Today’s problem seemed simple but had turned lethal. Lynn Dayton, TriCoast Energy’s top refining executive, swore to herself as she wove in and out of traffic on the Bay Bridge. Running a refinery like the one in the East Bay was dangerous enough when everything worked. It could be deadly if equipment was screwing up. Surely it’s an equipment malfunction, not someone sabotaging the operations?
With her was her former mentor—now TriCoast’s chief troubleshooter, Reese Spencer. He was puzzled, too. The best the company’s expert engineers and computer scientists could suggest was the ubiquitous “computer glitch,” with no clue about the source.
“Computer glitch” could mean anything from an erroneous line of code to a critical valve failure.
Reese talked through his reasoning. “Seems the increase in accidents correlates with higher-than-normal turnover for this refinery.”
“Correlation is not causation,” Lynn told him, twisting to adjust her lean, five-foot-nine runner’s frame to the cramped driver’s seat. The computer snag could infect our other refineries and put even more people at risk.
Similar to other California industries, TriCoast’s refinery was camouflaged from the highway and public behind hills. After a final turn, spiky distillation towers and giant product tanks appeared in front of them, arrayed in sections like city squares. Flocks of starlings that had roosted on warm equipment during the night now rose in a black cloud and winged westward toward the bay.
They carded through the front gate and parked as close as possible to the low-rise headquarters building. Since they would be walking past hazardous pumps, Lynn pulled her blond hair into a ponytail to avoid catching it in any rotating equipment.
“Glad you’re here.” Refinery manager Curtis Zhang showed them to an unadorned office.
“There’s no easy pattern to these hiccups yet these problems have been going on for weeks. Your thoughts?” she asked.
Zhang shrugged, clearly exasperated. “I sure as hell wish I had answers, but I don’t.”
“You hire good engineers and operators,” Lynn said.
“But the pull from salaries, bonuses and stock options of tech companies is like trying to escape Jupiter’s gravity,” Zhang replied. “Or else we hire them, but then they get admitted to one of those ten-week coding boot camps that doubles their salary. So no reason to stay here.”
“We have tech opportunities everywhere at TriCoast,” Lynn said. “We just need to get the word out.”
“Hell yes,” Zhang agreed. “The East Bay has always been industrial. So we’re using AI, drones, the Internet of Things and driverless vehicles. You name it, we’re applying it.”
“I don’t worry about turnover as much as the safety of our people,” she said.
“This refinery’s statistics show few accidents until recently,” Reese added.
Zhang nodded and introduced two people who’d joined them. “Shirley Watson is our human resources VP and Juan Rojas, our safety and environmental VP.”
Shirley’s handshake was firm, her smile warm and pleasant.
“Yes, we’re concerned, too,” Juan added. His six-four, two-hundred-pounds-plus frame suggested he could readily convince people to follow his safety and environmental directives.
“We’re always adjusting operations to compensate for problems, so we’ve avoided a major shutdown so far, but it’s only a question of time,” Zhang continued, echoing Lynn’s thoughts on her drive across the Bay Bridge.
She motioned toward the door. “Shall we?” The five each clipped hard hat straps under their chins. Zhang directed them to one of the multi-story distillation towers.
Most of the refinery’s equipment—its several-story cylindrical towers, vast drums, pumps, and blocks upon blocks of pipe—was out in the open air. They walked asphalt “streets” from one section to another. Everything was run by trained, unionized operators and technicians stationed in a half-dozen small control buildings. The crews they met were agreeable and attentive but had been on the job less than four years. Their short tenures were unusual for TriCoast. At Lynn’s other refineries, experienced hands stayed on for decades.
They stood next to a 130-foot tall vacuum distillation tower shaped like a booster rocket before liftoff although with a larger diameter and stubbier profile.
A klaxon blared. The woooo of the alarm pitch started low and became higher and louder.
We gotta roll! “High-pressure!” Lynn shouted. She pointed to a nearby control room.
