BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded seven years ago on April 20, 2010. I recently did a book signing for Trails in the Sand, my novel that uses the oil spill as the backdrop to the drama unfolding in one family. “The race to save wildlife from tar balls approaching Florida’s beaches runs parallel to a reporter’s quest to save her family from an equally disastrous end,” I explained to a potential customer.
The customer gave me a puzzled look. “What was Deepwater Horizon?” he asked. “I forget.”
Please don’t forget. We must hold behemoths such as BP accountable for their actions. What was Deepwater Horizon? It was a horror where eleven men died and untold damage was done to our wildlife and the environment. Please remember.
To honor the lives lost and the destruction created through neglect of safety procedures, click here to download Trails in the Sand for free on Kindle, April 17-21.
It may be a work of fiction, but the facts of the event are real.
Caroline – April 20, 2010
Our paddles caressed the water without creating a ripple as we floated by turtles sunning on tree trunks fallen into the river. A great blue heron spread its wings on the banks and lifted its large body into the air, breaking the silence of a warm spring day in north Florida.
The heron led us down the river of our youth stopping to rest when we fell too far behind. The white spider lilies of spring covered the green banks of the Serenity Springs River.
“Do you remember the spot where we always swam?” my husband Simon asked. “Isn’t it around here?”
“I can’t remember back that far.”
Simon pulled his kayak up alongside mine as a mullet jumped out of the water in front of us and slapped its body back into the water.
“Still the dumbest fish in the river,” I said.
The leaves on the trees were fully green and returned to glory after a tough winter of frosts and freezes. Wild low-growing azalea bushes were completing their blooming cycle, and the dogwoods dropped their white blossoms a month ago. The magnolia flower buds would burst into large white blossoms within a month.
Simon and I missed the peak of spring on the river. However, we finally escaped our work on a warm Tuesday morning in late April.
“I hope things settle down. We should spend all summer on the river,” Simon said.
“Maybe we can get Jodi to come with us when she gets home from Auburn,” I said.
“Don’t count on it. Promise me you won’t be disappointed if she refuses.”
“I wish you wouldn’t be such a pessimist. That upsets me more than anything.”
Simon didn’t respond, which usually happened when I tried to talk about his daughter Jodi.
When we were kids, Simon and I spent many days in an old canoe on this river. Those idyllic days ended when he married my sister Amy. I never forgave Amy, even when she died two years ago. I eventually forgave Simon.
Even though I didn’t miss or mourn my sister, Jodi, my niece, did. She lost a mother she loved and believed Simon and I trampled her mother’s grave when we married nearly a year ago.
“At least winter is over,” Simon said. “Let’s hope for a quiet hurricane season.”
A turtle dove from a rock into the river as we approached. Either our voices or the sound of lapping water from our paddles sent it swimming. I was happy to note the freshwater turtles didn’t seem impacted by the atypical cold of the past few months. The sea turtles hadn’t fared so well.
I followed the sea turtle story for three months from the Gulf to the Atlantic coasts of Florida. The supreme effort to rescue cold-stunned turtles and rehabilitate them for release was overwhelming in its sheer numbers of both wildlife and volunteers. As an environmental and wildlife freelance writer, I’d written dozens of stories since January on the rescue and recovery operations. Miraculously, the majority of the stunned sea turtles survived. The past few weeks had seen many of them released back into the warming waters.
When Simon and I married the previous year, I vowed to curtail my traveling. But somehow, I hadn’t been able to keep my promise. Yet Simon never complained when I left our home in St. Augustine over the winter months as freezing temperatures caused iguanas to fall from trees, manatees to congregate near power plants, and sea turtles to become ice sculptures. He kept busy with the opening of his new law office, relocated from his previous home in Calico, sixty miles away. Just when the cold weather disappeared, and as I was finishing writing a series of articles on the cold winter’s impact, Simon left for West Virginia. On April 5, his cousin Jason McDermott was one of the twenty-nine coal miners killed when Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine exploded. Simon went home to West Virginia for the funeral. He stayed for more than a week helping Jason’s parents and his widow, who was pregnant with their third child. Until Simon and his family moved to Florida when he was fourteen, Jason had been his best friend. The two remained close over the years, and I knew Simon mourned his cousin’s death.
“I’m glad we’re playing hooky today,” Simon said. “It’s about time we made it back to the river.”
“Let’s keep floating until we reach the St. Johns River and then the Atlantic,” I said.
“Sounds like a plan as long as you don’t find any sea turtles to rescue along the way.”
“Don’t worry, Simon, I’ve got my hands full with you.”
The next morning the whir of the coffee grinder woke me. Simon always woke before me, and now he churned beans into grounds for our daily ritual. I savored that first sip of coffee every morning. Simon used only the darkest roast with an oily sheen. Every morning he brought me a steaming mug of the brew along with the morning papers. If my eyes weren’t open when he came into the room, he bent down and gently kissed me on the forehead.
“Good morning, baby,” he’d say, and I’d look up into his smiling face, his blue eyes twinkling a greeting. His eyes mirrored my own blue eyes. At one time, we both had blonde hair, but now with age, Simon’s had turned white while mine remained the same color of our youth, thanks to L’Oréal.
