I was on my way in to work early one March morning in 1981 when I heard the call over the radio. “All hands, respond to an oil spill at the west end of Kidder Road.” One by one, we acknowledged receipt of the message. I kept going. I was headed there anyway. Kidder Road was just a quarter mile north of the office.
There were only two ways an oil spill could have happened. Either a pumper truck had skidded on the icy road and gone off into a ditch, or one of the oil tanks had started leaking overnight. We had been drilling in the area for four years, not enough time for the steel in the tanks to corrode. I wondered which one of the drivers had gone off the road.
I was headed south on Meadville Street and could see the cluster of cars, pickups and pumper trucks ahead as I topped a rise. My boss Lynn’s red and white Bronco was parked on the side of the road. She must have headed into work early. I wondered if she was the one who reported the spill in the first place. I didn’t see a truck in the ditch so that theory went out the window. There was, however, a ten-foot high white steel oil tank with our red Cardinal Oil logo splashed across it sitting close to the road. I pulled off the road.
Ahead of me was a small creek running along the road, with the tank sitting on the other side. Jim, my partner, hustled out of his brown pickup and over to the creek. I joined him, and we looked at the mess together.
It turned out there was a third way for an oil spill to happen. At some point in the wee hours of the morning, the lock had been knocked off the valve that kept the oil and salt brine in the storage tank. Then the valve had been opened and the entire week’s production from one well flowed into the creek. The tank hadn’t been full, but the creek was flowing with a six-inch-thick layer of chocolaty brown Pennsylvania crude oil floating on top. We had to stop the flow before the oil reached the river a couple of miles downstream and caused an environmental disaster.
I grabbed Bob, one of the dozer operators, and told him to drive over to the shop and bring back an empty vacuum truck. Somehow, we were going to have to block the creek, skim the oil off the surface and pump it into the truck. It wouldn’t be the perfect solution, but it was the only thing I could think of at the moment. As Bob climbed into his pickup, I pulled a roll of black fabric silt fence out of the back. The silt fence was used around the drilling sites to keep the mud from running off into the ditches and killing the fish. I yelled for Jim, and we headed down to the creek to figure this out.
At the water’s edge, I was the first to slip and fall on my ass. I got up fast but was still covered with crude oil from boots to buckle. I knew I smelled like a refinery, and the laughter from the road stung my pride. Jim yelled at the guys from the location crew to cut it out and come down to give us a hand. We strung the silt fence across the creek with the intention of sweeping the oil back up to the suction hose of the vacuum truck. The water in the creek would flow through and under the fabric, but the close weave would trap the oil and keep it from going further downstream. There were wooden stakes attached to the fabric every six feet, so we had handles to hold on to. The creek wasn’t flowing fast, but it would be a struggle to hold the oil back.
The flaw in our plan was obvious as soon as we pulled the silt fence tight. There was no way to get the bottom edge of the fabric down below the surface when we were holding it from the shore. We could poke it down maybe two or three inches into the creek, but that left more than half of the oil to flow under it. I figured that since I was already covered up to my waist in oil, I would volunteer to go out to the middle of the creek to hold the edge under. We were all focused on getting the oil out of that creek, and any idea was a good idea.
Right about then, Bob pulled up in the vacuum truck, and we pointed him to a spot upstream about fifty yards. He parked and hooked up his hoses. All he had to do was keep the hose just under the surface, and he would get everything we could skim and sweep up to him.
I waded out to the middle of the creek, and the circus got under way. I held onto one of the stakes and pushed down. The flow of oil and water caught the fabric like a parachute, and it pulled tight. I could feel the cold water flowing under the fence and around my legs, but the oil stayed on the surface, and we started to walk it up toward Bob’s hose.
There was still a six-inch-thick layer of oil up around my waist. It took a lot of effort to keep my footing. The oil made a great insulator, so I wasn’t cold at all. I thought of those distance swimmers who covered their bodies with grease to keep from freezing on their way across whatever channel they found compelling. We got all the way up to the vacuum truck and then headed back down to start all over again. There was a hell of a lot of oil in that creek. Jim looked at me with a frown on his face and asked how I was doing. I smiled at him and said, “Just fine.”
We were about a third of the way through the second sweep when I went under. I don’t remember a thing. One second, I was holding the silt fence under the surface, and then I just disappeared. One of the guys saw me go under and jumped in to help. He flailed around in the water until he got a handful of my clothing and yanked me up and onto the bank. Later, the crew said I was as white as a sheet under the thick coat of oil. Someone thought it would be a good idea to get all of the oil-soaked clothing off me, so they skinned me down to my underwear.
Lynn called for an ambulance on the radiophone, and Jim hauled me into the back seat of the Bronco. The idea was to meet the ambulance half way to save time. Maybe the heat inside the truck would help, too. Lynn and Jim met the ambulance near the I-98 ramp. I was transferred to a gurney and then to the back of the ambulance. I woke up in convulsions. They had managed to pack my body with those heat packs you squish to make them get hot. I remember them feeling like hot coals searing my body anywhere they touched. I lost consciousness.
Jim said he stayed with me in the emergency room, and then waited outside while they worked on me. The doctors took my core temperature with a rectal thermometer about a foot long, the same kind that coroners use to estimate time of death in corpses. The form they filled out said that my initial core temp was 86 degrees. The only way to treat me was to run tubes from both ends and flush me with warmed water. While these indignities progressed, another tube was run down into one lung to flush out the crude oil I had aspirated, then repeated on the other side to keep me breathing.
I woke up the next day in a hospital bed, under an electric blanket and hiccupping fumes. I was as weak as a kitten and shivering. Jim was dozing in a chair and looked like shit with a day old beard. One eye opened when I tried to sit up. He rang for a nurse and just sat with me until the doctor came to explain everything.
It had been twenty-four hours since I collapsed in the creek. I was recovering from a severe case of hypothermia, with lipid pneumonia on top of that from inhaling all that crude oil. It seems that the water in the creek was sucking the heat out of my body all while I felt warm from the six inches of crude oil around my waist. Eventually, with the exertion from walking that silt fence up to the suction hose, my body had had enough and just shut down. When I went under, I gulped a good mouthful of crude oil down into my lungs and stomach. The doctor advised that I should stay away from cigarettes for a while or I might go up in flames. They were still trying to get the smell out of the ambulance.
I had to stay in the hospital for another twenty-four hours so they could be certain my body could maintain its temperature. My house was just around the corner from Lynn’s, so she elected herself to bring me home from the hospital. She gave me a week off, then a week working on maps in the office, and then it was back to the rigs. I was still burping crude oil fumes a month later.
When the gas glut came in 1983, the company went bankrupt like most oil companies in northwestern Pennsylvania. In the thirty years since, I have held many different jobs, mostly in New York and New England. These days, I’m a builder and handyman and married to a loving wife.
When working in the cold I inevitably forget my past and quickly end up with frozen fingers. The pain of thawing out is a constant reminder that the effects of hypothermia last forever. I will always be sensitive to cold temperatures, and to Linda yelling at me to “get away from that thermostat, dammit!”