They ran inside. The room’s walls and ceiling had been built to withstand earthquakes and blast pressure waves.
A few minutes later, the klaxon stopped.
Her group was greeted with curious looks from the four operators already inside and others who’d taken shelter. Operators were men and women who controlled the pump systems and enormous oil processing towers. They monitored gauges and alarms to keep equipment from getting too hot, too over-pressured, or too full.
“We heard the alarm,” Juan said, his voice tight.
The lead operator looked at her screens and shook her head. “I don’t see the source. Just another false one.”
Relieved, Lynn and the rest returned outside.
“Could the problem be randomized corrosion? We had a bad incident resulting from high-sulfur crude making excessive sulfuric acid.” Although she was talking about one of her Texas refineries, corrosion problems were common in many manufacturing plants. “We didn’t find it until after the acid gnawed through a line. A hydrogen sulfide gas leak killed four people.”
“I read about that in a company alert,” Zhang said.
“We train hard on safety and inspection,” Shirley replied, her eyes narrowing. “But the risk of so many false alarms is crying wolf syndrome. People stop responding as fast as necessary. Or at all.”
“You’ve checked to see if systems have been hacked?” Lynn asked. Most plants had experienced attempted computer intrusions and had set up defensive software.
“I’m sure we’ve been hacked. After our own people couldn’t find anything we brought in software consultants, but they haven’t found the source, either,” Juan said. Impatience roughened his voice.
“Same kinds of failures on the same units?” she asked.
Juan shook his head. “No pattern to either the false alarms or the real ones.”
“When we drove in, we saw starlings,” she said.
“Yeah, damn birds and their shit,” Curtis Zhang replied. “Don’t think they’re the cause, though.”
A high-pressure alarm on a nearby pump blared, sounding like the earlier one.
Lynn looked around for what might have triggered the alarm. False again? Shirley’s right. Easy to stop reacting to alarms when they’re so frequent.
Zhang shook his head and pointed to the concrete building they’d just left.
Lynn shouted over the alarm. “Back to the control room, everyone. Let’s move!”
Zhang led, followed by the others.
Shirley hung back, looking for anyone who might be lingering.
Lynn yelled as the alarm kept wailing, “Shirley, you can’t save anyone else if you don’t save yourself. C’mon!”
The air above her head felt cooler, then warmer, as she ran through shadow stripes from pipe racks five feet over her head.
They heard a distant explosion, as if a vessel or pump had ruptured. Her stomach dropped. She knew all the normal rumbles and rushing sounds a refinery made. This wasn’t one. A split-open vessel meant the worst kind of trouble.
“Run!” Shirley shouted.
“You, too!” Lynn replied, waving Shirley forward.
Although they wouldn’t be able to see any invisible hydrocarbon gases, leakages could explode once they crossed an ignition source, or even just heat from an engine exhaust.
Lynn looked back and caught a whiff of rotten eggs. Hydrogen sulfide! This could be as bad as the Centennial accident. Over a year ago, finding the cause for a gas leak that had killed four people led her to an international plot to sabotage Houston refineries.
The shaft of a big gray pump nearby whined as the pump spun out of control. Its bearing housing started to knock so hard the pump shook. Bolts loosened on the casing as the pump increased rotation speed. Finally, the automatic shutoff triggered.
But the pump’s silence didn’t mean safety. She knew extra friction from the pump grinding out of alignment had caused its metallic parts to overheat well above their already-hot temperature of three hundred and fifty degrees. Despite its safety design the pump’s cooling fins might not dissipate the heat fast enough.
Forty yards behind her, Shirley grabbed the shirts of two men who seemed to think they were hearing another false alarm.
They’re too close to that overheated pump! “Run!” Lynn shouted.
Shirley pulled the men toward the control room, a furious look on her face. Lynn turned and started toward her to help, but Juan and Reese yanked her back.
In an instant an invisible mass of gas met the overheated pump.
