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.

25 thoughts on “NPF: FLASHBACK”

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Modern life, make an extra penny, too few inspectors, don't ever prosecute management – they are God's people.

  • I remember feeling a minor earthquake in the Middle West about eight or nine years ago. It took me about ten seconds to register what actually happened. I'm sure there are some West Coast folks on here who could obviously explain what experiencing an earthquake is like, but it was definitely odd and surreal to this hayseed.

  • Ed, do you remember an incident half a year later in Bhopal, India? No explosions insofar as I recall, but over 10,000 people died within two weeks of an avoidable toxic gas leak, and many more thousands thereafter. All thanks to Union Carbide, a wholly owned subsidiary of Satan himself.

    I'm not trying to outbid you on the scale of human suffering; I'm just trying to point out that explosions are wow, but toxic chemicals are forever.

  • Something I worry about living in Beaumont, which is a leading petrochemical area (home of Spindletop)… thankfully I live in the "nice" part of town which doesn't border chemical plants directly, but still a concern you live with.

  • Schadenfreude is tuning in to the news and seeing Gov. Perry–who despises handouts by the tax-'n'-spend liberals, ask the President to declare the County where the plant was located a federal disaster area.

  • @Ruthie: he's not asking on the behalf of the community, rather so that govt largess will be used to rebuild the plant. Once again moving private risk to the public purse. I'll bet you they underinsure for just such events.

    I really believe that our "captains of industry" should be subjected to maritime law. If you're on the Board of a company and an event like this happens, you'll not so much as to be able run a lemonade stand.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    It was in the mid 60's, I was about 8, and my younger sister and I were visiting my Grandparents in Brooklyn – probably because my Mom had a concert to sing somewhere at a ball, or my parents had some party to go to. They were wonderful, in today's terms, "Party Animals," as were their friends, and as was everyone in my family. Having escaped Russia/Ukraine during WWII, and surviving that war's battles, internment, Death Camps, Slave Labor, the relocation camps, and then finally ending up in America, seemed to leave my parents, my family, and their friends, in a constant state of attending, or throwing, parties.
    And, what parties they were!!!
    FSM, I miss those days…

    But I digress. Whatever…

    My Grandparents, on that late Saturday afternoon, took my sister and I to the "Five & Dime" (Jayzoos, am I dating myself – well, I guess someone has to) and on the way back, little plastic battleships, tanks, and soldiers, in tow, we heard this enormous explosion behind us!

    My Grandparents, having lived through the Battle of Stalingrad, and having left with the Germans to escape Stalin's wrath for having the temerity to survive it, knew just what to do:

    And so, they grabbed me and my little sister, and took-off for the nearest doorway, where they hoped we'd be safer, and that the door wasn't locked (it wasn't) – but not before I had looked back, and seen that the gas station we had just passed had gone up in a huge ball of flames, with a couple of cars, and several people, up in the air, several stories high.

    Thankfully, I never saw them land, so, for all I know, they're still floating around in Brooklyn – but I doubt it.

    I'll never forget either hearing that enormous "BOOM!!!", or seeing the cars, and the poor people, who were the victims of that explosion, flying through the air.

    Now, about those parties…

  • @c u n d gulag

    Off topic, but there's a book you might enjoy called "City of Thieves" by David Benioff. The characters might remind you a bit of your grandparents.

    It's a (very) dark comedy dealing with the siege of Leningrad.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Wars generate a lot of explosions and deafening noise. With constant wars one is suspicious of the quiet. US lives in peace with only one war going on, the NRA against the US. The NRA is winning hands down.

  • Ed,

    Now I can triangulate which suburb you grew up in……

    I don't remember this incident at all. I would have been in college, working 2nd shift in a plastics factory in Schaumburg. That was the year of the Cubs winning the NL East. The Cubs are like a bad woman, breaking your heart time and time again, so now I 'date' her sister, the White Sox. Payback.

    Spring of 1979, I get off the school bus and start walking home. There is a HUGE cloud of smoke to the east. AA Flight 191 went down at O'Hare.

    Stuff like that lives with you forever.

  • …except for the workers, their families, and people that live close to places that may kill/maim them due to lack of safety. Or as you said, nobody.

  • proverbialleadballoon says:

    Ed, yeah, I remember that too. Lived about ten miles away at the time; it sounded like a truck hit the house. Can't even imagine being right there, as close as the people who filmed the West explosion. Of course, nothing has been done in the subsequent 30 years to fix up that refinery. It's still rusty old pipes and shit, probably all fifty years old, just waiting to crap out again.

  • Can you even imagine what it's like living in Baghdad over the last ten years? The whole population must have PTSD! Another great accomplishment of our war machine.

  • Moved a little north before then, Barrington High 1982. We were probably on the same playground at the same time years ago. Small world.

    Drove thru Schaumburg last summer, the trees are taller,thank God.

  • I'm sorry, I can't get past the fact that Ed was 5 years old in 1984. That makes me feel tragically old. I was already out of college and trying to launch a career amid the Reagan Recession in 1984….

  • The cause of Bhopal is still mysterious. The generally accepted diagnosis was sabotage. The explosion which led to the leak was caused when someone put water into a tank containing a chemical which shouldn't be mixed with water. There was no obvious water source that could have just leaked into that tank, so they suspect someone either intentionally or "unclear on the principle" took a hose and put some water in the tank. The death rate was as high as it was because a shanty town took over the buffer area between the existing settlement and the plant, so a lot of people were way too close when all hell broke loose.

    I gather this west Texas plant is still burning, so it is probably going to be a while before they start stirring the ashes and figure out what is going wrong. Ammonia driven explosions are often surprises; ammonia keeps finding new ways to blow up. No one even knew it could explode until Oppau was leveled nearly a hundred years ago. My guess is that this involves corner cutting, but it could just have been an oversight. I finished reading What Went Wrong? recently, and it seems an awful lot of things can go wrong. (Did you know that carbon dioxide can set off a fire if you don't ground the piping correctly? Did you know that nitrogen can kill you? Those are surprisingly common mistakes.)

  • Tom Bloodgood says:

    I was in junior high school when Pepcon ( happened in Las Vegas. We felt the explosion that measured 3.5 on the Richter scale at my school which was 13 miles away from the plant. I thought it was an earthquake or a nuke, so I hid under my desk. Everyone else, like complete morons, went outside to see what happened.

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