can’t be!” 

Brief eye contact with the female trooper told me the man had just been informed that his son died, trapped in the vehicle under the semi’s trailer. 

I walked by the car with the young man still inside as they gingerly removed the metal pieces around him. I prayed for his spirit to move quickly away from the accident to a better more peaceful place. I prayed that he was knocked unconscious or killed instantly from the accident and was not burned alive or trapped, suffering through those moments of helplessness. I also prayed for his family and hoped that they would make it through this horrible day and difficult time ahead.
I tried, unsuccessfully, to keep my mind from thinking about how horrific it would have been to be conscious and trapped in that vehicle, not being able to escape and worse yet, to be burned to death.
I finished assessing the creek which did not appear to have been impacted beyond some fire-fighting foam. I took a quiet moment while standing there next to the creek listening to the peaceful, calming and soothing gurgling sounds which drowned out the noise of the work being done above me.

As I stood there it struck me how totally different and distant a world it was from the horrific scene just above me. Two totally different worlds so far apart yet so close to each other. The creek flowed from the shadows of the bridge out into the bright daylight on its journey west and I hoped the young man’s spirit would follow a similar peaceful path.
I will never forget that day. Almost a decade later, I still can very clearly bring up the image of the young man’s body in the burnt shell of the smashed car – I wish I couldn’t.
We do more than just respond to spills.

We row out and save hypothermic fishermen off their partially submerged fishing vessels. We put our warm response coats around cold, elderly victims sitting on the side of the roadway, shaken from collisions. We comfort owners that have watched their boat burn and sink, taking to the bottom a lifetime of joyous memories of family adventures and children raised. We see the bodies of those that have passed in a tragic highway accident covered from view with a white sheet. 

Responding to spills, protecting the environment, that’s our job, that’s what we do. It’s a tall order being a responder and every now and again we are touched by our experiences and changed forever.

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