Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tanks for the Memories

by Madelle Morgan

This month's topic is the perfect opportunity to tell you about my heroine's tense "near death experience", and how it was derived from my years as a civil engineer in Canada's far north.

In the early 1980s I managed the construction of fuel storage facilities in remote Arctic communities, accessible only by air, by ocean during the short summer, or by ice road in winter. 

Large steel tanks stored gasoline, heating oil, and aviation fuel.

I gained a very healthy respect for the explosive potential of fuel. Actually, it is the fumes that ignite in a flash, sending the whole tank up in a powerful explosion. Very foolish teens regularly scaled fences to sniff gas from hatches in the tops of these tanks. If they decided to light a cigarette, well, that was a real death experience.

I recall receiving a phone call from a contractor who flew into a remote community to gas-free and dismantle a couple of old horizontal tanks.

Contractor: "Can't do the job."

Me, sitting in an office seven hundred miles away: "Why not?"

Contractor: "Tanks blew up before I arrived."

Because of extreme low outdoor temperatures, fuel pumps at each "tank farm" were located inside small insulated prefab buildings. Here's a photo of my 1981-82 tank farm project at Paulatuk, Northwest Territories, Canada on the shore of the Beaufort Sea.

Photo Credit: James Malone, June 1, 2010

In my romantic suspense Diamond Lust, the geologist heroine and her colleague Carter have been locked into one of these fuel dispenser buildings at a diamond mine in the Canadian sub-Arctic.

Overwhelmed by the scale of the fraudulent activities that encompassed diamond production from ore excavation through processing, Petra sank to sit cross-legged on the floor. “Horvath, Security, perhaps a dozen other employees must be in on the fraud. These smugglers covered all the angles. They will never let us live. We are so screwed.”

“Didn’t you notice the AN/FO over there?”

She followed the direction of his nod to a fifty-five-pound sack wedged between two pumps, the label indicating the trade name of an ammonium nitrate blasting agent. A wave of dizziness had her chin dipping to her chest. The smugglers planned one mother of an explosion. Ignited, the dispenser building and its fuel storage tanks outside would erupt into a cataclysmic fireball.

A white ignition cord dangled from a hole poked into the side of the packaging. When the white flashes behind her eyeballs faded, she knee-walked over to the sack, and with her teeth yanked out the cord and metal blasting cap on its buried tip with the intention of gently depositing it on the floor in a far corner.

“A lot of good that’ll do. They don’t have to enter this room to start a fire. They’ll open an exterior valve to flood the ground with fuel, or drop a match into a tank, or—”

“Enough, Carter! I need to think.” Why plan a massive explosion? If eliminating her and Carter were the objective, why wait? A small fire lit at the time they were dumped in the building would have killed them quickly. “They intend to create a major diversion,” she said slowly, “to give them time to escape in the confusion.”

Of course Petra and Carter are saved by the hero in the nick of time!

Don't be Fuelish

Before stepping out of the vehicle at a gas station, please leave cell phones and any device that can create a spark or flame inside the vehicle. Don't smoke! Even static electricity can potentially ignite fumes that have collected around the fuel pumps. Be aware. Be safe.


The spark for Madelle's debut novel, Diamond Lust, was the astonishing discovery of high quality diamonds in Canada's far north. She "mined" her northern experiences to write a romantic suspense about diamond smuggling. Diamond Lust is currently unavailable, but a second edition will be released by January, 2015. www.madellemorgan.com


Judith Ashley said...

Love how you use your real life experiences in "Diamond Lust", Madelle.

And take your ear bud out...it isn't enough to just leave your cell phone in the car according to an article I recently read. Rather astonishing to see how many fires have been started because someone was talking on their cell phone or had it in their pocket/hand and it rang when they were next to the tank.

Not as much of a problem in Oregon because we still have laws on the books that prevent us from pumping our own gas. I think that is more and more a safety issue because the "it won't happen to me" and "it's only for a minute or two" mentality is alive and well in our culture.

Madelle Morgan said...

Hi Judith,
Good tip! I also should have mentioned those gasoline containers people often store in their attached garages or outbuildings, or in boathouses.

A container is more dangerous when it is partially full, believe it or not, than when full. Empty gasoline containers that have not been cleaned out aka gas-freed (or filled to the brim with water for storage purposes) are the most explosive, due to the fumes from residual gas.

People should think about this danger the next time they put an empty gasoline container in their vehicle.

Sarah Raplee said...

Loved the excerpt, Madelle! I'm so glad Diamond Lust will be available again in January!

Pippa Jay said...

I'm always completely paranoid around flammable liquids or gases. I used to be an analytical chemist, so we worked with plenty of corrosive, explosive and flammable materials, and it used to horrify me some of the people we got in who would smoke round the back of the building next to the tanks of oxygen, nitrous gas and acetylene cylinders and the like, or stand beakers of acetone in front of hotplates. >.<