After The Spill by Charles Siebert
This story first appeared in the April 1999 issue of Men’s Journal.
Back in the winter of 1963, 26-year-old photographer Ross Mullins decided to drop everything and reenact the signature American experience of lighting out for the frontier. He was living in San Francisco when a friend called from the isolated coastal village of Cordova, Alaska, and spoke of the hard-won rewards of a life spent fishing the deep, island-flecked waters of Prince William Sound and living in a close-knit community amid rugged mountains, vast glaciers, abundant wildlife, and free-flowing rivers.
“I decided to come up for a summer, with the idea of returning to San Francisco in the winter,” Mullins, now 63, recalled one evening this past September as he and I sat in the cramped kitchen of his 70-year-old, two-story wood house perched on the side of Eyak Mountain, the lights of the boats in Cordova’s harbor flickering gently below us like a fallen constellation. “But I found the fishing engrossing, so I ended up getting involved.”
Mullins, who now looks every inch the Alaskan fisherman, with his burly build, a full beard, and denim overalls, bought a secondhand fishing vessel, the boat of a dead man whose wife believed it to be cursed. “The guy had been killed on it,” said Mullins. “I made this woman a ridiculously low offer of $8,000. She said, ‘If you’ll agree never to bring that thing back here, it’s yours.’ ” Mullins fished many good years with the boat and, for a long time after selling it, never had any cause to consider the curse. “I thought I was real lucky,” he said.
He poured us each a sip of bourbon and stared at the tall glass jar he’d just placed on his kitchen table. It contained a mass of what looked like molasses-coated marbles, a sample of small rocks that a friend had collected several months earlier while walking the beaches of Sleepy Bay, a sparkling quarter-moon inlet at the northern tip of Latouche Island, 70 miles southwest of Cordova. The bay had been a favorite spot over the years of the Mullins family — Ross, his wife, Sheelagh, and their four children. But its concave configuration also makes it, like a number of Prince William Sound’s shoreline nooks, a perfect catch basin. Oil that spills into the sound tends to gather in places like this. Oil that makes it onto the beach intact can coat tiny rocks and, over time, harden into asphalt. Oil whipped by waves into the frothy goo known as “mousse” can seep into the spaces between rocks and get trapped. Mullins handed the jar to me so I could read what was written on the tape fixed to its lid: “Sleepy Bay, Latouche Island, PWS 5/26/98, Surface Asphalt and Mousse from Exxon Valdez.”
It was 10 years ago, early on the morning of March 24, 1989, that the 987-foot supertanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef, just 40 miles north of Cordova, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.
It has been called the worst ecological disaster in history, and whether that label is even quantifiable, the spill certainly was the stuff of mythic tragedy. Start with the crash site, named as it is for that Bligh — the infamous British naval officer who explored Alaska’s southern coast back in 1778, shortly before taking command of the ill-fated Bounty. Then there was the uncanny timing of the spill: Good Friday, 25 years nearly to the day since the Good Friday Earthquake, one of North America’s most ruinous natural disasters, struck Prince William Sound. There were classic villains, from the so-called “drunken skipper” Captain Joseph Hazelwood to Exxon and Alyeska (the consortium of seven oil companies, including Exxon, that owns and operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and its terminus in Valdez), with their woefully ineffective safeguards and spill-response procedures. There were sympathetic victims: nature-loving Alaskans, working-class fisherman, Native Americans, and birds and animals. There was, finally, the spill’s backdrop — Alaska — one of the last pristine wildernesses on the planet.
The devastation was on a scale usually assigned to God or Mother Nature. The slick spanned 500 miles — the equivalent of the distance from the southern tip of Cape Cod to the coast of North Carolina. More than a thousand miles of shoreline were despoiled; hundreds of thousands of birds, marine mammals, and fish were injured or killed.
The spill’s symbolic stain spread even farther. As satellites beamed the sickening images of oil-soaked animals around the world, there was suddenly a sense that the spill implicated us all. Eleven million gallons of crude had leaked from their daily, dismissible concealment, and suddenly there was no hiding from the role we had played. It was Judgment Day for our technological sins.
Ten years later, the spill has faded into memory. Oil continues to flow through the pipeline and into tankers, and most of us continue to consume it. Even the chorus of voices calling for protective measures, such as double-hulled tankers, has dwindled to the same vigilant few who were pleading for them before the spill happened.
But anniversaries are natural times to reflect, and a decade is long enough for any lasting effects of the spill to have manifested themselves. So this past September, I set out for Prince William Sound, hoping to discern how, if at all, “the worst ecological disaster in history” had scarred both the environment and the least studied of all the species involved: the one that had caused it.
I started in Valdez, the hemisphere’s northernmost ice-free port, as it’s often described, and the nearest thing Prince William Sound has to a hub. But Valdez, I quickly discovered, is not really the place to look for damage left by the spill. The fact that the slick never touched its shores notwithstanding, Valdez is an oil town. As the pipeline terminus, it’s the shipping-out point for the hundreds of millions of barrels of crude piped out of Alaska’s North Slope fields every year. Oil revenues make up some 80 percent of the town’s tax base; the vast majority of its work force is employed by the oil industry. Valdezans, by and large, believe in oil; they profit from its unceasing flow. They don’t want spills, of course, but they’ve accepted a Faustian bargain: The possibility of one is a trade-off for the profits and progress that Big Oil brings. If a spill happens, you clean it up, you do what you can to prevent the next one, and you move on.
Many Valdezans actually benefited from the Exxon accident. In the months that followed, the town received a giant fiscal shot in the arm by serving as the base for the cleanup. Locals made tens of thousands of dollars (in a few cases, hundreds of thousands) by leasing out their boats to Exxon. They became known as “Spillionaires.”
“You know what the joke around town is?” a brash barmaid whispered to me one night. “ ‘It’s time for another spill.’ ”
Cordova, on the other hand — 80 miles southeast, the second-biggest town on Prince William Sound — was repeatedly characterized in press clippings I’d read as the place hit hardest by the spill and by a number of Valdezans I met as a community that, in many ways, has yet to recover from the disaster.
The oil never reached Cordova’s shores, either, thanks to the -prevailing winds and tides and the town’s sequestered locale on the sound’s craggy coastline. But Cordova and Prince William Sound are essentially one in a way that Valdez and the sound are not. Cordovans live off of and, for months at a time, on the water. More than 70 percent of the town’s economy is based upon fishing or related businesses — canning, packing, boat repair, net making, and so on.
Standing on the deck of an Alaska Marine Highway Ferry for the five-hour journey from Valdez to Cordova, I spotted Bligh Reef, the peaks of the snowcapped Chugach Mountains rising in the background; bald eagles drifted above the horizon’s saw-toothed edge of hemlocks as sea otters basked in the emerald waters, their front paws folded on their bellies like overstuffed vacationers on floating chaise longues. I found myself looking everywhere for some sign of the spill — a stain, a stigmata — but I saw none. There was something almost sacrilegious about the surrounding beauty, as though nature itself had conspired in a coverup with the forces of technology.
I had the same feeling when I debarked in Cordova. There was no obvious evidence that anything untoward had happened there. But it wasn’t long before I began to see the cracks in the idyll — the damage Cordova has suffered and the pain that lurks, like the oil on the beaches of Sleepy Bay, just beneath the surface.
Like the Mullinses, a number of people I met in town had jars full of oily rocks or oil — some collected immediately after the spill, others in recent months — which they presented at the slightest prompting. The jars are, in a sense, the townspeople’s testaments — evidence not just of the lasting physical presence of the oil and the harm it did to the environment but of the pain and trauma Cordovans suffered. The pain and trauma that comes from witnessing the sullying of a cherished landscape and the death of thousands of animals; from the economic and social strife that began during the cleanup and worsened with the collapse of the local fishing industry; from the bankruptcies, the divorces, and the suicides; and from the ongoing struggle over Exxon’s refusal to pay the $5 billion in punitive damages awarded by a U.S. district court jury in Anchorage back in 1994 to the fishermen of Cordova and to others the spill affected. The jars of oil, I would come to understand, are the stigmata, the tangible proof of what, in an increasingly technological world, may soon become a tired old maxim: Man-made disasters have their most profound effect upon man.
Cut into the side of Eyak Mountain, overlooking a crowded harbor, Cordova is not quaint or cozy in the way of a New England fishing village. Instead, it has the raw, rough-hewn appearance of the frontier outpost it once was. Life here is hard.
The town’s 2,500 year-round residents are mostly fishermen — purse seiners and gill netters, crabbers and shrimpers — as well as some timber workers and miners, local merchants, and a smattering of employees of the U.S. Forestry Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. About 18 percent of the population is coastal-Alaskan native.
Along the four-block length of First Street, the town’s main “thoroughfare,” you’ll find a bank, a supermarket, a pharmacy, a souvenir-and-card shop, a couple of restaurants and bars, a historical museum and library, a bookshop called Orca Book and Sound, and, right next-door to it, the headquarters of Cordova District Fishermen’s United (CDFU). Many of the buildings and the flat, low, utilitarian homes that line the unpaved side streets date back to the early 1900s, when Cordova, not Valdez, was the bustling boomtown of Prince William Sound. Back then, Cordova was a major outlet for copper, brought in by train from the Kennecott Mines, 200 miles to the northeast.
The mines closed in 1938, but by then Cordova had developed its fishing industry to the point where the town was able to make a relatively smooth transition to quiet waterfront village, cut off from the rest of Alaska by the sound’s jagged coastline and the rugged Chugach Mountains. A highway that would have connected Cordova with the rest of Alaska was begun back in the early ’60s, but the ’64 earthquake obliterated the work in progress and funding was diverted elsewhere. Ever since, Cordova has been, in the local parlance, a “non–road access town.” It can be reached only by ferry or by the small prop plane that leaves Valdez once daily. There’s been a debate about whether to build a road to the outside world in order to open Cordova to tourist dollars and new business opportunities. It’s the debate that, in many ways, defines Alaska — the conflict between the desire for development and increased profits on the one hand and for the preservation of the state’s wild environs on the other; between the dependency on oil dollars that characterizes a town like Valdez and the live-off-the-land self-sufficiency of Cordova. To date, Cordova’s “no road” faction has held sway.
“Cordova is not a place you can be ambivalent about,” Kelley Weaverling, the owner of Orca Book and Sound and the town’s mayor from 1991 to 1993, told me one afternoon as we sat in his shop’s loft cafe. Weaverling, 52, a gaunt figure with deep-set brown eyes, a long beard, and gray-streaked black hair, came to Cordova with his wife, Susan Ogle, in 1987. They had lived and worked together for years as kayak guides on Prince William Sound and decided to settle in Cordova because it is a town whose economy is based on a renewable, natural resource, set apart from the muck and moil of what Weaverling calls “American mainstream monoculture.”
“You either like it here or you’re gone,” Weaverling continued. “It’s not the kind of place where you just drop in, looking for a job. It’s not a roadside attraction, it’s a destination. It’s not an easy one, but it’s an awful good one. What gives it its quality is its difficulty.”
Cordovans are generally well-educated and fiercely independent. “We have a reputation for being real mouthy,” Gerald Masolini said one afternoon as I watched him seal freshly packed cans of Copper River red salmon at his cannery on the east end of town. “It’s a town of grizzle-heads — you know, hardheads.” At the same time, Cordovans are neighborly and giving. The shared rigors of life in such a small, isolated place inspire a sense of community that people in the lower 48 normally associate only with disaster relief. People stop in the streets and stores to talk. House-to-house “progressive” dinners are held. There are impromptu group boat-repair parties. In terms of politics, Cordovans mainly vote for what best serves their livelihoods. In terms of religion, they are -multi-denominational — the town has 10 churches.
Whatever their faith, all Cordovans pray for full fishing nets. Cordova is ruled by the seasonal cycles of the catch: herring and halibut in April; in May, king and sockeye salmon; pink and chum salmon all summer; silver orb coho salmon running through to early October; and, finally, crab and shrimp through the winter. During the height of the fishing season, from June to August, Cordova’s population swells to more than 4,000, with a small shanty-town of transient workers (mostly Mexicans and college kids from the lower 48) springing up on the town’s western edge, in Shelter — a.k.a. “Hippie” — Cove.
“It’s a lively time,” Sheelagh Mullins, a former gill netter herself and a part-time veterinary technician, told me. “All the men are gone and the women basically run the town,” she said, laughing. “Then in October, as the season ends, we have these three-day-long parties in the bars to celebrate. After that, it gets real quiet around here.”
November begins the down phase, when the population dwindles to its hardened core of year-rounders. There are only four hours of daylight, and the street lamps stay on around the clock. The snow that covers Valdez, to the north, falls upon Cordova mostly as rain (200 inches annually) because of the warming Japanese Current. The fishermen — except, perhaps, for the crabbers and shrimpers — hole up in their houses or go off traveling, their nets folded, their boats in dry dock. A good portion of the population lives off stores of hunted game and smoked fish; the only recreation is skiing, when there’s snow, at the ski area on Mount Eyak, adjacent to the center of town, or ice-skating on nearby Lake Eyak.
On the first full weekend in February, Cordova holds its Iceworm Festival, culminating in the procession down First Street of a 40-foot-long stretched-cloth rendition of the tiny annelid that lives just beneath the surface of glaciers. It’s an annual sign of spring. Another harbinger: Gene Rossillini, the “Soul of Cordova,” would emerge from the cabin he’d built back in the late ’60s in the woods above Shelter Cove and once again could be seen strolling down First Street with his ankle-length beard and his knapsack full of rocks, which he always wore to keep himself strong.
Cordova’s fishermen are independent contractors; they risk their own money to pursue their trade. Just getting started involves a substantial investment. In 1989, a seining vessel cost as much as $750,000; a single net, $20,000; yearly insurance and fuel, more than $25,000. Forty percent to 50 percent of the season’s profits typically go to the crew. There is a finite number of fishing permits for Prince William Sound, and they are traded on the open market, their price determined strictly by demand (you own a permit until you decide to sell it). In 1989, a gill-net permit went for about $160,000 and seining permits for more than $300,000. Fishermen in Cordova could make as much as $500,000 a season, but the majority earned a comfortable middle-class living.
The fishing itself is competitive and dangerous, requiring thorough planning and a sophisticated understanding of the sound’s currents, wind patterns, storm systems, and scores of other variables. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game enforces tight regulations, too, determining when, where, and for how long each “opener” — a period of time during which commercial fishing is allowed — will be held, and designating what equipment can be used. Some openers are as brief as 24 hours. A few good or bad sets within that time can make or break a season. Still, fishermen willingly abide by the regulations, as they serve both to guard against overfishing and to create a level playing field.
No single concern has drawn Cordovans together over the years more than the prospect of oil tankers bearing crude through the waters of Prince William Sound. There’s hardly a soul in Cordova who can’t recite the history of the town’s battle to keep Big Oil out. As far back as 1971, when plans for the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline were first gaining momentum, Cordovans fought with the oil companies and the federal and state governments to try to get them to consider alternate routes for the transport of North Slope crude. They battled, as well, to get the oil companies to conduct environmental impact studies and a full ecological profile of Prince William Sound, which could serve as the baseline for measuring any damage done in the event of a spill. And they sought laws requiring the companies to implement spill-prevention and -response measures, such as tanker escorts, improved radar tracking, double-hull tankers, and cleanup contingency plans. Ross Mullins and others lobbied intensely and testified before Congress. But despite their efforts, they failed to stop the pipeline route to Valdez, and most of the proposed safety measures were either lobbied away or sidestepped by the oil companies.
The first tankers began departing from Valdez in 1977; by winter of 1989, nearly 9,000 loads of North Slope crude had been shipped out without a major incident. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline was considered a success. Cordovans, however, remained uneasy. Many went to bed at night thinking about the prediction they’d made in a 1971 lawsuit seeking to block construction of the pipeline — that an “inevitable major” oil spill would one day kill countless fish and the town’s economy.
March 1989 was a promising time in Cordova. There had been a number of good seasons in a row. Salmon was selling at an all-time average high of more than $1 per pound. For a long stretch through the 1970s and ’80s, Ross Mullins had been earning enough to meet his expenses, pay his bills, and even take his family to Hawaii in the winter.
That month, in the last days of the antespillian world, Cordova was still very much the town that Mullins had set out for back in ’63. The iceworm had made its annual pass along First Street. The shops were stocking up with goods. The Soul of Cordova had emerged from his cabin. With the opening of the herring and halibut seasons a month away, the town was beginning to stir.
“You could feel the buzz in the air,” Weaverling told me, looking out his loft window at First Street. “People you hadn’t seen all winter were meeting in the street, and the private spotter pilots were getting ready for the first flyovers to locate herring schools. It was great. It was like harvest time.”
At 12:04 a.m. on March 24, 1989, that world ended for Cordova with something less than a whimper. The Exxon Valdez departed the Alyeska terminal’s loading berth No. 5 some three hours before, at 9:21 p.m., freshly topped off with hot North Slope crude. Reports have it that on that particular night, the aurora borealis was more dazzling than it had been in years — a sign, in the lore of Eyak Indians, that misfortune looms. Having cleared the Valdez Narrows, the tanker then steered left out of its assigned shipping lane to avoid ice floes off the Columbia Glacier and was into clear, calm water.
Captain Hazelwood placed the ship on autopilot (he has never explained why; the National Transportation Safety Board report on the accident called the move “extremely inconsistent with normally accepted practice”). For the Valdez to pass safely through the sound and out into the Gulf of Alaska, two things had to be done: The autopilot had to be disengaged (a matter of pushing one button), and a 10-degree right-rudder turn had to be executed manually, just before Bligh Reef (two other ships had made similar turns that night).
At approximately 11:50 p.m., Hazelwood reviewed the course change with his third mate, Gregory Cousins. According to Cousins’s testimony at Hazelwood’s 1989 criminal trial (one of the many criminal and civil cases related to the accident), the captain twice asked Cousins if he felt comfortable performing the 10-degree right-rudder turn, and Cousins twice said he was. Then, at 11:54 p.m. — according to Cousins’s testimony and by Hazelwood’s own accounts — Hazelwood told the third mate he was going down to his quarters to do some paperwork. He ordered Cousins to phone him when the turn was initiated.
At 11:55 p.m., only a minute after Hazelwood had left the bridge, Cousins ordered his helmsman, Robert Kagan, to execute the 10-degree right-rudder turn. What happened during the next five minutes has never been resolved.
Kagan says he turned the wheel as directed. But, somehow, the ship never responded. Perhaps, as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report speculated, the autopilot had not been disengaged (despite the fact that both Cousins and Kagan said they recalled it was off), thereby disabling manual steering. Or perhaps Kagan did not turn the wheel as directed. Cousins has consistently said that during a minute-and-a-half phone call to Hazelwood (Cousins notified the captain that the turn had been started; Hazelwood acknowledged and said he’d be back on the bridge in a few minutes) and in the three minutes or so afterward, he did not, to his recollection, check that the turn had, in fact, been made. In Hazelwood’s criminal trial, it bears noting, the Valdez’s chief mate, James Kunkel, testified that Kagan had trouble keeping a ship on-course, and that the helmsman had a tendency to oversteer.
Just before midnight, Cousins checked the ship’s radar and realized that the vessel’s course remained unchanged. He ordered a 20-degree right-rudder turn, but it was too late. An oil tanker going 12 to 14 knots takes well over 5 minutes to change course and some 7 miles to come to a full emergency stop. About two minutes later, ship’s lookout Maureen Jones appeared on the bridge, shouting that the vessel appeared headed for Bligh Reef. Twice earlier (once just before the 10-degree–turn order was given and then before the 20-degree order was issued), Jones had matter-of-factly notified Cousins, as part of her routine duties, that the ship was still out of its proper lane. At this point, however, the situation had obviously become serious.
Cousins then gave a hard-right command and called Hazelwood again. “I told him,” he testified at Hazelwood’s criminal trial, “that I thought we were getting into trouble. He said, ‘Where’s the rudder?’ And I said, ‘It’s at hard right . . . .’ At that point we suffered the first shock.”
The Exxon Valdez — 987 feet long, 166 feet wide, 88 feet high, and with a displacement of almost 240,000 long tons (including the weight of its 53 million gallons of oil) — had crashed into Bligh Reef, its single skin of high-strength steel slicing open on the rocks.
With its rudder stuck at hard right, the Valdez pivoted — its stern swinging left toward shore, its bow out toward open water. Cousins, fearing the engine room might get hulled as well, grabbed the wheel from Kagan and turned it hard-left to stabilize the ship.
Now back on the bridge, Hazelwood ordered the engines shut down. Choosing not to sound the general alarm for fear of panicking the sleeping crew, Hazelwood sent Cousins and Jones to alert them quietly instead. At 12:27 a.m., from the bridge of the supertanker, came Hazelwood’s infamously flat, even-keeled transmission to the coast guard’s Valdez Traffic Center: “We’ve fetched up hard aground on Bligh Reef.” He added, almost as an aside, “Evidently, we’re leaking some oil.”
Chief Mate Kunkel’s pronouncement to a crew member was perhaps, in retrospect, more appropriate: “Vessel aground,” he told them. “We’re fucked.”
Eight of the ship’s 11 cargo tanks, extending its full length, were ripped open. Radioman Joel Robertson saw oil shooting 40 to 50 feet into the air from one of them. Oil was still bubbling up nearly two feet above the water’s surface along the tanker’s entire starboard side when the vessel was approached by a coast-guard cutter shortly after 3 a.m. Within five hours after the Valdez went aground, 250,000 barrels of oil — more than 10 million gallons — had already emptied into Prince William Sound.
Unaware of the dark tide gathering to the north, most everyone in Cordova slept. Ross Mullins awoke at 6 a.m. A fan of the newly formed CNN, he turned on the TV as he set about making coffee and heard a report about a potentially major disaster in Alaska — an oil spill in Prince William Sound. Mullins experienced a momentary lapse in comprehension: an Atlanta-based reporter telling him about his worst fears coming true in his own backyard? “I kept saying ‘Jesus Christ, what the hell is this?’ ” he recalled. “Then I felt this incredible anger. It was like you’d been raped.”
Still, no one in Cordova really understood the magnitude of the spill until later in the day, when a group from the town flew to the accident site. “It was devastating,” 43-year-old Michelle O’Leary, a longtime Cordova fisherman who was on that flight, told me as we sat one morning in the modified A-frame house that she and her husband had built along a jetty on the edge of Orca Inlet. “The amazing thing is that a number of our commercial fishing vessels were part of a spill contingency plan [in 1986, the state of Alaska had mandated that Alyeska develop a plan for a spill of up to 200,000 barrels]. After we made the flyover, we spent the whole day at CDFU trying to get through to Exxon on the phone and say ‘Look, we’re sending our boats.’
We called Alyeska and they had no idea we were even in the contingency plan. It was so screwed-up.”
Alyeska was primarily responsible for executing the cleanup operation (the coast guard and the state maintained oversight authority). But the spill was far bigger than the contingency plan had prepared for. For that matter, it was beyond the capacity of any of the containment booms and oil skimmers then in use in the United States. Alyeska’s spill-response equipment amounted to one barge loaded with boom material, and that barge was in dry dock in Valdez under several feet of snow. The relative remoteness of the spill’s location further complicated attempts at an expeditious response effort. The first spill-control equipment didn’t arrive until more than 10 hours after the tanker crashed.
“The thing I’ll never forget on that flyover,” O’Leary said, “is seeing these two commercial fishing boats already out there, trying to do something. They had booms stretched between them and no skimmers. Nothing. Just two small boats trying to stem this massive tide of oil.”
For three days after the accident, the slick remained in a relatively contained area, just south of Bligh Reef. On Saturday, March 25, Exxon asked for and was given authority to direct the cleanup, in concert with the coast guard and state and federal agencies. As much oil as was in the water already, there were 1,001,900 barrels (four-fifths of the original load) still on-board the Valdez and in danger of spilling, should the crippled tanker dislodge from the reef and capsize or break apart.
In one of the rare successes of the spill response, Exxon devised a way to transfer that oil to other tankers using submerged pumps. There was also some limited testing of controlled burning and of chemical dispersant (a controversial option because of the dispersant’s own potential toxicity) to eradicate the slick.
Back in Cordova, calls went out to Exxon, as they did from all over Prince William Sound, offering assistance from the town’s fishing fleet. But the company was rejecting such offers, citing the fear of injury, the lack of workman’s compensation, and the unavailability of the necessary booming equipment. The CDFU finally convinced Exxon to fund a small fleet of Cordova’s fishing vessels to go out and boom off the waters around the sound’s five fish hatcheries. The bulk of the fishermen, however, remained stuck in town.
“There’s an image I’ll never forget,” said Sheelagh Mullins. “It was that first weekend after the spill. I walked out to the end of our road here and looked out over the town, and it was like I -didn’t know the place. There were people everywhere, darting back and forth frantically, all this activity but with no real purpose. It was like some strange, out-of-control windup toy.”
On Sunday evening, a storm hit, and all hope of containing the spill was lost. For three days, winds of up to 70 miles per hour spread the oil full across Prince William Sound and then drove it some 400 miles south and southwest through the sound, into the Gulf of Alaska. All told, the slick spread over approximately 3,000 square miles, enveloping dozens of islands and fouling more than 1,200 miles of coastline, including three national parks and eight other protected areas.
It was early spring, and creatures everywhere were emerging from the long winter into a lethal veil of darkness (crude oil varies, depending on its place of origin; North Slope crude is a particularly noxious blend). Salmon fry and herring swam by the millions into it. Otters matted with oil went off into the rocks to die. Eagles, sick from ingesting oil-soaked prey, dropped from their perches to the forest floor.
Murres, oystercatchers, loons, and ducks dove through the slick, flailed briefly, then foundered. Sea lions, seals, and whales, needing to surface for air, came up breathing and blinking back oil.
Cordovans, meanwhile, were having their own ongoing struggles with Exxon. “The first planeloads of people [they] sent in,” said O’Leary, “were all attorneys and public-relations people. The cleanup people came much later. There was this general attitude when it first happened that, well, it’s up there in this remote place in Alaska where just a bunch of ignorant fishermen and natives live. It’s not going to be a big deal. They thought they could manage it and wound up spending most of their time and effort trying to manage the public’s perception. It wasn’t spill control so much as spin control.”
On Wednesday, March 29, Exxon began hiring fishermen to assist with the cleanup, offering $100 a foot per day for the use of their boats. Those with larger vessels could average $5,000 a day or more for the four to five months the main operation was in effect. One fisherman who had an on-board spray washer, a particularly useful piece of equipment, is said to have made $250,000 a month.
