A refinery blew this morning in the city where I work.
As of this writing, there have been injuries but no fatalities, and there is an ongoing evacuation of the surrounding area.
I drove into work this morning with no knowledge of the event, living across a bridge in a neighboring town. The first I heard was from a coworker at the college library, who asked me to keep families of the victims in prayer, and from there the news grew.
The first explosion had been enough to shake buildings miles away. The lights had flickered at the college. News reports started filing in. Students and staff alike were keeping tabs on the events. Their houses, the schools where their children attended, these were all close to the refinery. The distance between the refinery and the college itself could be counted by a matter of blocks.
Though we were all keeping tabs on it, none of this ended up feeling quite real to me. I prayed for the injured, for the financial toll this would take on the city, but there was no urgency to it.
Two more explosions, neither of which were felt by the college, but the word of which sent one coworker out to collect her daughter from school. Not ten minutes later the word came: we were to evacuate the college.
And that was the first spark of urgency. It suddenly felt real.
As we sent students out and locked up the library, as we made our way through the swell of people out to the parking lots, as I caught my first glimpse of the black plume climbing, so near to us, a single emotion struck me.
It began with the simple issue of a student’s headphones and homework. Left at a desktop, still in use. Where were they? They never showed. We had to lock it all in without even letting them know.
It was Take Your Child To Work Day. The library was scheduled for the tour right as we got the evacuation notice. We had to hold the kids – not many, thank God – until the guide set-up a rendezvous with the parents.
It got worse as my coworkers – including the one who left early to pick up her daughter – had to go farther into the evacuation zone to find family, pets, or both. My path home took me directly out and away.
It, this emotion, finally coalesced into its name as I shifted through the traffic home, car-length by car-length, seeing others grow angry through their panic and waver on the road.
There was nothing I could do to help anyone except stay calm and move myself along the evacuation route in a safe manner. I had no family to rush to secure. There was no one to whom I could offer a ride. There was no way my words of encouragement amid the traffic jam – “It’s okay. We’re going to be okay.” – reached any ears but my own.
Through the frequent stops, I kept glancing over my shoulder, seeing the smoke billow higher and higher. I never felt afraid. I never stopped feeling helpless.
I wished for Superman.
A Midwest boy, himself, right? I could do with seeing some of the old red and blue streak across the sky right now.
As I said before, there are no reported fatalities, but people have been hospitalized and evacuated to a sister city. The cloud is still growing. The fire is too strong for anyone to get close to the refinery, firefighters instead focus on nearby, resultant grass fires. People have been forced from their homes and jobs. I have no idea what this is going to do to the economy of the city and its residents.
And I’m watching this all play out, safe at home in my apartment, from across a lake.
I think the reason I wished for Superman in all of this was a desire for the physicality of hope. Something that I could see and feel as an actuality. With that wish, I must admit, comes a touch of shame.
Many years back, my faith took a horrendous hit, the effects of which I still feel today. One lingering effect is that little voice that refuses to go away, that makes me doubt that God will take action even when I cannot. I pray, and still am praying, but it doesn’t feel real.
It feels helpless.
But not entirely hopeless.
When the news first came to my ears, it sounded like there had been 20 fatalities. Twenty deaths in this small city. A student had left the college in tears. Others were casting for word from those they knew who worked there.
Then slowly the updates came in. No deaths. Injuries only. And then this account:
Eric Mathews, a boilermaker for Wales, Wis.-based CTS Inc. contractors working inside the refinery, said he was about 200 yards away on break when the blast occurred.
It was like “a big sonic boom and rattled your brain,” Mathews told the News Tribune. “I was running and then the debris started falling out of the air … I stopped under a pipe rack then waited for the debris to stop falling.”
Mathews said most or all of his fellow contractors were on break, in blast-proof shelters at the scene, when the explosion occurred.
“The really lucky part is that it happened during our break so all of our people were in blast shacks,” Mathews said. (Duluth News Tribune)
I cannot read this and not see the hand of God. Slowly, that too begins to feel real again.
More information still trickles in, from news reports to accounts from people I know on the ground. The picture of what is happening and what this all means becomes clearer. Yet there’s still a part of me that expects to return to my weekday tomorrow as if nothing ever happened differently. I suppose that’s a privilege I have, living across the bridge, across the lake. Cozy in a home that’s safe from the flames.
Helpless save for my prayers.
Still waiting for it all to feel real.