Forty years ago May 11, 1976 will always be a part of my memory – and should be for anyone who lived in Houston, TX that day.
The day began like any other – partly cloudy. High humidity – a Tuesday. I was working for Hodge Mason Maps in the Greenway Plaza area. A radio in the background alerted my boss and I to the unfolding disaster so close to us. An ammonia truck had over turned and the area was covered in a lethal white cloud. We could see the cloud from our office windows. We were told to shelter in place.
I lived very close to the carnage. A quick call to my apartment manager confirmed the situation was dangerous however she had turned off the ac. She encouraged me to stay where I was. We did stay and little work was completed. Houston had suffered a horrific tragedy, the extent unknown. As I drove home that day I noticed plants wilted. My eyes stung but I got off easy. Others did not.
I worked as a temporary employee for Norrell Temporary service. My counselor was Karen Bijak a bubbling, cute brunette whose life was forever changed that day. She had driven into the cloud and lay there until someone rescued her. Videos of Karen – dark hair down, striped shirt are clearly seen and shared online. Once I learned Karen had been injured – from the news the next day I called St. Luke’s Hospital. I spoke with her parents. Karen was gravely ill. I said a prayer for her that day and many days following.
I went to Great Britain for a month that August and sent Karen a post card. She was still in the hospital. I never saw her again but kept in touch. The last time I contacted her – I spoke with her nurse who stated Karen could not speak to me as she was getting her bath. I learned Karen was not doing well at all. Within a short time I learned she died at age 27. She never got to snorkel again or ski in Colorado. Her lungs were destroyed.
Others whom I did not know suffered similar fates. One young woman was driving downtown to the Continental Trailways station (now Greyhound). She and her newborn baby were going to meet Grandma who had ridden a bus to Houston. Grandma waited and waited until she learned her daughter was in the hospital. A few days later the daughter died and the newborn was blind for life.
A week after the accident another child was born. His father had driven the truck that day and died. His son would never know his dad. A needless loss for sure.
When I drive past the 610/59 interchange I think of these victims, of those who lived with life long health issues. I think of the trains which regularly barrel through Houston with a cargo of hazardous material. One north to south route passes within a short distance of the ammonia disaster.
I am grateful there has not been another but know it is possible unless those who were there 40 years ago remember and act upon those memories. That tragedy should never have happened and it must not happen again.