Ultimately, though, the magnitude of the spill would reduce the cleanup operation to absurdist theater. People were wiping rocks with paper towels and being paid by the rock. Until enough skimming equipment was brought in, some of the cleanup workers were using Pampers to soak up the oil. Beaches were scrubbed, many of them steam-cleaned, wiping out all life. Equipment failed to work or broke down. In the attempt to cleanse the beaches, workers actually stomped oil deeper into the ground.
The animal rescue effort was a hollow pantomime, ultimately doing more to assuage people’s helplessness and guilt than to save animals. Experts knew from the start that the cause was largely futile; many have said that the cleanup attempts did more harm than good, scaring unsullied otters and birds into oil, traumatizing others from so much handling, and imparting to them various illnesses that would be transferred to other animals.
“It was hell,” said Kelley Weaverling, who was sought out by a team from the University of California at Berkeley to direct the bird rescue operation because of his extensive knowledge of the sound. “In some places,” he recalled, “the oil was a foot thick on the water. When the tide went out, if the beach had any kind of undulation in it, there’d be pools of oil and we’d frequently find animals by taking little sticks and going in and picking them up and saying ‘I think this little blob is a bird blob.’
“People would break down — fishermen, big, burly, macho dudes, sobbing — and then they’d just shake it off and carry on.”
Ross Mullins showed me a tape the night I visited his home. It was of the town meeting held in the Cordova High School gymnasium on Tuesday evening, March 28, four nights after the spill. Nearly the entire population of Cordova was packed into the gym. Behind a podium set up at the front of the room, someone had hung a large picture of the earth from space — the familiar image of the light-blue orb in a sea of blackness having a whole other resonance in this context.
As the session began, the room buzzed, but things quickly settled down as various officials stepped to the podium to summarize, in somber tones, what was known about the spill, what preliminary plans were being made to monitor its progress, and the inevitable damages.
Eventually, Exxon spokesman Don Cornett took the microphone. This was the first opportunity Cordovans had had since the accident to meet face to face with a representative of the company. Cornett began by giving his own brief, banal rundown of what had transpired to date. There were a few outbursts from the restless crowd, but, on the whole, the infamously mouthy Cordovans were surprisingly subdued. Everyone seemed to know even then that it was too late, that the damage was done. One woman asked why the pipeline hadn’t been shut down and all tanker traffic suspended, thereby subjecting the already-offended citizens of Cordova to the indignity of a lecture from Cornett about the vital importance of Alaska’s oil to the rest of the nation.
The remainder of the session was spent talking mostly about the process of filing claims for losses. One fisherman after the next asked how they’d be compensated, but their voices all trailed off in disgust. Trying to put a dollar figure on the economic impact of the damage — let alone on the value of their lifestyle — was unfathomable to them.
In the end, the citizens of Cordova were forced to draw whatever solace they could from the most consoling words Cornett had to offer them: “We will consider whatever it takes,” he promised, “to make you whole.”
The judge who presided over Joseph Hazelwood’s criminal arraignment likened the Exxon Valdez oil spill to the bombing of Hiroshima. The comparison may seem hyperbolic, but to Cordovans, it’s on the mark. For 10 years, the spill has had all kinds of damaging fallout — on the environment, on the economy, and, most of all, on the people. A decade later, Cordovans are anything but “whole.” And Exxon, they say, has only perpetuated their suffering.
The spill’s final mortality estimates for birds and marine mammals are staggering. Among the fatalities: somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 murres, loons, grebes, cormorants, petrels, and ducks, and 144 bald eagles, as well as approximately 5,000 sea otters, 300 seals, and 22 killer whales. Today, some animals, such as bald eagles and murres, appear to have rebounded substantially. But many others — harbor seals and certain species of duck, for example — are still struggling to come back.
In all, less than 15 percent of the oil that spilled was recovered. Of the rest, most evaporated or biodegraded. But while the beaches and marshes appear clean, oil, having worked its way deep into the earth, still lingers. No one can say how long it will be before all traces of oil are gone.
Cordova’s fishing industry has suffered devastating declines. For a few years, the spill damage wasn’t readily apparent. The salmon runs in 1989, ’90, and ’91 were actually some of the best ever. In fact, 1990 was a record year for pink salmon. It wasn’t until 1992 and ’93 — when the salmon that were fry in the spring of 1989 returned as adults — that the spill’s effects became manifest. The returns those years were some of the lowest on record. Herring, especially sensitive to environmental disruptions, were particularly hard-hit, as the oil contaminated undersea kelp spawning grounds. The winter crab and shrimp fisheries were all but wiped out.
The natural fluctuations in fish populations make it impossible to determine what changes can be attributed directly to the spill. This much is certain: The combination of the oil’s physical effects and the damage the spill did to the reputation of Prince William Sound’s catch sent Cordova into an economic tailspin. The same salmon that had sold at $1.15 a pound before the spill was going for 20 cents in ’92. The price of a seine-fishing permit dropped by 50 percent that year. Two of the town’s five fish-packing plants were closed by ’92. Unemployment reached an all-time high. When a school janitor’s position came open, there were 170 applications the first day it was posted.
Today, most major fish species have rebounded substantially (herring less so than others). But the fishing industry has not bounced back. During the down years, fish buyers turned to other suppliers in the U.S. and abroad, and the fishermen of Prince William Sound have yet to regain their market share. Many people believe they may never. The price of a seining permit has plunged to just $28,000, roughly 9 percent of its worth in 1989. Although Cordova’s economy is better now than it was in the worst years (one of the fish-packing plants has reopened, though in a limited fashion), its health remains tenuous. Few fishermen earn a comfortable middle-class income anymore. Some Cordovans have packed up and left. Others have been forced to take up new lines of work. For several years, there has even been renewed debate about building the controversial access road to bring in tourists. Thus far, the answer is still no, but the town has reluctantly increased its reliance on tourism. Once a week in the summer, a tour boat now pulls into the town’s harbor. Sheelagh Mullins has even started her own walking tour of Cordova’s historical sites for the debarking passengers.
The spill brought other unwelcome changes — rifts within the community began to develop. Those who worked the cleanup operation for Exxon felt they were doing the right thing for the environment. And with herring and halibut fishing closed for the season, a paycheck was critical. Others, however, argued that taking money from the accident’s perpetrator couldn’t be justified. In Cordova, “Spillionaires” had another name: “Exxon whores.” By Ross Mullins’s reckoning, it wasn’t working for Exxon, per se, that caused the worst divisions. That, he believes, was a personal decision. The deeper problem was that some fishermen who worked the spill were then able to afford the newest and best equipment allowed within the state regulations. “A lot of guys felt they were screwed because they didn’t get the same opportunity and it put them at a competitive disadvantage,” Mullins told me (he worked the spill for a few months but says he didn’t make enough money to afford substantial improvements in his fishing setup). “Prior to the spill, it had always kind of been one big happy family. This set fisherman against fisherman.”
All these changes bred a host of social problems. Alcoholism, domestic violence, and divorce increased. Rather than going out and socializing, people became more isolated; instead of stopping on the street or at Davis’ Super Foods to chat, or hanging out at the Club Bar for a beer and some tunes, they’d go to the grocery store or liquor store and then head straight home. The town’s mental-health clinic was overrun. Cases of post-traumatic stress disorder were diagnosed immediately following the disaster and in increasing numbers for several years afterward.
In the spring of 1993, Bob Van Brocklin, the mayor of Cordova during the cleanup, killed himself in bed one night with a pistol shot to the head. Among the woes cited in his suicide note were both his personal economic problems tied to the Valdez accident and the stress it had put upon the town. Ever since the spill, Gene Rossillini had been telling people that the damage to the ecology and to his way of life had been weighing on him. A short time after Van Brocklin’s death, the Soul of Cordova was found in his cabin with a fatal, self-inflicted stab wound to the heart.
When I first arrived in Cordova, I had checked into my room at the Reluctant Fisherman, then walked up the hill to First Street. I’d entered Weaverling’s bookshop and started to introduce myself, but had gotten only as far as “I’m writing . . .” when he’d interrupted: “A story about the tenth anniversary of the oil spill.” He’d promptly handed me his jar of oil — he had it right up front, sitting on a wooden display shelf just opposite his cash register.
After the ’64 earthquake — which destroyed the boat harbor, impaled half-a-million-dollar fishing vessels on exposed dock pilings, and practically wiped out the entire town — Cordovans quickly bounced back. But the spill is different. It has become an abiding obsession. “The spill,” said Ross Mullins, “totally screwed people up, and we’re not out of it yet. It’s an ongoing nightmare that won’t let people get on with their lives.”
Steven Picou, Ph.D., a University of South Alabama sociologist who specializes in technological disasters, has been coming to Cordova regularly since the spill, monitoring its effects on people’s psyches and upon the community as a whole. There are dozens of reasons why Cordovans’ nightmare won’t end, Picou told me. For one, their livelihood has been seriously diminished. The loss of income brought on by the collapse of the fishing industry has eroded people’s sense of stability. Fishermen are accustomed to weathering lean times, but six depressed years have taken a toll.
The trauma caused by the damage to the environment is another source of lingering pain. Strolling the beach isn’t the same when you have to worry about skirting oil mousse. And the images of dead birds and otters still haunt. In general, Cordovans say, the sound feels deflated — a paradise lost.
The fact that oil is toxic, with un-known long-term effects, breeds its own uncertainties. People wonder: Might fish populations plummet again? Is the fish safe to eat? Is the water safe to drink? “That’s precisely the opposite mind-set of what’s needed for people to recover,” Picou said.
“People come back relatively quickly after a natural disaster like an earthquake,” he added. “They stop blaming God and then they get together and start rebuilding. But that doesn’t happen with a technological disaster. There’s this terrible anger because it was preventable.” It’s particularly galling to many Cordovans that they had been predicting such an occurrence and fighting to prevent it since 1971. Every so often in the course of my conversations with Mullins, he’d burst out in Lear-like fury. “It’s like we’d alerted the police,” he told me, “and did everything else we could as responsible citizens, and the rape happened anyway.”
Worse, there is no “rapist” — no single human face — to bring to justice. The litany of blame invariably begins with Captain Hazelwood. But the investigations by the NTSB and the criminal and civil trials of Exxon and Hazelwood show that the captain was just one of many — Cousins and Kagan, foremost among them — who played a part in the crash. Yes, Hazelwood had put the ship on autopilot and left the bridge, but neither of these actions, improper though many experts consider them, directly “caused” the accident. And it is not clear, despite reports to the contrary, that the “two or three” vodkas Hazelwood acknowledges he’d had between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. that day at the Pipeline Club in Valdez meaningfully impaired his ability to captain the ship.
Cordovans have come to realize that myriad others had a hand in the accident, as well — Exxon, Alyeska, the coast guard, the state of Alaska, the federal government, and on. The list goes so far back and points to culprits so big and faceless that it tends to dissolve into abstraction.
The threat of another spill also haunts Cordovans. To be sure, significant changes have been made in the wake of the Valdez disaster. An elaborate spill-prevention-and-response network has been established in Prince William Sound, including a pair of state-of-the-art, 10,000-horse-power tractor tugs to escort tankers through the sound and an open-ocean rescue tug stationed just south of Cordova, where the sound gives way to the Gulf of Alaska. An advanced radar ship–tracking system is in place. There are seven barges with a combined 818,000-barrel storage capacity for recovered oil, stockpiles of oil-containment and skimming equipment and chemical dispersant, and regularly scheduled drills involving a trained fleet of local fishermen.
Still, for all the progress that has been made, Cordovans and others continue to travel to Washington to lobby on such issues as the long-ago–called-for double-hull tankers. Even today, only a few of the ships passing through the sound are double-hulls. What’s more, the oil industry is seeking an extension on a federal regulation passed in 1990 dictating that all tankers transporting oil through U.S. waters be double-hulls by 2015.
“A lot of things have changed since ’89,” Weaverling told me. “But essentially the one thing that caused the oil spill has not been addressed: the container. We’ve still got a wet paper bag with eggs in it. We’re being more careful with it, but it’s still a wet paper bag with eggs.”
A few years ago, Exxon attempted to gain permission from the relevant authorities to bring the Exxon Valdez — now fully repaired and renamed the Sea River Mediterranean — back to Valdez, something akin to the Greeks announcing to the citizens of Troy that the Trojan horse would be making a return visit as Tony the Pony. Cordovans and other residents of Prince William Sound were outraged; the idea was dropped. But the very suggestion of the vessel’s return made Cordovans feel violated all over again.
The subject you are certain to hear about on a visit to Cordova — perhaps the biggest factor keeping people from getting on with their lives — is the continuing legal dispute over the $5 billion in punitive damages (a sum the jury had based upon Exxon’s total profits for 1989) awarded back in 1994, in the class-action suit filed by individuals and groups affected by the spill.
Exxon has paid out $1.2 billion to the federal and state governments and other groups and individuals in connection with lawsuits and claims related to the spill. The money has been used to enhance spill prevention and cleanup preparedness, to purchase wildlands to protect them from development, and even to fund the Prince William Sound Science Center in Cordova (its primary mission is to compile the profile of the Prince William Sound ecosystem that Ross Mullins and the CDFU called for back in 1971). That $1.2 billion includes $25.6 million in compensatory damages paid directly to Cordovans.
But Exxon is appealing the $5 billion in punitive damages sought by Cordovans and others, and one hears different estimates of when, if ever, the plaintiffs — 60,000 of them — might actually see a payout. Brian O’Neill, the plaintiffs’ lead trial lawyer, said it should happen within the next year. A -fisherman I met in Valdez said his lawyers told him it will be 2010 before any money is paid. In a 1993 essay about the spill in National Wildlife magazine, longtime Cordova fisherman Rick Steiner wrote of a chilling phone call from a friend in the oil industry who told him that “lawyers yet to be born will work on this case.”
Even if Exxon’s appeal fails, the fine will, by some estimates, pose a minimal loss to the company. Five billion dollars is just 17 percent of its 1998 revenues. And while Exxon has been incurring a 5.9 percent annual interest penalty on the settlement (payable if the company loses the appeal), estimates are that it has been earning as much as a 20 percent annual return on the money via investments.
“If they manage to put off paying the settlement until 2001,” said O’Neill, “they’ll be able to pay out the whole $5 billion on money made from the interest alone.”
The lure of the settlement money, combined with the uncertainty of when, or if, they’ll get it, creates a debilitating limbo for the Cordovans. “You’ve got people hanging on by their fingernails,” said Mullins. “Waiting for that settlement distorts their ability to make rational decisions about their future.”
In post-spill Cordova, pathology piles upon pathology. The longer the fight over the settlement drags on, Picou told me, the more Cordovans begin to hear whispers: “Why can’t these people get over it? They’re just a bunch of lazy fishermen waiting for a handout.” At times, Cordovans begin to believe such accusations. Some begin to wonder, in the classic syndrome of the rape victim, if they are somehow responsible for the whole ugly mess. “There are these niggling concerns,” Mullins said. “ ‘Could I have done more to prevent this? Did I do something to deserve this?’ ”
In a sense, Cordovans are at odds with themselves. They seem both angry at the world for not caring more about what’s happened to them and yet impatient with their own inability to move on.
“I think the general feeling is that we’re tired of it all and we’d like to let it go,” said Weaverling. “But to simply try and forget doesn’t work. I mean, you can’t forget the multiplication tables. You can’t forget trauma. Trying to will make you crazier.”
Over the years, it’s been suggested that the town hold some sort of ceremony — a “Bury the Blues” festival, for example, culminating with the dropping of a casket marked “exxon valdez” into the waters of Prince William Sound — to help bring closure.
“What we really need,” Weaverling said sarcastically, “is for someone to introduce Prozac into our water supply, or maybe a SWAT team of professional masseuses to keep our shoulders low, or some extra out-of-town bartenders to talk to.”
I stayed at Ross Mullins’s place well past eleven o’clock the night I left Cordova on the midnight ferry to Valdez. Most of the time we sat in the kitchen, as cramped and cozy as a ship’s galley, Mullins having to turn his chair out sideways from the table to make way for his good-sized belly. He said he’d had a particularly hard season and was now on the verge of filing for bankruptcy, just holding on, reciting the fisherman’s prayer: “If I can just make it through until next year.”
The ’98 salmon runs had been good, but they’d been good elsewhere as well, and the glut in supply kept prices at about 15 cents a pound. As a result, the packing plants had enforced strict limits on what they would buy. Mullins caught 330,000 pounds, but, he said, he could have easily caught a million pounds if he’d had somewhere to sell them. His and Sheelagh’s gillnet and seining permits are valued at about one-fifth of what the couple paid for them. His only other assets are his boat and his house.
Sheelagh has her veterinary work and her walking-tour business to try to help make ends meet. Ross told me that Sheelagh incorporates the jar of oily rocks sitting before us on the table into her tours. It struck me as a true act of courage, using a sample of the very stuff that destroyed the town she and Ross had fallen in love with years ago in order to carry on living there now.
On the wall just behind me hung portraits Mullins had taken of his four children. All were once his deckhands, but none appears destined for the fishing life. Richard, 35, is getting his MBA at the University of Washington; Ben, 28, is a Stanford grad with a degree in political science who works as a recruiter for a high-tech firm in Seattle; Angus, 26, a graduate of the University of Oregon with a psychology and biology degree, works for a computer company; and Meghan, 21, recently moved to New York City to study at the Natural Gourmet Cookery School.
“Ben and Angus were in town this summer helping me on the boat,” Mullins said, proud both of the fact that his sons don’t need to do that anymore and that they still do.
Mullins continues to fight the oil industry for better safeguards. Recently, he formed the Prince William Sound Fisherman Plaintiffs Committee to keep people better informed of what’s going on with the settlement appeals and other developments, and he is working to create a spill-response plan to protect the nearby Copper River Delta, for which no contingency plan currently exists. (Just three years ago a tanker lost its steering in the Valdez Narrows and was 200 yards from shore when a coast-guard crew managed to get it going again.) “But I often find that I can’t get as involved as I once did,” Mullins said. “I can’t deal with these assholes anymore.”
I poured us each another sip of bourbon and asked Mullins if he ever thought back to that cursed boat he’d bought when he’d moved to Cordova. He seemed not to hear me. He just stared into that jar as though trying to divine something.
“You ask yourself,” he said suddenly, “why do you even bother? You bother because you think maybe it will make a difference, that maybe we’ll prevent something from happening somewhere else. But it won’t. It’s not like what happened here is going to make a difference in other places where they tanker oil. It may have made some difference in this small microcosm. But the corporate culture is going to make the same decisions they made here before the spill in order to get the best bang for the buck. To get a better spill-prevention and cleanup system in Prince William Sound, we had to pay the price.”
A short time later, I walked down the hill to the town dock and boarded the ferry back to Valdez. Passing out of Orca Inlet on a clear mid-September night with winter’s chill already in the air, I thought back on what Mullins had just said.
Ten years after one of the worst ecological disasters in history, the dark lesson, it seemed clear, is that the victims of such disasters have to learn to live with the consequences forever, while the perpetrators can afford to learn nothing at all.
Editor’s note: Contacted for this story, Exxon made the following statements. “The oil spill was a tragic accident which we deeply regret.” • The company has apologized to Alaskans and all Americans and has spent $2.2 billion on the cleanup, which the coast guard and the state of Alaska declared complete in 1992. • “A broad consensus is developing among scientists . . .” that “the species damaged by the spill and the environment as a whole are healthy and robust.” • Exxon has paid $900 million in penalties and damages to the state and federal governments and has voluntarily paid out $300 million in compensatory damages “to individuals, communities, and native corporations . . . in the area of the spill.” • The company is “appealing the $5 billion punitive damage verdict because it is unjust and excessive.”
Where Did All the Stars Go?
The largest optical telescope in North America belongs to McDonald Observatory, which sits atop a mountain in West Texas. Astronomers have come here to peer into black holes millions of light-years away, massive enough to contain 17 billion of our suns. To arrive at the observatory, they’ve most likely made a three-hour drive east from El Paso, through an alien desert terrain of spiny yucca trees and severe, distant mesas. When McDonald was built in the late 1930s, the most famous observatory in the United States was still Mount Wilson in Pasadena, California, at the time possessor of the largest telescope in the world. But even back then, light pollution from Los Angeles was beginning to wash out the night sky. So when a wealthy bachelor from Paris, Texas, named William J. McDonald left his banking fortune to the University of Texas in 1926, saying he wanted the school to build a telescope big enough to peer into the very gates of heaven and see if anyone was there – in the paraphrasing of longtime McDonald Observatory employee Bill Wren – an initial site on the outskirts of Austin was wisely rejected.
Instead, the trustees turned to West Texas, which to this day remains one of the most isolated, indigenously eccentric parts of the United States. ‘No Country for Old Men’ was filmed out here, and local wildlife includes the javelina, a furry, piglike creature that can be spotted scurrying into the tall grass off Dark Sky Drive, the road wending its way up to McDonald. Wren greets me in the parking lot. He’s been working at the observatory for more than 20 years. A bearded, white-haired 58-year-old, he walks with a wooden cane thanks to a teenage motorcycle accident. The hair and cane make him look older, though he has a lean, handsome face.
We make our way up to the metal catwalk circling one of the white observatory domes, which affords a spectacular view of the surrounding landscape. Two thousand feet below, there’s Fort Davis, an old garrison town where Buffalo Soldiers were stationed just after the Civil War. Closer to the mountain, a rustic development of approximately 100 houses stretches over the foothills. A good number of the residents, Wren tells me, are amateur astronomers, drawn to the area for its pristine night skies. Sure enough, a closer look reveals that many of the homes boast miniature observatory domes at the edges of their driveways, or else flat-topped sheds with sliding roofs.
At the moment, though, I can’t make out any of these particulars, because night has fallen, and the development, Limpia Crossing, is almost entirely unlit. There are no streetlights on the winding roads, just curbside reflectors that flash headlights back at drivers, warning them of turns. And none of the houses seem to have illuminated porches or driveway lights. The only dim glow leaks from the odd living room window. Otherwise, a development ranging over hundreds of acres remains almost completely camouflaged by the darkness. If Wren hadn’t pointed the place out, I would have never even noticed it.
Like the professional astronomers working at McDonald Observatory, the amateurs at Limpia Crossing, and the hundreds of tourists drawn to weekly “star parties” in the observatory’s outdoor amphitheater, I’ve come to Texas to see the darkness. Across the country, as cities sprawl into suburbs and suburbs metastasize into exurbs, with the amount of artificial lighting exploding alongside every new McMansion, strip mall, and superhighway, the night sky, in its purest form, is increasingly becoming an endangered species. If you live in a decent-size metropolitan area, chances are you rarely glimpse any but a handful of the brightest stars and planets. A clear view of the solar system – and that awesome, unmooring, sublime, occasionally terrifying feeling that comes over us when we bear witness to the vastness of the universe and recognize our infinitesimal place in it – had been a routine nocturnal experience for the bulk of human history. Now it’s become rarefied and, for some, unimaginable.
Ed Krupp, the director of Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory for the past four decades, has said that in 1994, after the Northridge earthquake knocked out much of the city’s power, the observatory began to receive panicked phone calls about “the strange sky.” “We finally realized what we were dealing with,” Krupp told ‘The Los Angeles Times.’ “The stars were in fact so unfamiliar, they called us wondering what happened.” Local police reported similar calls in which residents asked if the quake might have been caused by a curious “silver cloud” in the sky. This turned out to be the Milky Way – which, today, two-thirds of the U.S. population and one-fifth of the world’s cannot see.
How did our own solar system become so unfamiliar as to now seem like an alien menace? The short answer is light pollution: the fact that much outdoor lighting used at night is wildly inefficient, overly bright, poorly targeted, improperly shielded, and, in many cases, completely unnecessary. Dark-sky advocates don’t exactly love the “pollution” part of the term. “That’s the most accurate description of what’s going on, but people hear it and think I’m going to chain myself to the nearest streetlamp,” mutters Wren, who has become one of the leading dark-sky evangelists in the country. Still, the net effects are undeniably environmental. Light pollution not only douses the night sky to the point of unrecognizability for much of the world, but also represents a feckless waste of energy, with the end result being more greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.
The U.S. spends $11 billion each year on unnecessary outdoor lighting, according to the International Dark-Sky Association, which sounds like an organization that should be worried about keeping James Bond tied to a chair in a volcanic lair but is actually the leading advocacy group dedicated to combating light pollution. The behavior of nocturnal animals, the IDA points out, is also negatively affected by gratuitous outdoor lighting, and scientists have even linked serious human health risks (including breast cancer) to excessive nighttime exposure to bright, artificial light.
“It’s not like a species going extinct,” Wren says. “The sky isn’t going anywhere, and we aren’t harming the stars. But we are encapsulating ourselves in these bubbles of light around our major population centers that make it impossible to see the stars at night. And the consequences for that … well, I have no idea. But we’re losing something ineffable. Mystical. Would van Gogh have been able to paint Starry Night today? I’m not sure. Saint-Rémy, the town where he painted it, has some of the worst light pollution in France.”
Talk of “ineffable, mystical” loss might sound a tad nebulous and abstracted. I thought so – until I stood on that catwalk, as the twilight faded to pitch, and looked up. We were standing in one of the darkest places in the United States. The seven-county region surrounding McDonald Observatory has passed strict lighting ordinances that have helped to make the area “the dark-sky capital of Texas,” in the words of Wren, whose advocacy played a key role in getting those laws on the books: At 28,000 square miles, it’s the largest contiguous space in North America legislatively set aside to protect dark skies. The area includes the gargantuan Big Bend National Park, the darkest park in the continental U.S., which runs along the border with Mexico – big enough, at 800,000 acres, to hold nearly the entire state of Rhode Island.
I live in New York City; before that, Detroit and Atlanta. Still, I thought I’d seen plenty of starry night skies in my life – in northern Michigan and upstate New York, at a friend’s cabin in Maine, vacationing on a Greek island. But I’ve never caught a glimpse of the astral plane as dramatically unobstructed as this one. Initially, it’s overwhelming, like suddenly realizing you’ve swum too far out into the ocean. At the same time, being reduced to such a supplicant state of awe feels jarring and unfamiliar. Post-childhood, how often do you spend any significant amount of time with your head tilted back, gazing straight up?
