A Clot in the Heart of the Earth
Fighting the lost war of the Valdez oil spill
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Originally published in Outside‘s June 1989 issue
Good Friday, March 24, 1989
A quarter of a century ago to the day, big chunks of south-central Alaska shuddered and crumbled in an earthquake that demolished the port town of Valdez and lowered its shoreline by six feet. There was talk that day of sacrifice and resurrection. But what happens today will test that kind of faith. In a flat calm sea, the supertanker Exxon Valdez misses a deepwater dogleg in the shipping lanes and wanders into shallow water with 50 million gallons of oil in her hold and an allegedly drunk skipper in command. Or not in command, it seems: Captain Joseph Hazelwood has steered his 987-foot ship onto an incorrect course and gone below.
At 12:04 a.m., the ship lurches. She has snagged on a rock pinnacle about 50 feet below the surface. In the wheelhouse, the crew tries frantically to correct the course, but can’t. Impaled, the ship fishtails around the rock fulcrum, shudders, and grinds to a halt as her stem rides up onto a submerged shelf on Bligh Reef
Bligh Reef: In 1910, the steamship Olympia ran aground in foul weather here, and here it perched for a decade—a landmark, a warning, and a popular deck for tea parties on nice afternoons. Otherwise, the reef has never been much of a problem. A few fishing boats have smacked it lightly or snagged a net on it while chasing salmon or herring, but their skippers knew where it was, knew the risk.
The reef juts like a bad underbite off the northwestern shore of Bligh Island in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. It was once a place of clear water, of seabirds and sea mammals. Otters lolled around it, dived down into it for crabs and shellfish. Sea lions careened among its barnacles chasing herring or salmon, and sometimes a pod of the sound’s 215 killer whales went in after the sea lions.
Captain Joseph Hazelwood won’t lose his ship to the reef; neither did Captain William Bligh, for whom it is named. Bligh, the same man who 12 years later was set adrift by Fletcher Christian and the crew of the Bounty, was the first white man to anchor off the island, when he served as a navigator under Captain James Cook in 1778. Both Bligh and Cook sailed on to their own tragedies, one to mutiny, one to a knife in the back. Their stories were examined a few years later by the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth, who perused the sea captains’ journals and brainstormed the composition of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner during a hiking trip through the English countryside. At the core of all tragedy, they decided, is the one mistake that places a man beyond redemption.
Hazelwood has made his mistake, and now comes the tragedy: More than ten million gallons of thick North Slope crude are transfusing the arteries of Prince William Sound. When a grim Officer Michael Fox of the Alaska Division of Fish and Wildlife Protection comes aboard to ask what happened, Hazelwood’s face is slack.
“I think you’re looking at it,” he says.
A visit to Alaska is an experience as much spiritual as physical. Environmentally, Prince William Sound is only occasionally a friendly place. Its 3,500 miles of ragged shoreline, its ring of icy alps, its frigid seas are as dangerous as they are lovely. Until now, we have gone there not so much because we wanted to rub elbows with beachcombing grizzlies or to swim in water cold enough to kill us in a few minutes, but because it was one of the earth’s few remaining islands of innocence. It was a bastion of clean water and misty island distances, of breaching killer whales and loafing otters and red-eyed loons. It had a solitude that triggered primal memories that made us want to beat our chests; if we wanted to yodel, no one would hear.
Within two weeks of Good Friday, black sludge will plug a length of Alaskan shoreline roughly equal to the entire coast of California. Much of the oil is still out there. No one knows how much death will accumulate beyond the thousands of birds and mammals killed during the first week after the spill. We suppose that Prince William Sound will be around for the long haul; it may someday recover. But its innocence is forever lost, a victim of our complacent greed.
From Valdez and nearby Cordova, 600 fishermen normally ply the waters of the sound for salmon, herring, halibut, and Dungeness crabs. For them, and for the others who live there, it was that corruption of innocence that was the hardest to endure. What you and I have visited, they have nurtured. They fought the pipeline, they fought the terminal and the supertanker traffic, and they sued, time and again, to fight the practices that allowed 40 lesser spills and leakages into the sound over the past 12 years.
For five days after North America’s worst environmental catastrophe, the fishermen stood ready to help but were frustratingly excluded as official efforts steadily lost ground. When their chance finally came, they had to settle for winning a few tiny but critical battles in a war they knew had already been lost.
This is a small part of the story of those five days.
