#DeepwaterHorizon-Using Reality in Fiction

 

Deepwater Horizon, BP oil spill

Deepwater Horizon well BP oil spill 2010

They’ve now made a movie about Deepwater Horizon (Click here to see the trailer). I heard an interview with the director, Peter Berg, and he said he didn’t focus the movie on the environmental impact but on the human lives lost. That’s good because the explosion on that oil rig killed eleven men. This tragedy could have been prevented.

I began writing Trails in the Sand in the months after Deepwater Horizon and the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion that killed twenty-nine miners. Forty deaths within two weeks of one another pushed me to write something that might serve as a reminder of two preventable disasters that occurred within two weeks of one another in 2010. Forty men died and countless wildlife and their habitats were injured or destroyed. Both events touched my life in some way and both made their way into the writing of Trails in the Sand.

The first tragedy occurred on April 5 when the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia exploded, killing twenty-nine miners doing their job in the bowels of the earth. Subsequent reports showed the company ignored safety regulations, which played an important role in the explosion. At the time, I was in the process of moving from Florida to western Pennsylvania. The mine is several hours south of where I moved so the local media covered the disaster continually for the next few weeks. The national news also kept its eye turned toward a small town in West Virginia where families mourned their husbands, sons, fathers, brothers, and cousins. After April 20, the lens of the cameras shifted to the southwest.

The news began as a whimper before erupting into cries of outrage. An oil rig somewhere off the coast of Louisiana caught on fire on April 20, 2010. Soon the whole rig collapsed and eleven men never made it out alive. Oil gushed from a well several miles below the Gulf’s surface.

As I made the transition to Pennsylvania, I still held my job in Florida, although I was in the process of leaving. I was a public relations director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. I made the trip back and forth between the two states sixteen times in 2010. I conducted meetings from a cell phone in airports, highway rest areas, and at a dining room table from our small temporary apartment in Pittsburgh.

aptopix-gulf-oil-spill-1fee0422a0df6673Every time I started to give my two-week notice to my supervisors, something happened, and my wildlife biologist bosses pleaded with me to stay. During a crisis, the spokesperson for a company or agency suddenly becomes a very important part of the team. Scientists become speechless when looking in the face of a microphone. And all their scientific facts and figures must be distilled into sound bites for the public.

Nothing much happened in those early days of the oil spill for the wildlife community, although as a communications specialist, I prepared for worst-case scenarios, while hoping for the best. Partnerships between national and state agencies formed to manage information flowing to the media. By May, some of the sea turtle experts began worrying about the nesting turtles on Florida’s Panhandle beaches, right where the still gushing oil might land. In particular, the scientists worried that approximately 50,000 hatchlings might be walking into oil-infested waters if allowed to enter the Gulf of Mexico after hatching from the nests on the Gulf beaches.sargassum-oil-deepwater-horizon

 

 

An extraordinary and unprecedented plan became reality, and as the scientists wrote the protocols, the plan was “in direct response to an unprecedented human-caused disaster.”

When the nests neared the end the incubation period, plans were made to dig up the nests and transport the eggs across the state to Cape Canaveral, where they would be stored until the hatchlings emerged from the eggs. Then they would receive a royal walk to the sea away from the oil-drenched waters of the Gulf.

seaturtle7

The whole project reeked with the scent of drama, ripe for the media to descend on Florida for reports to a public hooked on the images of oiled wildlife. Since I was in transition in my job, they appointed me to handle all media requests that came to the national and state agencies regarding the plan. From my new office in Raccoon Township, Beaver County, Pennsylvania, I began coordinating media events and setting up interviews with the biologists.

As the project began in June 2010, I began writing Trails in the Sand. At first, I created the characters and their situations. Then slowly I began writing about the oil crisis and made the main character, Caroline, an environmental reporter who covered the sea turtle relocation project. Then suddenly I was writing about her husband, Simon, who mourned the loss of his cousin in the coal mine disaster in West Virginia. I didn’t make a conscious effort to tie together the environmental theme with the family saga unfolding, but before too long, I realized they all dealt with restoration and redemption of things destroyed. As a result, the oil spill and the sea turtles became a metaphor for the destruction caused by Caroline and her family.

I’m a firm believer in the subject choosing the author. When that happens, it’s best to let go and enjoy the gift. Trails in the Sand became a novel sometimes classified as “faction” because it combines real-world events with fictional characters and situations. I have written nearly twenty novels since 1999, and of all of them, Trails in the Sand remains the one closest to my heart. Because the subject chose me, the words came easily and the characters became an extension of my family.