Wren directs my eyes to the Northern Cross, Orion’s Belt, Polaris, the Summer Triangle. Occasionally, he uses a device that shoots light-saber beams straight up to the black firmament, tracing star patterns as casually as if it’s a speckled chalkboard. “The center of the galaxy is right … here,” he says, circling the brightest part of the Milky Way, then chuckling. “Pretty cool.”
Eventually, Wren goes off to bed. But I remain outside, lingering at the base of one of the big domes. There are about 3,000 stars out tonight, versus the dozen or so you might see in downtown Austin. Those closest to the horizon shimmer like flecks of tinsel; farther up, they’re more fixed and intense, some as tiny as pinpricks, others thick as pearls. I see shooting stars and satellites. The white streak of the Milky Way looks like a gaseous bruise. I think about how I’m looking up at thousands of violent thermonuclear reactions, taking place trillions of miles away.
Down here, though, it’s very peaceful. The only sound is the shrill, chirrupy drone of invisible desert insects. I’m staying at the Astronomer’s Lodge, dorm-style accommodations for scientists visiting the observatory. The rooms have twin beds (with star patterns on the comforters) and blackout curtains (because, of course, the astronomers work all night). Every time I begin to wander in the direction of my room, I notice something else up above and stop in my tracks. Occasionally, the dark shape of an astronomer glides past me, silent as a ghost.
“In the centuries preceding the Industrial Revolution, evening appeared fraught with menace,” the historian A. Roger Ekirch writes in his lively cultural history of the night, ‘At Day’s Close‘. Darkness brought with it threats both real and imagined: murderers and bandits, witches and demons, pestilential night “fogges” and “vapours” thought to carry sickness and death. “All forms of artificial illumination – not just lamps but torches and candles – helped early on to alleviate nocturnal anxieties,” Ekirch notes.
The first streetlamps were lit with candles and, later, kerosene. With electricity came incredibly bright arc lights (which involved heating up vaporized carbon particles until they glowed), used in the late 19th century in cities like Paris. Incandescent lighting followed, and quickly spread. In 1891, Telluride, Colorado, became the first city in the world to use alternating current to power its streetlights, memorably described in Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Against the Day‘: “The high-country darkness . . . soon gave way to an unholy radiance ahead, in the east. It was the wrong color for a fire, and daybreak was out of the question, though the end of the world remained a possibility.”
Bob Parks, the executive director of the IDA, says utility companies heartily embraced streetlights in order to avoid the costly and inefficient process of spinning down their generators at night, when home and business power usage dropped precipitously. By the 1950s, a new technology called high-intensity discharge (HID) lighting allowed streetlamps to burn 10 to 20 times brighter than incandescents. “And they didn’t cost much more,” Parks says. “So people were like, ‘Fine, give it to me.'”
Parks lives just outside Washington, D.C. When I visited him over the summer, I made time to swing by an exhibit at the Smithsonian dedicated to Thomas Edison, described by Parks as “the first great salesman of lighting.” Displays featured components from Edison’s first power plant (on Pearl Street in downtown New York) and a photo of the first electric sign (spelling out the word EDISON in giant letters), but I couldn’t help squinting askance at the rows of antique bulbs, which, after several weeks of my talking to people about light pollution, suddenly took on a sinister appearance, as if they were a collection of medieval torture instruments.
I met Parks for an early dinner at a chain chopped-salad restaurant. He was wearing round, rimless glasses, a green polo shirt, and khaki pants, with a tablet computer slung across his chest like a messenger’s bag and his eyeglass case strapped onto a belt holster. A boyish 57-year-old, despite his white hair and beard, Parks possesses the soothing manner of someone who works in children’s television, perhaps with puppets. He told me that he built his first telescope as a 12-year-old Boy Scout, from a kit. He loved the scope, but he had no further interest in astronomy for the next three decades or so, until the day he began flipping through the stargazing magazines left around the office by one of his employees. (Parks owned a multimedia design company.) He hadn’t realized you could pick up scopes so cheaply, and so he bought himself a nice little eight-inch SCT (Schmidt-Cassegrain, a popular, compact consumer design) and started taking it out into his yard in Alexandria, Virginia, where, on a good night, he was lucky to see 10 stars.
Later, this prompted him to buy 10 dark acres on top of Cave Mountain in West Virginia and set up a camper there. Around the same time, he joined a local astronomy club, where he learned about the IDA. Like a hacker hired by a corporation to protect its servers from other hackers, Parks realized he could bring special skills to bear on this particular issue. Ironically, beginning in high school, he’d spent years working as a lighting designer, mostly for rock bands, his duties ranging from straight stage lighting to Hendrix-style psychedelic light shows. In college, Parks took upper-level physics courses on lighting, and continued in the business after graduation, working for A&M Records with touring artists like Tim Curry, of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show,’ and a Japanese techno act called the Yellow Magic Orchestra. Parks is today a member of the Illuminating and Engineering Society of North America. Disappointingly, its members do not refer to themselves as the Illuminati.
Our indiscriminate overuse of outdoor lighting is the main cause of light pollution. We light our driveways, our porches, our parking lots, our billboards and storefronts, our streets and highways, our parks and public spaces – at times for the purpose of commerce, but often because, on a gut level, it just feels safer to have bright lights around at night. But much of our outdoor lighting is poorly designed, blasting light into the sky rather than onto the sidewalk or city street we’re actually meaning to illuminate. Outsize spotlights used for architectural lighting – say, to highlight a flagpole or church steeple – could be replaced with seven-watt LED spots that would work just fine. Likewise, many safety concerns could be addressed with better targeted, lower-wattage lighting, in some cases activated solely by motion detectors; improperly aimed floodlights, perversely, wind up creating blinding glares that can make it easier for would-be criminals to lurk in the shadows.
In certain obvious, unfortunate ways, light pollution has simply evolved alongside our lighting technology. As Paul Bogard points out in the new book ‘The End of Night,’ a single 75-watt incandescent bulb burns 100 times brighter than a candle. Satellite images of North America at night, with various intensities of light represented by glowing yellows and oranges, are startling, with just about everything east of the Mississippi looking like a graphic representation of a toxic spill. Sky glow has transformed the color of night, for many of us, into perpetually dizzying gradations of pink and blue. A 2001 study co-authored by scientists from Italy and the U.S. found that for 80 percent of the U.S. population and two-thirds of the European Union population, night-sky brightness equaled full-moon conditions all month long. “They therefore effectively live in perennial moonlight,” the study concluded. “Night never really comes for them.” (The authors also took note of the unusual amount of night visibility in Venice, the only Italian city with a population greater than 250,000 in which residents can typically see the Milky Way from the city center; they attributed this fact “mainly to the unique low-intensity romantic lighting of this city, which deserves to be preserved.”)
Meanwhile, Richard Stevens, an epidemiologist at the University of Connecticut, has conducted research suggesting that lengthy exposure to bright, artificial lights at night (computer screen, television, streetlamps) causes circadian disruption in humans, resulting in the body producing lower amounts of melatonin, a hormone that fights cancer and suppresses tumor growth. Night-shift workers, according to Stevens’ study, are nearly twice as likely to develop breast cancer as day-shift workers. A 2012 report by the American Medical Association noted, “Biological adaptation to the sun has evolved over billions of years. The power to artificially override the natural cycle of light and dark is a recent event and represents a man-made self-experiment,” adding that “even low-intensity nighttime light has the capability of suppressing melatonin release.” Aside from “potential carcinogenic effects,” the AMA report states that circadian disruption could also exacerbate other health problems, including obesity, diabetes, mood disorders, depression, and reproductive issues, and calls for minimizing light pollution and further study of its potential effects.
University of Southern California professor Travis Longcore has written about the effects of light pollution on animals. Migrating birds become disoriented by lights and crash into tall, lighted buildings and broadcasting towers; newly hatched sea turtles crawl toward artificial lights (rather than the moonlight over the sea) and wind up crushed by cars or eaten by predators; nocturnal insects flock around city lights, dying in large numbers and disrupting the feeding of bats and other animals higher on the food chain (a study in Germany found that approximately 150 insects are killed by each German streetlight every night). “A pollutant is only a pollutant because we call it such,” Longcore told ‘Cabinet’ magazine. “Carbon dioxide, of course, has been produced on Earth for billions of years, but we now consider it a pollutant because it’s more abundant than it would be naturally. In the same way, we can think of light as polluting when it’s more prevalent than it would be naturally.”
One of Parks’ first light-pollution campaigns, to help a local county adopt a strict lighting ordinance, became a teachable moment for him after one of the board members showed up at a public meeting dressed as Santa Claus, claiming the new laws would ban Christmas lights. “He was just a buffoon, playing on everybody’s fears,” Parks recalls. “He didn’t care about the lights. He was just against regulation. He was a Tea Party guy before there was a Tea Party.” The ordinance was never enacted, and Parks learned a crucial lesson about the importance of education: Bad lighting is something the average citizen rarely notices unless it’s pointed out. “That’s the number one problem,” Parks says, sighing. “You never miss what you don’t know is there. I’d say 90 percent of the population now doesn’t miss dark skies. They’ve never seen them! And that’s really, really sad.”
Outside the restaurant’s plate-glass window, dusk has fallen, and the headlights of the cars gliding along K Street have turned themselves on. Stepping onto the sidewalk, Parks immediately scowls up at an ornamental streetlamp. “This city has probably the worst lighting in the country, and this is the worst streetlight ever invented,” he says. I have to admit (though I don’t, not aloud and in Parks’ presence), I rather like the design of the light: a slightly filigreed metal post rising up to an old-fashioned, mostly exposed acorn-shaped bulb known as a Washington globe. Unfortunately, because of the utter lack of shielding, more than 50 percent of the light shines up into the sky, serving no useful purpose, and about 20 percent radiates directly at eye level, creating glare. “You’re working against visibility by using a light like this one,” Parks says. “But people love the way they look during the day. I’d have no problem if they didn’t turn them on at night. Or if they just put candles in them, the way they were designed.”
Parks turns onto 16th Street, wandering in the direction of the Capitol Hilton. A series of small lights buried in the center of some shrubbery, designed to light up the landscaping from within, stops him in his tracks. “People like lights in bushes,” he notes disapprovingly, adding, “Unshielded, but they’re hidden, so that’s OK.” The exterior of the hotel is highlighted by lights coming out of unshielded wall packs, but Parks says the pale paint job of the walls and the brightness of the surrounding streetlamps makes this choice unobjectionable.
At the sight of a restaurant’s brightly backlit sign, Parks pulls out his smartphone and opens a folder of apps labeled “Lighting Tools.” Photographing the sign, he uses one of the apps to map the amount of light being generated. The photo turns different neon colors, mostly green and yellow, with a tap of his finger displaying the number of lumens that section of the light source is emitting. “Fifty-five,” Parks says. “Though in reality, it’s probably 100. And it’s white light, which is the worst.”
Parks’ mood seems to be darkening with the night sky – which is not all that dark, Parks would surely point out – but still, the growing dimness allows the sheer amount of horrible lighting surrounding us to assume a much sharper focus. “That is just hellishly bright,” he says as we come across another Washington globe.
At the same time, Parks is not unsympathetic to the hardwired human yearning to vanquish the night. “We light because we are innately afraid of the dark,” he says. “Psychology ends up driving public policy: No politician will ever get fired for putting up outdoor lighting. The public feels safe during the day, and there’s a feeling that ultimately, the best thing would be for night to be like day.”
After Parks and I part ways, I head toward the National Mall. Others had warned me that once you start hanging around with light-pollution people, it’s impossible to unsee the matrix – in this case, an inescapable grid of harsh and aesthetically offensive lighting. And it’s true! A garish LED sign outside a bank, informing customers they can “Deposit in a Flash” with their smartphones, bathes a long stretch of sidewalk in a sickly irradiated glow. Staring into a park lit entirely by Washington globes actually makes my eyes hurt. It’s much darker on the Mall, where lighting is minimal along the major paths and nonexistent by the Reflecting Pool. Still, I can see only about a dozen stars, thanks to the sky glow from the rest of the city.
The Lincoln Memorial looks beautiful in the distance, spotlighted in a way that seems to give the whiteness of the marble a living pulse, and with such a high-definition gleam on Abe himself, he could pass for a hologram. The flashes of dozens of tourist cameras sparkle like lightning bugs. A guy rides past on a bike with a kaleidoscopic array of glow sticks weaved into his spokes. I start back in the direction of my hotel and suddenly my newly light-sensitive eyes become slits: Near the Washington Monument, some kind of giant globe light has doused a cluster of trees and the surrounding sky.
I’m about to snap a photograph and fire off an angry email to Parks when I realize it’s the full moon.
On the plus side, light pollution is fundamentally a much simpler problem to tackle than most other kinds of pollution. It doesn’t require the sort of life-pattern-altering tectonic shifts necessary for, say, weaning ourselves from oil or coal or factory-farmed meat. Our relationship to outdoor illumination remains a fairly passive one. If our towns decided to change the streetlamps, few of us, with the exception of the Santa-suit guy, would care, or even notice, until the night sky made its dramatic reappearance.
And as Bob Parks points out, solid-state LED lighting is coming online that could radically change the way we light cities. “You get this opportunity only about once a century,” Parks says. “We’re moving from a very mechanical way of lighting things – putting glowing elements inside glass, which is technology that was around a hundred years ago – to the sort of technology we’ve used to build computers. And we’ll see that same rapid curve we got with computers, where efficiency will go up and up and up and at the exact same time cost will go down.”
Jeffrey Cassis, the CEO of Philips’ Color Kinetics division, who has spent years working on LED development, agrees: “The technology is there – now we’re trying to get the cost down. And it’s moving down very rapidly. Probably less than 1 percent of lighting in cities is now smart LED lighting. Think about how much of how we light our cities is being left to humans deciding to turn things on and off!” The alternative, Cassis and other experts say, will be smart grids allowing for automatic dimming of lights, either pegged to time of day – a particular neighborhood could, say, decide its streetlamps should be lowered significantly after midnight – or even more specific triggers. In San Jose, California, the comprehensive LED retrofit being installed will let streetlights become brighter when sporting events or concerts let out or when bars close. Nancy Clanton, an architectural engineer based in Boulder, Colorado, who has become one of the premier dark-sky lighting designers in the country, predicts future streetlights will have the ability to detect approaching cars (or pedestrians carrying mobile phones) and brighten automatically. “Unfortunately, everyone knows where we are at all times with GPS, so we might as well put it to good use,” she notes cheerily.
Clanton has upgraded municipal lighting systems across the country, and says she initially approached the issue as a design challenge. She points out that streetlamps, for example, are typically set upon 30- or 40-foot poles – but what if a second, much lower tier of luminaires were built into the poles to light the sidewalks? Or how about curb-level lighting that would blast lights into crosswalks, so anyone in the street could be immediately seen by cars? “Now,” Clanton says, “we can light the curbs themselves, or the stripes of crosswalks, or vertical strips on Jersey barriers” – the low concrete walls on the sides of highways – “all of which is much more important than shining light down on everything. Do you ski? Go skiing one day when the light is flat. You can’t see bumps! That’s why we need layering in our lighting – which, by the way, we’ve been doing in interiors for years.”
Seattle has been using federal stimulus money to retrofit all 40,000 of its residential streetlights. Clanton points to a study conducted in that city in which nearly 450 participants responded to different outdoor lighting in various weather conditions. Stunningly, even when lighting was reduced to a mere 25 percent of its normal level, respondents continued to feel safe and secure – as long as the fixtures were targeted white lights with low glare. “Lighting level made no difference to people,” Clanton says. “In fact, they didn’t even know it was lower lighting!”
Research conducted by Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute had passengers ride in vehicles on a mile and a half of test roadways. The vehicles traveled at 35 miles per hour, and passengers were instructed to press a button whenever they spotted an object in the road. Again, the tests took place in all sorts of conditions – wet, dry, various lighting levels – and the researchers found that lighting level made no difference on task detection if lights were properly designed. “So now we have both objective and subjective data,” Clanton says. All the data points to the fact that we’ve been designing lighting all wrong for years. “They were designing for one parameter: lighting level,” says Clanton. “Which we’ve found out is the worst predictor for visibility. What’s much more important is glare and contrast. It’s the quality of light – having really good optical design. And now with computers we can model everything, including contrast. Our tools are completely different. Back then, they could not analyze glare.”
Of course, had those same citizens been subjects of a telephone poll, many would have voted for more lighting, which intuitively feels safer, so education remains a key component of any future political fights. Clanton says she likes to ask people if they’ve ever taken a moonlit walk. “They’ll typically say, ‘Oh, yeah; it’s so great.’ And I’ll tell them, ‘You know, you can read 12-point print under full moonlight!'” Foot candles are units used to measure light intensity. A typical streetlamp, Clanton says, is one foot candle. The brightness of a full moon is one-100th of a foot candle.
At the same time, groups like the IDA have been pushing municipalities to adopt stricter lighting ordinances. Plymouth, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis with a population of 70,000, became the first city in the U.S. to adopt the IDA’s comprehensive model lighting ordinance, which mandates specific amounts of shielding and caps brightness. The city council of Malibu, California, voted unanimously to adopt its own version of the ordinance in April as a direct response to the wild overlighting of a shopping center and football field. Arizona cities like Flagstaff and Tucson have long had strict lighting laws on the books that ban, for instance, searchlights and unshielded parking-lot lights. Both cities are surrounded by observatories, and some believe Flagstaff, a dry, high-elevation locale that has attracted stargazers since the 1890s, when it earned the nickname Skylight City, passed the first lighting restrictions in the country in 1958 in order to protect its skies.
The IDA and other light-pollution activists have also focused on creating dark-sky preserves, generally state or national parks, where visitors might glimpse what they’ve been missing. Along with Big Bend, the IDA’s highest-ranked – i.e., darkest – parks in the United States include Death Valley in California, National Bridges in Utah, Cherry Springs in Pennsylvania, and Clayton Lake in New Mexico. Part of the selling point of such ratings is the ability to market dark-sky tourism. Though one might assume Governor Rick Perry and the deeply conservative Austin legislature would balk at any lawmaking that smacked of environmentalism, the fact is, dark skies are good for business, and so the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has agreed, with the blessing of the state, to assess all 93 Texas state parks for outdoor-lighting improvements and to send their park rangers to McDonald Observatory for night-sky training, in order to better teach visitors about constellations and telescopes.
Bill Wren has been a key player in advocating for such changes in West Texas and throughout the state, from shaping city and county ordinances to urging businesses and residents to change the ways in which they light their buildings. Wren’s courtly, nonthreatening manner, and the fact that he grew up in a small town in Missouri and so can pull off saying things like “Get some grub” or “You’ll see all kinds of critters around here” with the unself-consciousness of a native speaker, has surely contributed to his success ratio. Thanks to Wren’s involvement, a Texas convenience-store chain called Stripes dimmed the lighting above the gas pumps at many of its 500-plus locations from 5,700 watts to 1,500 watts per canopy. “That’s still enough light to top off your car and perform brain surgery at the same time,” Wren notes drily. But he’s not complaining.
One night, under the dome of McDonald Observatory’s 36-inch telescope, built in 1956, Wren slides in front of a computer running an old DOS program and punches in some Messier catalog numbers from memory, whistling as he types. The Messier catalog compiles coordinates of various astronomical objects. Wren has just entered the coordinates for Saturn. The big telescope, shaded an institutional gray the color of a public school locker from the Fifties, swivels into alignment with an ugly grinding sound. Climbing onto a ladder, I peer into the finder scope and see what looks to be a cartoon drawing of the planet – a sailor’s tattoo of Saturn! – along with three tiny dots that Wren explains are moons.
“That’s not Saturn,” I say.
“People always say that,” Wren says. “They can’t believe it.”
Stepping out onto the catwalk, Wren continues, “Light pollution is a soft sell – it really is.” If he sees bad lighting, Wren will not hesitate to knock on someone’s door, often with a complimentary replacement fixture tucked under his arm. As might be expected, the initial response from Texans to a stranger telling them to change the way they’re lighting their private property is not necessarily to invite that stranger inside for a Shiner Bock. “Really, very few people have slammed the door in my face, though that does happen,” Wren acknowledges. “People will say, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ or ‘You can’t tell me how to light my property!’ But then when you tell them, ‘Well, your neighbor across the street doesn’t appreciate your light shining in their bedroom window,’ they’re like, ‘Oh …’ It’s like noise pollution. Blasting music at 2 in the morning and keeping people awake, or having a bright barnyard light keeping people up – same difference. And once people see that, they get it.”
One of Wren’s earliest memories is watching the moon rise through a pair of binoculars pressed up against the plate-glass window of his childhood home. He thought about becoming an astronomer but realized he wasn’t wired for math and physics and so instead majored in philosophy, moving from the existentialists to Zen practitioners like Alan Watts. In Austin, he worked with runaway teens and their families, spending his free time playing poker and catching shows at Armadillo World Headquarters, the legendary Texas rock venue (where Wren proudly notes that he was present for the taping of Frank Zappa’s 1975 live album ‘Bongo Fury‘). He also continued to pursue astronomy as a hobby, driving to the outskirts of town with carloads of friends and coolers filled with beer. He’s since been told that a sports complex called the Field of Dreams has opened near his old viewing site, with lights “bright as televisions – out of compliance with everything.” If he still lived in Austin, he’d have to find another stargazing spot.
Shortly after he started working at McDonald Observatory, Wren met David Crawford, the proselytizing co-founder of the IDA. Crawford, now retired, was an astronomer at Kitt Peak Observatory in Arizona; he started the IDA in 1988, converting a legion of missionaries such as Wren. Like Crawford, Wren sees himself as an educator, and spends much of his time traveling around the state making PowerPoint presentations about light pollution. He’s also been working with a natural-gas drilling company to design a demonstration rig with dark-sky-friendly lighting. (There’s been a sharp increase in fracking in Texas in recent years, and federal safety regulations require high levels of lighting on the big rigs, with operators generally employing monstrous floodlights.)
Out on the catwalk, Wren says he’s grateful for the mountains ringing the observatory. Without them, he notes, we’d be staring at a sea of headlights from a hundred miles away. As we chat, a car makes a wrong turn as it exits the star-party parking lot and starts coming up the hill in our direction, its single pair of headlights washing over us like we’re escaped convicts lambing it over a prison wall. Wren nods at a distant cluster of hills where a group of local survivalists has established an outpost. “Good lighting, though!” he murmurs. “They just have this one security light that bothers the hell out of me. …
“Most people will say looking up at the Milky Way makes them feel so insignificant,” Wren goes on. “You know, ‘I feel so small and tiny.’ Well, there’s that. But there’s also: Look at what you’re connected to! I mean, we’re part of something really grand, and for me, that kind of evens things out.
“One of the things I was interested in when I studied educational psychology is how we acquire different cognitive skills, like the ability to abstract – to imagine what it would be like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, as opposed to just your own view,” he continues. “To imagine a world beyond your horizon. And there are different theories of cognitive development, but most of them follow along the lines of Piaget, where you move from infancy into concrete operational thought, which is very black-and-white, letter-of-the-law, and then onto formal operational thought, where you’re able to abstract and imagine other points of view. And depending on who you believe, about half of the population never obtains any level of formal operational thought.”
Why is that? I wonder.
“That’s a good question,” Wren says. “I’m wondering if losing touch with the sky has anything to do with it.”
The next day, we drive over to Limpia Crossing, where I meet amateur astronomers like Allen Gilchrist, a retired research scientist who spent years working for oil-industry companies in Houston and carting around his telescope on vacations. He and his wife chose Fort Davis for their retirement in large part because of the darkness, and he bought a small observatory dome, which he’s called Stonecrest, at the edge of his driveway. Leading me inside, where Prokofiev is playing softly in the background on an old boombox, he shows me some of the dazzling photographs he’s made with his scope, one of the most impressive being the Lagoon Nebula, a colorful interstellar cloud that’s part of Sagittarius. Amateur astronomers are like birdwatchers: Some focus on stars in our solar system, others on galaxies far beyond our own. You might be nerdily obsessed with the sun, or the moon, or seeking out supernovas or asteroids undiscovered by professional scientists. “There are only so many large telescopes in the world, so this is one of the few sciences left where amateurs can actually make contributions to the professional community,” Wren says. “I mean, you don’t hear about amateur particle physicists.”
After my visit to McDonald, I spend the night in Big Bend National Park, in the newly retrofitted Chisos Basin. The main lodging area has dim, recessed lighting only where absolutely necessary: near doors and at foot level on walkways. It’s very easy to get around, but any glow is muted and earthbound. A path from the main lodge leads to a series of stone cottages, built in the 1940s by the WPA, which is where I’m staying. While most of the park looks as austere as the landscape in a Road Runner cartoon, Chisos is a lush bubble of high desert ecosystem, notably cooler, with pine trees lining distant hills and animals you wouldn’t expect to see in a normal desert: I spot a white-tailed deer with massive, goofy ears and a petite gray fox dragging an impressive tail.
As the sun sets, I sit on the back porch of my cottage and watch the stars come out. It’s sublime in a way I’m not quite prepared for. I have a book I’m enjoying, and some work to do on my laptop. But I can’t tear myself from this dizzying, unfamiliar view. At McDonald Observatory, my first glimpse of the night sky made me feel tiny and alone, just as Bill Wren described. Tonight, though, simply having been given the opportunity to witness these stars, the beauty of this entire yawning cosmic spectacle, even if it’s just a fleeting speck of a moment as we hurtle through space and time into an empty black void – it feels like a gift. Tonight I don’t think of explosions. I think about how the stars must have looked to our ancestors, millennia ago: like tiny torches held out for us by invisible agents. The fact that we might be the only living beings in the universe bearing witness to this canopy of light can make everything feel pointless and random, sure, but, conversely, and maybe especially if you’ve spent the past few hours sipping from nip-size little airplane bottles of Dewar’s (discreetly poured into a paper coffee cup you discovered back in your cottage), it can also make you feel special. Chosen, even – if only by natural selection, and by our own human craving for discovery and transcendence.
I pop the trunk of my rental car’s hatchback and lie down in the bed like I’m at a drive-in. One of the neighbors wanders out to his own car to grab something, using a flashlight. The insect drone is one part squeaking mattress, one part teakettle whistle, and it blends with the sound of the wind, rolling in like a tide. I remember an art exhibit I saw once that included a work – well, “work” – by the playwright August Strindberg, who thought he could capture images of the cosmos by leaving exposed photo plates out all night. The images he produced were beautiful, and they could pass for frozen images of the night sky. Strindberg was disappointed to eventually discover that what he’d thought was the universe was likely no more than random scatterings of dust.