In Cordova, 70 miles south of Valdez, Rick Steiner is awake but still lounging in his underwear when the phone rings at 7 a.m. He answers and listens. “Holy shit!” he says, and is on his feet, pulling on jeans, sweater, and sneakers. Within minutes he is out the door, heading for his office on the creaking Cordova dock.
Steiner, a 36-year-old assistant professor of fisheries for the University of Alaska’s Marine Advisory Program, is stationed in Cordova as the maritime counterpart of a Corn Belt county agent. Most of the town’s fishermen think of him simply as the guy on the dock who either knows the answer or will find out. They like his real-time credentials. He is a fisherman. He owns a 43-foot seiner, the Buddy; has crewed long months on draggers, trollers, long-liners, and gill-netters; and has had his leg crushed by a 700-pound crab-pot in the Gulf of Alaska. He is an expert on salmon, herring, and halibut, as well as on ocean currents, killer whales, sea lions, and otters. He is six-foot-four, with a stride that he says varies according to what he’s running from. Before moving to Cordova, he was the university’s marine advisory agent in the Eskimo village of Kotzebue, where the locals called him Ivalu, which means sinew. He looks like a skinny Viking, with unkempt blond hair and a full beard, all of it framing an almost constant smile and crinkling blue eyes.
Today Steiner is not smiling. His territory—which ranges along more than 4,000 miles of the world’s most pristine coastline—has just suffered the worst oil spill in the continent’s history. Steiner gets to his desk and starts collecting as much information as he can by telephone. As he talks, he looks down at the water below his office, where an otter he has watched for three years floats on its back, cracking open a crab. The news over the phone doesn’t get any better. He sees one knot of fishermen gather, then another. Abruptly he stands and goes outside to plug into the dock talk, then heads down to the union hall three blocks away.
The offices of the Cordova District Fishermen’s United are quiet. Steiner finds four people there, all apparently in a state of shock. CDFU Executive Director Marilyn Leland is listening to someone on the phone. The other three will eventually wind up with Steiner in the Valdez command post: Jack Lamb, David Grimes, and Jeff Guard.
Blocky, clean-shaven Jack Lamb, father of three, is the only married man among the four. A former salmon gill-netter who now owns and operates a 66-foot tender, the Poncho
, he has lived in Cordova for 26 of his 43 years. He has one artificial leg. Generally Lamb is conventional, but he has panicked more than one skipper by nonchalantly dangling his prosthesis over the gunwale to absorb the shock of collision between his tender and vessels that come alongside.
Jeff Guard, 30, is the quartet’s angry young man. This, he says, has been his winter of discontent. Until the oil spill, he has been going at it tooth and nail with the timber industry, which he says is priming Prince William Sound for clear-cut logging like they’ve done down in the Tongass. Guard says he’s just a fisherman who was never involved in politics until he found out what they’re planning to do to the woods up here. “And now this,” he says. “Prince William Sound is being raped on both sides of the waterline.”
David Grimes, 35 years old, six-foot-two, wears his brown hair in a ponytail. He has blue eyes and a tanned, chiseled face. Outdoors he wears thongs, indoors he’s usually barefoot. A native of the Missouri Ozarks, he is fresh back from wandering the jungles of New Guinea, where tribal girls sang as they patted flour cakes on rocks, boys chanted to the rhythm of dugout paddles, and Grimes carried a penny whistle to mimic the call of the bird of paradise. He is a salmon and herring fisherman, a wilderness guide, a river runner, a mountaineer, and a musician. He is an articulate gypsy. Above all, he is a spiritualist. To him, Prince William Sound is a Gaian heart—the clear, plankton-rich Gulf of Alaska water pulsing into the southeast side of the sound, swirling through the tidal valves, feeding the higher forms of life, and flushing out through the Montague and Knight Island straits on the southwest. To him, the oil spill is a clot in this remarkable heart.
In the union hall, Lamb stands glowering at a wall chart of Prince William Sound, Grimes and Guard beside him.
“Anything new?” asks Steiner.
“You tell us,” says Lamb.
“I hear there’s nobody out there. Nobody’s cleaning it up.” “That’s what we hear,” says Grimes.
Lamb rattles a sheaf of papers—the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company’s oil spill emergency contingency plan, required by the state of Alaska. “They say they can contain any spill within 50 miles in 12 hours. This one’s only half that far.”