A wall of fire erupted.
With a roar, an inferno the size of a boxcar flashed over Shirley and the men.
Lynn’s horror was deepened by a scalding blast of heat.
Shirley and the men screamed. One tripped. Shirley pulled him to his feet and they ran far enough to roll on the ground and extinguish their burning clothes.
But the fire back-flashed to the original source of the gas leak, sparking smaller fires along the cement where hydrocarbon liquids had collected.
“Someone turn off the fucking flow!” Lynn shouted.
“I did!” Zhang said.
“Fire’s called in!” Juan said.
“Extinguishers!” Lynn shouted. Can we even put this monster out?
“Oh my God! Oh fuck! Oh God, I’m dying!” one of the men screamed.
Lynn gritted her teeth. The worst nightmare. Stop! Focus! She grabbed a fire extinguisher from its outdoor stand.
She hoisted the fifty-pound cylinder.
PASS. She remembered the acronym. She pulled the pin, aimed the hose nozzle toward the base of the fire, squeezed the handle, and swept the nozzle back and forth. The canister didn’t seem to get lighter but her hands began freezing as she released compressed carbon dioxide.
Reese, Zhang, and Juan followed her example.
Shirley and the men kept crawling forward. Lynn advanced past them towards the flames, using her elbow to shield her eyes and face from the ferocious heat. The fire was smaller but still a deadly inferno.
Cinders sprayed. Despite her jacket and hard hat, she felt pinpricks of heat as cinders burned through her clothes and found unprotected skin.
We need to clear a path for ambulances.
The fire shrank as she emptied her fire extinguisher and the flames closest to them were quenched.
She shook feeling back into her nearly frozen hands.
Smaller fires burned on the ground and platforms thirty yards away. Lynn moved to shield the three victims from more flare-ups.
“Reese!” She pointed. Reese dowsed the smaller fires.
Ninety seconds after she had grabbed the first extinguisher, she heard the wail of arriving ambulances. Thank God. As they pulled up close and braked, she and the others ran to tell the paramedics what had happened.
The medics surrounded Shirley and the two men. They pulled off constricting clothing and placed masks on the victims to deliver humidified oxygen. The medics elevated the legs of each to lessen shock, then attached IV lines.
Lynn was horrified at the size and depth of their injuries. The left side of Shirley’s face looked as if someone had punched her in the eye and streaked her cheek with black and red paint. Her neck was blistered and a giant hole gaped through her workpants where the fire had left third degree burns.
Lynn smelled burned flesh and controlled an urge to gag.
She shuddered, remembering too well the day her own father had come home early from work with loose white bandages on his chest and arm.
The next day, when her mother changed his bandages, he grimaced and perspired. Lynn saw with horror that the bandages were protecting his reddened and charred skin. He’d been unable to hug her for months.
This was worse. My fault. I knew the goddamn computer glitches were trouble. I shouldn’t have trusted Curtis Zhang and his folks to fix the problem without being involved myself. Now three of my people might not even survive. God, they look terrible.
The medics lifted the victims onto gurneys and three ambulances rushed them to the burn center.
Mutual aid fire trucks—a volunteer group of men and women from this refinery and plants nearby—rolled up. Firefighters jumped out and shot foam at a few fires that had kicked back up.
She watched until she was sure no new fires would start. She exchanged glances with Reese hoping he would nod reassurance, but he looked as stunned as she felt.
They regrouped inside the control room with Zhang and Juan.
“Your clothes are burned. Sure you’re okay?” Reese pointed to brown scorch marks and holes in her blouse and jacket. Lynn nodded as she smoothed ointment onto her heat-blistered hands and neck.
Zhang, Juan, Reese, and the half-dozen operating technicians gathered around her. Tears blurred her eyes as she remembered Shirley’s dash to save the others, and the burns they all suffered. “We have to find out who’s behind this. And fast,” she said, pounding her fists. “It can’t happen to us again. Ever.”