I’m starting to feel a dull ache in my neck, but I don’t want to go inside. A car pulls out of the parking lot, briefly lighting up a tree and making it look plastic, overlit, part of a diorama at a natural-history museum. I wander back toward the cottage and suddenly, I’m startled by something huge moving toward me. It turns out to be a spider, transformed into a B-movie monster by one of the low-wattage IDA-approved lights, its legs rearing up in shadow against a wooden post.
I thought about my first night in Fort Davis, which happened to be July 5. Bill Wren had suggested we check out the town’s fireworks display, and so I’d ended up at a party at his ex-brother-in-law’s place, stretched out on the grass with a bunch of strangers, staring out at a fusillade of patriotic explosions – even then, tipping my head backward to peer at the stars, which struck me as far more compelling and exotic than any man-made pyrotechnics. The bursting of a new rocket would briefly force me to look straight ahead. And there, in front of me, a whole new galaxy of colored lights would be streaking the horizon, having appeared out of nothing. And then, just as quickly, it would be gone.
After a while, I lay back on the cool grass, giving up on the fireworks, and started looking for Arcturus, a bright star Wren had pointed out earlier. I knew it was up there somewhere.
Blinded by the Light
Researchers from the University of Padua, in Italy, working with the National Geophysical Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, have collaborated on the first World Atlas of artificial night-sky brightness, which measures global light pollution. The above images show light levels in the United States over the past five decades, along with a projection for 2025. Drawn from computer models based on upward light as measured by meteorological satellites, the images take into account other factors such as altitude and the way light is scattered by smog. Black space represents the darkest areas, traditionally clustered in sparsely populated western states, while the colored areas depict different levels of light pollution. Yellow represents twice the amount of natural night-sky brightness. In orange zones, the Milky Way is no longer visible. Red zones mean fewer than 100 stars can be seen. Finally, in the white and pink zones, most prevalent in the 2025 map, the North Star and the Big Dipper have disappeared.
The Worst Offender
Among American cities with significant light-pollution problems, like Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C., Chicago stands out as perhaps the worst. In 2008, the city was named the single most light-polluted city in the country. Much of Chicago’s problem stems from its profusion of billboards, improperly aimed streetlights, and outdated Victorian-style streetlamps. In a positive development, as part of a recent effort to prevent birds from striking brightly illuminated buildings at night and dying, 100 Chicago-area skyscraper owners agreed to dim their lights during the evening.
The Survivors by Hampton Sides
When Ronnie Clifford first went to the psychologist in October 2001, he presented his case as an enormous engineering project. Here are the problems, he said, here are the elements and fractures and stresspoints: now put me back together again. Clifford used the metaphor deliberately, for he was trained as an architect and well-versed in the principles of structural engineering and computerized design. For decades, he had made his living understanding why buildings stand.
The therapist, a specialist in post-traumatic stress syndrome, accepted the engineering project, and the two men went to work, six hours a week. “I was in pieces, just falling apart” Ronnie says in the lilt of his native Ireland. “I was having intense dreams. I couldn’t get out of the building. I was there every night, trying to get out of the place. I would jerk myself awake, exhausted, in shock. Weird things were happening. I was seeing the number eleven popping up everywhere – like the towers themselves, the way they rose in the sky like an eleven. Whenever I got in the shower, I would constantly scrub my feet, just scrub and scrub, like there was something dirty down there and I had to get it off.”
Ronnie drives his dark-green Jaguar around the historic, gas-lit town of Glen Ridge, the New Jersey neighborhood where he lives and works. It’s a rooted place of rambling mansions and shops set in a quilt of woody suburbs seventeen crow-miles from Manhattan. He lives with his wife Bridget, and their daughter, Monica, in a charmingly fusty shingle-style house with hardwood floors, windows warped by time, and a garage that was once a livery stable. The vintage gas lights that grace the streets never turn off.
Ronnie is a solid, fair-skinned man with thinning red hair, thick fingers, and freckled arms. His eyes are blue and warm, and squinch into crowsfeet whenever he laughs or smiles, which is surprisingly often. Because he didn’t leave his family farm in Cork and head for America until he was twenty-seven, his accent is strong. He is forty-seven but sounds like a boy when he talks, his voice high-pitched and keen with wonder at life’s trick connections. He is attentive to the strange atmospherics that have welled up around 9/11, all the coincidences, real or imagined, and the odd numerology of the day. “Something higher was at work,” he suggests. “When I look at all the things that happened to me and my family that day, I realize that you couldn’t design an algorithm to put all these events together.”
Ronnie, who is a tremendously vivid and empathetic storyteller, wasn’t shy about accepting invitations from the media, and he became something of a celebrity in the days after September 11. Eventually, though, the media circuit became too overwhelming for him. He couldn’t talk about it anymore. He had to shut off the television and retreat from the world. Everywhere he turned, there it was, an image, a reference, a reminder. Even his friends started to annoy him. The consoling phone calls, the well-meaning e-mails, the sympathy cards—he wanted it all to stop.
Over a salmon pasta at his favorite Italian restaurant in town, where the waiters all know him, he asks me, thoughtfully, almost in a whisper, “Have you ever had anyone close to you die?”
My father, I say. He had a heart attack in his car and smashed into a telephone pole.
“Well,” he says. “It would be like if someone said to you, ‘Hey, guess what, your dad died. Your dad died. Your dad died.’ Every day, every hour, somebody opens it up in your face. Somewhere along the way, I realized, my God, it’s never fricking ending, is it?”
That morning, before dawn, Ronnie woke up almost giddy with excitement. There had been a thunderstorm the night before, with major power outages across northern New Jersey, but the storms had swept to the east, leaving everything tingly and cool. Ronnie put on a blue business suit and a yellow silk tie. He’d bought them special for this day. He wanted to look sharp for a business meeting at the World Trade Center Marriott with a Chicago software executive. The stakes were high: If all went well, the meeting would profoundly change Ronnie’s business life, creating a brand-new company that would design Web applications for large corporations. Ronnie’s little sister, Ruth, whom he always called on for fashion advice, had helped him pick out the suit, and had been especially fond of the yellow tie. “You always want to stand out,” she’d told him.
Ronnie kissed Bridgid goodbye, took the commuter train to Hoboken, then, because he realized he had time to spare, and then boarded the ferry. The Hudson air was bracing, and the water caught crescents of the morning light as the sun climbed behind the vivid ramparts of Manhattan. “The city was breathtaking,” Clifford says. “Before a meeting, it’s always important to feel good, and I felt great.”
At around 8:45 Ronnie walked into the lobby of the Marriott, which was connected to the north tower by a revolving door. As he was checking his yellow silk tie in a mirror, he he felt a massive explosion, followed several seconds later by a reverberation, a warping effect that he describes as the “harmonic tolerances of a building that’s shaking like a tuning fork.”
He peered through the revolving door into the lobby of the north tower. It was filling with haze. People were scurrying to escape what had become an “incredible hurricane of flying debris.”
Yet Ronnie remained untouched. It was as though the revolving door were a glass portal to another realm, a world of chaos and soot just inches away. The Marriott lobby was calm, the marble surfaces polished and antiseptic. For a few seconds, the two adjacent worlds did not meet.
Then the revolving door turned with a suctioning sound followed by a sudden burst of hot wind, and in came a mannequin of the future. A woman, naked, dazed, her arms outstretched. She was so badly burned that Ronnie had no idea what race she was or how old she might be. She clawed the air with fingernails turned porcelain white. Her skin was black and glistening red. The zipper of what had once been a sweater had melted into her chest, as if it were the zipper to her own body. Her hair had been singed to a crisp steel wool. With her, in the warm gust of the revolving door, came a pungent odor, the smell of kerosene or paraffin, Ronnie thought.
Then the mannequin became a person, crying for help. Ronnie had little idea what had happened to her, or where exactly she had come from, but he knew that whoever she was, she was his responsibility now.
Silvion Ramsundar creaks in his black leather sofa, a television remote clutched in his hand, as the jets from JFK Airport whistle overhead. The relentless background keen of the planes has grown so nerve-wracking that he and his wife, Nimmi, have considered moving from their home, in South Ozone Park, Queens. Silvion fingers the bandaged wound on his left shoulder and says, “I hear them all the time, all the time. I can’t stand it. Tools of destruction, that’s all I can think about. They remind me.”
It’s not as though Silvion could ever forget, or that he ever truly wants to. He is a head-on sort of person, and he’s made confrontation a part of his recovery. In his living room, nailed to the wall for any visitor to see, is a framed pair of photographs of the trade towers, before and after. In the top picture, the metallic duolith gleams in the sun; in the bottom one, there is a smoky void.
“It’s part of my history,” he says, in a tone that seems to acknowledge that some people might find the photographs oddly blatant. “I worked there for ten years. Everything that I have in my life happened while I was working there – I bought my first house and my first car, met my wife, had my daughter. Now that the towers are gone, it’s like my house burned down.”
Silvion will talk about that day, but he refuses to believe that his experience are beyond what his own personal resources can handle. The best way to get back to normal, he feels, is to start acting as though everything is normal. He steers clear of shrinks, of twelve-step trauma sessions, of appearance on Oprah. One might say he’s in denial of being in denial.
“I’ve almost displaced the fact that I was there, as though it happened to somebody else,” Silvion tells me. His five-year-old daughter, Mariah, wriggles in his lap, careful not to touch his left side. “That’s not to say that it’s not going to come flooding back someday. But I know this is what’s working for me right now. Being home, thinking about other things, not feeling sorry for myself.”
Silvion, a genial man in his early thirties, works for Mizuho Capital Markets, which deals with interest-rate derivatives. Like many denizens of the financial world, he does not succumb easily to melodrama. He speaks in the blunt brogue of the borough of Queens, where he has lived most of his life. But he’s a native of Guyana, born of Indian parents who moved to New York City when he was a boy, seeking a better life. His mother is a devout Muslim, his father Hindu. His black hair is cropped short, his skin a deep bronze. A long fresh scar tracks across his jawline.
Silvion was standing on the 44th floor of the south tower, in the Sky Lobby Café, waiting in the cashier’s line with a Danish and a cup of coffee. He was making small talk with Christine Sasser, a friend from his office. He had heard a thud of some kind and thought someone back in the kitchen had dropped a large stockpot. Outside, the morning sky swelled with paper, a glittering budge of confetti. Silvion watched the cloud floating down and wondered what it was. It looked beautiful against the sharp September blue, a trillion motes dancing in the fair light. He squinted out the window for a moment, then proceeded toward the cashier.
He and Christine rode the escalator up to the lounge on the 45th floor, where televisions were blaring. A news show reported that a small commuter plane had crashed into the north tower, but Silvion couldn’t see anything out the window. A voice broke over the intercom and announced: “There is a fire in the North Tower. Firemen are on the scene. Do not worry. The south tower is secure. You may return to your offices.”
Silvion and Christine decided to go back up. How much damage could a commuter plane do? At the very least, it seemed like a good idea to reassess the situation from their office, then place a few phone calls and collect their most important belongings.
At approximately 8:50, they pushed the up button for the express elevator. Their office was on the eightieth floor.
Their ascent required two separate elevator rides, the first one to the seventy-eighth, and then a second to eightieth. The doors slid open, and Silvion and Christine walked into their office, only to learn that it had been almost entirely evacuated. Only three security guards and a few of the firm’s high-level executives remained. Silvion found Charles, a security guard he’d been friendly with for years.
“Where’s everybody?” he asked. “It’s just a commuter plane.”
“No, no, it’s big,” Charles answered. “An airliner. Look.”
Silvion walked around to the far side of the office and gasped. The steel corduroy skin of the north tower had been torn open. Black smoke tendriled through the building’s metal grid. Then they saw a man emerge from the hole. He was standing at the edge, looking down, wide-eyed with fright. Then, the man jumped, and Silvion watched him drop all the way down to the ground. That’s when he registered the magnitude of the damage across the way, and he pleaded with Charles, “Are you guys leaving? C’mon, let’s get out of here!”
“In a few minutes,” said Charles. “We’ve got to check up on the place.”
“At a certain point,” Will Jimeno says, “your house becomes your prison.” Will sits at his dining-room table, net to his gun rack, gazing at a deer in his backyard. Ever since he got out of the hospital, in late November, he has sat here – a cop under a kind of house arrest. The view never changes. The TV drones. The deer doesn’t move.
In fact, the deer isn’t real. It’s a target that Will keeps for bow-hunting practice. It’s startlingly lifelike, though, a creature comically out of place next to the suburban detritus on the porch. Ordinarily, Will would spend much of the fall in a deer stand in the pine barrens of New Jersey, slathered in camo-scent. But this year he missed the season entirely. For three months he lay in a hospital, his veins coursing with blood thinner. “Next year,” he says. “Maybe next year.”
Will lives in Clifton, New Jersey, in a modest boxy house clad in green vinyl siding. As we talk, his wife, Allison, bathes their newborn in the kitchen sink, while their older daughter, Bianca, watched SpongeBob SquarePAnts in the other room. Will is a burly man with a round face and black hair cut in a military buzz. He was born in Colombia, but moved to America when he was two and grew up in nearby Hackensack. Before he became a cop for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, Will served four years as a gunner’s mate in the Navy, pulling several deployments in the Pacific on a ship that carried attack helicopters.
Because of the extreme trauma of Will’s injuries, his left leg is bound in a formidable-looking brace, and various crutches and walkers are strewn about the house. He wears a PAPD T-shirt, black gym shorts, and a pair of hospital-issue circulation hose. “Aren’t those lovely?” he says. “They come in two different colors – black and nude.” Today, it’s nude. The hose are pulled up nearly to his knees and push firmly against the skin to prevent swelling.
Will has occasional bouts of depression and despair, but by and large he’s optimistic. He’s had to keep busy, and that’s been a godsend. His days have been taken up with a regimen of treadmills, flexes, weights, hydrotherapy, and stretches. Despite skin grafts and extensive reconstruction to repair the damage to his nerves and muscles, his leg is still a mess. “I’ll wear a brace the rest of my life,” Will says. “But I will walk again.”
In Will Jimeno I see an iron determination to put the best face on things, and a certain resignation, the look of someone young who has begun to accept the indignities of his condition while feeling stabs of incredulity that this is the new him. If there was once a macho aspect to his personality – proud hunter, sailor, cop – it has been humbled.
The proportions of the tragedy still tax his imagination. The Port Authority lost more police office that day than any American police force has ever lost in a single day. Thirty-seven PAPD officers died, along with thirty-eight other Port Authority employees. Many of them were his dear friends. Will says, “I don’t think I’ve internalized it, and I’m not sure I ever will.”
He motions for me to come closer, turns his left knee outward, and shows me the leg. “It’s getting better,” he assures me. His knee is swollen, and the thigh is a swirl of ruptured blood vessels. The skin along his leg is cross-hatched with scars. In his thigh there is an orifice left by the surgical removal of flesh, a ropy-skinned hole that’s large enough to accept a cork. “For draining,” is all he says, and I don’t press him further.
Will was working outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal that morning, a rookie cop policing the rush-hour crowds with his Mace and his 9mm Smith & Wesson, when he saw the shadow of a low-flying plane pass over Forty-second Street. A few minutes later, he received an alarm over his radio – a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Immediately, he and nine others boarded a Port Authority bus and sped toward the tip of Manhattan.
When the bus pulled up in front of the towers, everything was coated in a fine gray powder and strewn with chunks of metal and concrete. The carcasses of cars and buses smoldered along Vesey Street. The torched husk of an airplane part was stuck like a harpoon in the side of a building. People lay on the sidewalk, bloody, with paramedics at their sides. Even on the ground, Will could smell the jet fuel. From his years in the Navy, he was well acquainted with its sharp stench, and he something about how hot it burned.
Senior officers were looking up at the fire with tears in their eyes. Most of the Port Authority policemen had suspected this was a terrorist attack right from the start. Ever since the 1993 WTC bombing, the Port Authority had been an agency steeped in paranoia. The World Trade Center was expressly theirs to protect, and they were trained to be suspicious. “As soon as we pulled up to the site, we knew that this was a combat situation,” Will says. “Only we were police officers – we were never trained for war.”
While fussing with his his equipment, Will kept hearing explosions, one every few seconds, a ragged beat of concussions thudding up and down the street. He turned to look: They were human bodies, dropping from above, blowing up on impact. They sent up aerosol clouds of blood and left divots in the sidewalk. The ground became littered with body parts and personal effects – watches, high-heeled shoes, PDAs, a briefcase. “I’ve heard experts say the people were dead before they hit the ground,” Will says. ” But you could tell they were conscious. They saw what was coming.”
With no medical training, Ronnie Clifford scarcely knew what to do. He sat her down on the cool marble floor, then dashed into the bathroom and ran water into a clean black garbage bag that he found. He hurried back out and dribbled the contents over her body.
Then he sat down on the puddled floor and tried to comfort her. Despite her condition, she was lucid. He took out a pen and notepad from his leather bag and jotted down her information. Her name was Jennieann Maffeo. She was an Italian-American woman from Brooklyn, single, forty years old. She worked for UBS PaineWebber. She was an asthmatic, she said, and had an extreme intolerance to latex. She could not adequately describe what had happened to her. She was standing next to a man she knew outside the north tower, waiting for a bus, when she heard a loud crash above. In an effort to protect them from falling debris, a security guard herded everyone inside the tower’s lobby. Suddenly, she told Ronnie, something bright and hot enveloped her, a vapor maybe. She thought it could have dropped down the elevator shaft. She was worried about the man who’d been next to her. Surely he was dead, she feared.
Periodically Ronnie yelled for a paramedic, but no one came. People were streaming through the revolving doors now and scattering. Ronnie didn’t know what to do, what to say. His new suit was soaking wet, and wisps of skin clung to it. He sat close to Jennieann, but didn’t think he should hold her, for he feared that the germs on his hands would cause a fatal infection. He thought about his headstrong sister, Ruth, and wondered how she would handle this situation. She had once run a European day spa in Boston and had made skin health her professional and personal concern. She knew what vitamins to take, what salves to daub on burns, and she always coached Ronnie to take care of his skin. She would have known what to do.
Jennieann turned to Ronnie and looked beseechingly at him through her half-closed eyelids. “Sacred heart of Jesus, pray for us,” she said.
Sitting in a pool of water, alone in the swirling stampede, he whispered the Lord’s Prayer in her ear.
Anxiously, Silvion and Christine rode the elevator back down to seventy-eight. More than a hundred people were there waiting for express cars, tapping their feet, cutting nervous jokes. They lingered for what seemed like a long time but was probably only a few minutes. Christine tried to make a call from her cell phone but couldn’t get a carrier. “This elevator better come soon or else we’ll have to take the stairs,” Silvion said.
A few seconds later, at 9:06 a.m., Ramsundar glimpsed a brilliant flash of milky light out of the corner of his left eye. The entire wall to his immediate left ripped open, and a pressure wave hurled him ten feet across the lobby. As he tumbled through the air, he felt debris piercing his body. He landed on his back. His briefcase was tossed in the opposite direction. A miscellany of tiles and sheetrock landed on him. He could smell what he later learned was jet fuel, and there were fires all around.
Silvion wasn’t sure if he could move. He had cuts everywhere. He was bleeding from his ears, and had a long laceration across his jaw, with the skin hanging loosely from his chin. He was having trouble breathing. Something hard and sharp was embedded in his upper chest, and the wound was pulsing dark blood, a red coin growing on his chest. His left arm dangled lifelessly.
He lay dazed for a few moments, with no idea what had happened. The only thing he could imagine was that an explosion from the other tower had somehow carried over. He studied his wound long enough to ascertain that whatever had entered his body was significant, about the size of a deck of cards. He could neither lift his arm nor move his shoulder. Nerves and muscles had evidently been severed. He worried that the projectile had struck a major artery.
Then he realized that a person was lying across his legs. He sat up and struggled to roll him off. When he saw the man’s face, Silvion knew he was dead.
Will Jimeno raised his hand to volunteer when Sergeant John McLoughlin, a Port Authority veteran who knew every rivet of the building, asked for men to accompany him into the north tower and start rescuing victims. The group quickly assembled. The four mean were preparing to venture into the tower when the second crash came, the United Airlines jet. Because of the spped and angle of the impact, this second explosion was much more massive than the first. The shockwave working its way down the building, like a thrum in a bell. Even so, Will and his three comrades gathered their equipments and pressed into the World Trade Center.
Ronnie Clifford was still whispering the Lord’s Prayer in Jennieann Maffeo’s ear when the second plane hit. The whole edifice rumbled and groaned and swayed, then the floor beneath him buckled hideously and seemed to raise him off his feet. Pieces of the building were falling all around him. Ronnie knew then that they absolutely must get out.
“Jennieann,” he said. “Can you stand up?”
“I’ll try,” she answered.
Ronnie removed his new suit coat and draped it over her front so that she wouldn’t have to walk out of the building naked. A nurse who worked for the Marriott arrived with a bottle of oxygen and a mask, which she held over Maffeo’s mouth as they shambled across the hotel’s crowded lobby. Drawing closer to the door, Ronnie heard someone say, “A plane hit the tower,” and then someone else say, “A second plane hit the other tower,” which was the first time he had an inkling of what had happened. He was growing more frustrated and alarmed. The crowds weren’t moving fast enough through the bottleneck at the door. Jennieann was in excruciating pain. Finally, Ronnie held her arm and pushed impatiently through the throng.
“Out of our way!” he screamed in a voice he did not know he had. “Make way!” When people turned to look, they shrank in horror, and suddenly Ronnie and Jennieann were able to file straight out the door, as though the waters were parting before them. “It was like I was taking Frankenstein out of the building,” Ronnie says.
When they emerged out on the street, Ronnie looked up and saw a lady plummeting toward the ground, clutching her purse. “I keep thinking about that purse,” he says. “I can’t get the image out of my head. Why was she worried about her purse?”
Even in her state, Jennieann was self-conscious about her nakedness. Ronnie understood that his suitcoat wasn’t enough. Then, out of nowhere, a huge gentleman appeared with a clean white tablecloth and gently wrapped it around Jennieann, like a shroud. It was as though he had foreseen her predicament. The man smiled and helped Ronnie get her down the steps.
A fireman was standing on the streetcorner , grimacing at the burning buildings, which were breaking apart. Ronnie could hear the sound of them cooking, the sound of rivets popping, glass shattering under pressure, the sighs steel girders make when they bend. With wild gesticulations, the fireman screamed at the lingering crowds, “Run, run! I’m telling you, just run.”
“Can you run Jennieann?” Ronnie asked.
“I think so,” she said. She looked at her feet. The rubber soles of what had once been her running shoes were melted to her feet.
“Let’s try, then,” Ronnie said. He took her arm, and in a tentative, shuffling gait, they ran.
On the seventy-eighth floor of the south tower – or, rather, what had formerly been the seventy-eight floor but was now an upheaval of fuel-splattered wreckage – Silvion Ramsundar tried to shake of the shock. The heat was intense, and flames were engulfing the mangled corridors. Is it over? he thought. Am I going to die right here? What happened just now? He peered through the thickening smoke and realized that the majority of the hundred or so people who had been waiting for the elevator were now dead. At least they weren’t moving.
Silvion scanned the lobby for his friend Christine and spotted her some thirty feet away, stunned and injured but still alive. She had lacerations on her arms and face, and her left ankle was bleeding profusely. Silvion managed to stand. Picking his way among the bodies, he hobbled over to Christine. She slowly registered his presence. She saw the red stain blooming on his white shirt and said, alarmed, “You’re bleeding bad.”
“I think I can move,” he said. “How about you?”
Christine nodded and struggled to her feet. Silvion remembered that there was a stairwell somewhere near the elevator bank. It was the only way out. They fumbled along the wall, blind, until Silvion grabbed what felt like a handle with his right hand. He gave it a jerk, but it wouldn’t turn.
Now the black smoke was so dense along the ceiling that they had to creep on the floor. Not far from the first door, they found another. Silvion gave it a try, and this time the latch turned. The heavy firedoor swayed open – it was the emergency stairwell he’d been looking for. The buckled stairway was hot but relatively clear of smoke. Ramsundar brightened for a moment, then hesitated. He wasn’t sure he could make seventy-eight floors. His breathing was shallow and labored, and he was growing weak.
For a brief moment, Silvion gazed back through the smoke. He heard choking, coughing, the cries of the injured. Seventy-five bodies, perhaps more, lay in a tangle on the fumy floor. He thought about his friend Charles, the security guard, and realized he must be dead.
Silvion turned back toward the stairs. He leaned against Christine, and they began walking down in the sodium glare of the emergency lights, on steps that were brightly marked with fluorescent tape. They settled into a pace that was comfortable for him, stopping occasionally so that he could catch his breath. More people filled the stairwell. Some were hyperventilating and removing clothing in response to the heat. Occasionally Silvion had to step around people who could go no further.
Somewhere in the high sixties, they reached a landing that was obstructed by a massive beam. Two large men managed to shift it just enough so that the file of evacuees could crawl through, then resume their descent.
As they walked, people could plainly see that Silvion was critically injured. One man applied his handkerchief to the wound as a compress. Later, a woman removed her slip and cinched it around Silvion’s shoulder to stanch the blood. They kept walking.
Silvion kept his mind fixed on the numbers – sixty-two, sixty-one, sixty, fifty-nine – and tried as best he could not to consider his wound.
Will Jimeno had spent only nine months on the job as a cop, and although he had undergone an intensive six-month training course at the police academy, he was thoroughly unprepared for the situation in which he now found himself. He had spent most of his brief career on duty at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, a vast and shabby complex in midtown Manhattan. Up until this moment, his most challenging situations had been a shooting incident involving an emotionally disturbed person and the case of homeless man with advanced AIDS who perished on a bus.
Now, the officers were down in the concourse, not far from the Gap, at a point almost equidistant from the two towers and just beneath the famous bronze globe, a sculpture designed to symbolize world peace through world trade. The concourse level was ordinarily a bustling shopping mall, but now it was desolate, and the tile floors ran cold with water from the firefighters’ hoses.
The men opened an equipment closet and rummaged from gear: flashlights, crowbars, gloves, first-aid kits, and self-contained breathing apparatuses known as Scott Air-Paks. Their radios, tuned to Port Authority frequencies, blew a constant gale of staticky screams.