I wish the disasters never occurred. But I can’t wave a wand and erase the past. But with strokes on the keyboard, I can create something lasting that might make a difference. At the very least, I made that attempt. And so did the director of Deepwater Horizon, which releases today. We need all the reminders possible so we never repeat the events of April 2010 again.

Florida, BP oil spill, sea turtles

Excerpt from Trails in the Sand

Chapter One – Caroline

The next morning the whir of the coffee grinder woke me as Simon 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’Oreal.

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 said 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.

As I flipped the channels to find more news, I learned that volcanic ash from a recently erupted volcano in Iceland was costing airlines $1.7 billion to combat the loss in flights. The day before the Supreme Court overturned a ban on videos depicting animal cruelty. Matt Laurer announced the death toll after the April 14 earthquake in China now topped 2,000.

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.

But nothing more on 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.

“No. Why?”

“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.

“They also said a former miner decided to talk about conditions at Upper Big Branch mine,” I said. “Sure wish I could have gotten that interview.”

A couple of the channels 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 as he sat on the edge of the bed, flipping through the newspapers.

“You and I will never settle down. It’s our karma to be perpetually stirred up,” I said as I leaned forward to give him a kiss on the cheek.

trails-deepwater

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TRAILS IN THE SAND CONTINUES

 

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Click on cover to download for FREE on Kindle December 8, 9, 10

I wrote Trails in the Sand in 2013, two years after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Upper Big Branch Massey coal mine explosion in West Virginia. The two events occurred within two weeks of one another and killed a total of forty men. Both tragedies could have been prevented if safety standards had been in place and enforced. The book uses both events as the backdrop to the disasters occurring in the lives of the main characters as families mourn and oil gushes from the rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Lives were lost unnecessarily and wildlife and their habitats were threatened. And are still threatened to this day.

Last week, the CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, was found guilty of “conspiring to violate federal safety standards,” which led to the death of twenty-nine men. This is a misdemeanor and carries a maximum of one-year in prison. He was exonerated on three felony charges. It seems to be a ‘slap on the wrist,’ but it is the first time that a major coal executive has ever been held accountable for decisions made at the top of the chain that impacted the workers far below the earth, who put their lives in jeopardy every single day. To read more about Blankenship and his date with the jury, go to the New York Times article.

Someone needs to be held accountable. Someone needs to know that when regulations are in place, they must be followed or there are consequences. Someone must enforce the regulations.

I maintained in Trails in the Sand  that we will not be able to live without the energy and fuel from coal and petroleum, but we don’t have to retrieve them in a way that endangers human and animal life and their habitats. Yet it happens and those responsible are rarely asked to pay for their crimes.

There are forty families in the United States who will celebrate the holidays this year for the sixth time without a member of their family because of greed and the quest to bring us gas for our cars and electricity for our homes.

Here’s an excerpt from Trails in the Sand  from two different chapters – one a factual recounting of mining disasters in the U.S., and the other from the main character, as she and her husband travel to West Virginia to visit family members directly impacted by the mine disaster.

 

CHAPTER 7

History of coal mining disasters in the United States

Wildlife exhibits the first signs, acting as the harbinger of coming environment disasters. Coal miners knew it to be true. That’s why in the earliest days of coal mining, the miners would take a caged canary down into the mines with them. This small songbird could detect the smallest quantities of methane and carbon monoxide. If the canary kept singing, the mine was deemed safe. If the singing stopped, the canary keeled over, and the miners escaped.

The early miners in West Virginia in the 1880s were mostly European immigrants and African-Americans, and they served a sort of peonage in those early mines. They rented or bought their own equipment and lived in company houses, and their pay went to the company store for food. It was a hard life, during the day and during the night. The fear of death never left their doorstep because the owners of those mines did nothing to ensure the safety of those workers. West Virginia’s safety record was one of the worst in the nation, and that distinction was sealed in 1907 when the worst mine disaster in history occurred on December 6 at the Monongah Mine in West Virginia. Methane most likely ignited coal dust in two mines, killing at least 400 men, if not 500. Now it’s an accepted fact that to keep coal dust from becoming combustible, it needs to be coated with lime. Rumblings among the families of the victims at Upper Big Branch hinted that more than one hundred years later coal dust sometimes accumulated because Massey was cutting corners, and not enough workers were available to make sure the lime was applied to keep the dust levels low. When the workers went down into the mine on April 5, 2010, more than one hundred years after the disaster in Monongah, a caged canary might have warned the miners to the danger lurking in the air.

