#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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One Wild and Wacky Job

Alligator on a lake near Tallahassee

Alligator on a lake near Tallahassee

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

I hesitated to fill out an application for days after I saw the advertisement for a public relations director with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). The ideal candidate’s qualifications could have been pilfered from my resume. Yet still I hesitated before I applied.

Did I really want to move from St. Augustine to Tallahassee? I wondered as I read the job description repeatedly. Yes, I did, I decided and hit the send button on the website for the state job. Only I messed up and tried again. When I went to bed that night, I wasn’t certain if the application had gone through or not.

When my phone rang the next morning and the voice on the other end said he worked for the FWC, I was certain it was to tell me my application needed to be sent again. I started to explain, until he interrupted.

“We’d like you to come up to Tallahassee for an interview,” he said.

“When?”

“Can you make it tomorrow?”

I tried not to make any assumptions about what it all meant. I’d been asked for an interview before the deadline for accepting applications. I drove the three hours from my home to the Community Relations office in Tallahassee for my interview. I was nervous, but as it turned out, the interview was the easiest one I’d done. I knew how to answer all the questions about media, writing, publishing, and news releases. I’d been on the other side for a decade, and I’d interviewed my share of state employees as an environmental writer. They hired me as soon as I passed a test to write a phony news release in thirty minutes.

wildlife biologist

FWC biologist measuring lake levels

I started in September 2007 and worked there for the next four years. I left when I moved to Pennsylvania.

During the first few months on the job, I read about wildlife, which included fact sheets on managing them and laws on regulating them. I listened to phone calls between my supervisor and journalists from state and national media sources. I observed during meetings with the agency’s director, biologists, and media personnel as  they made decisions on sensitive issues. I began writing news releases of lesser importance about openings, closings, and campaigns for wildlife license plates. I took a few calls here and there from the media. I watched and mentally took notes during crises situations as those around me scrambled to write talking points and news releases in a few minutes time.

After a few months, I was assigned to write an article for Florida wildlife magazine featuring Rodney Barreto, the chairman of the commission. He received his appointment from Gov. Charlie Crist.

After I interviewed him, I searched for quotes from others about Barreto. My boss directed me to contact the governor’s press office and ask for a written quote. Two days after I sent the email request, my phone rang in my office.

“Hello, Pat? This is Charlie Crist,” the voice on the line said.

At first, I thought some friend was playing a trick on me, but I’d met Crist at a luncheon a few months before so I recognized the voice.

“I hear you’re writing about my buddy Rodney,” he said. “I wanted to talk to you about him.”

I was scrambling on my desk for my notes for the article. Of course, the folder was nowhere to be found.

“I’m just a little nervous, Governor, so excuse me while I find my notes,” I said.

“No need to be nervous, Pat. Let’s just chat.”

So we did. He gave me my quotes, and I took notes on the back of an old news release.

“Thank you, Governor. I know you have more important things to do, such as . . . ”

My mind went blank. What issues did he have on his mind? I started again.

“I know you’re dealing with big issues with . . . water,” I finally blurted.

Water? Really? That’s the best I could muster? Florida’s surrounded on three sides by water so of course he deals with water issues, but really that’s all I could say?

Charlie Crist dealing with water

Charlie Crist dealing with water
(from PhotoBucket)

I kept my job despite my ineptitude in handling a simple call from the governor. I learned to talk to media from CNN, Time magazine, the Associated Press, Fox News, and even a representative from a Japanese reality show who wondered if manatees farted under water, and if so, could they possibly film one farting.

It became my new normal and lasted for the next four years. Stay tuned for a few of my stories to learn how some freshwater turtles made a new law and how I became known as the “python princess.”

Working in an agency that manages wildlife in a state filled with human wildlife has given me a library full of stories to tell around campfires and novels to write until my fingers cramp. My hesitation in applying was simply the quiet moment I needed before heading into one wild and wacky job.

FWC law enforcement officer assists the "human" wildlife to pull a truck out of the water

FWC law enforcement officer assists the “human” wildlife to pull a truck out of the water

New Release from P.C. Zick

New Release
from P.C. Zick

Trails in the Sand (2013) follows environmental writer, Caroline Carlisle, on a quest to save sea turtles from the BP oil spill and to save her family after she marries her dead sister’s husband.