Among the group of cops, now numbering five, were a veteran named Christopher Amoroso and two other rookies, Dominick Pezzulo and Antonio Rodrigues. Pezzulo and Rodrigues were close buddies of Will’s from his police-academy class. Thirty-six years old, Pezzulo was a funny Italian from the Bronx, a weightlifter who, Will says, was “built like Jean-Claude Van Damme.” He had a beautiful wife and two kids, and loved to fish for blues in Long Island Sound. Rodrigues, who everyone called A-Rod, was a colorful bald guy with a thick Portuguese accent. A gifted artist, Rodrigues was always doing caricature sketches of the other cops.
The younger men never questioned Sergeant McLoughlin’s judgment. A highly decorated veteran of the department, he had won a medal for his valor in the evacuation following thw 1993 Trade Center bombing. Will says, “If he asked me tomorrow, I’d follow him into that building again.”
The five men tossed the paraphernalia into a canvas cart and hustled toward the north tower.
Running from the buildings, Ronnie Clifford and Jennieann Maffeo found an ambulance beside a green knoll across West Street, near the World Financial Center. He spirited her, still wrapped in a Marriott table linen, into the hands of the paramedics and gave them the notes he’d scribbled that described her vital facts. Then the ambulance took off for the Weill Cornell Burn Center, uptown.
Ronnie called Bridgid, his wife, from a pay phone. “I’m all right,” he told her in a voice that she would later describe as “close to panic.” There was a long pause. “I’ve just gone through something terrible,” he said. “I’m alive. I’m ok. I love you.”
Ronnie hung up and tried to get his bearings. He turned to look again at the towers. The infernos were raging even more fiercely than before. People were still occasionally leaping from above, while firemen were marshaling in large numbers and marching into the buildings.
He tried to call his sister, Ruth, in Connecticut, but couldn’t get through. Ruth lived in an old mansion beside a lighthouse on Long Island Sound. But then Ronnie remembered that she wouldn’t be home. She was on a trip to Los Angeles to take her four-year-old daughter, Juliana, to Disneyland and to attend a seminar led by the New Age self-help author, Deepak Chopra. Her best friend, Paige Farley-Hackel, was coming along. Ronnie was sure they were in California by now. Whatever Ruth was doing, he hoped to God she wasn’t watching CNN.
Ronnie wasn’t sure what to do next. He felt he ought to help people evacuate the building, or volunteer at a hospital. Then he thought about Monica, his daughter. He remembered that it was her birthday and that they’d planned to have a celebratory dinner that night.
She was turning eleven.
Dusted in gray flour, Silvion Ramsundar and his friend Christine shuffled out of the south tower around 9:50 A.M. Christine needed stitches for multiple lacerations, but the paramedics were gravely concerned about Silvion’s condition. They went to work on him immediately. His left lung had collapsed, his pulse was faint, he’d lost a dangerous amount of blood, he was dehydrated, and he was in shock. A photographer for the New York Post snapped his picture, a portrait that would become one of the more arresting images of the day. His wound had become unbearable. “My body sort of relaxed,” Silvion says. “I had a sense of relief – ok, I made it, seventy-eight floors. And that’s when the pain really kicked in.”
It was only when Silvion was hurtling toward Saint Vincent’s hospital in an ambulance that he learned what had happened. “A second plane?” His mind reeled at the implications. The plane had struck the very floor where he had been standing; the gas he’d smelled was jet fuel. It couldn’t have been an accident. He was having trouble absorbing this. But by then, the morphine had begun to take over.
Reversing his course from earlier that morning, Ronnie Clifford boarded the ferry to Hoboken. The ferry operators weren’t even bothering with tickets; they were simply ushering people aboard. During the ride across the Hudson, Ronnie stood at the stern of the boat and watched the buildings burn. His begrimed jacket was slung over his shoulder, a sordid memento of a business meeting that was not to be.
Then, at 9:59, just as he reached the creosote piers of New Jersey, the south tower collapsed. In a terrific, thunderous implosion, the eleven became a one.
The Port Authority officers were directly beneath it all. Within seconds, Will Jimeno and his four partners were assaulted by concrete, tile, marble, and a hail of glass shards. There was a tremendous snarling roar, which Will could feel more than hear. Sergeant McLoughlin pointed toward a safe place, behind a massive concrete pillar. As they dashed toward it, the tower came down on them. Will momentarily lost track of everyone else. He ran until the world became dark and close and his body could no longer move.
He couldn’t catch his breath. He couldn’t see. It felt as though someone had poured hot sand down his through. His who left side and his right foot were pinned down by something large, as if the weight of the tower was bearing down on him. He was coated in a puree of insulation, Sheetrock, fabrics, fibers, papers, paints, plastics, wiring – all the substances of society, the mingled grounds of the modern would. It got in his ears, his lungs, his mouth. Even now, six months later, Will can smell it. He calls it “the smell of the World Trade Center.”
Finally, the cloud began to dissipate, and tiny shaft of light slanted in. Will couldn’t see the sky, but there was just enough filtered light for him to make out shapes. He was in what amounted to a tiny cave, trapped by a piece of an elevator shaft. Various fires flicked in pocked and folds all about him. His radio was out of reach.
Will called for Pezzulo. “Dom, you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m here.” Pezzulo was also pinned. He lay only a few feet away from Will. Once the dust settled a little more, they could see each other.
They heard McLoughlin somewhere in a void below. The sergeant was gasping in pain, trapped in the fetal position. H couldn’t see a thing, nor could the other men see him. By the sound of things, the sergeant was in worse shape than Will. “Somebody relieve the pressure!” McLoughlin yelled. “I can’t stand it.”
“A-Rod? Chris?” Will called out for the two other, but he got no response.
Then they were assailed by a horrible chirping sound, incessant and shrill, like a dozen car alarms going off. It was the Air-Paks, strapped to the men’s backs. An Air-Pak has an attached motion detector; if its wearer doesn’t move within one minute, an alarm is triggered. The signal is incredible harsh and loud so that rescuers can located a fallen or trapped comrade. But now so many Air-Paks were sounding off all around the World Trade Center that there was little hope of locating any one. The alarms were canceling each other out by their sheer numbers. It sounded like a field of crickets.
Ronnie Clifford took the commuter train home from Hoboken. Next to him sat a lady who was deep into a bottle of booze. The cars were overcrowded with people on cellphones balling to their spouses. Someone nearby had a Blackberry, a wireless internet device, and was receiving chilling updates on the tiny screen. Another one’s hit the Pentagon. Another one’s gone down in Pennsylvania. Another one’s heading for the White House.
As the train hummed and clacked west toward home, Ronnie’s thoughts drifted back to Jennieann. His heart went out to her. It seemed she had saved his life, just as he had saved hers. If he had remained in that building much longer, perhaps helping other people, he’d be buried now. If the horrified crowds in the lobby hadn’t instantly made way for them, he might still be trapped. In the queer way fate had worked, Jennieann had been his ticket out. He prayed for her.
Just minutes after the south tower fell on Will Jimeno, his buddy Dom Pezzulo managed to free himself from the rubble. Pezzulo thought about crawling toward the hole to seek help, but decided to try to extricate his friends instead. It soon became apparent that the cause was hopeless, but he clawed at the debris with his bare hands for about a half-hour, struggling with blocks of concrete ten times his size. The Air-Paks shrieked relentlessly.
Then Will heard heard another noise, another rumble in the distance, like the wrath of a volcano. Pezzulo backed up a few feet and braced himself for another collapse. “Oh, my God,” Will said. “Here we go again.” The north tower came down around them. It was 10:28.
From above, a jagged block of concrete fell through the hole and tumbled into their crawl space. Will watched as the slab struck Pezzulo and “laid him down like a rag doll.” Pezzulo withered in pain. He made a wisecrack to the sergeant, something about requesting permission to take a coffee break. He was losing a lot blood. He turned and said, “I love you, Will.”
Will said, “I love you, buddy.”
“Don’t forget,” Pezzulo added. “Don’t forget I died trying to save you guys.”
Then Pezzulo unholstered his 9mm sidearm, pointed it up toward the hole, and fired off a single round. “It was like a last ditch effort,” Will says, “as if to say, We’re down here, come find us.”
Will watched as Pezzulo slumped back and gasped for air. His gun fell to his side.
John McLoughlin, unable to see anything down in his black hole, shouted through the pain, “What’s going on up there?”
“Sarge – it’s Dom. He’s gone. I just saw him pass.”
A team of plastic surgeons at Saint Vincent’s sutured Silvion Ramsundar’s chin back together. Then they went to work on his chest. His shoulder blade was broken, and the piece of shrapnel was lodged dangerously close to his aorta. The doctors worried that if they weren’t extremely careful in removing the object, they could paralyze his arm for life. One they dug out the gobbet with their surgical tools and examined it, the doctors decided it was a shard of metal from the airplane that crashed into his floor. Silvion wanted to keep it – a piece of that day once embedded in his body – but later an FBI agent arrived with Ziploc bag, marked it EVIDENCE, and carried the artifact away.
When Ronnie Clifford arrived home in the late morning, he embraced Bridget, and then climbed upstairs straightaway for a shower. More than anything else, he wanted to rinse off the residue of his morning. At least he had his daughter’s birthday party to look forward to. He paused to think about what his would mean for Monica as she grew up, to have turned eleven on September 11th, 2001. Monica was across the street at school – innocent, for now, of what had transpired in the city.
Ronnie, it turned out, was innocent, too. He had assumed it was only fair, after witnessing so much, after doing his part as a good Samaritan, that he should sail away on the Hoboken ferry, unscathed. But then he received a piece of news by phone from his brother-in-law that, with a bit of work on the internet, he confirmed. Among the ticketed passengers on American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane, the one that hit the north tower, had been Paige Farley-Hackel, his sister Ruth’s best friend, and a close friend of his. A little later in the afternoon he was able to verify an even more devastating fact: Ruth and her four-year-old daughter, Juliana, had been on the second plane, the United Airlines flight from Boston.
Ronnie had somehow lost track of when Ruth and Juliana were supposed to fly to Los Angeles. He thought they’d gone out the day before. Paige had intended to fly with Ruth, but there’d been some kind of mix-up at Logan. Paige took American, Ruth took United, but they both ended up in the hands of hijackers, friends in separate missiles aimed at the same target.
Ronnie tried to imagine Ruth’s last moments on the plane. Most likely, Ronnie thought, she would have been sitting calmly in her seat as they banked low over the Hudson. And in the seconds before the plane hit, she would have been holding little Juliana, and singing a song in her ear.
Will Jimeno and Sergeant McLoughlin were the only ones left. Amoroso, Rodriguez, and now Pezzulo were all dead. The two men waited for hours for something to happen. Occasionally fireballs floated down into the hole and landed beside them and then extinguished themselves in the wreckage. One of them must have landed near Pezzulo’s Smith & Wesson and heated it up. The gun went off, and bullets ricocheted around the hole. “You’re not going to believe this, we’re getting shot at!” Will yelled to McLoughlin.
They talked to each other a lot during the afternoon, the veteran sergeant and the rookie. They talked about their families, about life and death, about their buddies who lay buried about them. Both men were in agony, squirming under the pressure, their arms and legs swelling. But they were lucid. With his free hand, Will tried to chip away at the concrete with his handcuffs and spare magazine of his gun. It was useless. Every couple of minutes he would yell out, PAPD 813!” which is Port Authority code for officer down. But as midday stretched into late afternoon his calls began to lack enthusiasm.
Then, from the hole above, Will heard a voice. Someone was frantically shouting a name, then, “Are you down there? Are you down there?”
Will couldn’t catch the name, but he shouted back—”Sergeant McLaughlin and Officer Jimeno are here!” He was ecstatic. But then the voice left and never returned.
Will began to talk to himself out loud, a stream of dire thoughts. He thought about Allison, his wife, who was seven months pregrant. “At that point I pretty much accepted death,” he says. “I asked God to watch over Allison and my little four-year-old and the new baby girl. I wanted to see the baby, just once.”
At around 8:00, Will was aroused by another voice. “United States Marine Corps, can anybody hear me?”
Will yelled back, “Don’t leave us! The last guy left us.”
Then a marine trained his flashlight into the hole and spotted him. “I’m not leaving you,” he said.
Soon the paramedics came, and firemen and cops and Port Authority officers, a long trail of men harnessed to one another, clambering over the pile. For three hours they dug and scraped and sawed, pulling away the rebar, widening the hole. They used bare hands, welding torches, buzz saws, the Jaws of Life. Finally, they reached Will. They feared they would have to amputate his left leg, but at last budged the pillar just enough to slip him free.
They would get to McGlaughlin, but first they slide Will into a basket and hauled him out. It was 11:00 at night, thirteen hours after the south tower had collapsed. Will looked around at the devastated site, a smoky panorama of harsh lights and humming generators and flickering welders’ sparks.
“Where is everything?” he asked.
One of the officers leaned over and said to him, “There’s nothing left, kid. It’s all gone.”
Later in September, Ronnie Clifford went to visit Jennieann at the hospital. She was wrapped in gauze from head to toe, save for narrow slits for her eyes and her mouth. Although Jennieann was heavily sedated and could not talk, her sister said she was aware of visitors. Ronnie sat with her for awhile, and urged her to be strong. Before he left, he placed his yellow silk tie on the pillow beside her, the tie he’d been wearing on the eleventh, the one Ruth had coached him to wear. Ronnie wasn’t sure why this gesture had occurred to him. He just wanted for her to have something to remember him by. Something that stood out.
Jennieann was in the hospital for forty-one days, drifting in and out of consciousness. The mounting infections, the skin grafts, the side effects of her medications – it was all too much for her system. On October 21, she died of kidney failure.
The same day, workers at Ground Zero located Ruth’s remains. The family had already held a service for her and Julia a month earlier. More than twelve hundred people showed up. There had been long bittersweet remembrances and a Celtic bagpiper. Ronnie organized a huge party afterward on Ruth’s front lawn.
As soon as he got home from the funeral, Ronnie collapsed in exhaustion. “My emotions were swimming around,” he says. He was a nervous wreck. One time Monica and a friend were horsing around on the hardwood floor and made a sharp thumping sound. Ronnie completely lost it. All he could think of was falling bodies, the woman with her purse. He couldn’t get the images out of his head.
Finally recognizing that the problem was “far greater than anything I could deal with,” Ron went to a psychologist’s office. Doug, the therapist, sat back in his reclining chair and invited him to talk about his life. He asked Ronnie to keep a journal of his dreams. He put him under mild hypnosis and had him relive every sight and smell and sensation of that horrible day. What started out as six hours a week has since fallen away to one hour every other week. The engineering metaphor has proved apt.
Mostly, Silvion Ramsundar misses the views. The way electrical storms scudded out to the Atlantic, the sunsets that went on forever, the morning sun lighting up the clustered spires of lower Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty standing sentinel at his feet.
Silvion spent two weeks mending in the hospital, followed by months of physical therapy to restore his shoulder. The arm still tingles and throbs, and it bothers him in countless little ways. As he talks, he twists and flexes his arm. “They say it’s never going to be 100 percent,” he says. “It gets all locked up. I can’t pick Mariah up the way I used to, to take her to bed. But they say, just be grateful you can use your arm at all.”
When he arrived home from the hospital, Silvion didn’t relive the incident, exactly, but he had bad dreams: He kept finding himself trapped in a fire, smashing up his car, being chased. Then he started having anxiety attacks whenever he drove over a bridge. In daydreams and reveries, Silvion can still summon the sight of the Sky Lobby with sickening vividness. That he survived the blast through nothing more than dumb luck, an accident of position, troubles him. “There was only one quadrant on that floor that was safe from the plane, and it happened to be where I was standing,” he tells me, with fresh amazement. “If I’d been standing ten feet to my left, maybe I wouldn’t be sitting here. Had I been a foot to my right, maybe the debris would have hit my heart. Why me? Why not the guy standing next to me. How come I was in the right place?”
In the past few months, Silvion has logged some serious quality time with his family. Chores around the house, countless trips to Home Depot. For ten years, he lived at the speed of Wall Street. These days, he doesn’t bother getting up until nine. Sometime in the spring, Silvion plans to return to work at Mizuho Capital Markets and get back in the derivatives game. In a very real sense, Silvion has been Americanized, secularized, confirmed in the high church of pluralism and the mutual fund – the very things, of course, that make the terrorists burn. And yet one of the odd twists to the whole event, for him, is that because he is of Indian descent, dark-skinned and raven-haired, he sometimes gets the look, the double take of suspicion. Who are you, where are you from, what’s hidden in your shoes? “It’s justifiable,” he reasons. “Until this threat is completely gone. I have to expect it.”
As he talks, he sits beneath his before-and-after diptych of the trade towers and assures me, with a kind of provisional confidence, that he’s okay. He has one modest request, though. If he has a choice, he prefers not to work in a high-rise. “I’m good on the ground floor,” he says.
Will Jimeno has no idea where the rumor started, the beautiful, fantastic rumor. In the hours after they were discovered in the rubble, he and Sergeant McLoughlin became the subject of an incredible story repeated so often that the national media reported it as confirmed fact: A Port Authority cop, in some accounts several, was said to have “ridden the wave” of debris down from the eightieth floor and survived with barely a scratch. It was the kind of legend that springs up in the chaos of a catastrophe – a wildly untrue story that reflects true hope. All around the world, people were praying that more victims would be pulled alive from the ruins. If a man could ride down that mighty wave and live, then there was still a chance.
When he got to Bellevue Hospital, Will was assaulted by a green army of surgeons. He didn’t understand why, with a tragedy of such mammoth proportions, he should get such solicitous treatment. He didn’t understand that, at that point, there were no other survivors. He was the survivor – he and his sergeant and a handful of others. The green army rolled him into the operating room and set to work. He had a condition known as compartment syndrome. The wracking pressure in his leg had built up so powerfully that when the doctors cut it open that night, blood and backed-up fluids sprayed the walls like a Jackson Pollock canvas.
In twelve days, Will had eight operations to excise the dead tissue and relieve pressure. The doctors worried about blood clots and kidney failure and gangrene. When they suctioned out his upper airway, the vacuum ticked and chattered with the sound of grit. At one point, Will saw a rock sliding up through the tube.
All those weeks in the hospital, Will though about his comrades day and night. He still does – especially Pezzulo and Rodrigues. He can’t get them out of his head. He’s commiserated with their wives, described their bravery. Sergeant McLoughlin, who was pulled out of the rubble eight hours after Will, was released from the hospital in January, after kidney dialysis and some two dozen operations, He’s improving gradually. “One day at a time,” Will says. “Like me, he’s trying to get by.”
Will has decided to remain with the PAPD, maybe working at the pistol range. “I have moments where I’m not happy, where there’s mental anguish,” he says. “But right now I’m at peace with this. I didn’t live through all this just to quit.”
Before 9/11, Will and Allison knew there were having a baby girl, but they had bickered over the name. Will wanted Alyssa. His wife wanted Olivia. When they found him in the rubble that night, he asked someone to call Allison and tell her to name the baby Olivia. “If I didn’t make it,” he says, “I didn’t want her to feel guilty about going with the name she wanted.”
Now Will is holding his newborn, a beautiful three-month-old with a full head of hair. She was born November 26, which is also Will’s birthday. He was there at the hospital at Allison’s side, crying in his wheelchair. Now he lifters her up and holds her high over his head and smiles up into her eyes. She smiles back.
Her name is Olivia.
The first time he went out after September 11, it was as though he’d never been on the water before. He’s been a sailor ever since he was a boy in Cork, and in recent years he’s kept a 26-foot fiberglass boat in a slip in the Bronx. Now, though, was unsteady, indecisive, skittish. He was reluctant to heel her over in strong winds. He was nervous about every little piece of the rigging. Whenever the boat made a shudder, his heart raced. At what seemed like his lowest moment ever, he found himself looking across Long Island Sound, struggling to comprehend the gap in the skyline.
But Ronnie kept at it. Every weekend, he was out there on the Sound. As the fall progressed the winds grew stronger and he began taking more risks. One day he was out in twenty-five-knot winds and he realized something extraordinary was happening. He was smiling.
Even the hole in the skyline ceased to prey on him as it had before. He scarcely even noticed it.
Sitting in the library of his house in Glen Ridge, I ask Ronnie if he thinks he’ll ever find meaning in September 11th – the day his daughter turned eleven, the day his sister and niece smashed into a building at the very moment he was reciting the Lord’s Prayer into the ear of a horribly burned stranger. “Meaning?” he says, turning the word over in his mind. “It was so horrible, so horrid, so horrendous, there’s got to be goodness afterward. To me, the Trade Towers represented positive and negative. Before and after. Good and evil. Two ones.”
Outside, in the broad daylight, I can see the vintage gas lamps burning up and down the street.
“For me,” Ronnie says, “the meaning is the rest of my life.”
Robert Thurman, Buddha’s Power Broker
Approximately 375 million years after a half-mile-wide meteorite crashed into what’s now the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York, a Swedish ex-model named Nena von Schlebrügge had a strange dream. In it, she and her husband, the renowned Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman – who had been living near the Catskills town of Woodstock since 1968, when they were graduate students – were in their seventies and Bob was pounding nails on an unfamiliar rooftop. The next morning, von Schlebrügge woke up rattled. “If you get any big offers, turn them down,” she warned Thurman, “or you’re never going to retire!”
Thurman has written or translated over a dozen books, holds the endowed chair of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, and tirelessly works to raise awareness about the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Among his family – the couple have four children, including the actress Uma Thurman – he has earned the reputation of an inveterate overextender, a workaholic with “a bad tendency,” his wife has noted, “to say yes to everything.” His family nickname is “Get a Life, Bob.” Thurman built the house on their Woodstock property himself. “And I’m still building it!” he tells me, sounding secretly pleased. “It’s not quite finished – for 40 years now.” His son Ganden bequeathed him with his carpentry motto: “Why Do It Right When You Can Do It Yourself?”
Anyway, about an hour after his wife’s dream, Thurman got a call from a woman who owned a lodge on Panther Mountain, the peak in the Catskills that had formed atop the crash site. The lodge had been a spiritual retreat in the sixties, founded by an Austrian psychic known for automatic writing and trance readings. Later, there had been plans to convert the place into a New Age healing center for cancer patients, but that fell through. And so the owner, via mutual friends, was considering donating the property to Tibet House, the nonprofit founded by Thurman and Richard Gere in 1987 at the behest of their friend the Dalai Lama.
Thurman, recalling his wife’s warning, politely declined. Then he told Nena about the offer.
According to their friend Michael Burbank, Nena had a swift response. “You idiot!” she cried. “Call them back right away and accept! We need it for the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama!”
Thurman followed orders, and now 12 years later, here we are on Panther Mountain, at what’s been rechristened the Menla Mountain Retreat – where, “true to the prophetic dream,” as Burbank puts it, Bob and Nena are in their seventies, slaving away, with no retirement in sight. Burbank, a former student of Thurman’s at Columbia, was brought onboard to help renovate and eventually manage Menla, a sprawling compound that includes a conference center, a spa, a yoga studio, a glass-walled meditation sanctuary, and several private cottages, all offering spectacular views on this February afternoon of thick pine forest and snow-covered slopes. It turns out that the gravitational pull on Panther Mountain is actually slightly weaker than that of the surrounding area, thanks, scientists believe, to the lower density of the rock that eventually filled the crater. This quirk of physics suits Thurman. You get the idea he and the other Buddhists like the idea of visitors being less earthbound, perhaps more open to cosmic philosophical mindbenders. At the very least, it’s a handy metaphor.
Thurman, this afternoon, sits in a patch of sunlight in the cafeteria of Menla’s cozy, wood-beamed inn, peeling an orange and sipping some tea. Aside from the painting of the Dalai Lama hanging over the fireplace, we could be in a ski lodge. Thurman is wearing rimless bifocals, a gray corded sweater, and black corduroy trousers that hike up whenever he crosses his legs, exposing his bare calves. Even at 71, Thurman remains a commanding presence, tall and slightly stoop-shouldered. He has a lightly creased face, thick gray eyebrows, and wavy, unkempt gray hair, but his most striking feature remains his left eye, which is made of glass, and which looks enormous and leering if he trains it on you. Though Thurman cackles easily and often, in the stereotypical manner of a laughing Buddha, there remains in his appearance atavistic traces of his Protestant forebears – something in the wildness of his hair and the dueling nature of his gaze makes you think of a fanatical 19th-century tent revivalist, or maybe the abolitionist John Brown. Every once in a while, the sunlight streaming in from the picture window catches his face in a certain way and his glass eye literally flashes.
Thurman arrived at Menla the day before, having made the three-hour drive upstate straight from the airport. He spent the past week in Norway, lecturing at a climate-change conference. (“They bring me in for these things as if I’m an ethics professor or something,” Thurman explains.) Two weeks earlier, he led a tour group to Burma as a fundraiser for Tibet House. (Thurman is friendly with Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose late husband was an English Buddhist scholar.) This weekend Menla is hosting another fundraiser, a combination ski weekend and meditation retreat, featuring lectures by Thurman and spa and yoga treatments. It sounds like the sort of bourgeois Buddhist event that invites mockery. (The writer Luc Sante once quipped that Woodstock Buddhists possessed the most expensive nothing he’d ever seen.) But Thurman is a serious academic and considered a brilliant and erudite philosopher by his peers. And retreats like Menla give attendees a rare opportunity to sit at the feet of a true master.
In the early 1960s, Thurman taught himself Tibetan and moved to Dharamsala, in the Indian Himalayas, the seat of the Tibetan exile community, to study alongside a young Dalai Lama. In 1964, he became the first Westerner to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Though he eventually left behind his vows, he rededicated himself to Buddhist studies as a professor at Amherst and later Columbia. Another of his massive projects – what he calls his major life’s work – has been working with Columbia Ph.D. students to translate some 5,000 early Tibetan texts from the original Sanskrit. The vast majority have never been translated into English before. Thurman calls the cache of texts India’s Library of Alexandria. “The Dalai Lama told the president of Columbia, ‘Professor Thurman will have to be reincarnated three times to finish this job,'” Thurman told me, adding that, unfortunately, tenure doesn’t carry over into future reincarnated selves.
Thurman radiates the sort of merriness that can infuse religious certainty. At times, it seems almost strategic on the part of the jolly monk (or nun, or rabbi) in question, like they’re trying to convince you that they’re onto something you’re missing. Thurman insists he doesn’t consider himself particularly religious, but that’s semantic: He speaks about his belief in metaphysical aspects of Buddhism like reincarnation with a matter-of-factness that gives one pause, coming from the mouth of such a deep and careful thinker.