CHAPTER 9

Caroline

We left for West Virginia early on Friday morning with coffee mugs filled and snacks packed in the cooler. We planned to be at Simon’s parents in Morgantown sometime before 9 p.m. As we drove we listened to NPR when we could, but at times, especially driving through South Carolina, it was difficult to find any station not broadcasting country songs.

As we sped up I-95 through a small bit of Georgia, we heard a commentator remark on how large corporations such as BP and Massey Energy ignored safety regulations and even citations.

“We can point the finger at the companies all we want, but why wasn’t the government enforcing the regulations?” I asked at one point. “It took twenty-nine miners to die for the mine safety folks to suggest that perhaps they should be using the powers granted to them decades ago.”

“Our greed for energy, as cheap and as quickly as we can pull it out of the ground, fuels the energy companies to bring it to us fast and cheap,” Simon said.

“It sure looks as if both disasters could have been prevented with a little more precaution,” I said.

Simon and his family moved to Calico in 1974, so Bob McDermott, Simon’s father, could take a job teaching at nearby University of Florida. When my father-in-law retired a couple of years ago, Simon’s parents did a reversal of what most folks did; they moved back to Morgantown, almost two hours south of Pittsburgh.

“I’ve never understood why your folks moved back to West Virginia,” I said as the wildflowers of spring streaked by us in the median of the highway.

“They never stopped missing that part of the country,” Simon said. “I’d move back, too, if it wasn’t for the winters.”

“You’d move back alone,” I said. “I’m a Florida girl, born and bred. You’re lucky you got me to come back to north Florida after living in the Everglades for so long.”

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world. Don’t worry. I’ve no desire to move back to coal country,” Simon said.

My family had its own history with the coal mines. My grandfather, Arthur Stokley, came from England in the 1920s to work in the mines of West Virginia, right near where the explosion occurred. He escaped a life underground in the mines by the grace of God and the owner of the mine where he worked. My family never said much about his life prior to becoming a worshipped doctor in Calico, but the story always intrigued me. It was probably one reason I wanted to write about this latest disaster. I read enough to know that not many young people ever found the means to leave the mines all those years ago when the miners lived in company towns. The conditions left them beholden to the mining companies raking in the dough while the workers lived in cobbled together houses huddled close to the mines.

“I’ve often wondered about my grandfather and how he managed to escape the life of a miner to become a respected doctor,” I said. “He came to this country penniless.”

“Wasn’t there some story about a canary in the mine he brought back to life?”

“I never believed that one. And why would that make him such a hero? Didn’t they take those canaries down in the mine knowing full well they’d die if the gas fumes were too strong?”

“Maybe he slept with someone important,” Simon said.

“Right. The Queen of England, perhaps. Except when he left his mother country, there was a King in charge over there.”

“Stranger things have happened.”

In honor of the men who died in both disasters in 2010, Trails in the Sand is available for free downloads on Kindle this week, December 8, 9, and 10. In addition, if you still enjoy reading real books you can hold in your hands, please leave a comment here, and I’ll send the first two requesters an autographed copy of Trails.

 

 

 

 

Five Year Anniversary of #Deepwater Horizon Disaster

Florida Setting 6Five years ago today I sat in bed reading the morning papers and listening to Good Morning America. A little passing news story took up less than a minute of air time to let us know that an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico had caught on fire. No big deal.

Until it was. Eleven men died in that fire. The environmental effects aren’t over just because the cap was sealed on the gushing fire. Click here for some comprehensive articles from the Wall Street Journal  on what is being done and what has been done in the past five years.

We know for sure that we lost lives, both human and wildlife. We know that habitats were disturbed. And we know that if full safety procedures had been followed, this disaster might never have happened.

Today, please remember what we lost.

I wrote my novel Trails in the Sand as an appeal to make sure we never let anything like this happen again. At the time it happened, I worked for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a public relations director. One of my jobs during the spill and subsequent threat to Florida beaches was to head up the media portion of the effort to move sea turtle nests from the Panhandle beaches to the east coast where once hatched, the hatchlings would march to sea in safer waters. I hope they remained safe.

3-D1webFor the month of April, Trails in the Sand eBook is only $.99 cents. Click below to grab your copy.

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Or download for free at Smashwords, using coupon code FR84H.

