No one lights a lamp and then covers it with a washtub or shoves it under the bed. No, you set it up on a lamp stand so those who enter the room can see their way.
Friday, July 20, 10:01 am
When my nose starts bleeding, I’m about ready to give up because it’s just too much, but I summon enough energy to blow out as much blood as I can and take another through-the-nose deep breath and shout with all my strength: “HELP!”
Then I start coughing, the dust is choking me, and I cough so much that white lights start flickering in the corners of my vision, and soon the flickers become a blizzard, and then everything goes dark.
Getting out of my car wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, but I feel much better standing up. I have a backpack with me, containing whatever might be useful that I could reach in my car: My sad, lonely single bottle of water, a change of clothes including a jacket and a pair of shoes that I was wearing when I left the house but which I’ve now swapped for a much heavier-duty pair I was bringing to the station, a flashlight that I always keep in the glove compartment in case I have to look deep in the engine, a folding knife, my keys, some maps – who knows, paper might be useful – and some miscellaneous stuff that I can’t imagine using but again, better to have it and not want it than vice versa. I’ve also put on a pair of work gloves that were leftover from some work project and had been banging around in the passenger side of my car for ages. Thank God they were there, because whatever I do out there sure to be hard on my hands.
I have made myself a jury-rigged face mask/filter system using a strip of a cloth grocery bag. This fucking dust, which I know could stay in the air for a very long time, is a real visibility issue, plus it’s concrete dust and therefore alkaline, and I’m increasingly concerned that it could pose a fire hazard, too, if anything explodes.
I’m fairly sure this tunnel had some kind of fire suppression system, sprinklers installed during that revamp they did like fifteen years ago, but since the power is out and I’m also pretty sure they installed backup generators, there’s no guarantee that anything else will work either.
I’m out of my car, and I have my tools, such as they are, and now it’s time to start thinking about potential sources of fire, and how to mitigate those hazards. This place is a nightmare, from a fire prevention standpoint, with all these cars smashed into each other and leaking fucking gasoline everywhere, and some may still be idling or on the verge of fire and there’s no way in hell I’m going to get to all of them in my lifetime, which admittedly may be very short.
I’m just starting to peer around through the haze, thinking about what to tackle first, wondering: What’s the highest risk? What was in that semi truck that was behind me? God, I hope it wasn’t some hazardous chemical truck, or gas station refueling truck or something. Just my luck it would be, and everybody in here will die of some fucking toxic gases that I don’t even know about and can’t do a damn thing to prevent.
I don’t know that there were any gas lines or anything going through here, but I know earthquakes can release methane gas from the ground, plus any idling cars will be happily puffing out carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, and the damn fans are off because of course there’s no power. No power means electrical lines are broken somewhere, that’s one more thing I’ll have to watch out for, especially if there are some emergency egress tunnels.
Air’s going to get real thin in here before too long.
I’m thinking that finding some means of egress should be a top priority and at the same time I’m keeping an ear out for any vehicles still running and will get them turned off, either by the driver or myself, when I hear a very faint call. It’s so brief, I’m almost sure I imagined it, but I immediately shout: “Is anybody there? Does anybody need help?”
A voice calls back, but it sounds much nearer, and I think it’s a woman where the first voice, although faint, sounded like a dude off ahead of me in the tunnel somewhere to the east.
Opening my eyes, I’m astonished to realize that I was asleep. Well, maybe not asleep, but in this sort of strange half-waking zoned-out state that’s completely disassociated from reality. I can’t actually remember things happening for the last while, but I don’t think I actually fell asleep. Of course, it’s not like I could have done anything else; I just have to wait for the first responders to show up and rescue me, and besides, it’s not like I have any useful skills in this situation. I’m doing everything anybody could be expected to do in this situation.
Still, I needed to be calling Shane to postpone the meeting, and instead I just sat here for some indeterminate amount of time, not doing anything productive. Not long after I regain some kind of reasoning ability, my different body parts start reporting in about how much they hurt, but fortunately my brain doesn’t seem to actually be processing that very well. My eyes are burning, some combination of gritty dust and blood, and I can definitely feel that and that every time I take a breath in, my throat and nose burn, like I’m inhaling some kind of chemical.
For a while I just sit here, pinioned against my steering column by my seat, which I gradually figure out must have gotten shoved forward by the vehicle behind me, or somehow my steering column moved toward my seat. It’s funny but I can’t figure out exactly what has happened.
Then I hear a man’s voice, fairly close to me, shouting: “Is anybody there? Does anybody need help?”