Thurman, in short, is one of those people who has the ability to make you believe that he’s figured things out, even if you’re the type of skeptical person – and by “you,” I mean “me,” though of course Thurman would say that’s a meaningless distinction – who tends to doubt anyone has the answers to anything. It’s comforting, at these times, to take refuge in your own humility, and remind yourself of how much you don’t know. Embrace it, even. There are certain Buddhist teachings, after all, considered so arcane that exposure to the unenlightened actually becomes dangerous without proper preparation.
Spend enough time with Robert Thurman and you begin to wonder if he possesses some portion of this secret, dangerous knowledge.
Four days later, Thurman is standing onstage at Carnegie Hall, belting Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” into a single microphone alongside Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Philip Glass, and Rahzel, the rapper, human beatbox, and former member of the Roots. It’s the grand finale of the 23rd annual Tibet House benefit concert, which also featured tUnE-yArDs, Ariel Pink, a group of chanting monks, and ‘This American Life’ host Ira Glass. Smith headlined, and everyone has returned to the stage for a group rendition of her late-1980s hit, which, despite its undeniable corniness, has aged into an oddly stirring anthem. Afterward, the party shifts to the Plaza, a mausoleum of old Manhattan opulence, where a grand ballroom has been draped with Tibetan flags and wealthy donors line up for an Indian-themed buffet. During his introduction to the concert, Thurman had reassured the crowd that the reality of the world was bliss, while “the mess of it” had been created by our ignorance. “Try,” he exhorted the concertgoers, flashing an impish grin, “to imagine this is a world of bliss.”
Thurman is comfortable moving in this kind of rarefied environment, though in general, his presentation hews closer to the classically professorial: the scattered, distracted air of someone living the life of the mind; a tendency to lecture, even when not standing in front of a podium; a fashion sense best described as rumpled. “He’s first and foremost an academic – just not the stiff kind,” says his friend Richard Gere. “In terms of reaching students, no one has been a stronger voice for Tibetan Buddhism in the West.”
We had met for the first time at Tibet House, a relatively modest space near New York’s Union Square. It’s a huge step up from the original headquarters, housed in Gere’s production office: The current building has a gift shop and a museum, and is meant to be “a gateway for people to meet Tibet, by falling in love with its culture, basically,” as Thurman explains. The foundation possesses between $2 million and $3 million worth of Tibetan art, donated by collectors. Thurman greets me in a gallery featuring the responses of various contemporary artists to Tibetan Buddhism. There’s a video of an artist who makes sculptures of his own hair, and a plexiglass case filled with clay shards titled “What Remains.” Thurman likes a series of big, pastel-streaked abstracts the best, particularly one inspired by a female deity he describes as a dominatrix.
This afternoon, Thurman is wearing a wine-colored crushed-velvet jacket over a striped shirt and a bright orange Hermès tie decorated with variously plumed peacocks. He’d been running late, so his son Ganden, the executive director of Tibet House, had been showing me around. The moment his father arrived, Ganden abruptly excused himself, almost midsentence. Thurman later insists he’s “not the big paterfamilias” of his household, that his children “tease me very incredibly and do not defer to me in any way, and I appreciate it. Some people ask me, ‘Is Uma a Buddhist?’ I say, ‘You have to ask her.’ They’re all free thinkers, you know.” (Another son, Dechen, is a former model who became a popular, charismatic yoga teacher in New York City.)
Thurman possesses an odd, unplaceable accent: part Scandinavian – his “theres” occasionally morphing into “ders” – and part East Coast patrician, with a froggy dash of Nashville Skyline-era Dylan that makes him sound like he’s simultaneously attempting to speak and swallow a mouthful of insufficiently cooled Cream of Wheat. He grew up on New York’s Upper East Side, where his mother acted in the theater and his father worked as an editor at the Associated Press. The Thurmans were not particularly religious, attending mass at a Protestant church mostly on holidays. “You could say my social background is impoverished gentry,” Thurman says. His great-grandfather on his mother’s side was a Pennsylvania farmer who discovered oil on his property and became rich, though most of the money had been lost in bad real estate deals by the time Thurman was born. His parents held weekly salons at their apartment, and Thurman has recalled performing in dramatic readings alongside the likes of Laurence Olivier.
“He’s still a performer,” Gere says. “That’s in his blood, running from his mother to Uma.” The first time the two met, Gere recalls, was at a lecture in 1984, when Thurman cheekily advocated that well-meaning Tibet supporters simply raise $2 billion and buy the country from the Chinese. “You watch him and you can see why he’s such a draw to students. He’s erudite, funny, attractive, willing to say the wrong thing and then correct himself. He’s definitely not someone who ever wants to be sitting in the back of the lecture hall, not participating.”
Because of her own wealthy upbringing, Thurman’s mother sent her son to Exeter, the elite New Hampshire boarding school. Thurman, who attended on scholarship, has said that he was “quite popular,” that the school “felt like family to me.” Once he was accepted into Harvard, he felt like he was on track to be a part of the WASP establishment, where he would likely wind up in the State Department working alongside his fellow best and brightest. But Thurman and his closest friends were also idealists, in love with Latin American poetry, and Thurman chafed at the idea that his “whole future was programmed.”
In 1958, a few months shy of graduating from Exeter, Thurman and a wealthy Mexican schoolmate, inspired by Fidel Castro’s Cuban uprising, decided to take a train to Miami and sign up for the revolution. They brought along a friend’s handgun and managed to find a Cuban expat bar, where they were recruited to spread support for Castro in Vera Cruz, but once they arrived in Mexico, they were picked up, sent home, and expelled from school.
A year later, Thurman was accepted at Harvard anyway. During his first term, he fell in love with a classmate, the heiress Christophe de Menil. They married at 18 and had a daughter, Taya. Around this time, Thurman, who had also been racing cars, lost his eye during an accident in the garage – a jack snapped, striking his face – and he decided to take a break from school and make a pilgrimage to India and the Middle East. In Turkey and Iran, he wandered like a beggar, his eye socket empty, wearing baggy Afghani harem trousers, leather sandals, and a white shawl.
Thurman had tried to bring his wife and daughter, thinking they’d travel the country by Jeep and hire a nanny, living out the novels of Herman Hesse, but de Menil didn’t find this prospect appealing, and the marriage broke up. The split became bitter after Thurman remarried. “So long as I was a monk, [de Menil] was cool,” he says. “But when I came back to being in the world and fell in love with someone else, that was unfathomable to her.”
(Thurman and his eldest daughter remained estranged for years, and he never got to know his grandson, the artist and downtown scenemaker Dash Snow, who became infamous for making collages splattered with his own semen and who died in 2009 of a heroin overdose. “They brought me in [to try to help Snow] too late,” Thurman says sadly. “At one point, he’d been told I was dead, that he didn’t have a maternal grandfather. So he’d never known me at all, and I couldn’t really deal with it.” Thurman and Taya have since reconciled.)
Upon reaching India, Thurman got a job teaching English to exiled tulkus (reincarnated Tibetan lamas). Later, he told the ‘New York Times,’ “I was in heaven, because the minute I met the Tibetans, I knew they had what I wanted.” He’d been studying philosophy at Harvard – Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger – and Tibetan Buddhism’s dealings with the illusory plane of causality came to seem like the next step.
Then his father suddenly died. The elder Thurman had supported his son’s wanderings, placing them in the context of one of his own heroes, St. Francis, and once telling Thurman, “You’re doing what I always wanted to do.” (Thurman’s mother always thought her son was nuts.) Thurman returned to the United States for the funeral and at a monastery in New Jersey, he met Geshe Wangyal, a Buddhist monk from Mongolia who would become his guru. As Sam van Schaik recounts in ‘Tibet: A History,’ Wangyal asked “the long-haired and exotically attired” Thurman, “How can you travel the path of the Dharma? You can’t even travel on a bus without everybody freaking out.” After Thurman became fluent in Tibetan in 10 weeks and returned to India, Wangyal grudgingly brokered an introduction with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. “He thinks he’s going to be a monk for life,” Wangyal told the Dalai Lama. “But I say he won’t be.”
Still, the Dalai Lama, only six years older than Thurman, took a liking to the young American and invited him to Dharamsala. Thurman spent the next year studying Tibetan medicine and astronomy, waking every morning at three, meditating constantly, and meeting regularly with the Dalai Lama, who, as a relatively recent exile – he’d only fled Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1959 – wanted to learn about the West. He interrogated Thurman about Thomas Jefferson, Sigmund Freud, Plato, the U.S. Constitution. It was 1964, and Westerners were still exotic visitors in a place like Dharamsala. Some of the other monks looked askance at the American, thinking, in Thurman’s telling, “Shit, we’re refugees. Where’s his money? Where’s his machine guns? Why isn’t he bringing in an F-15 to help us against the Chinese?”
Eventually, the Dalai Lama allowed Thurman to take the 253 vows necessary to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Certain of these vows were, admittedly, rather strange. Thurman, for example, had to swear that he was not a naga, a kind of serpent or dragon posing as a human, and that he had not had a sex change operation for the third time. (“I confess, I never looked up the origins of that one,” he says.)
The four major vows, the ones you can’t break and easily repair, were prohibitions against murder, stealing, lying about your spiritual enlightenment, and sex. For four years, from the age of 21 to 25, Thurman remained celibate. He says it wasn’t difficult, that certain tantric meditative states actually approach the orgasmic, so that celibacy becomes very pleasant, actually, and certainly less complicated than the alternative. What eventually drove Thurman to break his vows was not lust but rather feeling out of step with his time. He’d returned to the U.S. in his monk’s robes at the height of the 1960s cultural revolution. His friends were taking drugs and listening to rock & roll, while Thurman had never even heard of the Beatles. More important, they were protesting the Vietnam War and participating in the civil rights movement – worldly actions forbidden by his monastery, where he was supposed to be living a cloistered life of study. He tried telling his friends, “‘Look, you could meditate if you want. You don’t have to, like, get stoned all the time.’ I was trying to be the guru, you know? And it wasn’t working.” At one point during the Menla retreat, Thurman, perhaps inspired by the mountain setting, brings up a famous Buddhist teaching, which goes like this: “In the beginning, the mountains are mountains and the rivers are rivers/Then the mountains are not mountains and the rivers are not rivers/And then, again, the mountains are mountains and the rivers are rivers.”
The teaching is all about how an enlightened Buddha consciousness perceives reality with a sort of double awareness. “A Japanese philosopher came up with a nice analogy,” Thurman explains. “He said, ‘Enlightened consciousness is like a doubly exposed negative’ – you know, when there are two images on one piece of film, and you can see both. The Buddha consciousness sees the oneness and the Nirvana nature of everything, and at the same time, he sees what other people see, which is different from that – everyone separate and struggling and so forth. And the Buddha sees both of these realities at the same time.”
People have misunderstood the teaching as equating enlightenment with a sort of resignation to the ordinariness of reality. But that’s wrong, Thurman says. Because once you’ve realized the mountains are not mountains and the rivers are not rivers, and then are able to see them again as mountains and rivers – to reconstruct them after they’ve disappeared, so to speak – that’s a completely different kind of consciousness, the opposite of someone who truly believes the mountains are mountains and the rivers are rivers – someone, in other words, who possesses misplaced confidence in his own perception.
“If,” Thurman concludes, perhaps optimistically, “you follow me.”
One of Thurman’s verbal tics is the use of some variation on the phrase “if you follow me.” Sometimes it’s more of a question: “You follow me?” Other times it’s so truncated it borders on a gentle command: “Follow me.” During the course of a two-hour teaching session at Menla, he used the phrase at least 23 times. Of course, we don’t always follow him.
At one point, for example, we’re discussing the Buddhist concept of emptiness – the dissolution of the notion of “self” that leads to an understanding of the deep interrelatedness of everything – and Thurman says, “Emptiness means relativity, you know?” and then proceeds to point out how a nearby wall, which appears solid, can actually be thought of very differently at a subatomic quantum level. That knowledge, he says, deepens his meditations on infinity, and whenever he feels himself “absolute” – if he becomes angry or obsessed about something – he uses this meditation to realize that the absolute is a distortion, which becomes a beautiful thing, a form of ultimate freedom, because if the absolute is actually emptiness, then you’re free to make a choice about whatever you want the absolute to be.
If you follow me.
For the Western dilettante, it’s easy to emphasize the facets of Buddhism that relate to mind and body – yoga, meditation, a deep sense of awareness of the present moment – and overlook teachings about the soul that require more of a leap of faith: karma, reincarnation, nirvana, the choosing of the Dalai Lama as a young child. With Thurman, who described himself to me as “a very nonreligious type of Buddhist,” I’d also begun to wonder if his pursuit of enlightenment was primarily an academic exercise – if, over the years, he’d oscillated between more of an intellectual interest in Buddhism and Tibetan culture and actual faith in the religion’s mystical aspects.
“Yeah, but I’m still not that faithful, you know?” Thurman said. “I don’t… I can say this: For a long time, I had an intellectual conviction about reincarnation, because it made sense to me. I refute the materialist idea that the mind is the epiphenomenon of the brain. And I considered reincarnation the most scientifically and empirically validate-able, relational description of the life process and how life and death work. The arguments in the Buddhist philosophies made sense, and I read the literature of people who remembered previous lives, and the ‘Book of the Dead’-type thing of how it works, the rebirth process, blah blah blah. So I had that. But I never had had a visceral experience, myself, of remembering such a thing.”
Then he told me a story: In 1995, he visited Mount Kailash, a sacred pilgrimage site in Tibet, for the first time. When you drive to Mount Kailash from central Tibet, the road wends its way through a river valley, and eventually you emerge on a rise, which, if it’s a clear day, offers a wonderful view of the mountain – in fact, spotting Mount Kailash at this point is considered a good omen – and as Thurman’s Jeep emerged from the valley, there, before them, rose the sacred peaks. It was nearing sunset, and a plume of clouds had turned golden, making a beautiful vista, and Thurman felt incredibly moved.
They stopped, and Thurman began gathering rocks to build a little cairn, which is what Tibetans are supposed to do – there were a number of cairns left by pilgrims all around them – but first, he made a bow toward the mountain, and as he rose, suddenly, he became aware of the presence of two other people inside his own head. This is where it gets weird. Thurman remained himself, but he also knew these two strangers were definitely him. Only they weren’t strangers, not exactly, because he knew who they were, these past lives of his. Both were great scholars, yogis, one from the 20th century, the other, a Mongolian, from an earlier period. And they were laughing at each other, and at him! They had both spent their lives studying a particular tantra associated with Mount Kailash, and yet they had never been able to make the pilgrimage during their own lifetimes. “And now,” one of them cackled, “we get here as this turkey from New York, showing up in a Jeep!”
Thurman wanted to communicate with them, but they faded away. “It was a shock to me,” he says. “Because it was a visceral thing, and it also explained many things about certain relationships I’ve had with people in this life, and it also explained why they’d kept themselves hidden from me, actually, which I can’t even get into. It’s very –”
“And you didn’t think,” interrupts the skeptic, “‘Oh, it must have been the mountain air’?”
“No, no, no. Well, mountain air will affect you in different kinds of ways. But no, this was specific. Very, very specific. It was the first experience where I actually, physically remembered a previous life, in a very incontrovertible manner. And since then, belief in reincarnation – it’s not a blind faith thing. I don’t need to have faith. It’s become a matter of conviction – of experiential conviction.”
After spending two years as a monk, Thurman gave up his robes. The Dalai Lama was pissed (Thurman’s word), though the pair eventually reconciled. (“The Tibetans were in exile,” Thurman told Arthur Magida, “and [the Dalai Lama] had thought that I – their first Western monk – was a great hope for them.”) Thurman met his current wife, Nena, at a party in New York. He says they were considered the least likely couple: the ex-model and the ex-monk. “Nena, who later became a psychotherapist, was strikingly beautiful, posing in magazines like ‘Vogue.'” She also had been married, briefly, to Timothy Leary. They met at Leary’s annual Fourth of July party in upstate New York, marrying three days after they took LSD together. When I ask about his own youthful experiments with drugs, Thurman pauses, then says, “I knew where they were at, you could say.” Aldous Huxley’s ‘The Doors of Perception‘ had become a psychedelic bible at the time, and Thurman understood the way drugs could open certain doors. But that only made him more excited about going to India and learning about things like deep meditation, as opposed to “just being flung into the maelstrom by temporary chemical derangement.”
Another thing Thurman and Timothy Leary have in common is their willingness to blur the line between public intellectual and evangelizing populist. In Thurman’s lifetime, understanding of Buddhism in the West has moved from the countercultural (the Beats, Ram Dass) to the mainstream (NFL stars meditating, suburban moms doing yoga, massively popular bands agitating on behalf of Tibet), and Thurman himself has had a significant role in the heightened awareness.
Perhaps because of his famous daughter, Thurman has an unabashed attraction to Hollywood, and remains convinced that film has the potential to teach great masses of people about Buddhism. His unproduced treatments include another ‘Matrix’ sequel (which he actually pitched to Joel Schumacher, the first three Matrixes already being a nifty Buddhist metaphor), an effects-laden biopic about the Buddha, and a post-Kundun biopic about the Dalai Lama. None of his pitches, which he says Uma “brushes off,” strike me as particularly promising. He’s also sold a script idea to ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ director David O. Russell, a former student of Thurman’s at Amherst – it’s an action film called ‘Psychonauts,’ spanning the multiple lives of a single hero – and he even has a couple of pitches for his daughter’s longtime friend and collaborator Quentin Tarantino. (He loved ‘Django Unchained’ and has watched both ‘Kill Bill’ films many times, even though Uma initially tried to convince him not to. He will admit the scene where she plucks out Daryl Hannah’s eyeball was, for obvious reasons, pretty rough to sit through.)
Thurman also ventures out of the Ivory Tower quite frequently to comment on politics, in a manner some might consider indiscreet – making YouTube videos blasting Congressional Republicans, for example, or telling me that he “knows” George W. Bush “is very unhappy – deeply unhappy, actually. I think he should start drinking again, myself.” When we get to talking about the climate change conference in Norway, Thurman goes on a tear about how he’s convinced that the shortsighted profiteers enriching themselves from the fossil-fuel industry are literally giving themselves cancer – that their cognizance of the harm they are wreaking upon the planet is killing them. We’re talking a few weeks before the death of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who governed over huge oil reserves. Thurman says, “Look at Chavez. He’s finished. He’s a young guy – what is he, 58? He’s a little overweight. But he’s dead. All of these guys, their knowledge that they are doing unnecessarily evil things is giving them cancer!”
The lack of progress made by the Free Tibet movement, which gained popularity in the West in the Nineties thanks to people like Thurman and the late Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, would seem like an obvious area of disappointment, but Thurman remains “very positive.” Tibet, he insists, will “inevitably be free, because it is in China’s self-interest for Tibet to be free. The current Chinese policy of crushing Tibet is really the result of bad PR advice. It makes them look ridiculous. In the end, they always respond when you actually put pressure on them. They wanted to make government-sponsored labor unions in the last decade, but when Walmart said, ‘We’re leaving if you do,’ they didn’t! The Chinese government is very impressionable.”
Thurman’s impolity when it comes to China’s occupation of Tibet has led the Dalai Lama’s inner circle to keep the old friends apart in recent years. “They think that I’m a little bit of a firebrand, and the Dalai Lama gets pumped up when we spend time together,” Thurman says. “And there’s a little bit of what you’d call an ‘appeasement faction’ in the Tibetan government-in-exile. ‘Don’t rattle the Chinese. Maybe they’ll be nice later if we are polite.’ So they advise the Dalai Lama to not call them out. And I’m considered a caller-outer.”
These days, the old friends usually see each other once or twice a year. Their relationship shifted around 1980, when the older monks who’d taught them both in Dharamsala began dying off and the Dalai Lama took their place, becoming Thurman’s guru. “Although he’s not a pompous person,” Thurman says, “he can get up on a throne for a formal teaching and be like Buddha himself. And then he can sit at a table like we’re doing and just chat, no bullshit, and he doesn’t act like a deity at all.”
The pair still argue, like back in the old days. The Dalai Lama enjoys being challenged, or so he’s told Thurman, though the latter points out that “he’s become a little not quite so used to it.” Once Thurman berated his friend for not taking a more overtly political leadership role among the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama wouldn’t hear of it, said he didn’t want to become a prisoner of fame like Princess Diana. Thurman said it sounded like a certain old Dalai Lama was feeling lazy, and that he was confident the next Dalai Lama would be willing to make decisions for his people. Eventually the Dalai Lama ended the argument. He told Thurman to shut up.
After chatting for nearly three hours at the Menla inn, Thurman finally announces that he’s feeling a bit jetlagged and should probably rest before the evening teaching. But before he can head upstairs, he’s waylaid by another Menla visitor, his collaborator on a graphic novel about the life of the Dalai Lama. I get up and take a walk around the property.
When I return to the inn, Thurman is still talking to the comic-book guy. Eventually he does manage to squeeze in a brief nap before dinner (vegetarian meatloaf, Yukon-gold mashed potatoes, braised carrots, chocolate cupcakes), after which about 10 ski-retreat attendees, who have paid between $550 and $1,100 per person (not including lift tickets), gather around the hearth to listen to the teaching. Thurman sits in a grand, tall-backed chair, while we drag our uncomfortable dining room chairs into a loose circle around him. He says he’s going to read from his own translation of the ‘Vimalakirti Sutra.’
The session feels both intimate and informal. Thurman asks the group if anyone understands what he means by nonduality. People raise their hands, take stabs at a definition, blurt out questions of their own, while Thurman manages to wade into heady philosophical territory without leaving the rest of us behind. Someone asks about the Buddhist notion that our sense of self is not fixed. Thurman says any descriptions become inadequate, because what we’re discussing is inconceivable, inexpressible. Chuckling at the folly of humanity, he continues, “That doesn’t mean Buddhists don’t expend enormous effort creating vectors of expression to guide the mind toward the inconceivability. But they also have a caveat: If you think you know what you’re describing, then you don’t know.”
A paunchy, middle-aged man wearing glasses, a fleece vest, and acid-washed dad jeans has been asking most of the questions, and now he pipes up again.
“I would dismiss that,” he begins, “because –”
Thurman is hard of hearing. “Excuse me?” he asks, cocking his head.
“I would dismiss that, because –”
“You would do what?”
Annoyance creeps into Thurman’s voice. “Well, you’re always dismissing and thinking. Why are you doing that? How do you expect to learn anything when you’re always just doing it your way?”
“Well, I thought, because Buddha was human and –”
“What makes you think Buddha is human? When you become a being that is infinite and one with every other being, what’s human about that?”
“Well, I don’t know. I would say that some of that may be the mythology that’s developed over centuries…”
“Well, yeah, because you are part of a culture where everybody’s got to be just like you.”
“I don’t know about that, but…”
“Everybody has to be like you!”
Thurman’s sudden petulance has blindsided the entire room.
“You were saying that if you think you know what the Buddha experienced, then you don’t. And I said I would dismiss that, because if the Buddha was human, and the Buddha was able to have the experience, then I can have that experience.”
“What is your problem?” Thurman snaps. “Why do you have to re-express something and confuse yourself, and then get all stubborn about it? If you want to learn something, I’m happy to teach you. If you want to tell me what it is, I’m happy to learn from you. But we can’t do both at the same time.”
The man’s wife is blushing now, and he’s clearly discomfited as well. “OK, I beg to differ, but that’s OK,” he murmurs.
“Yeah, of course you do!” Thurman shouts. “That’s your thing. OK, then you tell us about it! I don’t want to differ.”
“Well,” the man begins gingerly, “are you saying Buddha, as a divinity, became nonhuman?”
“That’s what the Buddhists say.”
“But what do you believe?”
“I’m not actually giving you the privilege to query me as to what I believe! I’m telling you what the Buddhists say. In case you’re interested! In case you think that somebody else might know something that you don’t! Because if you just think you know everything, then it’s useless!”
The man looks crestfallen.
“I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“You’re sure?” Thurman asks sarcastically.
At this point, an attractive young woman – a yoga teacher – who has been sitting cross-legged on a chair and taking notes in a butterfly notebook cries out, “Oh, hush, both of you! Let’s move on with the teaching!” And magically, the tension is broken. Everyone laughs. Everyone, that is, except for Thurman, who now pivots his good eye upon her.
“What?” he asks. “We are going to do what?”
“I said, hush, both of you, and we’ll move on with the teaching.”
“You teach them, if you’re going to cut both of us.”
The laughter falls away completely, and we sit in dead silence for a long, awkward procession of seconds.
“Nobody says anything? That’s fine. I think we should not bother.” Thurman slams his book shut and slips it into the bag at his feet. “The Vimalakirti is not necessary. Nobody said you needed to read the Vimalakirti. I don’t need to read it. Yesterday we were just informally chatting, and so I think you should talk amongst yourselves, as they say on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ That’s what you want to do, so do it.”
After a few moments, a shy man with a Spanish accent who ate dinner at a table by himself (and traveled all the way from Florida to attend the retreat) entreats Thurman to continue. The yoga teacher and the original interrupter both apologize.
Thurman looks around the room. There’s another long pause. Then, slowly, he reaches back into his bag. “I was going to discuss the Vimalakirti,” he begins. His voice, once again, is pleasant, melodious, the voice of everyone’s favorite professor, as if nothing happened at all.
About 10 years ago, a series of books on the seven deadly sins was published, each written by a different author. Thurman, who participated in the series, wrote ‘Anger.’ “I have always had a problem with anger,” he acknowledges in the preamble. “I used to lose my temper very quickly, intensely, and it would sweep me away into a fierce swirl of thoughts, sudden words, sometimes a furious movement, long ago perhaps a charge, a blow….” He recalls that, while studying to become a monk, his teacher prohibited him from learning all of the formal tricks of Tibetan debate, because he was already such a fearsome debater and with the added skills “would make too many people unhappy.” He suspects that the anger still “lurking deep down in my habitual patterns” comes as a birthright, “down through my paternal lineage of Southern rednecks.”
When I ask Thurman about the source of his anger, he chuckles and says, “I don’t really know, but if you’re doing a shrink analysis, you might say my older brother, David. He was….temperamental.” David, who died in the seventies, liked to box, and administered regular beatings on young Robert. (“Little Bobby was so brave,” David would recall fondly to their mother years later. “Every time I knocked him down, he jumped right back up!”)
