May 11, 1986
Steve Borden could hear the woman's muffled fury as he reached for the door, and he was grateful for the distraction that allowed him to slip in unnoticed. She was standing at the front of the small, bare auditorium, a stout lady in a nylon jacket, unleashing a tirade at the Hoosier Electric spokesman on the podium. Lives had been ruined! Children would die!
Her anger spent, the woman quieted, leaving the rest of the crowd to clap and voice its approval. Ranging from teenagers to senior citizens, the onlookers filled half the room.
The spokesman, a sullen executive in a dark suit, waited until the clamor died down. When he continued, his comments were directed to the dozen reporters ringing the platform. “As I said, we do know a great deal of information about the radioactive- ”
“All I know is, you’re responsible!” the same woman interrupted. “You’re gonna pay for this! Our farm is gone!”
Steve had settled in along a wall, shielded from the press by the other spectators, and watched as a security man stepped in. The woman began berating him as well, but then turned and stomped out the nearest exit, a few newsmen trailing behind. From the podium, the spokesman watched the doors slam shut, and then finished his response.
Steve tilted forward to hear the next question. Despite his lean frame, the back of the borrowed suit coat pulled tight across his weary shoulders. Though relieved that he was not involved in the press conference, he had felt compelled to look in -- and catch a glimpse of the future.
As the session dragged on, Steve’s concentration began to give way to fatigue and fragments of tragedy: the urgent phone call, the worried looks, the core in trouble, and then the final, bitter results. The latest report still weighed on his mind. How? he kept asking himself. How did it all happen?
The briefing ended, and with a flurry of camera flashes the crowd began to break up. Steve shook loose from his thoughts -- from his doubts -- and headed toward a door that would take him backstage. He didn't want to linger.
“Steve Borden?” he heard a woman ask. He had almost reached the exit, but looked back. Approaching was a reporter, a slim blonde from local television. “Aren't you Steve Borden?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m Borden.”
“Have you been to
Steve nodded. “I've been there.” He ignored the second question. There was no easy answer.
“Have there been any injuries? Any deaths?”
The question shook him. How much did she know? Other reporters were now migrating towards him and he edged a little closer to the door. “We’re giving regular briefings,” he said. “We’ll keep you informed.”
“Whose fault was it?” It was a different voice this time, rough, male and demanding.
Steve had reached the exit, but he stopped and turned to the swelling group. It was the question, of course. And he would not dodge it. “I am the manager of Fairview Station,” Steve Borden said. “It's my plant.”
Part One: Beginnings
Steve reached down for his sister’s hand before they crossed the street. It was a Saturday afternoon, the breeze carrying a hint of summer, and downtown
Steve bought the ticket and his sister went inside. Through the glass doors Steve saw her join some friends, all smiles and giggles as they picked out their candy. Closer still was his own reflection in the glass: a gangly six foot three inches, short chestnut hair above a pale face with sad brown eyes and a hawk nose. Turning away, Steve strolled down the sidewalk. He had finished helping his mother around the house and had the afternoon free. The following weekend he would also return for Easter, since any excuse to see Marie was enough to endure the long bus ride back to his hometown. But soon, his college days would be over. He would graduate, marry, and begin a career. Then his life would really start.
He was several blocks up the street now, across from the tan, limestone castle that served as the county courthouse. It would be a nice walk to Marie’s . . .
THUMMM-WOOOM! The sound came first, and as Steve turned to look, the shock wave roared past. Down the street, from where he had come, a white cloud billowed into the sky.
Jenny! Steve began racing toward the theater as chunks of brick and glass started to plummet onto the sidewalk. A thick swirl of dust had descended over the street a few blocks ahead. Something hard bounced off Steve’s leg before skittering across the pavement, but he kept running. He passed people fleeing from the cloud as cars also sped away, tires squealing.
WUUMMMP-SHHHH! A second explosion shook the ground and hurled Steve against a building. Ahead, a massive pillar of black smoke was roiling up hundreds of feet into the air. My God! Steve pushed himself from the wall and ran on. Jenny! The atmosphere grew thicker with debris -- shards of metal, brick, glass and plastic all tumbling from the sky. A woman staggered by, her white dress flecked with blood, and then a man, seemingly unhurt, rushed past in terror. Others in the street were yelling, screaming, crying.
