19 Minutes on The Day

Synopsis:  One Family, a suburban area near a refinery using HFA

Jen:  A mother, going about her life in an upscale development in the South Bay, below Los Angeles.

         Jen is married and lives seven miles from the Torrance Refinery, but today, when she opened her door to pick up the Daily Breeze, the local paper, she caught a faint scent of it in the wind, which is blowing hard, moving the spring leaves on the tree outside the windows on this side of their home like the ripple of an ocean wave.  The smell is not annoying enough to warrant complaint.  Claims of climate change are a topic for satire with Jen’s friends.   
Jen is in her late 30’s, a natural blond with perfect skin who has aced her way through life.  
         It is just past 6:08 am.  Jen, a working mother, who gave up the fast track to be home with her two daughters, is working on a news release, now nearly finished.  Her client is Cape Media, a start-up in which Jen has invested sweat equity.   Assessing several offers, she decided the company’s business plan, an Uber approach to providing local news is a winner.  Jen serves on their board and works remotely as their PR Director.  

         Five days a week Jen drives Abby, the oldest, by five years, to her private school or, for the youngest, Molly, to daycare at Miss Montgomery’s School for the Young.  Daycare will end at the same time Jen picks up Abby, as the schools are next door to each other.   After that, the day is given to playdates or lessons.    Abby, older by five years, is now in sixth grade and views herself as an adult.

         Glancing away from the clock over her desk, Jen finishes the news release she is writing, sends it, and glances at her email, seeing one is from her next-door neighbor, Jacqui Stafford.  She and Jacqui share a passion for pastries and once and a while slip out to enjoy a self-indulgent hour at La Patisserie, which is tucked into a quiet corner of the local mall.   Lately, Jacqui has started reading the Facebook site for the group opposed to the local refinery. The email could be pastries, but it could be another request she attends the next meeting of a group called South Bay Families Lobbying Against Refinery Exposures or FLARE, with Jacqui.  This would mean being crowded into a car-pool of other moms from the area, waiting for the meeting to start, listening, and tolerating the ride home.  Not Jen’s thing. 

         Jacqui's kids are nearly the same age as Jen's, the oldest, a girl, Connie, bake goodies to be sold at Abby and Molly's Lemonade Stand.  

         Jen leans back, delighting for a moment in the serene calm of her office.  It is perfectly organized and furnished in ivory and Celadon green.  Although many of her friends have stopped buying antiques, Jen still appreciates their fine, detailed workmanship.  She refinished this desk herself, taking off layers of paint to reveal the lovely grain of the wood.  Through research, she discovered the piece is over 200 years old and the work of a master woodworker from Amesbury, Massachusetts.  His name was faint, but readable, on the underside of one of the drawers.   Jen paid $45 for it at an estate sale.  Now, it sits between ivory-colored shelves and wood filing cabinets, painted to match the walls.  

        Photos of Molly and Abby at the Lemonade stand with Eric, Jacqui’s youngest, getting ready to squeeze lemons, and setting up cupcakes for sale, hang beside them.  Jeff, Jacqui's husband, sent Jen a copy of his shot, already framed.

        Her wedding portrait with Dwayne smiles at her, with images from their vacations together.  Each perfectly framed image is placed, in relation to the others, to create a chronological tour of their lives.   

        It was tough for Jen to give up her job at West Star Communications, the huge telecommunications company where she won awards and rose to early prominence. She thought long and hard about this because her career was both stimulating and challenging.  But being with the girls, and knowing they were safe, came first.  Dwayne agreed.  He works thirty miles away, hates the commute, but is happy knowing they are safe, too.  



       Kendal Commons is a development where children play freely, and families visit back and forth like the small town of another century.  Nearly every weekend the neighbors get together for meals and organize trips to the many local places which are educational and fun.  

        One Saturday, Dwayne took the girls out to buy the materials for constructing their lemonade stand at Lumaida, the local, family-owned lumber and hardware store. Both Jen and Dwayne like the personal atmosphere and want to support local businesses. The night before, they had worked on the design, Molly standing on a chair to see the list and sketches on the table, as their Dad showed them how to figure out what they would need.     With only one minor injury to Abby’s thumb, their small place for commerce was completed.

        Lemonade changed to hot cider, and sometimes hot chocolate with melty marshmellows on cool weekend evenings.    Cookies, fruit slices and pieces of pie and cake are also sold there, provided by the girls’ friends and parents, proud of being suppliers and making their own money. Other small enterprises have started, including a dog walking service.  

        The released gas is traveling faster, the wind picked up speed just before the explosion, which occurred at 5:45am.  It kills in 19 minutes as the fluorine ions replace the calcium and magnesium in lung and heart tissue, cardiac arrest then occurs.  

