A Crisis Full Circle

The indelible impressions from a gas explosion 40 years ago still remain vivid memories in one man's life.Helping clients deal with communications crises is a significant part of my professional work. A letter I received recently reminded me just how long I have been handling them.

Forty years ago on October 1, my news editor at the Port Angeles Evening News scrambled me to the scene of a downtown natural gas explosion that rocked Haguewood's Cafe, a popular restaurant known for its large, luscious cinnamon rolls (I ate one every Saturday).

Dozens of people were injured and at least one died in what looked afterward like a war zone, with fire jetting into the air and debris littered everywhere.

For young reporters like me, such incidents were exciting and dangerous —especially in a smaller town, where breaking news wasn't commonplace.

Even though interviewing eyewitnesses and injured victims gave me an adrenalin rush at the time, the incident passed from my memory over time. Recently, I received a letter from one of the victims, who at the time was a 16-year-old high school student with the bad luck of hanging out in the restaurant when the explosion occurred.

"I was blown back over my chair and landed face down," he wrote. "I felt the building raining down and could hear it and the sounds of people screaming. When I stood up, the dust was choking and the only thing I could see was the light from the gas station across the street. I could hear the cries and screams in the darkness, but couldn't help anyone and had no idea what just happened."

It was clear he had retained a vivid memory of the incident for 40 years.

His letter detailed what subsequently happened to him and his three buddies at the restaurant. My correspondent moved away from Port Angeles when he turned 19 three years later (I had departed two years before that). He entered the trades, worked at the Hanford nuclear reservation, moved to Spokane and later worked at Kaiser Aluminum. He recalled being involved in five strikes and one management lockout over his career as a boilermaker and pipefitter. Later, he was a road warrior for his union, took stands to protect the Redwoods and participated in the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.

"I covered about 150,000 miles all over this country," he said. 'That is where I met the CF&I Steelworkers at Oregon Steel and the longshoremen from Powell's Books."

Three years ago, his path crossed with the brother of one of his Port Angeles buddies, who he hadn't seen since high school graduation. His buddy "went off the deep end with drugs, alcohol and even huffing paint." He had died a month earlier than the chance meeting with his brother.

Two weeks before writing me a letter, my correspondent noticed an obituary for another of his buddies. He had just died from a battle with cancer.

That prompted him to call up the remaining buddy, which kindled old memories. His buddy didn't recall how the four got to the Port Angeles hospital, but he remembered seeing a man with a huge, bloody gash in his head. It turned out to be the bartender who was injured when a huge mirror crashed over his head. He eventually died from his wounds.

The journey through time and long-ago pain wasn't complete until the letter to me, wrapping up loose ends, bringing the story full circle with the reporter who covered the incident that left a lasting impression.

So much of the effort in crisis communications is aimed at getting someone out of the headlines, it is easy to forget that crises leave indelible impressions.

The Port Angeles gas explosion wasn't my first crisis, nor the last. But, thanks to my surprise correspondent, it is no longer a dormant memory.