Steve was now a block from the theater and could see its marquee: half the letters had been blown off. Beside him, a car screeched to a halt and a woman leapt out to join the others racing toward the movie house. Children from the matinee were spilling into the street: some terrified, others treating the event like a game. Beyond them, at the next intersection, there was a wall of dark smoke and flame.
“Jenny!” God, please. Please! Breathless, Steve searched the faces, and spotted his sister by the curb, holding onto her friends. He rushed up and grabbed her by the shoulders. “Are you okay?”
She nodded, her eyes wide and filled with tears.
Steve looked up, beyond the children. There was a break in the black cloud, and he could see that the next block of Main Street was a no-man’s land of heaped, smoking rubble, like a scene from World War II. Then he spotted movement. People. There were people in there. He squeezed his sister’s shoulders even tighter and peered down again at her worried face. Steve spoke slowly, yelling over the pandemonium. “Run straight home! Home! Tell Mom I’m okay! And have her call Marie! Now go! Go!” He gave her a nudge, and Jenny took off down the littered sidewalk, her friends close behind. More cars were now arriving, with worried parents jumping out. “Be careful!” Steve said.
He moved closer to the conflagration. The people. You can help. A businessman stumbled out of the smoke, his suit coat shredded by flying glass. “Are you all right?” Steve asked, and there was a dazed nod as the victim moved past. Carefully, Steve began picking his way forward past mounds of waist-deep rubble and soon found himself in the middle of the street. There were fires on both sides, and above the roar he heard sharp pops -- like firecrackers -- along with frantic voices.
Keep moving. Waves of heat washed over the carnage, and Steve’s eyes watered from the thick, acrid smoke. He reached out to shove aside a shattered door in his path, and a vicious sting jabbed at his right hand. Damn! He jerked back and shook his wrist to settle the pain, then held up his arm. The top of his thumb and half his forefinger looked as if they had been plunged into a meat grinder –- there was nothing but oozing, crimson flesh. Light-headed with shock, Steve willed himself to hang on. The wound had stopped hurting, and he pulled out a handkerchief and wrapped it as best he could. Then he remembered the leather gloves in his coat pocket, and forced one over his raw, torn fingers, and then onto his other hand as well.
Once more, Steve began to move forward, but then something smacked into the ground beside him with a sharp thud. It had come from the left. He peered past the sidewalk and into the flames. There was no building -- only a broiling pile of debris. What had been there? Steve tried to picture the street. Shoes. . . Drugstore. . . Sporting Goods. . . A distant POP! and another THUD nearby. Sporting Goods. . . Bullets! God, it’s bullets!
He dropped to a crouch and scrambled ahead and toward the far sidewalk, negotiating piles of glass and shredded metal as he tried to put some distance between himself and the exploding ammunition. Steve stepped over a man’s shoe and saw there was still a foot in it, severed at the ankle, the bone protruding past a blue sock. His stomach churned, but a cry for help carried through the heavy, shimmering air, and he kept moving until he had reached the flaming remnants of a small store. The plea was louder now, a woman’s voice, and Steve called back: “Hang on! I’ll get you!” The shattered storefront window crunched beneath his feet as he stepped up through the wide gap. Inside, the smoke and heat were more intense, but he could make out a figure, arms waving, that was struggling toward him. She called again for help, but Steve found his way blocked by an overturned cabinet heaped with broken dishes. The woman was just beyond.
Rearing back, Steve flung himself up onto the debris, a dozen jagged shards stabbing at his torso. The figure was now a step away. It was an older woman, a huge welt on her forehead beneath her tightly curled gray hair, her tan dress smudged and torn. “Here!” Steve said, beckoning with his hands. “You can! You can!” The woman stumbled ahead and fell into his arms, her face pressed against his chest. Steve then lurched in reverse, dragging the woman over the top of the pile, a mass of broken china trailing onto the floor.
“Oh, Jesus!” the woman said, as Steve shuffled back further until he had reached the sidewalk. Inside, he saw the ceiling come crashing down. “Jesus, Jesus,” the woman kept saying. She could not stand on her own, and Steve lifted her in his arms and began working his way along the half-buried street. As the rubble field lessened, two teenage girls in bright summer dresses ran toward him. “We’ll take her,” one of them said.