As I sipped the aromatic brew, I glanced at the morning’s headlines before the television and George Stephanopoulos diverted my attention.
It was only a blip on the charts of the day’s news stories. I would have missed mention of it if I’d gone to the bathroom when George announced an oil rig had caught on fire in the Gulf of Mexico the night before. On the morning of April 21, 2010, other news took precedence over this minor incident occurring miles off the coast of Louisiana.
I flipped the channels to find more news. I heard about volcanic ash from a recently erupted volcano in Iceland that was costing airlines $1.7 billion from the loss in flights. The day before the Supreme Court overturned a ban on videos depicting animal cruelty. Another broadcaster announced the death toll from a recent earthquake in China now topped two thousand.
CNN reported that a former coal miner at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia decided to give an interview detailing the unsafe conditions at the mine prior to the explosion two weeks earlier. I made a mental note to tell Simon, who I was sure would want to learn more.
But nothing about a little oil rig burning in the middle of the ocean. Since the fire occurred the night before, the morning newspapers contained no reports.
I took another sip of coffee, trying to determine the level of my reporter’s barometric pressure climbing up the back of my neck.
“Were you listening to NPR in the kitchen?” I asked Simon as he came back to bed with his cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice.
“Just a curious little footnote to the news this morning, but I’ve only heard it on ABC so far,” I said. “It seems an oil rig caught on fire out in the Gulf last night. The report said eleven men are missing, but officials are confident the men are on lifeboats that haven’t been found yet because of the smoke on the water.”
“It sounds like it has the potential for a real disaster,” Simon said. “Or it’s nothing at all. I hope for the latter.”
“Me, too. They also said a former miner decided to do an interview about conditions at Upper Big Branch mine. That could be a very big story.”
“Let’s hope somebody says something. I heard all sorts of stories while I was in West Virginia, but nobody wanted to say anything publicly.”
I kept channel surfing. A couple of programs gave a brief account of the oil rig fire, but all agreed everything was under control. I hoped that was the case, but it bothered me when all the reports said the fire still burned. How did they have any idea what lay below the surface of that fire?
“Yesterday, April 20, was the eleventh anniversary of Columbine,” I said. “And the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day is tomorrow.”
“And the West Virginia explosion occurred on your mother’s birthday, April 5,” my husband said.
He knew very well I kept track of dates and wondered at the curiosity of so many significant occurrences in history coinciding with other dates important to those closest to me. In my family, birthdays, anniversaries, and deaths more often than not occurred on important historical dates. Two of my aunts had been born on December 7, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor—a day of infamy. My best friend Holly was born on Christmas Day, and my sister died on the Fourth of July just two years earlier.
“I guess I better make some calls,” I said. “I’m a little skeptical that all is well in the Gulf.”
“Getting one of those hunches?” Simon asked.
“My ears are starting to tingle, so I better listen.”
I wouldn’t say I was clairvoyant or possessed powers of prescience, but I had a journalist’s instinct for news whether I was dealing with my job as a freelance environmental writer or as a woman assessing a person’s intentions. I learned over the years to follow those instincts. First, I felt something akin to hair rising on my neck. However, when I felt the tingling in my ears that sent a shiver down my spine, I began to pay attention to every little detail. The skeptic in me was still simmering beneath the surface even though my marriage to Simon the year before took some of the sharper edges off the knife of my cynicism. Love works miracles, but my transformation was still a work in progress. For the sake of my career, that was probably a good thing. I needed to question everything, or I’d never have a story.
I wondered where to start finding out about the fire. For nearly three decades, I made my living by writing about the environment and wildlife, with human interest thrown in the mix. One of the most recent stories took me to the Panhandle of Florida where a bear wandered into a residential neighborhood only to be darted with a tranquilizer by a wildlife biologist with the state wildlife agency. The drugged bear stumbled into the Gulf of Mexico before collapsing from the tranquilizer. The biologist wanted to knock the bear out temporarily, not drown him. He swam out to rescue the unconscious animal, dragging it back to shore. Photos of the rescue taken by a resident went around the world.
I wrote investigative pieces about illegal dumping of hazardous waste in rivers in far too many places in the United States. I wrote about environmental disasters and crimes whenever I received a tip from my sources that I’d cultivated and coddled over decades of trying to find the perfect quote. I wrote a story a few years back about a wildlife CSI lab in Oregon. I traveled across the country for stories filled with dramatic flourishes that somehow touched lives. I waded through the swamps of the Everglades hunting the invasive Burmese python, and I followed a group of camel traders in the deserts of Morocco, all in pursuit of the story.
When Simon came back into my life, I made the decision to give our marriage my full attention. I curtailed the scope of my writing, concentrating on stories from the southeastern Atlantic coast.
“Just when I thought our lives might settle down,” Simon said. He sat on the edge of the bed and flipped through the pages of the newspaper.
“You and I will never settle down. It’s our karma to be perpetually stirred up.” I leaned forward and gave him a kiss on the cheek.