It seems that most major disasters seem to occur on days that people describe as, “It was a beautiful morning.” This morning was just that. A few weeks ago, I shifted my morning commute from the DART rail to driving I-30. Because my work schedule has kept me later and later, I convinced myself driving was safer than riding the light rail.
Between snacking on a fruit bowl and a biscuit, I noticed a very faint cloud of smoke in the distance. Little did I know, by the time I reached it, it would be an exploding fireball.
Almost a month ago, I blogged about a massive warehouse fire downtown, so I thought it might be something similar. I pulled out my camera, and snapped several pictures as I approached downtown. As I got into the “canyon” I noticed a slowdown in traffic.
Trying to phone the station to alert them of the fire, there was no answer. After putting my phone in my lap, I felt a huge jolt. I thought maybe I had hit something in the roadway.
Suddenly I felt another blast, then another, and it kept coming. I was astonished that I could feel such intense forces while driving at 50 miles per hour. Several lanes next to me were blocked off due to construction, so I assumed it may have been a jack hammer or machinery.
A few seconds later I turned off onto I-35, which takes me directly to work. Police cars were just arriving to barricade the roadway, instructing people to turn away. I could see in the distance, people fleeing their cars on foot, screaming. Seeing the panic, I couldn’t help think it might be an act of terrorism. The explosions kept growing in intensity, the inferno was simply incredible. What was directly in front of me looked like something from a movie.
I pulled across several lanes that had been blocked off from construction, and got out to speak with a police officer. She told me that the area was being evacuated, because of danger of flying debris. She pointed out these objects being launched into the air like a slingshot.
The station finally called back, and I was patched through to Tina, a field producer who handles breaking news. She informed me that I’d be patched through to the studio, and would be talking to Macie Jepson and Jeff Brady, the anchors on set.
I was about to go on air, until we lost signal. I looked down to see a “network busy” message on my display. The panic was certainly clogging the cell phone network.
Still feeling that I was in danger, I continued across a bridge to the west side of the Trinity River. I managed to find a side street with a dead end, where I could park my car. I grabbed my notepad and ran up the side of the levee so that I’d have a good vantage point to describe what I saw. When I arrived at the top, a man in a pickup asked me if I was press. I showed him my credentials and he showed me his badge. The gentleman was an investigator with the Texas Department of Public Safety. I got in his truck and we headed toward the explosions. He described what he saw as well as what communication he had received from the DPS. We watched the scene for a few minutes, before returning to my car.
Fellow intern Morgan Parmet finally got through to my phone and told me it would be best for me to try to safely get back to the station. She had been my eyes, ears, and hands back at Channel 8 all morning. She had been relaying information, and helping me keep my cool.
Using my Mapsco guide given to me by my Uncle Mark, I navigated through the Oak Cliff section of Dallas and headed north. I’ve got to hand it to the emergency responders, who came out of the woodwork in an instant. Positioned on every corner, the sectioned off a mile-wide radius from the site, working to get people to safety.
I detoured across town, and literally a half of a tank later, managed to cross back over the Trinity River well north of downtown. I made my way back through traffic toward the station.
After making a list of frantic phone calls to my family, letting them know I was okay, my phone rang. It was David, my mentor. It was very reassuring to hear from him. He was out in the field, but he told me to call the assignment editor and tell her what I knew. The station had been covering the situation for an hour and a half at this point, and desperately needed current information.
Once back at the station, the newsroom was busy. Everyone was answering phones and helping get updated information on air. We continued live coverage into the noon hour.
The morning’s events were caused by a chain reaction explosion that started with an acetylene tank catching fire. Hundreds, if not thousands of these tanks were being stores and refilled at Southwest Industrial Gases in downtown Dallas. Most of the tanks were connected to one another, so this led to the acceleration of the explosion.
It took the firefighters several hours to get the fire under control and miraculously, no one died in this dramatic accident. Three men were taken to area hospitals. One man was treated and released, while two other remain in serious condition tonight.
Traffic continued to be an issue into the afternoon and early evening. Two major interstates were closed for the majority of the day, creating a headache for most of the DFW Metroplex.
Today was certainly an unsettling, yet interesting day. I was able to soak-in the experience of covering a major spot new story from multiple angles. It was also a valuable lesson in the importance of personal safety considerations on the job. My thoughts and prayers are with the injured men tonight.
For incredible video of the day’s events, click here.