Steve set the woman shakily on her feet, and she began mumbling “Oh, bless you, bless you,” as the girls led her away.
Steve turned back. There were sirens behind him now as he waded again toward the flaming ruins. The upper stories of the older buildings were beginning to give way, raining bricks and mortar onto the sidewalk, so he kept to the street, using heaps of wreckage as cover when clambering past the sporting goods store. The POP! POP! of its ammunition continued. Through the haze, Steve spied a small, wiry man in janitor’s coveralls, clawing at bricks that had buried a parked red station wagon.
“It’s my wife’s car!” the man said, his tortured face covered in soot, and Steve joined him in his frantic effort to clear away the debris around the driver’s side window, which had shattered into an opaque web.
“I got it!” Steve said when the majority of the window was in view, and he grabbed a broken corner with a gloved hand and pulled the crumpled pane aside.
The man shoved past him to peer in. “She’s not there! She must be inside!”
Steve looked beyond the car at the battered storefront. Flames had not yet reached the building, but the showroom was a maze of toppled cabinets and fallen lights.
“I’ll get there!” the man said as he charged into the structure. He heaved aside a filing cabinet that blocked his way and disappeared from view before Steve had a chance to react.
Peering back down the street, Steve saw two firemen struggling to guide a hose over a jagged pile of cement, bricks and steel. He headed in their direction.
Dusk was approaching as Steve helped two young black men keep the jerking fire hose pointed at the State Theater, which had now been overtaken by the flames. His injured right hand ached terribly, and he found it harder and harder to grip the slippery line. To his relief, another man came up and grabbed on, and Steve stepped aside. In the pulsing light of the fire he looked down at the leather glove, torn and soaked through with blood. As if sensing that his work was done, the pain began to rise into an agony that stretched the length of his arm, and he doubled over, cradling the hand. God!
An older fireman, his thick coat extended over an ample belly, stepped over to help direct the spray, but first he grabbed Steve’s wrist and examined the throbbing wound. “Better get that looked at, son.” He pointed. “First aid over there.”
Steve nodded, and clutching his arm, he walked away. Before entering the first aid station, he looked back at the still-flaming buildings, the police and volunteers, the piles of smoldering rubble, and the sheets covering those who had not survived. What had the power to do THAT?
The humid factory air was filled with the hissing of gas and the rumble of machinery. Within a cluster of aluminum tubing and round brass dials, a lean, rangy technician in worn blue jeans was jotting readings on his clipboard. Glancing up, he caught sight of a co-worker lumbering by. Shorter in stature, the man wore a grease-smeared khaki shirt that was stretched tightly across his broad chest. “Hey, Charlie!” the technician called out. “I hear tomorrow's your last day.”
“Yeah, one more,” the mechanic said, flashing a single, stubby index finger. “Then it’s back up north for me.”
“Sure picked a good time. Hot enough already.”
“Damn right.” The mechanic peeled off his thick glasses and battered hardhat, then wiped the sweat from his round face and hairless scalp with a crumpled bandana. “I’ll tell ya,
As the technician returned to his work, the mechanic continued on, descending a flight of stairs that took him deeper into the bowels of the chemical plant. For months he had carefully plotted out this day, step by step. His plan went against everything the Center had told him, but it was something he must do. He had served too long without striking back. And now time was running out.
Stepping off a metal ladder into the damp, dimly lit tunnel, the mechanic squeezed between rows of blackened piping and then knelt beside a valve. Only a few turns of the small handwheel would be needed. No one would ever notice. And then, in a few months, when they started the tank flush . . .
Still growing accustomed to his new assignment, Dmitri had decided to relax with a stroll after work. It was a pleasant evening, and the well-lit sidewalks were bustling with young couples, families, and pensioners. The short, heavyset KGB officer halted to peer through his thick glasses at a copy of Pravda tacked to a display board. But the Soviet paper held nothing of interest, and he was soon on his way.
Today, like every other day for the past two months, Dmitri had scanned the American newspapers while at work, searching for a report on a factory disaster in
The future, he hoped, would bring other opportunities. If so, he would be ready.
End Post 1
TEASER FROM NEXT POST:
The air smelled of burning metal, diesel fuel and dust. “So, that was the reactor building,” the guide said.