May 09, 2014
The Times I Almost Died, Part Three - 1
by Tim MacWelch
For the third and final installment of this week-long series, I have saved the worst for last. If you caught Part 1 on Monday and Part 2 on Wednesday, you saw things go from bad to worse. This final tale is sobering and hard to explain in logical terms, so I’ll just present the story as it happened and let you decide how I’m still here to write about it.
It was a cold and drizzly morning, Nov. 2, 1999. I was working at a refinery that processed fuel-grade ethanol—essentially, a giant moonshine still. One of my duties was to measure the liquid levels in the tanks in the tank farm, which was an excavated area holding eight large tanks containing tens of thousands of gallons of flammable liquid—everything from low-proof alcoholic waste product to gasoline and 198.6-proof alcohol (nearly water-free). The chill and mist of the morning had me bundled up more than normal for November, and as I scaled the ladder on the side of a 40-foot-tall rusty metal tank, I had no idea how valuable those layers of wet clothing soon would be.
After reaching the flat top of the tank, I lowered the measuring float by hand to determine the liquid level in the tank. This one was hot: High-proof alcohol coming right from the heated dehydrating beds at the refinery, and the vapors were burning my eyes. I moved the float down into the tank as I had done hundreds of times before, but things took a turn for the worse in a blinding flash.
With float line in hand, I stood next to the 4-inch port on the top of the tank. Somehow, a small static electric spark ignited the hot vapors pouring from the opening. The next few seconds were like a jumbled moment snatched from a bad dream. An invisible geyser of alcohol fire shot up from the tank’s top port with a deafening roar and immense heat. The metal tank expanded, nearly bursting, and instantly went from being a flat-topped cylinder to a round-topped tank.
This series of events launched by body upward and backward so forcefully that I was literally blown out of my boots. I lost a second or two of memory after I saw one of my boots tumbling through the air, 40 feet off the ground. The next thing I remember is that I was burning and desperately grabbing for the exterior of the safety cage as I sailed over it. Somehow, I swung myself inside the cage with an arm that was on fire, and reached the ladder. My next snippet of memory is the strange sensation of climbing down the ladder in my sock feet. Then I seemed to regain my mental faculties as I ran from the tank farm, which was not deep enough to hold all the liquid should the tank rupture. Mercifully, the fire didn’t continue, as the expanding vapor from the tank stopped and drew a vacuum. As the fire tried to draw a breath, it went out, as did the flames on the surface of my wet clothing. I received only a 6-inch-long, second-degree burn on my arm.
The odds are that the fall should have killed me. Or the aging tanks should have burst, dropping me into a sea of fiery fluid. How did I catch the cage around the ladder with an arm that was on fire? How was I launched in the direction of the ladder—the ONLY ladder—down the tank?
I should be dead. Period. But I’m not.
Is it because the human body is capable of amazing feats under life-or-death extremes? Maybe.
We all contain a cocktail of chemicals and hormones, which flood out into our brains and bloodstreams in dire situations. One of the brain’s most impressive feats is its ability to speed up the processing of visual information. This is what happens when you have the sensation that time has slowed down. Your eyes and mind are processing data at their highest level of function, drinking in information and processing the important bits, for your survival. Or at least that’s what science tells us.
But perhaps I experienced a moment of grace. If you don’t believe in divine intervention, you might after an experience like mine. I’m a believer, especially after that incident.
The punchline for this un-funny story is that sometimes people pass away from the smallest and stupidest things, while others survive insane scenarios like I did. Sometimes it’s not up to us. My takeaway from this near-death experience is that there is a greater plan in all things, and if it’s not your time to go, you’ll live to see another day.
Have a good weekend, everyone. I hope you’re as grateful to be here to enjoy it as I am.