“Here!” I try to call out, and have to cough up some thick phlegm, which is quite difficult because even taking a breath is nearly impossible. Once I’ve done that, I get my vocal cords limbered up and call back, “Here! Over here! Help!”
Thank goodness the emergency rescue people are here. I’m really worried about my meeting, which has probably gone horribly without me there, because Shane is just plain incompetent even if clients like his affable manner, and I didn’t tell Shane to cancel the meeting just to stall until I get there. If these rescue guys can get me out soon enough, I may be able to salvage something of the meeting and not come off as a completely incompetent female.
I think I hear a man’s voice, the first evidence of other conscious people I’ve had yet. He calls, “Is anybody there? Does anybody need help?”
I hear a woman replying, “Here! Over here! Help!” She’s somewhere back off to the west of me. Time to get moving, soldier. That’s two people, and at least one of them seems physically fit enough to provide some kind of assistance to other victims. If we team up, we’ll achieve significantly more.
Easier said than done, though. In the time I spent leaning against my car –which cannot have been more than fifteen minutes, at the outside – my muscles have stiffened, making every movement exceptionally painful. When I was younger, I could’ve taken a beating like that and kept going for hours afterwards, doing heavy physical labor, but these days, I can’t run my car into walls, get hit by vehicles behind and ahead of me, and have cement ceiling chunks fall onto my car without feeling every impact.
However, I’ve never been one to let a little difficulty stop me. In a word, I’m stubborn. I was famous for it back in the Coast Guard, enough so that I never progressed beyond captaining my own vessel, since I refused to concede defeat until it was more than amply proven. Lesser men would give up, but I refused.
So I find a couple of handholds on some nearby debris that seems fairly stable, and I pull myself into an upright position, my knees, hips, and back all protesting this utterly unconscionable treatment. Once I’m standing, I can stretch a little bit and then start listening. I think I hear voices from the west end of the tunnel, but I also hear motor vehicle engines running somewhere nearer than that.
First things first, then. Those two voices continue, and they’re doing some kind of verbal Marco Polo to connect with each other. I think that the running engines are probably a significant enough hazard that I should address those first, and then find those two other people.
The first car I look in is right next to me. I shine my Maglight into what used to be the passenger side window and is now an empty gaping space edged with shattered glass. The dust diffuses my little light’s beam, but some of the rays catch and glitter on the shards, and for a moment my attention is caught, because I didn’t realize that broken glass could shine so brightly. It is beautiful.
The driver is alone in the car, and has smashed his head against the steering wheel hard enough that I can see an indentation. He’s not going to be turning that vehicle off himself, so with some difficulty I maneuver to reach the key and turn the car off. Poor guy.
Now I turn around and start making my way west, slowly picking my way through the darkness and debris, banging my shins into fallen hunks of cement, stumbling into cars, crunching over glass. The voices have continued, but have gotten softer, so I infer that the man found the woman and they’re having some kind of conversation. Time to play a little Marco Polo myself.
“Hello, there,” I call, turning my hands into a megaphone. “Where are you? Stay where you are, I’m coming to you.”
Although the woman isn’t that far from my car, reaching her proves incredibly challenging – just what I’d expect from this type of tunnel collapse, although in frankly it’s way less bad than I would have expected. By all rights, we should all be dead, because we are in a fucking dirt tunnel, not through bedrock but in the world’s longest tunnel dug through soil, and soil plus earthquakes equals all sorts of excitement. Whatever reinforcement magic those engineers dreamed up back years ago must have done something, because we’re here walking around, not squashed flat, or dying in one of the many terrible ways I know people die in these situations.
Of course, there’s still plenty of time. Surviving the initial event is no guarantee of surviving to be rescued.
As I’m making my way towards the woman’s voice, I shout, “Keep calling to me. I’m coming to you.”
“Thank God,” comes the voice. It’s not so strong now, in fact sounding alarmingly faint, and I wonder what kind of situation she’s in and if I will, as a point of fact, be able to help her.
“Keep talking, I’m coming,” I reply. I bang my toe, hard, against some kind of immovable object and thank god I’ve got those boots on because otherwise my toe would probably be broken, which I really don’t need to deal with at the moment.