Guard gives the chart a hard poke at Bligh Reef, then sweeps his hand along a path of seaward currents, past the dozens of islands, the hundreds of bays and fjords between the reef and the open sea of the Gulf of Alaska. “If no one cleans it up, man, we’re done for.”
For an hour they talk possibilities. In terms of both commercial fisheries and salmonid biology, this is precisely the worst time of year for an oil spill. Tens of millions of herring—a $12 million annual fishery—will be schooling into the sound next week to spawn in shallow water. In addition, early April is when hundreds of millions of salmon fry migrate from spawning streams into saltwater estuaries, where they feed for three or four months before moving out to sea. Steiner lists the ways that oil can kill them: ingestion of oiled prey, intake of petroleum compounds through the gills, disruption of homing instincts. The fishermen understand. The salmon fry are their seedlings, the stock for a $120 million annual harvest.
“It’s not only our livelihood,” says Grimes. “It’s our home. It’s our life.”
Steiner nods. “I’m going to have to go take a look,” he says, and abruptly heads out the door and down to Gary Graham’s Cessna 206 floatplane.
At 10 a.m., 45 miles to the northwest, the Cessna banks around Bligh Island toward Valdez Narrows, and suddenly the sea, for at least three or four miles to the north, is a black-and-purplish bruise. Just below, like bubbles coming up, five sea lions bob and dive, bob and dive, sending iridescent pink swirls through the oil.
At the apex of the spill sits the Exxon Valdez, listing. There is a tug beside her, and another tanker, the Baton Rouge,lies a quarter of a mile off, blowing huge white plumes of water as she deballasts her holds to make room for the millions of gallons of oil that remain in her stricken sister. Nine hours into it, there is no oil spill containment equipment—no barges, no skimmers, no oil-absorbent booms, no suction pumps. And—Steiner searches up through the narrows toward the port of Valdez—no such equipment is on the way.
SATURDAY, MARCH 25
The spill has now spread to nearly 50 square miles: seven miles long and seven wide. Exxon divers say that at least eight of the ship’s 14 tanks have been punctured and that an estimated million barrels of oil—42 million gallons—remain on board. Exxon tried to start pumping the oil into the empty holds of the Baton Rouge but had to give up when the pumping system sprang .a leak. Now salvage experts, marine specialists, and news teams are racing to Valdez from all over the world. Doris Lopez, a small, fiery woman usually seen with a baby on her hip, says in a commercial radio interview that Valdez fishermen have had their boats standing by, ready to help, since dawn. “Why isn’t anybody doing anything?” she asks. Also on the radio, Dennis Kelso, commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), calls the spill the realization of everyone’s secret nightmare. Alyeska’s response, he says, is “inadequate and unacceptable.”
Back in Cordova, Steiner has been up all night, talking to fishermen about what they might do if things get really bad. Many of them are down at the docks right now, gearing up their boats to help fight the spill. But all night, Steiner had this feeling of disbelief, a refusal to accept the possibility that Alyeska and Exxon wouldn’t have it all mopped up by the end of the day. Now that possibility is sinking in.
On the 70-mile hop to Valdez, he flies over the spill again. It is bigger now, much bigger, and expanding into the southwest. It appears to cover about half the distance to Naked Island, 20 miles out. The island and its surrounding islets are rookeries for throngs of kittiwakes, murres, cormorants, and puffins. And beyond those first small isles—Steiner really doesn’t want to think beyond them right now—are thousands of miles of island and fjord shoreline that flank some of the richest marine habitat in the world.
In alp-rimmed Valdez, the Cessna taxis to a dock 30 yards from the plate-glass windows of the Westmark Hotel coffee shop, and Steiner steps forth into chaos. His intent has been simply to locate the oil spill containment headquarters and learn the plan so that he can take some word back to Cordova’s 500 fishermen and their 1,500 dependents. What he finds is that Exxon has rented the hotel’s second floor, which now bustles with company personnel setting up computers, consulting charts, thumbing through manuals, and keeping people out. Downstairs, federal scientists, mainly from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its branches, are doing pretty much the same. Steiner thinks about joining them, until he realizes that they’ve shown up to watch, not to do. The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, which is supposed to be overseeing the containment efforts from its massive Alaska Pipeline terminal on the other side of the bay, seems to have no presence in Valdez and won’t answer telephone inquiries.