        Lightly running her hand over the satin finish of her desk, Jen pads into the kitchen for a second cup of coffee.  It is 6:13am.  Just as she finishes pouring, her hand jerks, spilling a drop of coffee on the marble counter.  Did she hear something?  It was faint, but sounded like a deep ‘wump,’  like something exploding in the distance. The leaves outside are sending out a beautiful resonance of sound, as they do when the wind picks up.   She pauses a moment, wondering.  The girls may still be sleeping, because nothing seems to be stirring in the house.

        Much later, Jen will learn what sounded like an explosion was the boat, used by the terrorists as they tried to escape, blowing up.  They took a Coast Guard Cutter with them. 

         Vaguely worried, Jen calls the fire department, but the line is busy.  Strange, she thinks.  Then, she punches the number for city hall.  Busy.  Finally, worried, Jen calls the police as she turns on the local news report.  There has been an explosion at the local refinery.  The news commentator reports the advice given to them by city hall to use when incidents occur, “shelter in place,” she advises, smiling.  The refinery experiences frequent flares and spills of petroleum, accompanied by the stench of pollutants. 

         There will be no shelter in Jen’s home or car from what is coming. 

         Suddenly, Jen hears the television in the family room come on as she watched the set in the kitchen, where the commentator is handed a paper.  At the same moment Jen hears the girls in the family room.  They have turned on the television there, already set to the local news station.  Surprised by what they are hearing, they do not change the channel.

          The news commentator’s eyes grow wide, as she reads from the piece of paper handed to her.  Her hands begin shaking and her words are rushed as she reads the copy. 

           Together, on separate TVs, Jen and the girls hear the panic in the commentator’s voice as listeners are urged to leave the area as the television feed changes to a camera crew covering the explosion at the scene.  Later, those in authority will argue about which advice should have been given.

           Before the  eyes of viewers, a wave of white, cloud-like gas is undulating and rolling through familiar streets.  The camera continues to roll as the crew backs away.  As the camera falls to the pavement, focused still toward the cloud, it is enveloped in the cloud.  Jen and the girls can hear the camera crew yelling and someone gasping.  The news room jolts back onto the screen, frozen on the stunned face of the commentator.      

           Jen recognized the street.  It is only a quarter mile from them.  


           Later, much later, when the HFA is dissipated, emergency workers and police will walk into homes, through open doors or entering through windows, left a crack open to enjoy the night air, dressed in full hazmat suits, with respirators.  This is the first survey, looking for the dead.  They have found some still in bed, others crumpled in their kitchen, in the bathroom, holding children or pets, a few still clutching their cell phones or heads in the sink trying to wash off or out the HFA.

           It took only 19 minutes until their lungs were eaten away.  The fluorine in the HFA is attacking vital organs through the blood from the lungs, while hydrogen acid ions penetrate the skin, allowing the fluorine to advance, replacing the tissues’ calcium and magnesium, directly, for instance, in their eyes. Then, HFA attacks the heart muscle, stopping it cold. 

            Through those hours of shock and disbelief, local, and then national, organizations are beginning to organize for a disaster larger in scope than any previous disaster in America’s history.   

            The transport for the dead is whatever is available.  Cold storage is found in food warehouses, no longer necessary, and bodies are matched with the information available on their persons, cars, or in the home.  Calls from family and friends begin to overload local phone capacity.  With the first responders, comes a team assembled to search records for relations.  

            The threat of disease, caused by bodies which are not refrigerated, will be grave.  Arrangements for burial, or disposal, become a topic of controversy when authorities attempt to force families to allow mass cremation and burial at sea, without memorial services. 

            The temporary memorial, outside what everyone is now calling, “The Kill Zone,” was named, “The Day Memorial.” Activists step up and organize an alternative, cremation, if wished, and burial in a choice of locations.  The multi-purpose room at the church on the same property, is offered for services to families.

            The authorities let the issue drop when it becomes clear their mandate will be ignored. 
            Emergency stations are established along with phone numbers and a website to help people find each other.  No one in the impacted area can go home. Shelters are opened.  Most have cell phones, but not everyone.  About half the dead have been identified by address, but the remaining identifications, for people on the street or away from their homes when the cloud hit, often have nothing to identify themselves.  

            Handling the devastation will take months or years to complete.  Protocols will be set, then changed, as projections fail and new threats are realized.  

            Life will never again be ‘normal.’  In one day, America has suffered more civilian casualties than were imposed on Iraq in years of war, more than the military deaths, and all the wounded, from all wars fought in our nation’s history.
            As the Responders begin their work, what they find is death and silence. Eerily, watering systems come on, along with lights, preprogrammed television shows, and alarms.  But nothing living stirs.   No birds are in the trees, no animals appear alive, as they make their rounds.  Eventually, predators, human and animal, do appear, but this is also horrifying.  
            It took less than a week before Responders began to see doors and windows broken in, valuables stolen from under the dead eyes of the owners.  Soon, they could recognize the patterns.  The police began a perimeter watch, but the area was so large this proved to be ineffective.  The state National Guard was then taken off their duty and redeployed as guards.  Surveillance by cameras soon followed, with drones watching from above, throughout the night hours.  

