Rubbertown Gets Bounced Again


Carbide Industries on a better day. Photo: Amy Berg/LEO

It shattered the arrival of Spring, just as the sun was setting in the warm orange skies. A furnace explosion ripped through the walls of the Carbide Industries plant, burning and curling metal; sending shards of debris and plumes of smoke into the air.

At a gathering in Audubon Park, we heard an alarm sound in the back room. No one really thought much of it–after all, we are a beeping, buzzing culture of technology. A few people patted their pockets out of habit, assuring them it was not their phone.

Our host has the Midland All Hazards Weather Alert Radio NOAA WR-100. It can be set it to respond to different radius yet they keep it to Jefferson County. S.A.M.E. code 021111. That night during the Carbide Industries explosion and fire on Bells Lane in Rubbertown, her alert signal for hazardous materials sounded loud and clear just moments after the incident.

The standard ‘take precautions’ and ‘close windows,’ turn off air conditioners’ went out post haste from the little $29 apparatus purchased at Kroger . We murmured to one another, “Libya?” Some glanced outdoors toward the horizon on an otherwise perfect Monday afternoon. “Tornadoes?”

The iPhones came out one by one, each guest reading the messages from broadcast media about the incident, which was by then just several minutes old. Memories of the Purina debacle began to circulate in the crowd. Some of us, yours truly included, were old enough to remember the barge that crashed into the McAlpine Locks back in the 70s and sent many families from their TV sets to soaking washcloths for safe breathing during the chlorine leak. (It happened not.)

There were two disasters in progress that evening. One was the explosion and the other was the response and reaction from city authorities.

What unfolded in the hours to follow , at least administratively, was deserving of a soundtrack from Benny Hill episode Confusion ruled and tempers would heat up as soon as the fires were extinguished. It seems to be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen and not enough food. Communication between MetroSafe, LMPD, LFD and the media was a scramble for information at best. On the other hand, this community is almost dwarfed by the industry just blocks from their porches. The air, soil and water have always been at risk. This explosion, while not surprising, bore a shock all its own.

A wake up call? For whom? How and when can we start to help?

The neighborhood, while weary of being neglected and now wary of any government interaction in this crisis, are clutching the last straws. By the time news crews arrived with cameras and mics, the emotionally toxic fumes of forever being perceived as second-class citizens were proving more hostile than the carbide plant–which oozed smoke behind the residents as they were more than ready for their close-up.

It was good to see Mayor Fischer coming down to the site.His expression of concern was etched with futility. While it’s been said that Greg Fischer is not an emotional speaker, his silence spoke volumes as he took in the accounts of his constituents. MetroSafe director Doug Hamilton floated close to the mayor, hands on hips, not having any answers to most questions.

it will take more than a handshake to begin fence mending and rebuilding of faith in local government. The mayor left with an ear full–exasperation, aggression and fear topping the list.

My thoughts were all over the map in the hours following the explosion.Had a haz-mat crisis occurred in a more prestigious zip code, would there have been a plan in place? How can we get our alert system streamlined from same-page information and response to protocol for evacuation and sirens? Does the Rubbertown community, and I hate that title, have an advocacy core and how can they make their voices heard after this crisis? Which could have been so much worse.

The loss of life was two too many. Known as dedicated workers and upstanding citizens, Steven Nichols, and Jorge “Louie” Medina may be replaced at the plant but there is no one to take on the role of doting grandfather to several children.

As of last night, plumes of thick, black smoke churned from the building and into the sky and it’s still smokin’ today. As concerned residents have been told for the last 24 hours, there is nothing to worry about.