Early in the evening on July 23, 1984, five year-old Ed was in the driveway with one of the neighbor kids learning the basics of tactical warfare with GI Joe action figures. Our moms were sitting in cheap folding lawn chairs. The day had been unbelievably hot, and by about 6 PM the sun had gone down enough to offer some shade and bring the temperature down under 90. Shortly after 6:00, with no warning we were all shocked by the loudest explosion I've ever heard before or since. It knocked one of the neighbor kids off of his bike. Crappy 1980s car alarms went off. It was the kind of loud that you could feel; the ground actually wobbled a little.
We hadn't a clue what happened. Earthquake? (Midwesterners have no idea what those actually are. It seemed plausible to us.) Russian nuclear strike? Plane crash? After a few minutes we decided that the nuclear plant in Braidwood, IL – about 30 miles away – had blown up. We didn't exactly know a lot about nuclear power as a group, so we figured it would just blow up like a giant bomb.
Well, we were close. Turns out that the Union Oil Refinery in Romeoville, IL (about 20 miles away) had been leaking gas into one of its tanks for days. A small fire broke out. As they began trying to extinguish it, the whole structure detonated in an explosion heard as far away as Indiana. A thirty-four ton tank was thrown over 500 feet through the air. Everything in the immediate vicinity was flattened. Seventeen people, including ten members of the fire department, died in the explosion. OSHA fined Union Oil, although a promise to prosecute company officials for safety violations (of course) never materialized.
I had an immediate and unusually vivid flashback to all of this when I saw the video from the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas. An explosion of that magnitude is the kind of thing that you can't explain but, if you experience it (from a safe distance, fortunately) you never forget it.