My phone woke me up.
“What we have here…is a failure to communicate.”
From ‘Cool Hand Luke.’ It’s my text alert because I think that’s funny.
It’s a picture.
Lots of inky black smoke rising over I don’t even know what. I think, ‘Okay….’ Can’t fathom why one of my co-workers would have sent it to me.
So I go back to sleep.
What I didn’t know was that by that time, 8:30 on a Saturday morning, the fire had been raging for better than two hours.
An hour later, my phone rang and within 45 minutes, I was manning a traffic barrier, turning cars away from a chemical fire that was pouring massive amounts of black, toxic smoke into the sky above me.
The chemical plant in the western part of my county had exploded about 6 that morning. By 10, our unified command post – a recreational vehicle outfitted with communications gear that has the ability to manage any small scale disaster or border incursion or counterinsurgency in relative comfort – was on the scene.
As were something like 29 volunteer fire departments, a handful of ambulance crews, Illinois Department of Transportation, and a veritable alphabet soup of local, state, and Federal agencies.
And lil ol’ me.
Our officers closed down roads as far as two miles away, tried to keep traffic moving, tried not to get run over, and tried to keep an eye on exactly which way the thick cloud of toxic smoke was drifting.
Within a half hour of our arrival, another officer brought us some water. Within an hour or so of our arrival, officers brought us some food.
And that was that. After that, the chaos left us on our own.
Directing traffic is a terrible job to have. If you’re doing it for a few minutes, or even half an hour, that’s one thing. But for hours on end with no breaks, it’s physically and mentally demanding.
The problem, even in bright neon-yellow vests, is that no one sees you. Ask any officer and they will reel out endless stories of being nearly hit, or hit, by someone more interested in what the officer is blocking traffic from than in actually driving.
One of my first vehicles that day was a man hauling a boat. He, of course, was so intent on the smoke that he had no idea where in the road I was. Honestly, I’m not even sure he knew I was there at all.
And thus ran over my toes.
I yelled at him to stop. That did absolutely nothing.
So I punched his boat.
That got his attention. He stopped and took exactly two angry steps toward me. Then he raised his hands, apologized, and asked which direction he needed to go.
I never said a word.
Perhaps the message was in my eyes.
My partner and I were there for the better part of eight hours. And had it not been for the kindness of a couple of fellow patrol officers and one local fireman and his wife, we would never have had food, water, bathroom breaks, or even a chance to catch our breath…which was by that time, exceedingly ragged.
We swamped ourselves in sun screen and yet became more and more pink as the hours rolled past.
Eventually, when that day was done, we went to he command post only to find?
The volunteer firemen.
These were the men who got called out at 6 a.m. and were still there twelve hours later. That’s a long day…a regular shift for us…and most were obviously tired. Some had inhaled fumes and been exposed to a much more raw version of the chemicals than we had been.
Some of them were getting transported to hospitals and some were being treated on the spot and I felt for them. I don’t think most volunteer firemen ever think they’re going to deal with something of the magnitude of that fire. Unlike their suburban or urban counterparts, I can’t believe they wake up in the morning thinking about chemical fires. Most of them are farmers so I suspect, at this time of year, they wake up thinking about getting those crops in.
However, not all of the firemen were being treated.
Early on in this nightmare, the EPA told the firemen to stop fighting the fire; that the best course of action was to let it burn itself out.
So most of those guys were on site with absolutely nothing to do.
But they were tired anyway.
It’s tough business to spend the day drinking from an endless supply of ice-cold bottled water, exhausting to have to lift, repeatedly, slices of pizza.
So they had to take a day-long break…in lawn chairs.
I was furious. I suspect that none of these guys, with the exception of the fireman and his wife who I’ve already mentioned, had one thought for the men keeping traffic away from their fire scene.
The next day, when my partner and I came back (yes, we got overtime, but these were our days off and we thought we were helping to keep people…volunteer firemen…safe from distractions) it was worse.
We blocked the roads and dealt with angry people who simply did not want to take a detour; confused people who didn’t understand the detour; semi-rigs that couldn’t easily take the detour; and plain idiots who just came out to “get a look at that fire.”
Everything was better organized that second day, there wasn’t the tension or sense of uncertainty that there had been the day before.
Which made our job much easier.
But later in the day, nearly two hours after we were told lunch was being delivered, I was ordered to go get lunch for my partner and I.
While making that drive, I discovered the oasis that was the volunteer fire fighter haven. I found at least one Red Cross truck, a couple of portable bathrooms, and at least one hundred fire fighters.
All being amply fed by the Red Cross. All pulling ice-cold sodas and water from ice chests scattered all over the tranquil scene. And all getting regular bathroom breaks that didn’t involve slinking into the brush when there was a dearth of cars to detour.
And many of them were – again – sitting in lawn chairs.
Notice at least two of them giving me the stink-eye.
That’s because when I drove by the first time, on the way to sandwich fixin’s that had sat in the sun for who knows how long, I was visibly angry.
On my way back to traffic control with one hastily-made sandwich each for myself and my partner, I slowed down enough to snap a picture.
A major chemical fire, one that involved days’ worth of major road closures, God alone knows how many agencies, huge plumes of black toxic smoke visible, allegedly, from nearly 50 miles away.
And they’re hanging out in lawn chairs.
Ain’t that great.
Later, just as icing on the cake, there was a field fire near one of our small towns. A brush truck from a local department came screaming through, lights and siren. It came so close to hitting me as it came around our barrier signs that the woman to whom I was giving directions actually yelped and yanked me closer to her car.
This asshole’s outside mirrors were less than a foot from me.
Scary enough, right?
Here’s the thing: he was running lights and siren.
On a closed road.
What the fuck?
You’re going to run lights and siren to a non-threatening brush fire through three miles worth of CLOSED road?
There was no other traffic, dude. No vehicles, no pedestrians, not even any damn birds or deer.
Lights and siren?
Tell me, sir, who exactly, on this stretch of completely closed road, are you trying to warn with your lights and siren?
I understand the EPA ordered all the agencies to not fight the fire. I understand that some firemen had to be kept on scene in case anything happened. I have no problem with any of that.
But when I’m standing in the sun for a total of 20+ hours, when I’m being run over by civilians and nearly run over by the volunteer firemen I’m out there to protect, maybe you wanna think about not sitting in a law chair for hours on end while you eat and tell jokes and listen to the radio.
It is not a social gathering. Don’t treat it like one while there are other men and women out there working and sweating and slowly getting sun-crisped to make sure you’re safe.
Ultimately, the fire took three or four days to burn out, the building was demolished, and the handful of jobs at that plant are probably not coming back.
What I try to spend my time thinking about, rather than the handle-bar mustached moron who almost killed me, are the fellow deputies and volunteer fireman and his wife who kept us hydrated and kept us updated to keep us going during a tough couple of days.
Thank you so much.