           These looters were summarily imprisoned, as much for their own safety as to serve justice.  The mood of spared friends, family, and neighbors made more permanent, and immediate, sentences, likely.  Two of what the public came to call, ‘carrion eaters,’ were found by in front of city hall, hanged from a light post.  

           From the crowd who watched the two cut down was shouted. “They should have hung the oil executives with them.”  Another voice responded, “Hey!  Where are they now?”

           Attacks by larger groups of looters on Responders resulted in issuing first pepper spray and then guns to responding teams.  

           The deaths of two Responders, one a volunteer from the outlying community, put fuel on the fire of rage, now building as the initial shock faded.  The funeral for the two, one of whom had been a friend of Jen’s from their church, was attended by 100,000 people.  The flow of volunteers from other parts of the country, some of whom had only now realized their own areas were also at risk, mounted.  Survivors whose areas had been cleared used their homes, businesses, and community buildings to house them.  

            Explaining why he had come, a volunteer from the Philadelphia area said, “It could have been my family. My Mom and Dad live behind us, one block from the refinery.  They all urged me to come, for them, too.”  Pausing, he continued. “I had a sister.  Five years ago, she died of cancer.  She was 24.   We all felt it was the refinery who caused it.  She was a real go-getter, fought for her life every day.”  Looking down, he paused for a long moment.    “I’m here for you, Ashley, and Mom and Dad.” Choking out her name, tears wetted his eyes. 

            Ashley’s name appeared on a new wall at the Memorial the next day.  

            Stolen property was tracked down, seized, along with the bank accounts, cash, and valuables perpetrators tried to claim as their own.  These funds were used to establish the Never Forget Fund in memory of what survivors not routinely called, The Day.   

             Unable to handle the massive work, even with the National Guards working seven days a week, more and more survivors began volunteering to assist the police, to care for the maimed, and to do Area Inventory, the phrase used by the Responders, for their surveys and body removals.  

             Receiving the stolen property resulted in imprisonment.  None of the perpetrators would be released, the public was told, until the honored dead, the victims, had been, finally laid to rest.   

              Some homes Responders entered are blessedly empty of death.  Their residence notes tell the Responders who missed dying there.  It is hard work for Responders, coming across bodies dead for several days and then weeks.  Cats and dogs, pet mice, every imaginable animal also died horribly. There is nothing to rescue.  This began hitting Responders hard in the first week.      

              First responders ask for, and receive, treatment for trauma, not from physical injuries but to cope with the nightmares they take back to their own homes.  Soon, their work has been organized to give them relief time, as more Responders arrive from across the country.  

               Dying of HFA poisoning is ugly, painful. During the 19-minutes of burning skin, eyes and lungs, bringing helpless terror, their bodies are dissolving. Children would have died calling for their mothers and fathers or other caretakers.  Those last few minutes would have been overwhelming agony.  Responders see it in what is left of their faces and opaqued, damaged eyes.   

                As more dead were cleared from cars, either trapped or wrecked in traffic, the tally mounts.  

                 Some cars are filled with suitcases, boxes of photos, and treasures, telling their own stories.
                 Tow trucks lined up for miles, their drivers enduring the stench, which will grow worse, before it begins to fade.   Street after street, they wait, load, and deliver the residue of lives lost to their next stop. It was slow, clearing pile-up, after pile-up, of cars, trucks, and pedestrians who died still clutching bags of their possessions. Often, people doing this work dehumanize the dead.  But not here.  The dead are treated with respect.  After all, no one else knew what could happen either. 

                 The twisted, crumpled bodies of people, struggling to escape, had realized with awful suddenness,  their danger.  Frantic to escape, they had headed for streets, hoping it lead away from the advancing cloud of death.  Sometimes, they were right, sometimes wrong.  

                 Schools remained closed within a hundred miles of the death and maiming zone, until further notice. 

          The Lemonade Stand became a destination for everyone in the development.  Snacks sell briskly on the weekend to parents, who encourage their own kids to become 'suppliers.'   Abby is the accountant for herself and Molly.  She started a bank account for them at Opus Bank, herself.  This is where Jen banks. The girls’ account now holds $965.20.

           Kendal Commons is a development where children play freely, and families visit back and forth like the small town of another century.  Nearly every weekend the neighbors get together for meals and organize trips to the many local places which are educational and fun.  

Abby and Molly with Eric getting ready to squeeze lemons.