Steiner walks a few blocks to the state building, where the DEC has quadrupled its staff in a day. He talks with Larry Dietrich, the department’s director of environmental quality. The DEC, explains Dietrich, is essentially a research and regulatory agency. “We’ll be doing everything we can,” he says, “but right now we don’t have anything to clean up the oil with!”
Steiner has heard enough. Cordova has about 500fishermen, Valdez about 100. Most of them have boats and all would be willing to attack the slick with Kleenex if they had to. Steiner telephones Cordova. “Don’t ask,” he says to Grimes. “But listen—I think you better get over here.”
SUNDAY, MARCH 26
The slick has spread to 100 square miles. Exxon crews have recovered only 3,000 of the 240,000 barrels spilled. Governor Steve Cowper declares Prince, William Sound a disaster area. An investigation team from the National Transportation Safety Board is on its way.
The population of Valdez, normally 3,000, is about to double. The sky over the town has begun to swarm; looking out her dining room window, 13-year-old Gina Queddeng counts 12 helicopters in a matter of minutes. Teams from publications and networks arrive hourly. All the hotels are full, so local residents start renting out rooms at $50 a bed.
The four men from Cordova have rendezvoused in the closed-for-the-winter bunkhouse of Sea Hawk Seafoods, just outside town at the east end of the bay. They’ve been drinking coffee far into the night, and when Exxon schedules its next press conference at the civic center, they head for it in no mood to trifle.
They’ll be even more sour an hour later. Frank Iarossi, president of the Exxon Shipping Company, admits that the spill is now beyond control, at least by mechanical means. His firm, he announces, now plans to use a combination of laser-ignited fires and chemical dispersants.
“What bothers me so much is the violation of trust,” says Valdez Mayor John Devens. “I remember them telling us over and over when they wanted to locate the terminal here that they would be ready for any contingency.”
“We don’t have that problem,” says Guard. “We never trusted the sons of bitches in the first place.”
Steiner is concerned about the use of fire and dispersants. Smoke from test burns yesterday inflicted severe nausea and headaches on the 100 residents of the native village of Tatitlek. And the soaplike dispersants themselves are toxic, he says—maybe as damaging to the environment as the oil itself. What’s more, says Steiner, “the dispersants don’t get rid of oil, they just break it down into droplets. To the environment, it’s the same dose of poison in a smaller pill, which means that smaller critters die first. For some people it’s out of sight, out of mind. But the reality is that if the oil gets into shrimp, it gets into whales.”
As they leave the conference, Lamb stops abruptly on the sidewalk. “I’m not going to go back and tell our people that they just have to sit back and watch the show again,” he says. “It’s time we did something.”
The foursome, along with Sea Hawk Seafoods boss Ray Cesarini, return to the seafood plant. They talk among themselves and telephone their fellows in Cordova. Some want to blockade the Valdez Narrows with their boats to stop all tanker traffic to the pipeline. Others are more concerned with trying to save three hatcheries in the path of the slick. If the oil coats the spawning estuaries and destroys the natural salmon run, the hatchery stock will be all the fishermen have left to reseed.
Out in the sound there is no moon. Photographer Roy Corral stands on the deck of the Pagan. While the fishermen are ashore politicking, Steiner has asked him to be their eyes, to help document the spill. It is his first night out and he hasn’t yet seen the oil, but he can smell it, feel it sliding past the throbbing hull. Skipper John Herschleb and his crew feel it, too. When they left Valdez, the water hissed and lapped, and the wake swirled with the biophosphoresence of blooming plankton. But now they have sailed into what looks like a black hole. It neither emits nor reflects light. Corral, the crew, and the boat’s only other passenger, National Geographic photographer Natalie Fobes, stand silent, as if listening for life,but the oil slides by dead against the hull.
After a while the sky begins to dance a slow dance of green and blue-green swirls, fringed with a violet reflection that ripples over the snows of the 5,000-foot peaks rising sheer from the waters of the sound. Herschleb anchors the Pagan in a small cove off Disc Island. Corral sleeps on deck; when he awakens, he sees the oil. It is thick and sludgy. Two red snappers ride belly-up on the surface. Corral sees no other dead wildlife, but as the Pagan leaves the cove he watches a small flock of murres trying to lift off ahead of the hull. They flap and flounder, and beyond them, five sea otters are frantic. Oil-soaked, they are having trouble staying on top. They pop up through the oil, swimming violently, rolling, trying to scrape their thick coats clean. Then they sink.