“I’ve certainly worked on my anger a lot with Buddhism,” Thurman goes on, recalling a moment in 1985 “where I was in India, and somebody in the Tibetan world was really pushing my buttons, and I had almost a wish to do something physical to him. They teach you to detach in these moments, and I was able to step away in my mind. I felt a wave of heat flowing out of my chest towards that guy, and yet I was very calm: ‘OK, whatever you say….”
When I bring up the Menla outburst, Thurman says he knew the student, that he’d been bothering Nena earlier in the weekend and monopolizing group conversations. “So I just used my prerogative as a teacher in a forceful way,” he insists. “I know some people were shocked. But I didn’t consider that a loss of temper.”
Indeed, in all the time we spent together, Thurman was nothing but pleasant, save for the incident described above. Once the teaching continued, everything was fine. Thurman took questions afterward and joked about how now he’d be more than happy to debate. All seemed forgiven.
Once the lecture started back up, I did find myself hoping, for the sake of this story, that Thurman might defy expectations yet again, having already surprised us with such boorish behavior, by cracking open our skulls with a teaching so heavy and mysterious and mind-meltingly occult, we’d realize the entire performance had actually been by design, like your guru on the mountaintop who begins his lesson by smacking you across the face with his sandal.
I thought that, and at the same time, I wasn’t thinking about writing this article at all. I wanted my mind blown in real life. I wanted a glimpse of what Thurman claimed to have seen.
I’ll save you the suspense: That didn’t happen.
But he did lecture on the Vimalakirti. Specifically, he told us about a wonderful moment toward the end of the sutra, when Sariputra, one of the Buddha’s disciples, challenges his master with an impudent question. If, Sariputra wonders, the Lord Buddha’s mind is truly pure, and if, furthermore, the Lord Buddha has the power, as Buddhists believe, to shape reality and make the world around him a perfect Buddhaverse…. well, what went wrong? Why, as Thurman puts it, are we stuck here in crappy India, with its poor people and sickness, its suffering, its man-eating crocodiles?
And the Lord Buddha says, “What do you think, Sariputra? Is it because the sun and moon are impure that those blind from birth do not see them?”
And Sariputra says, “No, Laord. It is not so. The fault lies with those blind from birth, and not with the sun and moon.”
And then the Lord Buddha says, “In the same way, Sariputra, the fact that some living beings” – like you, but he doesn’t say that – “do not behold the splendid display of virtues of the Buddhaverse is due to their own ignorance. It is not the fault of the transcendent Lord.”
Sariputra doesn’t back down, though. Braver than Moses, this guy. He says, “As for me, O Brahma, I see this great Earth, with its highs and lows, its thorns, its precipices, its peaks and its abysses, as if it were entirely filled with dung.”
Meaning, Thurman says, full of shit.
“That you see such a Buddhaverse as this as if it were so impure, reverend Sariputra, is a sure sign that your mind is full of dung,” the Lord Buddha responds.
And then the Lord Buddha touches the ground with his big toe. And suddenly everyone present has a magnificent vision – all around them, an array of precious jewels appears, hundreds of thousands of them, a rain of gems possessing infinite virtues, personalized thrones of jeweled lotuses, filling all assembled with wonder.
In other words, for a moment everyone suddenly saw the world as perfectly adapted to them, as the optimal situation for their personal evolution. In the same way that different flowers require varieties of temperature and soil and watering to flourish, so, too, did those present realize they inhabited the perfect setting for their own flourishing, even though, normally, the world struck them as inadequate. But now, suddenly, they understood. It was the ideal setting for them to learn what they had to do! They could see it now. Perfection, all around them.
So then, the Buddha said to the venerable Sariputra, “Sariputra, do you see this splendor of the virtues of the Buddhaverse?”
Sariputra replied, “I see it, Lord! Here before me is a display of splendor such as I never before heard of or beheld!”
And the Lord Buddha says, “Sariputra, this Buddhaverse is always thus pure, but the transcendent one makes it appear to be spoiled by many faults, in order to bring about the maturity of the inferior living beings.”
And everybody, Thurman tells us, goes wild.
And then the Buddha picks up his toe, and it looks like the ordinary world again.
How Muhammad Ali Conquered Fear and Changed the World
He was, in the beginning, the end of the way of the old. Nobody had moved in a ring like Muhammad Ali – a motile bronze sculpture. "I'm something new," he said. "The game's alive." In 1964, when he still had another name, he was suddenly the world heavyweight champion. Then, just as suddenly, as a man with a new and strange name, he turned that prominence into a political stand, as he aligned himself with the most feared black nationalist movement of the time and went on to resist service in the Vietnam War. "I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man," he told author David Remnick much later. "I had to show that to the world." But part of the world – in particular, America – wasn't ready to accept that example. "I pity Clay and abhor what he represents," wrote one famous sports reporter, Jimmy Cannon. In 1967 the boxing establishment stripped Ali of all claims to his title, and the U.S. sought to imprison him.
But as Ali himself said, "Things changed. Things changed. And I helped that, too." In 1996 he appeared at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, as the world's most universally acknowledged hero, his disrepute long before faded into dust. He had been a 1960 Olympic gold medal winner but claimed he'd discarded the prize in disgust over racism. The story was a parable, but the medal was gone just the same. During a basketball intermission in Atlanta, the president of the International Olympic Committee presented him with a replacement for the lost prize, on a ribbon that draped from his neck. Ali studied the trophy for a moment, smiled, and lifted it to his lips with his right hand – his left hand trembling steadily – and kissed it. He said no words for the occasion. Muhammad Ali no longer spoke in public – he had been too ravaged by the parkinsonism that was a result of his many years in the boxing ring.
Critics, fighters, journalists, and government and boxing authorities had once tried to silence Ali, to avert the changes he was helping bring about. He fought against those efforts, so hard that it contributed to damaging the physical ability that had made him proud and fearsome in the first place. It was a terrible thing to see those effects, but Ali allowed only himself to set his bounds or to undo them. Former heavyweight champion George Foreman, who once famously tried to shatter those bounds, later came to recognize what impelled Ali. "He found something to fight for," said Foreman, "other than money and championship belts. And when that person finds something like that, you can't hardly beat them."
This is a story of how a young man took fear – personal fear, and dread instilled by the history of his people in America – and transmuted it into something that fear itself should be afraid of. Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, the firstborn child of Cassius Clay Sr. and his wife, Odessa. Odessa was light-skinned – she had some white lineage in both her parents' families, which Ali later attributed to rape, though that wasn't the case. She was a genial woman who worked as a cook and housecleaner for highborn white families and tried to impress dignity on her children. Some believe Ali probably inherited his good humor from her.
Cassius Clay Sr. had a different heritage and temperament. He was a black man named after a white 19th-century plantation owner who became an ardent abolitionist and freed his slaves. Clay Sr. took pride in this legacy, but he knew as well that life in white America, in the border state of Kentucky, had checked his hopes. He had wanted to be an artist; instead, he was a sign painter. He also harbored no illusions about the realities of race in the American South. Ali recounted his father telling him of the horrible fate of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black from Chicago who was beaten and shot in the head in Mississippi during the summer of 1955 for speaking to a white female cashier at a grocery store. The images of Till's mutilated corpse stayed in young Ali's mind. "In one," he said in his autobiography, The Greatest, "he was laughing and happy. In the other, he was swollen and bashed in, his eyes bulging out of their sockets." He later told Gordon Parks, in Life magazine, "I used to lay awake scared, thinking about somebody getting cut up or being lynched."
Clay Sr. couldn't rid himself of frustration, suspicion, and resentment. When he brooded, he drank and saw other women. When he came back home, he could be menacing; Odessa called the police more than once. Growing up in tension, fearing a parent's volatility, can leave a young person with painful but shrewd premonitions about possible danger and with acute impulses to protection. It can also leave him wanting to build shelter in some other part of his life.
In October 1954, when Clay was 12, he was upset to discover that his gleaming new bicycle had been stolen. He sought a policeman, who was coaching boxing at a nearby gym, and told the officer he wanted to beat up the thief. The policeman, an older white man, Joe Martin, told Clay he had better learn how to fight first. In a picture from that period, the young, slight-looking Cassius Clay wears an expression that is nervous and unwavering at the same time. He won his first bout and informed his family he would be champion. Clay Sr. wasn't happy that his son was receiving the benefit of a white tutor; he saw himself as the force that formed his son. When Cassius later told his father, "I made myself," the statement almost led to blows. Cassius spent less time at home and more in the gym: a place where his dread could be transformed. "He'd build himself up into a regular frenzy," Joe Martin told author Mark Kram, "letting that fear out by tormenting his opponent."'
After fighting 108 bouts by age 18 (winning 100 of them) and garnering two national Golden Gloves championships, Clay boxed for the 1960 U.S. Olympics team in Rome and returned home with a gold medal. He later wrote in The Greatest that he threw the award into the Ohio River after realizing that some restaurants still refused him, as a black person, service in Louisville. Though he indeed encountered racism at home ("On my side of the veil everything was black…." he's said. "I knew that there were two Louisvilles and, in America, two Americas"), he never truly disposed of his gold medal; he simply forgot where he put it. But the story exemplifies his gift for inventing his own mythology and connecting it to bigger matters.
Race notwithstanding, many in Clay's hometown recognized his potential. In 1960 a consortium of all-white local businessmen formed to sponsor the young boxer and protect him from the corrupt influences in professional fighting. In December of that year, the group sent Clay to Miami to work with Angelo Dundee – one of boxing's most respected trainers. "Angelo understood immediately," said Ali biographer Thomas Hauser in PBS's Made in Miami, "that Cassius did things all wrong from a technical point of view, but he could get away with them because of his speed and his reflexes." One of Clay's most egregious traits was holding his arms low, which could leave him without guard against fast-arriving blows. Also, whereas many fighters slipped – that is, dodged – punches by ducking or quickly moving their head to the side, Clay often pedaled rearward rapidly, pulling his neck back at an acute angle, his eyes fixed on the incoming missile, measuring the evasion to within an inch or less. It was a move that could leave a boxer off-balance or place him out of range for launching counterattacks, but Clay compensated with an unusually long reach. Ring commentators sometimes anticipated that this technique would land him flat – though those occasions were rare to the point of proving historic. Whatever his anomalies, Clay knew how to get a jab in and how to make it sting. "He flicked it," said Ferdie Pacheco, who met Ali in Miami and served as his doctor for many years. "He called it snake-licking." This, too, was a hallmark of Clay's style; he aimed almost exclusively at a fighter's head, not at his body. Clay himself, though, did not like being hit in the face. "Your face and teeth is all your life," he told the New York Times's Robert Lipsyte.
Clay's manner became hard for other fighters to cope with. In early 1961, Swedish fighter and former world champion Ingemar Johansson spent a few minutes sparring with Clay at Dundee's gym. "Come on, what's the matter," Ali taunted him. "Can't hit me?" Johansson told Dundee, "Get him the fuck away from here, and never, ever put him back in here again. I can't touch him. Nobody is going to touch the guy!" Clay's treatment of Johansson foretold what became, in varying ways, his most notable quality: He wouldn't pay deference to conventions or to boxing's popular heroes and ranking candidates. Instead, he goaded and bewildered them. He learned this tactic after witnessing wrestler Gorgeous George's outrageous character in Las Vegas in the summer of 1962. Gorgeous George was flamboyant: He would strut into a wrestling ring wearing beautifully coiffed waves of blond hair and then genuflect derisively to the heckling crowd. "And all the time," Ali told biographer Thomas Hauser, "I was saying to myself, 'Man I want to see this fight. It don't matter if he wins or loses.'"
But whereas Gorgeous George was a jester villain, Clay was a serious aspirant – plus he was a young black man. Black athletes were expected to act respectfully toward competitors – especially white ones – and never to display arrogance or to boast in triumph. That had been the case after the notorious Jack Johnson, in the early 1900s, used to diminish other fighters – including white champion Tommy Burns – so effectively he could conduct casual ringside conversations in the process. After Johnson, no black was allowed to compete for the title until Joe Louis won it in 1937. But Louis had to abide by a code of humility, and that system had been held in place ever since. Now, in the early 1960s, Cassius Clay ridiculed rivals and trumpeted his abilities before an increasingly skeptical press. "To beat me," he declared, "you have to be greater than great." He said this with
exaggerated and humorous swagger, but the self-praise deeply annoyed many. When Clay upped the ante by beginning to predict – with uncanny accuracy – the round in which he would defeat an adversary, the seeming arrogance of it drew even more disdain. Joe Louis cautioned him, "Boy! You better not believe half the things you say about yourself." The guidance didn't deter Clay. "By the end of 1963," he said, "I will be the youngest champion in history."
Clay's braggadocio stirred an excitement that hadn't been seen for any boxer in years. Those who watched him develop as a professional in Miami and saw him defeat 18 competitors in the period from late 1960 to summer 1963 – losing to nobody – received him as the anointed hope. "Everybody thought that this is our guy," Ferdie Pacheco later said. "This guy's going to be the guy." By late 1963, Clay was headed for a title match with the man he called "the big ugly bear": heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, the most forbidding man in boxing history, and the most disreputable. Liston had a criminal past – he'd learned to box in prison – and even though he held the title belt, rumors tied him to the organized-crime element in boxing. It was a terrible image: For generations, the heavyweight champion had signified larger issues of national character, but Liston, as Joe Flaherty put it in the Village Voice, was "a blatant mother in a fucker's game."
Cassius pursued Liston hard for a title shot, sometimes in foolhardy ways. On one occasion he followed Liston into a Las Vegas casino where the champion was losing at dice. Promoter Harold Conrad, who was present, said Clay kept making fun of Liston's bad luck. "So Liston throws the dice down," Conrad told Ali's biographer Hauser, "walks over to Clay, and says, 'Listen, you nigger faggot. If you don't get out of here in 10 seconds, I'm gonna pull that big tongue out of your mouth and stick it up your ass.'" When Sonny arrived in Miami in early 1964, set to fight Clay on February 25, the challenger met him at the airport and followed him into the city. Liston pulled his car over and said, "I'll punch you in the mouth. This has gone too far!" Clay still followed. "Get your last look," he told the crowd outside Liston's gym. "I'm the real champ."
Behind his bravado, though, Clay harbored doubts about being able to overcome Liston. "He can hit a guy in the elbows and just about break his arm," he said. However, the young challenger also had a secret source of inspiration. In fact, Cassius Clay had a hidden life that was about to become notorious.
By early 1964, Cassius Clay was just starting to address the dilemma of race in America, though he'd been developing strong views on the subject. Whereas most civil rights leaders – Martin Luther King Jr., notably – counseled nonviolence to black Americans, Clay didn't subscribe to those ideals. "I'm a fighter," he told the New York Post's Pete Hamill. "I believe in the eye-for-an-eye business…. You kill my dog, you better hide your cat."
Clay had been studying the doctrines of the Nation of Islam, more popularly (and disparagingly) known at the time as the Black Muslims. He responded to the organization's declaration that American blacks needn't seek assent for civil rights – rather they should be proud of their racial identity and govern their own ends. The public face of the movement was Malcolm X, who since 1954 had served as chief minister at the Nation's Harlem mosque and as a right-hand man to the organization's leader, the soft-voiced but steel-minded Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm spurned the goals of American civil rights campaigners as too conciliatory. In the last year of his life, he famously said, "We declare our right on this Earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this Earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary." Many politicians, journalists, law-enforcement members, and even other black leaders regarded Malcolm X as the most dangerous voice in America. That voice, though, had an appeal for a young man who used to lie awake at night fearing the nightmare fate that had befallen Emmett Till.
Malcolm hadn't heard of Cassius Clay when they first met in 1962. The Nation viewed boxing as a practice that exploited young black men. But he was taken by Clay's authentic enthusiasm and saw in him a popular figure who might advance the Nation of Islam's appeal for other young black Americans. It was Malcolm X, more than anybody, who addressed Clay's uncertainty. "This fight is the truth," Malcolm told him in Miami before the match. "It's the Cross and the Crescent fighting in a prize ring – for the first time…. Do you think Allah has brought about all this intending for you to leave the ring as anything but the champion?" Clay had tried to keep his new alliance secret, but in early February, Cassius Clay Sr. told a Miami Herald reporter that "Cassius had become a Muslim; that they'd brainwashed him to hate white people, and as soon as the fight was over, he was going to change his name." Under pressure from the fight's promoters – who threatened to cancel the bout – Malcolm X left Miami, though he returned the day of the match and sat ringside with R&B singer Sam Cooke and his manager, Allen Klein.
Clay had started to signify something unsettling, even threatening, in the American moment. As a result Sonny Liston found himself, for the first time, with a mandate from boxing pundits: to put the loudmouth upstart in his place. It wouldn't be a pretty business. The champion had a crushing left punch: "It's gonna go so far down [Clay's] throat," said Liston, "it'll take a week for me to pull it out again." Malcolm X, though, had rekindled Clay's faith in himself. The morning of the match, Cassius crashed into the weigh-in ceremony, yelling, "You ain't got a chance…. You whupped!" One reporter said the fight should be called off, that Clay was hysterical and was endangering himself.
Cassius Clay was 22 the night of his first fight with Sonny Liston. The New Jersey Star-Ledger's Jerry Izenberg, listening to the radio on his way to Miami's Convention Hall, heard: "[Clay] has been seen at the airport, and he's bought a ticket to go to South America." He heard another report that Florida's governor wanted the fight called off "because he doesn't want blood on his hands." Seated later in the ringside press section, Izenberg heard similar speculation, and then looked over his shoulder and spotted Clay. "There he is," he said, "standing in the aisle, wearing his shirt, trousers, hasn't changed. He's as cool as a cucumber. And I say to myself, 'Hey, we have all gone for something here.' But he still can't win this fight." New York Times reporter Robert Lipsyte, also in the press section, had been instructed by his newspaper to map the shortest route to the hospital. "I understood perfectly," he said, "that I'd never see Cassius Clay again."
When the fighters met at ring center, though, perceptions changed. "This is the first time we had really seen them," said Lipsyte. "There was a collective gasp: Cassius Clay was much bigger." Once the bell rang, the challenger moved immediately into his opponent, hitting with blindingly fast and precise jabs, and he circled constantly – making himself a shifting target. Liston threw hard but desperate swings, sometimes off-target by a foot or more; Clay's recoil reflexes were better than fight fans had witnessed before. Plus, though it had often been noted that Ali's spry and strong legs were his best tool in the ring, he had tremendous strength, using his shoulders to push the full reach and momentum of his fists. Near the round's end, Clay let loose with a volley of punches that landed from unpredictable angles. Liston was stunned. Commenting after the round at ringside, former champion Joe Louis said, "I think this is one of the greatest rounds of any fight we've seen in a long time…. Clay completely outclassed Sonny Liston in this round."
In the second round, Clay caught Liston with a sharp uppercut to the right cheekbone, drawing blood. "Starting in the third round," Ali later said, "I saw his expression, how shook he was that we were still out there, and he was the one cut and bleeding…. I saw his face up close when he wiped his glove at that cut and saw the blood." Between the third and fourth rounds, Liston reportedly took a dishonorable course. In King of the World, author and New Yorker editor David Remnick relates the tale that Liston instructed one of his cornermen to "juice his gloves" – that is, apply a strong liniment or coagulant that, if it made contact with the eyes, would burn and temporarily blind. It worked: Clay left the fourth round blinking wildly, his eyes hurting intensely. He wanted to stop the fight – "He was telling us to cut the gloves off," said Ferdie Pacheco. Angelo Dundee had to hold him back from complaining to the referee about Liston's dirty fighting. He knew that if the bout was stopped, it might be impossible for Clay to get another chance at the title. The trainer instead washed out the young challenger's eyes and stood him up for the next round. At that crucial moment of Muhammad Ali's career, Dundee pushed him forward, saying: "Big daddy, get in there; this is your night."
In the fifth round, Liston caught Clay and pounded his torso savagely – "snorting like a horse," said Ali – but the challenger could absorb the worst of it. In the sixth, Clay worsened the cut he'd opened earlier under Liston's eye. "Sonny's face was a mess," reporter Robert Lipsyte said, "and he couldn't do a thing to stop this terrible thing that was happening to him." At the round's end, a disheartened Liston told his trainers, "That's it," and spat out his mouthpiece. The fight was over: Cassius Clay was the new world heavyweight champion. He pushed through the crowd that swarmed him to the ringside where reporters sat, looking shocked. "Eat your words," he told them. "I told you and you and you. I'm king of the world. You must all bow to me!" Moments later he asserted: "I shook up the world!" The press hated him for it. Two days after the event, the New York Herald Tribune wrote that Clay was "shrilling to the world in tones that seemed to echo a thousand little Hitlers through all the ages of man."
In defeating Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay had – in the words of baseball's Jackie Robinson – "outsmarted a scary man." But he had also upset a proud press, most of whom regarded his victory as both an anomaly and an affront. Among those who most resented the new champion was Jimmy Cannon – probably the most influential sportswriter since World War II – who wrote scathingly: "Clay is part of the Beatle movement. He fits in with the famous singers no one can hear…and the boys with their long dirty hair and the girls with the unwashed look and the college kids dancing naked at secret proms held in apartments and the revolt of students who get a check from dad every first of the month." Despite his disdain, Cannon had one thing right: Major changes were under way. Earlier that same month, February 1964, the Beatles had appeared for the first time before an American audience, on Ed Sullivan's variety TV show. Several days later, while visiting Miami for another Sullivan broadcast, promoter Harold Conrad arranged for the band to visit Clay's gymnasium – though against the advice of John Lennon. "The other guy's going to win," he said. (Sonny Liston, sitting in the audience at the Beatles' Miami show, said to Conrad, "Are these motherfuckers what all the people are screaming about? My dog plays drums better than that kid with the big nose.") Clay and the Beatles got along well, joking, mugging, reveling in the joy of their irreverent ascendancy. Pictures of that meeting, by British photographer Harry Benson, capture an early moment of a new history and its new luminaries. But there was so much more to come: In the years ahead, that joy would be supplanted by anger, hurt, recrimination, and cultural and political upheaval.
When Clay met reporters the day after he won the championship, he came off as a different man – more subdued, sober-tempered. "My mouth has overshadowed my ability," he said. One reporter asked, "Are you a card-carrying member of the Black Muslims?" Clay responded, "Card-carrying – what does that mean?…I know where I'm going, and I know the truth, and I don't have to be what you want me to be. I'm free to be what I want to be." It was a pivotal statement. "When I first heard that on television…," said boxing historian Gerald Early, "it was like an electric current went through me. I never heard a black man say anything like that, least of all an athlete." The new champion went on to declare that his name was no longer Clay; black American surnames were often inherited from the family names of white slaveholders. "I will be known as Cassius X." He was the shock of the new black, rejecting the authority of what was sacred in America. Cannon wrote that Clay was using boxing as "an instrument of mass hate…as a weapon of wickedness."
The world heavyweight champion's allegiance to the Nation of Islam disturbed many. Clay's father, for one, resented it deeply and claimed that the organization was taking a share of his son's money. (The Nation denied this, but Herbert Muhammad, the son of leader Elijah Muhammad, soon became Cassius's manager, charging as much as 40 percent of his income for services.) One night, a drunken Clay Sr. showed up at Cassius's training site with a knife, threatening to "kill all the Black Muslims." What the father didn't understand – or perhaps did, deepening his rage – was that his son had found in the Nation of Islam a new kind of family he hadn't known before. In Malcolm X, in particular, Cassius had discovered a comrade and role model, but it proved to be the most troubling relationship of his life. Cassius knew that tensions had recently emerged between the fiery minister and Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm had been growing disillusioned and was ready to move on. Others in the Nation, though, pointed to the friendship with Cassius Clay, "a fool fighter," as irresponsible on Malcolm's part. Leader Elijah Muhammad had believed there was "no way Clay could win" against Sonny Liston and wanted the Nation to keep a distance from him. Clay would have to choose between Malcolm's renegade ways and Elijah Muhammad's rule.
On March 8, 1964, Malcolm X spoke publicly of his separation from the Nation of Islam. He would start a new action group and hoped to work with other civil rights leaders – such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – with whom he'd earlier been forbidden to work. In response, minister Louis Farrakhan, who had replaced Malcolm with Elijah Muhammad, pronounced that "hypocrites like Malcolm should have their heads cut off." Days later, Elijah Muhammad openly embraced Cassius and bestowed on him a new name: Muhammad Ali, meaning "beloved of God." (The New York Times, among others, refused for six years to acknowledge the honorific, still referring to Ali as Cassius Clay.) The young fighter's proud acceptance of the designation made plain his choice between the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X. The two former friends spoke only once more, later in the spring of 1964, during a chance encounter outside a hotel in Ghana. Malcolm told Ali, "Brother, I still love you, and you are still the greatest." Ali replied, "You left the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. That was the wrong thing to do, Brother Malcolm." Then Ali turned his back and walked away. Malcolm looked emptied. "I've lost a lot," he said to his companions. "A lot. Almost too much…. Be kind to him for his sake and mine. He has a place in my heart." In the months that followed, Ali sought to downplay the former friendship. "No one listens to Malcolm anymore," he told the press.
Ali and Sonny Liston were scheduled for a rematch in Boston on November 16, 1964, but three days prior to that, the young champion suffered an abdominal hernia, resulting in a five-month delay. On February 21, 1965, as Malcolm X stepped to a podium to speak to an audience at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, three men brandishing guns approached and shot him to death. Within minutes speculation spread that the Nation of Islam – particularly Louis Farrakhan – had been involved in, or sanctioned, the killing. (Farrakhan said in 2009, on 60 Minutes, "I may have been complicit in words that I spoke leading up to February 21 …and regret that any word that I have said caused the loss of life of a human being.") That same night, Ali's Chicago South Side apartment caught fire. Some thought the event was an immediate strike against Ali for his rejection of Malcolm. Others, though, including Ali's young wife, Sonji, suspected that the blaze might be a warning from within the Nation of Islam that the boxer should stay faithful to his new family. In the years that lay ahead, Muhammad Ali would displace Malcolm X as one of America's most provocative observers of the paradoxes of racial life in America, even taking on similar speech cadences. But at the time, Ali expressed no sympathy for Malcolm X's death. It wasn't until 2004, in his book The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life's Journey, that Ali would say, "Turning my back on Malcolm X was one of the mistakes I regret most in my life. I wish I'd been able to tell Malcolm I was sorry."
