Sparrow Girl – The Night the Refinery Blew Up

The Night the Refinery Blew Up

There are certain sounds you wake up to feeling inexplicably fearful and sickened. Long before knowing the why’s of it your stomach is already in great big knots. Very few events in my life had prepared me for waking up like this. In that split moment of waking up from what was my first experience with concussion from an explosion I had nothing on which to base my fear other than just knowing instinctively that this was a very, very bad thing. Before that split second was over I had already called out to my mother.

My mother had much more experience with waking up as a result of bombardments having survived several of them in the ruins of Rotterdam during the second world war. She had learned to respond to her sense of survival and not her sense of fear, to her absolute credit. Mams was opening the door to my room before I managed to bring myself to the sitting position she scooped me up from. She took me to the inside hallway and we sat in silence for several moments. Waiting I suppose for a second explosion. None came.

Thee were also no air raid siren,no overhead aircraft. From where we were sitting in the hallway we could see the kitchen facing the courtyard. The floor was covered in glass, the small bits caught the light and were twinkling like so many little diamonds, like little stars. Looking through the kitchen windows at the sky which was blood-red triggered a fearful response the like of which I had never known and which to this day stands alone, the highest level of dread and fear I have ever experienced. Perhaps because my mother was suddenly wailing and crying and because my daddy was not home, he was at work..

My mother was not alone, there was much crying to be heard from the entire apartment complex. Other women whose husbands were not at home, other people who had already lived through quite enough blood-red skies for a lifetime. The dog had come to sit beside me in his usual sweet and protective manner. I hugged my mother, knowing she needed it, and perhaps a bit selfishly because I needed it too.

Beyond the courtyard facing much further east was the Shell Refinery where my father and the fathers in all the families here worked. This was a company town. Everyone knew that refineries are highly volatile workplaces. We were close enough that when the explosion happened many of the windows facing the refinery had blown out. There was glass in the kitchen, the hallway, and the hallways outside the apartment and more still in the courtyard.

We stood on the long communal balcony, facing the reddest sky I have ever seen. Silently, holding the hands of our loved ones and wondering whether those of us missing were going to be alright. We were wondering, will they come home. I seem to have inherited the tendency to do something when I am terribly upset, to not sit still, inherited from my mother. After we had stood there is silence for some time, and realized that nothing would be changing anytime soon, we started cleaning up the mess inside.

An hour or so later the sky was still blood-red with a more orange colour right behind the trees. Our kitchen was completely tidy. We had dressed more warmly, the room was cold with the missing window. Neighbors appeared at the window now and again wanting to know if we had heard anything. We did not have a telephone, so the only way to find out anything was through the sharing of information by the few in the apartments who did have a telephone. Daddy was not home yet. That was the only thing we knew. No-one working at the refinery that night had come home. By now we were all aware that dad might be hurt of worse, never coming home. Mams was very reassuring, although unconvincing, saying over and over that daddy would be home any minute and not to worry. She had nothing left too clean inside, so we both went outside and cleaner the gallery outside our apartment of glass. After that she started the coal stove, to warm up and have a hot chocolate. I think she knew I would not be able to sleep without daddy coming home. Exhausted I lay bundled in my blanket in Mams arms until morning.

We were just clearing away some breakfast dishes when an exited neigbour came to the door. Mams spoke to her and by the tone in her voice I knew all at once that daddy was going to come home, he was alright or she would not be sounding so happy. That’s pretty much what she told me. Someone from the refinery had called the neigbour to tell her which of the men were seriously hurt or dead, and my father’s name was not mentioned. That could only mean that he would be alright and coming home soon.

It was many hours yet before he came home. He looked awful, his face was scorched and much of his hair had gone missing, he no longer had eyebrows or eyelashes, and his eyes were hurt. All of which he kept reassuring my mother would heal in time and not to worry. He was silent on the subject of what had happened exactly. He healed, but never discussed it. His eyebrows did not grow back and few of his eyelashes did. His eyesight was as good as ever, but the worst of it for him was the loss of much of his hair.

For many years dad saw all the best doctors to see if anything could be done, to recover some of his hair growth, but benzine poisoning is not reversible completely. I think he would have been less affected if he had lost a leg or something, he grieved the loss of his hair his entire life. A few decades later he might have had a transplant, that would have made hi happier. When daddy came home that day I knew my father would always come home. Dad attained superhero status that day, although inexplicably my nightmares, where I was chased by a tiger through the streets of Rotterdam to find my father dead at home, continued into my teens.

Still, I was never frightened to see him leave, not when he was in the army and possibly going to Indonesia, not when he worked late at night at the refinery. I just knew he would always come home and read me stories, or concoct some of his own stories which he would illustrate for me on a large drawing pad.

The explosion was soon a part of the past, the air had cleared, injuries had healed, and the dead were buried. Business at the shell refinery was as before. I can’t say, although I do suspect, that this is when my father started looking for a position elsewhere, away from Shell and some memories which he never shared.

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