MONDAY, MARCH 27
Overnight the winds have raged at up to 73 miles per hour, smearing oil 30 miles out into the sound. Planes can’t fly to see just how far it has gone, but word crackles in via fishing vessel radios that the eastern ends of several islands have been hit hard, with oil coating shoreline spruces to a height of 30 or 40 feet. The gale has whipped the oil and water into a froth, which the oilmen call mousse, that can double the volume of a slick. Exxon announces that the stranded tanker has shifted 12 degrees in the wind. Of the million barrels left aboard after the spill, 120,000 have been pumped into the Baton Rouge
, with 880,000 left to go.
Steiner and the three fishermen, up all night, have decided to hold a press conference of their own.
“It wasn’t exactly a press conference as much as it was an education forum,” Grimes will recall later. “We were tired of hearing Exxon tell these nightly bedtime stories to the nation about the harmlessness of biodegradable oil.” The press had realized that the locals were angry and the fishermen out of work. They weren’t going to hear about that from Exxon, and they weren’t going to hear about how oil kills fish, other animals, and aesthetics.
They hold the conference early, right after the news people have eaten breakfast, and it works. The phone at Sea Hawk Seafoods starts ringing off the hook with interview requests. That evening, millions of people will begin to see news features on how oil kills.
Monday afternoon, a coincidental meeting finally catapults the sound’s 600 fishermen to the front line. It happens when Lamb and Grimes drop by the state building “to raise Cain” with the DEC. They are peeved about a report that Exxon has sprayed oil dispersant illegally in a herring catchment area.
Says Lamb: “We were standing around jabbing charts and saying how we thought things should be, when Larry Dietrich wanders in and listens for a while.”
Dietrich, one of the DEC’s two top officials on the spill, has just been told by an angry Governor Cowper to sidestep Exxon, get creative, and do something. In Lamb and Grimes, he creatively sees several hundred fishermen who have boats that can corral oil with strings of floating booms, deliver crews and absorbent cloth to shoreline cleanup sites, haul hardware, and shuttle cages of oil-tainted wildlife,
“You fellows have a minute?” Dietrich asks. “We’d like to get you involved in a group on this thing.”
Five minutes later he has the two fishermen behind closed doors. “Listen,” he says, “we’re going to try to do something. What do you think it should be?”
Lamb goes to the chart of Prince William Sound—there’s one on most walls in town these days—and points out the three hatcheries at Port San Juan, Esther Island, and Main Bay. “We have to protect where the most salmon are,” Grimes says. “If we save these, in a worst-case scenario we could reseed the natural environment from the hatchery stock.”
At midnight, Lamb, Grimes, and Steiner—along with Riki Ott, a marine biologist and a board member of Cordova District Fishermen’s United—are ushered into the presence of the oil spill brass: Exxon Shipping President Iarossi, DEC Commissioner Kelso, Coast Guard Admiral E. Nelson, Jr., and their respective lieutenants.
Kelso, of course, knows that the fishermen are coming; but the oil executive and the admiral at first “looked at us like, `Who are these nobodies?'” says Grimes. “Then pretty soon Jack is telling them how the water flushes in here and flushes out there, and I’m telling them how the sound is a Gaian heart, and Rick and Riki are giving them some impressive biology, and they’re leaning forward in their seats to see the chart better, and they start asking us questions …”
In the odd late-night lucidity, the fishermen and the bureaucratic muscle realize together that there is no way to halt the spreading slick. “That shouldn’t stop us from acting, though,” says Steiner. “What we have to do is focus on something else, something that is based on a probability of success. We can defend with success if we put all our effort into a few key defenses: here at the hatcheries, here at the herring catchments of Herring Bay and Snug Harbor, here along the northwest shore of Montague Island, and at the mouths of a few escapement streams.”
“When there’s nothing you can do,” says Grimes, “you’re freed from limitations. You can go for it.”
When the meeting ends at 3 a.m., Dietrich pulls the Cordovans aside. “OK, folks, you’re in. You tell us what you need and somebody’ll get it.
Steiner and Grimes are too exhausted to drive back to Sea Hawk Seafoods, so after everyone else leaves they stretch out on the DEC’s kitchen floor. For half an hour it’s quiet. Then Grimes asks the darkness, “You know what happened in there?”
“They put us in charge,” says Steiner.
“We walk in like bums off the street,” says Grimes.
“In the same clothes we’ve worn for days,” says Steiner, “and they put us in charge.”