“Come on, this way, over here, I’m trapped and I need to get out now,” the woman calls. I’m clambering over loose debris and it’s nerve-wracking, at any second this pile of what, car parts and cement chunks and dust and God knows what else could shift while I’m still on top of it. I reach the other side of that pile and sigh with relief as my feet feel solid ground again, hear the crunch of former car windows shattering a little bit and slipping a little bit as I step. My flashlight beam disperses in the haze, but I catch glimpses of bright paint, fabric interiors, rubble with rebar still hanging out of it (now that would be a real bitch to bang into head-on; gotta avoid that at all costs), this very fine gray dust coating most everything, and in some vehicles people either unconscious or dead, I can’t tell which.
Cars are scattered at a bunch of weird angles, and I keep bumping into them and having to feel my way around, and again I’m so damn grateful to have gloves to keep my hands from being lacerated by all the hunks of metal and glass lying all over the place that I have to touch to find my way.
I have to say something to let her know I’m here, so I say, “Don’t worry, we’ll get you out.” But that’s really empty words, just something to say, since after all I can’t know I’ll be able to extricate her and it’s unfortunately likely that if she has any real serious injuries I won’t be able to help and even run the risk of causing additional damage by trying to move her. No need to go there yet.
I keep banging into things in the dark and swearing under my breath. This isn’t particularly easy.
“I can’t breathe, hurry up.” I want to say Well shit, if you know some faster way to you, just let me know, cuz I’m coming as fast as I can, but I keep my mouth shut.
“I’m coming. Damn!” I bang my shin into something really hard.
Now I can hear coughing, mixed with some kind of incoherent mumbling or crying. It’s definitely the same woman, and even though I’ve exchanged a total of about a dozen words with her, she’s already getting on my nerves, whimpering and telling me to hurry up. She’s very close now, but with all the dust in the air, I can hardly see my hand in front of my face.
There’s a vehicle nearby that’s still running. Its lights are on and they’re blazing off towards the ceiling because, I realize as I get closer, it’s a Hummer and it has half run over the car ahead of it and is now leaning at an angle with one front wheel on the ground and one on the sedan in front of it.
“Look over to your left,” I say, and pull out my flashlight, shining the light towards where I thought I heard her voice coming from.
After our first contact, the rescuer takes an incredibly long time to reach me, and I start wondering about this rescuer’s competence, whether he’s actually had training in this type of rescue, and if he’s actually qualified to help. What if he just makes things worse? Maybe I should insist on seeing his supervisor, or battalion chief, or whoever is in charge of rescue personnel.
Even so, when his voice comes out of the gloom and tells me to keep on talking, that he’s coming to me, I do feel a rush of relief: Knowing I’ll have somebody else nearby, however incompetent, is reassuring, and even if I have to be the brains of the outfit, at least I’ll have some brawn to help out. It’s that momentary feeling of relief that makes me say, “Thank God.”
But talking, especially talking loudly, is taking its toll. I have to keep coughing, and each time I have to spit out this vile combination of dust and mucus so my dashboard starts getting splattered with it. He gives some kind of inane reply, like “I’m still coming, don’t worry,” as if I’d think he would stop coming or give up or something. Isn’t it rescuers’ jobs to come rescue people? What kind of rescuer would he be if he gave up?
But he needs my voice to find me, so I take another breath, such as it is, and just say something like “Over here, this way.” When he was a kid, Michael’s friends would play Marco Polo in the pool with his little friends, all of them wading around, tantalizingly close to the kid who was “it,” stumbling around with his eyes closed and arms outstretched, trying to catch all those teasing peers who kept skipping just out of the way, until one tripped and slipped under the water. I always thought it was a dangerous game, so I didn’t let Michael play. The pool was for exercise, not some kind of frivolous game. I remember this now as I hear muted cursing and banging, some shifting slithering noise, some crunching.
I add, “I’m trapped and I need to get out now,” so that this guy has some idea what he’ll be needing to do. Jaws of life wouldn’t go amiss here, I’m thinking, but even a crow bar wouldn’t be too bad.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get you out,” the man’s voice says, and the low cursing resumes. What’s taking him so long?
Time to light a fire under his butt. “I can’t breathe, hurry up,” I say, and then cough and hack up more nasty crap, and that’s not a joke. My ribs hurt terribly, and I’d really, really like to get out of this gigantic vice. The muttering intensifies and sounds closer, but all I can make is, “I’m coming. Damn!” –the “damn” came right after a very solid-sounding thunk. He probably walked into something, just another sign of the ineptitude of today’s first responders.
Finally his voice comes from very close by and says, “Look over to your left,” and when I get my neck turned, which is an exercise in torture all by itself, I can make out some kind of bright light in the haze. The Mounties are here.
Thank goodness, this will all be over very soon.