 

 

#BP Oil Spill Four Years Later

Deepwater Horizon well BP oil spill 2010

Deepwater Horizon well BP oil spill 2010

Almost four years after Deepwater Horizon caught on fire and opened up the well that gushed millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, some of the long term effects are being felt. BP’s oil spill may be with us for many decades to come. Let us not forget the lessons learned. Safety standards must be followed and enforced.

oiled wildlife during BP's oil spill in 2010

oiled wildlife during BP’s oil spill in 2010

NWF Gulf Wildlife Report EMBARGO 2014-04-08

In 2013, I published the novel Trails in the Sand, which begins on April 20, 2010, the day of the BP oil spill. The novel chronicles the race to save sea turtle hatchlings as the oil approaches Florida’s beaches and lands in the sea grasses that serve as home to the infants for months before they venture further into the sea.

Loggerhead hatchling 2006 Photo by P.C. Zick

Loggerhead hatchling 2006
Photo by P.C. Zick

I ended the environmental part of the novel with hope that perhaps the barrels of oil dumped into the Gulf of Mexico dispersed enough to save wildlife. It’s disheartening to read what I probably have known all along in my heart.

To celebrate Earth Day 2014, which ironically shares the same anniversary date with the BP oil spill, Trails in the Sand is only .99 cents for the #Kindle version during the month of April. I hope you enjoy reading this novel of love and redemption.

 

 

Click on the cover below to go to the Amazon purchase page.

Trails in the Sand - Oil spill, sea turtles, and love

Trails in the Sand – Oil spill, sea turtles, and love

#Oil Spills Continue

Last December, scientists announced that dolphins in Louisiana were experiencing lung diseases and low birthrates in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that released more than 636 million liters of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Now, researchers have also found evidence of potentially lethal heart defects in two species of tuna and one species of amberjack — all economically important species for commercial fisheries. This news, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today, comes less than a week after the announcement that BP will once again be allowed to explore the Gulf of Mexico for oil. . .

. . .But a BP spokesperson contacted The Verge to state that “the paper provides no evidence to suggest a population-level impact on tuna, amberjack, or other pelagic fish species in the Gulf of Mexico,” as the “oil concentrations used in the lab experiments were rarely seen in the Gulf during or after the Deepwater Horizon accident.”

 

To top off my morning of reading, I read that a tanker has spilled oil into Lake Michigan, which occurred less than two weeks after the United States lifted BP’s ban on seeking new oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico. (Click here for complete article)

 

Four years ago, I worked for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a public relations director. I handled all the media and public relations for a bold effort by scientists to save sea turtle hatchlings from the oil encroaching on Florida’s offshore habitats and beaches.

Photo by P.C. Zick

Photo by P.C. Zick

Today, four years later with two more oil spills threatening our environment and innocent wildlife, I ask where will it all end?

The answer is not in giving up petroleum-based projects, but in forcing the industries involved in farming, harvesting, and producing fossil fuels to abide by safety standards and insisting that our enforcement agencies do their job.

Click on cover

Click on cover

 

My book Trails in the Sand follows the disaster of the BP oil spill and sea turtle nest rescue as the main character, an environmental writer, attempts to rescue her family from destruction.

 

Dolphin lllnesses Linked to Gulf Oil Spill

Photo by P.C. Zick

Photo by P.C. Zick

I’m not surprised by this news, but saddened nonetheless.

Dolphin lllnesses Linked to Gulf Oil Spill by National Geographic News

 

 

 

BP oil spill 2010

BP oil spill 2010

Deja Vu – Rig on Fire

Macondo well - Deepwater Horizon By Patricia Zick @PCZick

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 said 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.

As I flipped the channels to find more news, I learned that volcanic ash from a recently erupted volcano in Iceland was costing airlines $1.7 billion to combat the loss in flights. The day before the Supreme Court overturned a ban on videos depicting animal cruelty. Matt Laurer announced the death toll after the April 14 earthquake in China now topped 2,000.

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.

But nothing more on a little oil rig burning in the middle of the ocean. Since the fire occurred the night before, the morning newspapers contained no reports.

The above is an excerpt from my novel Trails in the Sand. I wrote this passage based on my very real experience the morning I first learned about BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.

This morning, more than three years later, I again sat up in bed drinking my first cup of coffee and listening to the news on Good Morning America when Josh Elliott announced that a natural gas rig off the coast of Louisiana was burning out of control after an explosion on the rig. He announced that all forty-four workers could be accounted for this time. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, eleven men lost their lives.

Natural gas is now spewing in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Here’s the latest from CNN at http://www.cnn.com/2013/07/24/us/gulf-rig-explosion/index.html.

Here’s to this deja vu ending today and not four months from now.

aptopix-gulf-oil-spill-1fee0422a0df6673

A Florida environmental novel and family saga

A Florida environmental novel and family saga

Trails in the Sand has made it into the semi-finals in the Kindle Book Review contest. It’s available on Kindle, Nook, and in paperback.