Simultaneously, the two men start to giggle. They won’t be able to stop.
“Listen, Admiral,” says Steiner through his tears. “I’ll tell you what I want.”
“Yessir, yessir,” says Grimes in the admiral’s voice.
“And Frank,” says Steiner to the memory of Iarossi, “we need booms. Lots of booms and lots of helicopters.”
At first light, Roy Corral beaches the Pagan’s skiff on Ingot Island. The oil ashore is deep, more than a foot deep in depressions, and has been splattered by high winds up among the rocks and spruce. Ashore, he sees no life, no death. There is only the sticky silence, broken by the chugging of the Pagan out in the bay, where crew members Ian Payne and Torie Baker work to contain a patch of sludge within the loop of an absorbent boom. Then Corral realizes that one of the oil-covered rocks he is looking at is not a rock at all. With a stick, he lifts the body of a cormorant that looks as if it has been dipped in molasses. He scans the beach. It is covered with lumps, some obviously rocks, some now obviously not.
After a while he climbs up to a high grassy point from which he watches and photographs flock after flock of floundering seabirds, families of otters, small herds of blackened sea lions on rocks, the futile efforts of Payne and Baker against a mere drop in a wasteland of oil. When he finally lowers the camera and walks away, he knows that he will be a rabid environmentalist for the rest of his life.
TUESDAY, MARCH 28
On the fifth day, the lost war starts. The slick from the Exxon Valdez oil spill is now estimated at 500 square miles. Exxon, the Coast Guard, and the state of Alaska snipe at each other over whose fault it is that the oil wasn’t contained within hours after it leaked. Only about 5,000 of the 240,000 spilled barrels have been recovered, but Dietrich tells the press that, frankly, no one is really trying to recover oil now. “We’re beyond that,” he says. “All effort is now in the defense of very sensitive areas.”
Across the street from the state building, at Prince William Sound Community College, the state has taken over a couple of buildings for a wildlife rescue center. A few oiled otters, ducks, and seabirds have been brought in, but not many boats are out looking for them yet because winds in the sound remain high.
At 6 a.m., after two hours of sleep, a small group of fishermen gathers at the DEC offices. Those “very sensitive areas” Dietrich is talking about are theirs: the three hatcheries and the few most important bays in the herring and salmon fisheries.
“We walk in and they say, `Here’s phones,’ ” says Grimes. ” `Here’s tables and stuff.’ They give us a courtroom, and we convert it into an office. Someone comes in and tosses us the keys to a van. Stan Stephens Charters opens up their yacht so we can use their computer.”
The fishermen go to work. Lamb parks his briefcase on the judge’s rostrum and telephones Cordova. Until today, only 15 fishing boats have been officially employed in the cleanup effort. Before the day is out, another 80 vessels will have headed from Cordova into the sound, without their skippers knowing whether there will be anything for them to do when they get where they’re going. Their main tools will be floating containment booms, which can be linked together and stretched across bay mouths or towed in a loop between boats to drag oil. Exxon has dispatched only about a mile of the booms into the sound so far, and they’re all in constant use by the boats already at work.
Within the next few days, Exxon and the fishermen will locate more than 260,000 feet of booms—about 50 miles’ worth—throughout North America, Europe, Scandinavia, and the Middle East. When Exxon hesitates to pay the transportation bill, the Cordovans will recruit the Coast Guard to fly the booms in.
They also find enough additional boats to swell the defense fleet to some 200 vessels—plus skimmers, tugs and barges, “supersuckers” that vacuum 8,000 gallons per minute, generators, portable living quarters, floodlights for night work, food and clothing, and skiffs for shoreline cleanup. On their behalf, the state commandeers two of its own passenger ferries to anchor near the hatcheries as floating bases for research and cleanup efforts.
At the fishermen’s request, a big Sikorsky Skycrane goes whapping off across the sound with the heavy stuff, and smaller Bell helicopters make dozens of daily trips, ferrying light supplies, researchers, photographers, writers, video crews, politicians, and delegates from probably every major conservation organization in the world. Semis loaded with North Slope oil gear come tearing the 800 miles down the still-frozen highway from Prudhoe Bay.
In the windowless courtroom, the fishermen live what Steiner has come to call the absolute nightmare of trying to juryrig a war. “It’s a war driven by equipment rather than planning,” he says. “It’s not like you can say, `Let’s draw what we need from some vast inventory’; you have to say, `Look what I’ve found, let’s ship it out there and see if somebody can use it.’ “
Exxon says it will pay the bill, and the Cordovans run it up into the millions. The whites of their eyes are vein-laced from sleeplessness, but they stay wired; it’s a heady atmosphere.