The idea from the story came while I was working with the FWC during the oil spill crisis. I was the media director for the sea turtle nest relocation project that occurred during the summer of 2010. During the project, thousands of sea turtle eggs were moved from Panhandle beaches to the Atlantic Coast. Thousands of sea turtle hatchlings were saved from eminent death as a result of the move.

Sea Turtle Love

By P.C. Zick @PCZick

Several years ago, I gave birth on Matanzas Beach, Florida  — to a sea turtle.

And now that little baby is swimming in the Atlantic having beaten incredible odds so far. If the hatchling survives to adulthood — it takes thirty years for a female to reach maturity — it will have beaten 1,000 to 1 odds for survival.

This labor required nothing from me, except to take pictures of this hatchling’s first crawl on the sand. It barely moved at first, and the biologist conducting the dig put it in a box of wet sand until it starting moving around. They continued digging and eventually found the remains of 120 hatched eggs and four eggs that had gone bad. These are pretty good statistics, but there is no guarantee all 120 of the hatchlings made it to the sea. Those of us gathered on the beach kept all predators away from this lone straggler, but the hatchlings didn’t have that protection when they emerged, mostly likely the night before.

When the hatchling began moving around in the box, a volunteer placed it on the sand next to the nest so it might remember the precise location of emergence. If this one turns out to be a female, in approximately thirty years this same turtle most likely will come ashore at Matanzas and lay its first batch of eggs. The scientists believe the turtles tap into the Earth’s magnetic field while in the nest.

Volunteering as a sea turtle patroller requires walking the beach before 7 a.m. By the end of the summer, many of the volunteers have decided it is too much. The staff who run the sea turtle program call those of us make it through the entire season the “dedicated ones.” I always thought the end of the season, when the hatchlings emerged, was the payment for the dawn walks on the beach once a week during the summer.

One morning in June, approximately seventy days before the hatchlings in this nest emerged, I walked alone on the beach near the Matanzas Inlet. My patrol partner walked the north end of the beach near Crescent Beach, just south of St. Augustine. We carried our cell phones to call in reports and a stick to mark potential nests. That particular morning in June, I noticed a pattern of swishes in the sand, starting at the tide line and heading toward the dunes, but the patterns looked small for the flippers of the loggerhead, which can weigh up to 275 pounds. I walked away without leaving my stick, but as I continued my patrol, I knew nothing could have left marks in the sand in such symmetry. I called the office, reported its location and placed my stick in the sand so the biologists would be able to find it. Later it became a confirmed nest. Matanzas North Nest #3 may have been the official title, but from that day forward, I thought possessively of it as mine.

My baby sea turtle began its long walk to the sea following its instincts. A group of high school biology students formed a protective circle with the volunteers. Morning visitors to the beach, along with their vehicles, already competed for space. We left our baby a wide berth that no one could penetrate.

As the tide receded, the hatchling encountered some difficulty when the first wave hit it, but it knew just what to do — it just didn’t have the strength yet to swim out far enough not to be swept back in. Repeatedly, we watched as it attempted to go back into the ocean. We cheered each time it managed a ride and commiserated each time we saw it come back toward us.

“Watch your feet,” one of the biologists yelled when the wave swept the hatchling back toward those of us forming its shield.

Barely two-inches long, this baby looked no bigger than the sack of eggs left by sharks on the beach. The hatchling tried again, this time managing a five-foot entry into the sea, only to be swept back onto the beach again.

“This just isn’t fair,” one of the students said.

And then a big wave came as we cheered, but my baby came back near my own feet — belly up. The soft under belly, black and white spotted, faced me as its flippers frantically tried to right itself.

One of the biologists picked it up, walked out into the ocean for over ten feet, and let the sea turtle go into its world undersea.

In one hour this baby had been pulled from the sand, crawled for the first time and then swam away to fend for itself in the sea. We had done all we could to protect it.

“Safe passage,” I whispered.