But underneath, says Grimes, is an “enormous grief and anger” that occasionally drags them into a pit. Steiner’s girlfriend, Claudia Bain, is a therapeutic masseuse, a toucher, and she coaxes people into corners for back rubs when she senses tempers close to the edge. This night, when all the hatchery reports are bad and countless animals are dying out there in the darkness, she herds the group back to Sea Hawk Seafoods, insisting that they get some sleep.
Instead, they pick up a fifth of Old Bushmills and sit on the floor, drinking until they cry. They sing. They read poetry, or rather Grimes reads poetry, a long one first, a ballad by Irishman Michael Coady that he copied from the wall of O’Connor’s Pub in Dodin, County Clare: “The tiding old sea is still taking and giving and shaping,” he intones. “The gentians and violets break in the spring from the stone./The world and his mother go reeling and jigging forever,/In answer to something that troubles the blood and the bone.”
John Herschleb, skipper of the Pagan, slumps in the wheelhouse of his boat. He has heard that the 15 or so fishing vessels trying to protect the sound’s hundreds of miles of threatened shoreline have been dubbed “the mosquito fleet,” and that’s what he feels like. He feels desperate and strong, like he should be able to do something. “But there’s such a futility to it all,” he tells Corral.
Corral goes ashore on Knight Island. Six waterfowl have beached themselves and are trying to preen, but when he tries to work close enough for photographs, they flush back into the sea, into the oil. He grimaces. He won’t do that again.
Along the beach he finds two dead loons, a scoter, a merganser. Over a small rise he sees a frozen waterfall, an icicle-walled cliff irresistible to his photographer’s eye. He shoots it until, shifting to another vantage, he comes across a deer carcass and bear tracks and scat. Uneasy, he retreats over the rise and sees a bald eagle, its golden talons oiled black, lifting off the beach, leaving behind the half-eaten body of an oil-smothered bird
Corral goes down and looks at the wet red against the wet black. He knows that no one can really feel what has happened here unless they come out into the sound, into the sensuousness of it.
He needs a break. Three helicopters have landed down the beach, and he bums a ride back into Valdez. On the way, riding high, he sees the oil from the air for the first time. Ahead and below is a single boat, towing a length of floating containment boom. For perspective, he holds his right hand at arm’s length and measures between thumb and forefinger. The boat is a quarter of an inch high. Then he spreads his arms as wide as they will go, but he can’t measure the oil.
Ultimately, the fishermen’s defense saves the hatcheries and helps protect some of the bays and spawning-stream estuaries. In the meantime, however, the oil slick grows to 750 square miles, then to 1,000, then to 2,500 and beyond.
In what Grimes calls a heart of the earth, there is a clot. The fishermen have no way of knowing whether the shoreline, the wildlife, or the fisheries will recover. The answers are probably years and hundreds of millions of dollars in the future.
“I guess the satisfaction is in knowing that we’ve done what we could,” says Lamb. “This is our home. I don’t know how we could have stood it if we couldn’t have fought.”
Grimes has found himself looking at life much differently the past couple of days. He has sensed the shiftings, from outrage to resistance to concession to faint hope. He looks to the future and wonders whether the ripple from Prince William Sound will jolt us, help us realize just how much killing power we have in our complacency.
“For those of us here,” he says, “life has taken on an utter clarity, because in the face of something like this you have to drop all the white lies of your life and know who you are.”
It is two o’clock of another morning, and Grimes is exhausted, almost unconscious. “The world may lose a last best place,” he says.
Steiner scratches his beard. “Iarossi says he’s going to polish every single rock.”
“It won’t be the same rock,” Grimes replies. “Even if you scrape off every drop, it won’t be the same rock.”
“Well, we’ll hold him to it anyway.”
“Yeah.” As if sleepwalking, Grimes barefoots over to a cassette player on the floor and puts in a tape he made during his New Guinea trip. He stands there for a while, listening to the song of the girls patting flour cakes onto the rocks, the chant of the boys to the rhythm of their dugout paddles, and the fluting call of a bird of paradise.
“Life is music,” —he says, “and we have to sing the song we are.”
Then he crawls under the magistrate’s table, stretches out full length, and falls asleep.