The second Sonny Liston match proved even more startling than the first. In part owing to threats of violence and reprisals, Boston refused to reschedule the event; other cities also would not accept the meet. Promoter Harold Conrad finally booked the fight into a small youth center in the northeastern town of Lewiston, Maine.
Odds again heavily favored Liston. "Nobody was convinced," said Robert Lipsyte, "that Cassius Clay had really beat Sonny Liston." Ali entered the ring to loud booing and, after the bell sounded, took to circling Liston adeptly, as he had in the first match. What took place near the end of his eighth circle around Liston resulted in one of the most scrutinized and debated film clips of the 1960s. In a moment when Liston was hurling a clumsy punch and his balance was susceptible, Ali threw what looked like a swiping right graze at his opponent's head. Liston crumpled to the canvas, where he stayed for several seconds, sprawling, rolling, groping. It happened so fast that many thought it had never happened at all – that Liston had been dropped by what became known as the phantom punch. However, a video camera on the far side of the ring caught clearly the force of the impact: "You can see Liston's neck and his spine just shudder," said one analyst. Confusion overtook the moment. Referee Jersey Joe Walcott tried to shove Ali to a corner to begin a time count on Liston. Ali, though, was as shocked as everybody else. He towered over Liston, a gloved fist cocked, yelling, "Get up and fight, sucker!" Liston finally rose reluctantly, but he doubled over in fright when Ali resumed his assault. A moment later Walcott stopped the match, after learning that Liston had been on the mat long enough to be counted out. Ali had won his first defense of his heavyweight title in a minute and 42 seconds. The audience broke out in a loud chorus of booing. Liston, they thought, had thrown the match. Ali himself had doubts. "It was a good punch," he later said, "but I didn't think I hit him so hard he couldn't have got up."
Liston lived in Las Vegas for the next several years, maintaining ties to underworld crime, still fighting and winning matches, though never to any glory. On January 5, 1971, his wife, Geraldine, returned home from a holiday trip and found her husband slouched against their bed, dead of an apparent heroin overdose. Ali's biographer Hauser recounted a moment, years later, when Ali wished aloud that his early foe was still alive, that they might sit around and talk about what was past. After Hauser asked Ali what he would say to Liston, Ali replied, "Man, you scared me."
Ali's retention of the heavyweight title continued to rankle critics, including some in powerful positions. The champion was dismayed a few months later when told he was in danger of being drafted into the U.S. military, just as the war in Vietnam was intensifying. In 1964 he'd been classified 1-Y, which meant he failed the standards of service (Ali could barely read and was probably dyslexic). But the classification had just been adjusted to 1-A: Ali was now eligible for the draft, without being subject to further testing. "Why are they gunning for me?" he asked, though there was never much question in anybody's mind. The U.S. was likely trying to defuse the possibility that he might loom as a role model for other young black Americans. But when Ali reacted by proclaiming that he did not share the U.S.'s purposes in the Vietnam War, his influence on young Americans – both white and black – only grew. "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," he told a reporter. "They ain't never called me nigger." Ali's comments were seen as outrageous, even traitorous. Boxing commissions, as well as war veterans associations and numerous politicians, said they would not tolerate any of his fights within their sway.
Ali applied for conscientious objector status – which would excuse him from military service – on grounds of the Nation of Islam's religious beliefs. The Selective Service department ruled against any exemption, determining that Ali's religion was "racist and political." On April 28, 1967, Ali refused induction into the U.S. military. Within an hour the New York State Athletic Commission stripped him of his title and any license to fight in the state. Other state boards quickly followed suit. Muhammad Ali was no longer champion anywhere within the United States and could no longer work in professional boxing or leave the country to work. Within weeks he was indicted on charges of refusing to serve and was tried, convicted, and sentenced to the maximum penalty: a $10,000 fine and five years in federal prison. "[If] all that was left now was to serve the five-year jail term, and forget boxing, I was prepared," he wrote in The Greatest.
For the next few years Muhammad Ali became one of the most popularly reviled but also one of the most popularly admired persons in America. The U.S. government's wayward prosecution of him caused many – including black leaders who had earlier been troubled by his association with the Nation of Islam – to view him more sympathetically. Julian Bond, a social activist who had been elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965, said, "When Ali refused to take that symbolic step forward, everyone knew it moments later. You could hear people talking about it on street corners. It was on everyone's lips. People who had never thought about the war – black and white – began to think about it because of Ali. The ripples were enormous."
On the day he was stripped of the title, Ali was already anticipating the long banishment ahead. "I strongly object," he said, "to the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the world the impression that I have only two alternatives in taking this stand – either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative, and that alternative is justice."
Justice proved slow in coming for Muhammad Ali – and it could never really undo some injuries. The World Boxing Association staged a series of elimination bouts that, in February 1970, yielded a new champion, Joe Frazier. It was something of a hollow achievement. "Joe Frazier is the champion of nothing," said sportscaster Howard Cosell. "The heavyweight champion of the world was, and still is, a man called Muhammad Ali."
Ali's three and a half years of exile from boxing spanned what might have been his peak period, in his mid-20s. In 1969, Cosell asked if he would consider a return to boxing. Ali said, "Why not? If they come up with enough money." In July 1970 a Georgia state senator, Leroy Johnson, took on a bold project. Georgia had no state boxing commission, which meant that Atlanta could grant a license of its own accord. It was a fitting move: Atlanta was starting to emerge as the capital of a new, more progressive southern sensibility. But Georgia was hindered by Governor Lester Maddox, who had come to office on an anti-integrationist stance. (After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, Maddox called King "an enemy of the country" and told state troopers that if any demonstrators got out of hand at King's funeral to "shoot 'em down and stack 'em up.") Atlanta gave permission for Ali to fight Jerry Quarry, on October 26, 1970. Maddox tried to stop the fight but found he had no legal grounds. He instead declared the occasion a "day of mourning" and said he hoped Clay got flattened in the first round. But the event at Atlanta's Municipal Auditorium proved a triumphant return. Ali was fleet and dominant, and in the third round he rendered Quarry – a hard-hitting fighter – too bloodied to continue. Weeks later, after a tougher but also more dazzling win over Argentine fighter Oscar Bonavena, Ali announced, "Now we have a chance to see who the real champion of the world is."
It would be a true struggle. Joe Frazier was no less formidable than Ali. Like Ali, he was an Olympic gold medal winner, in Tokyo in 1964. In 1970, when Frazier won the heavyweight title, Ali claimed he didn't begrudge him. "He wasn't given this," he said. After Ali's title had been taken, Frazier told him, "It's unfair. Whatever it takes for me to lend myself to you, I'll be there for you." In 1969, Frazier visited Washington, D.C., where he spoke to President Richard Nixon on the former champion's behalf. "I was more than decent," said Frazier. In The Greatest, Ali tells of a good-natured car ride the two men shared from Philadelphia to New York in the late 1960s. They talked about their inevitable appointment in a boxing ring. "After I whip your ass," Frazier told Ali, "I'll buy you some ice cream." Ali was dumbfounded that anybody imagined beating him. Still, Ali wrote, "of all the people in my profession I would like to have had as a friend [Joe Frazier] was the one." After that car ride, said Ali, "we never looked eye to eye."
There would be good reason for that rift. Interestingly, Ali never disparaged a white opponent in racial terms, as he often did black opponents, whom he probably saw as more serious competitors. Instead, Ali transmuted black fighters into stand-ins for white America's resistance to black enfranchisement. He worked this tactic with particular vehemence on Frazier, impugning his authenticity and purposes as a black man. "He's the wrong kind of Negro," said Ali in a TV interview. "He's not like me, 'cause he's the Uncle Tom…. He works for the enemy." Ali meant some of this talk as promotion, but Frazier took it all literally. It hurt, and it felt like a betrayal. "I just wanted to bury him," Frazier said.
The psychic war between the two men affected everything about their title match, billed as "The Fight of the Century" and set for March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden. Audiences had always cared deeply if Ali won or lost, but this time he was seen to be about bigger purposes – in particular, the argument over the war in Vietnam. "I represent the truth," Ali told Rolling Stone in 1971. "The world is full of oppressed people, poverty people. They for me. They not for the system. All the black militants…all your hippies, all your draft resisters, they all want me to be the victor." By contrast, Joe Frazier took on the role of outmoded power, compliant duty. When the two men entered Madison Square Garden that night, they entered the arena of an America disunited. In the private moments before the match, Frazier sat in his dressing room and uttered a prayer: "Lord, help me kill this man because he's not righteous." Nothing, though, could discourage Ali. "If Joe Frazier whips me," he said, "I'll crawl across the ring and kiss his feet and tell him, 'You are the greatest.'"
If in some respect the fight was about America more than it was about boxing, it was nevertheless through boxing that it would be settled. Frazier was arguably in his prime – an intimidating hitter who advanced on his foes like a train and bobbed and weaved as he pressed ahead, hard to hit. Early in the fight Ali showed that he could outmaneuver Frazier and could surprise him with the strength and precision of his punches. But Frazier pushed into him inexorably, as if he savored what Ali threw at him and intended to pay it back.
The momentum edged back and forth throughout the hour, like a tightly charted suspense tale. Then, in the 15th and last round, Frazier cracked the night's mystery. With his left glove, he flicked Ali's right bicep, making him drop his arm just enough, and then lunged forward with a full-force left hook to the jaw that felled him spectacularly. Ali hit the floor on his back, his legs stretched in the air, rolled to his left knee, then rose to full height – all in less than a two-count. "That surprised me," Frazier said. Ali looked matter-of-fact, as if the instance had been a slight snag. However, the knockdown settled things for the judges: Frazier won a unanimous verdict and retained his world title, becoming the first man to beat Ali in his professional career. He also recalled Ali's earlier promise. Back in his dressing room, Mark Kram reported in Ghosts of Manila, Frazier walked restlessly, tears streaming, and said, "I want him over here! I want him to crawl to my feet! Crawl, crawl! He promised, promised me! Crawl to me, crawl! Why aren't you here?" Later, Frazier entered a hospital, where he remained for days (weeks, some said), suffering from deadly high blood pressure and extreme fatigue, among other debilities. At one point, a rumor circulated that Frazier had died. If it was true, Ali said, "I'll never fight again." Frazier didn't die, but he came close to it; doctors monitored him constantly, fearful he might enter a coma. Frazier left the hospital many days later with few people having visited him.
The legendary fight that signified the enmity caused by Vietnam had a strange afterlife. Joe Frazier never really got over the bittersweet victory that almost killed him and that failed to win him the respect he needed. It was Muhammad Ali, instead, who accomplished an unforeseen transcendence that night. He had been knocked to the ground decisively, but by rebounding in that same instant, Ali redeemed his meaning as a hero: He was the black man who would not stay down, no matter what.
Ali no doubt moved too quickly toward his appointment with Joe Frazier, but he'd had little choice: His legal appeal was headed for the Supreme Court of the United States, and if denied, he would have to enter a federal prison for up to five years. In April 1971 the court heard the arguments and decided that Ali should go to jail. But a pair of clerks prevailed on one Justice to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He came to a new view: The government's argument that Ali's religion was racist was a misrepresentation of the fighter's true beliefs. The Justices reconsidered and agreed unanimously that the draft board had erred, that Ali was sincere; they overturned his conviction. Ali had won. He was now free. In effect, Malcolm X's words had saved him.
In the years that followed, Ali still portrayed his fights as events of political and social consequence, and given his resonant symbolic power, that was true: He represented and inspired change with the spirit of his determination. In time, the Supreme Court verdict became a harbinger of how the American public and media began to see Ali: He was principled, and he had been willing to pay the cost of his defiance. In the documentary Facing Ali (2009), Canadian boxer George Chuvalo – who fought Ali both before and after his discharge from the championship – said, "I remember thinking, this must be a pretty strong guy, facing the wrath of the U.S. government."
But it's the trajectory of Ali's boxing that best illuminates his meaning and history. His post-exile matches form a remarkable narrative, in which we see the depths of his will and pride; his courage and genius; his resolve, vulnerability, and long collapse. Those fights also represent his evolving scruples, sometimes for the worse – as in his treatment of Frazier – but for the better as well. In the 1960s, between his Liston victory and his banishment, he had sometimes displayed a shocking vindictiveness. When former world heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson, in 1965, and contender Ernie Terrell, in 1967, refused to address him as Muhammad Ali – in effect, disparaging his faith and conviction – they had to answer to the pain and anger that had built up in him since he became champion. Ali demeaned and devastated each of these men in the ring; he even severely injured Terrell's right eye. When Howard Cosell, who was usually supportive of Ali, asked about the apparent malice against Terrell, Ali responded, "Malice? I'm out to be cruel. That's what the boxing game is about." But after his return to the ring – after giving up his title to oppose war and to advocate conscience – he was never again so physically ruthless. In 1975, in the late stages of a bout with Ron Lyle, he worried that he might destroy Lyle. "I knew I was winning," Ali told Hauser, "…so I backed off. I lost all my fighting instinct and hoped the referee would stop it." He told reporters afterward, "I'm not going to kill a man."
Nevertheless, he still fought to win. In the early 1970s, following his loss to Frazier, Ali concentrated on what he saw as his most important exoneration: regaining the championship. Almost everything was working against him. He was 31 years old at a time when a younger generation of commanding fighters, who owed much to his inspiration, was emerging. To persevere, much less to thrive again, Ali would have to develop different defensive strategies. "He was still ahead of the pack," said Ron Lyle, "but that's when they started reaching him. Before that they wasn't laying a glove on him."
Ali's goal had been to beat Joe Frazier in a dramatic rematch – "because he beat me." The fight eventually took place in January 1974, again at Madison Square Garden, but it was short of the meaning of their first bout. By this date America had begun to exit Vietnam; much of the country now shared Ali's assessment of the debacle. Also, Frazier was no longer heavyweight champion: He had lost his title to George Foreman a year earlier in Jamaica. When Ali and Frazier met for their second contest, each was battling to win a shot at Foreman, as the means to repossess the championship. Ali prevailed over Frazier after 12 rounds in a unanimous decision.
But to take on George Foreman – at 26, six years younger than Ali – seemed reckless. By his own description, Foreman had been a dropout, shoplifter, car hijacker, and purse snatcher in the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, until he entered the Job Corps and realized a talent for boxing. In 1968 he won a gold medal at the Olympics in Mexico City. By 1974 he was a battleship in the ring. It might sound like an exaggeration to say that he would simply walk up to an opponent and plow him down – except that's what he did, time and again. When Foreman met Frazier in the ring, he crushed him to the ground six times in the first two rounds – twice in the last 20 seconds of the first round. After that, Foreman was seen as absolutely terrifying, the hardest-hitting heavyweight champion ever. When the Foreman-Ali fight was announced – to take place in Kinshasa, Zaire, on the west coast of Africa, on September 25, 1974 – the New York Times predicted: "Ali will be out in the first round." Foreman thought so as well. "People telling me, 'There's never been a puncher like you, George.' All those compliments, I started eating them. 'I'm gonna fight Muhammad Ali – he's the least of all these guys. I'm not nervous.'"
This was the inaugural extravaganza managed by Don King, who was intent on making himself boxing's first major black promoter. By securing a deal from the government of the Republic of Zaire (formerly the Belgian Congo and known since 1997 as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to pay the fighters $5 million apiece, King engineered a championship fight where none had ever been presented before, in Africa. Zaire was governed pitilessly by General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, who decreed himself the Father of the Nation; he'd appropriated the immense funds for the match – dubbed by Ali as the "Rumble in the Jungle" – from his nation's treasury. Still, staging such a big event in an independent African state had an important benefit: It stood for the emergence of black empowerment, as the movement was gaining ground in much of the world. Ali immediately appreciated the meanings available in the location, and he laid moral claim to their provenance. "I'm not fighting for me," he said. "I'm fighting for the black people who have no future."
The much anticipated fight finally took place on October 30, 1974, in the Stade du 20 Mai outdoor coliseum before an enraptured crowd of 62,000, at 3 am. (The odd hour was necessary in order to accommodate American closed-circuit viewers.) In Ali's dressing room, Ferdie Pacheco remembered, a mood of palpable dread prevailed. "The question," he said, "was how much damage would George Foreman do?" The only one who seemed unconcerned was Ali. "I see Sonny Liston glaring at me 10 years ago at Miami Beach," he said, "a fresh, powerful, taller, stronger Liston." Meanwhile, in Foreman's dressing room, wrote Norman Mailer in The Fight, one of his cornermen, former light heavyweight champion Archie Moore, also felt dread. "I was praying," said Moore, "and in great sincerity, that George wouldn't kill Ali. I really felt that was a possibility."
Ali, it developed, proved right. As in the first Liston fight, he took command in the opening moments. He began by bouncing right and left around Foreman, throwing sharp mixes of punches that quickly stymied him. Foreman could hit incredibly hard, but that was part of his problem: Some head blows connected, but rarely with the expected effect; too often he hit air. Moreover, Ali's guard style was now impregnable: He held his forearms and gloves up before his face, forming gates that Foreman couldn't get past but that Ali could break from to land cutting blows over and under Foreman's arms.
In the second round, Ali stole into the scheme he used for much of the rest of the fight: He began leaning back into the ropes, which were stretching from the Zairian heat. It's the last place a fighter is supposed to find himself – a zone that leaves him easy to bludgeon and pick off. Ali's strategy astonished everybody. "We all yelled at him to get off the ropes," Ferdie Pacheco said. Ali later told Playboy, "I decided to go to the ropes and try to get George tired. George didn't do nothin' but attack – that's the only thing he knows." Ali later called the strategy rope-a-dope: The tactic depleted Foreman, while allowing Ali to rest.
By the end of the seventh round, Foreman had largely exhausted his own considerable bulk, until he arrived at that point where stamina and balance might collapse inward, past the recovery of will. It was almost four in the morning. "I'm getting tired," Ali said to trainer Angelo Dundee. "Maybe I'll just knock him out." Dundee replied, "Why don't you go ahead and do that? It might help the situation out." There were 30 seconds left to the eighth round when Foreman hurled a looping swing against Ali on the ropes. Ali sidestepped it, and Foreman blundered, swapping positions with his challenger, as Ali clubbed him with a head-dazing right blow. Foreman tried to steady himself and go after Ali but stumbled into rapid-fire combinations that spun him around like a drunken ballet dancer – punches with enough impact to throw a spray of his sweat across the ring. The force and dexterity of Ali's blows held Foreman upright but, at the same time, tumbled him downward in a dizzy, slow-motion-like crash, full-weight, a helpless giant, insensible. It was the most splendid finish in Ali's career and one of the most magnificent recorded motions of the 20th century. The fight ended in exactly the last second of the eighth round. Years later, in Facing Ali, Foreman said, "Probably the best punch of the night was never landed. Muhammad Ali, as I was going down, stumbling, trying to hold myself, he saw me stumbling…. Ordinarily you finish a fighter off; I would have. He got ready to throw the right hand, and he didn't do it. That's what made him, in my mind, the greatest fighter I ever fought."
Muhammad Ali was once again world champion, seven years after he'd been divested of his rightful title. The Foreman fight sealed his vindication – not just in America but also with an exhilarated reception throughout the world. It had been such an unlikely feat – a myth made palpable. "People like to see miracles," Ali said. "People like to see underdogs that do it. People like to be there when history is made."
Ali had planned to make the Foreman fight his last, but he defended his reclaimed title three more times, before he announced his retirement in June 1975. When a reporter asked, "What about Joe Frazier?" Ali grew bright at the prospect. "Joe Frazier! I want him bad."
Few really expected a great bout when Ali and Frazier met a few months later, for the third and final time; both men were regarded as beyond their prime. But the personal drama between them was incontestable. The bout took place on October 1, 1975, in the Philippines, in Quezon City, outside Manila. Inside the Aranetta Coliseum, temperatures exceeded 110 degrees in the ring. Any doubt that this encounter would be momentous was immediately dispelled. These were combatants at the peak of their purposes, battling not simply for the right to a title but also for historic dominance. Frazier gave Ali the worst beating of his life, slamming his midsection, round after round, with blows meant to send his kidneys and heart into unbearable anguish. After the 10th round, Ali told columnist Jerry Izenberg, seated at ringside, that the ordeal was "the closest thing to death." In Thrilla in Manila, Ferdie Pacheco said, "This is why people get killed in boxing, when the fight becomes more important than life and death."
Ali had often shown amazing recuperative ability in a fight's late stage. In the 13th round, he hit Frazier with a right punch forceful enough to send the rival's mouthpiece flying across the ring to the fifth row of the press section. After the 14th, Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, told Frazier they were quitting. He did not want to see his fighter hurt for life or killed. "No, c'mon, Ed," Frazier protested. "Don't you stop the motherfucking fight." Meanwhile, Ali was telling Angelo Dundee the same thing he'd said at the critical point of his first bout with Liston: "Cut the gloves off!" A friend of Frazier's, sitting by Ali's corner, overheard and tried to signal Frazier, but it was too late. Futch had halted the fight. Ali, hearing he'd won, looked astounded and numb. He stood up, raised his right arm in victory, and collapsed on his back. "Frazier quit just before I did," he said years later.
In the post-fight press conference, Ali said of Frazier, "He is tough. He is a great fighter." Ali made overtures of reconciliation, but Joe never forgave him. Instead, he claimed restitution from the infirmity that Ali has lived with over the years. "I'm proud to let them see how much damage I've done to this man, both mind and body," Frazier has said. "Let them see." Years later, Ali said, "Manila was the greatest fight of my life, but I don't want to look at hell again."
Since then, it's been aftermath – some of it legendary, some heartbreaking. Ali fought 10 more fights after Manila. In February 1978 he lost his title to Leon Spinks, a novice professional. Ali was in torment – the night after the fight, he was running down the street at 2 am, yelling, "Gotta get my title back! Gotta get my title back!" He regained it from Spinks seven months later – the only man to win the world heavyweight championship three times. But by then he was already showing troubling signs: His speech, for one, was turning thick. "They say I slur, but I'm just talking black," he said. He retired in mid-1979, but within months was training for a title match with the new champion, Larry Holmes. He never had a dominant moment in the fight, but he wouldn't drop. Holmes just kept hitting at a man who had the will to die on his feet. Ali fought one more match, with Trevor Berbick, on December 11, 1981. He lost by decision. After 21 years as a professional boxer, he never again entered the ring. He would not have been allowed to; his impairment was now too evident.
"You can overstay your welcome in boxing," George Foreman said in Facing Ali. "You can get physically hurt, wiped out, devastated mentally. Your brain can only take so many shots to the head." Ali was eventually diagnosed at UCLA as having fallen prey to "Parkinson's syndrome secondary to pugilistic brain syndrome" – an outcome that could not be repaired. His mental faculties stayed agile as ever, but his pace became a painful-looking amble, and in time he stopped speaking publicly. A terrible irony had invaded Muhammad Ali's being: He had prided himself, throughout all his years of boxing, on avoiding head blows and facial scars. He instead had allowed fighters to pummel his midsection, his sides and arms, in defiance of the boxing dictum that if you "kill the body, the head will follow." Yet it was likely those body blows, Ferdie Pacheco observed, that helped ruin his nervous system. Ali had absorbed his fears into a physical place where he could withstand them and make them work for him. All along, they were also working against him. Some – Frazier and others – believe that Ali's impediments might be self-willed, if unconsciously: a penance for his elated mistreatment of so many other fighters, or maybe an atonement for his greatest public sin, his renunciation of Malcolm X after Malcolm had helped fortify his nerve to become champion. But this appraisal also implies that Muhammad Ali deserved some sort of comeuppance for his conceit and impertinence, though it was those same qualities that had made him such an electrifying iconoclast.
In William Klein's 1974 film, Muhammad Ali: The Greatest, there's a sequence from just prior to the 1964 fight with Sonny Liston in Miami, in which a camera moves down a line of men who cite Liston as the odds-on winner, in a few rounds at best. The scene moves to black girls on a Miami street, clapping their hands to the beat of grinding rock 'n' roll, chanting "Liston! Liston!" Minutes later, after Clay has won, both young and adult black people surround his car, celebrating him. "Cassius Clay, the greatest man of all time," says one man. In between those two segments, which represent the span of perhaps a day, history changed. Ali demanded respect and warranted it; he wouldn't be refused, no matter the antagonism he met with. In the process he transformed the possibilities of pride, courage, and recognition for many other black people – in athletics, certainly, but also beyond. "One of the reasons that civil rights went forward," television journalist Bryant Gumbel said, "was that black people were able to overcome their fear. And I honestly believe that for many black Americans, that came from watching Muhammad Ali. He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage."
In January 2012, Muhammad Ali turns 70. He has had a long time – nearly half his life – to weigh his past boasts against unknown eternity. "I conquered the world," he has said, "and it didn't bring me true happiness…. Every day is a judgment for me." Still, he knows he has justified his time here. Biographer Hauser told of a moment from 1990 when Ali watched a commentator on TV say of him, "If he had it to do all over, he'd live his life the same way; he'd still choose to be a fighter." Hauser wrote, "Muhammad sat straight up in his chair and said, 'You bet I would.'"
For years Muhammad Ali was history in motion, headed in the right direction, turning the improbable into victories we hadn't thought possible. It couldn't last forever, but to see that it could be done, that was something else. That was hope made flesh, and for longer than anybody expected, it could not be stopped.
Into the Zombie Underworld
I moved to Haiti in the spring of 2007, when my wife found a job with the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission there, established after the fall of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. She was assigned to Jérémie, a small town on Haiti’s southwest coast. Jérémie is just 125 miles or so from Port-au-Prince, but only a dirt road links the two cities, and the trip can take 14 or 15 hours, if the road is passable at all: When the summer rains set in or the fall hurricanes blow through, the road is just mud. The weekly boat to Port-au-Prince is slow and dangerous. Otherwise, the only connection to the capital is by propeller plane.
About a month after I arrived in Jérémie, a rumor swept through town that a deadly zombie was on the loose. This zombie, it was said, could kill by touch alone. The story had enough authority that schools closed. The head of the local secret society responsible for the management of the zombie population was asked to investigate. Later that week, Monsieur Roswald Val, having conducted a presumably thorough inquiry, made an announcement on Radio Lambi: There was nothing to fear; all his zombies were accounted for.
Shortly after that incident, I started taking Creole lessons from a motorcycle-taxi driver named Lucner Delzor. Delzor was married with four children, but he kept a mistress on the other side of town. He told me that he had never so much as drunk a glass of water at his mistress’s house for fear she might lace his food with love powder. He loved his wife and children far too much to risk that.
One of my first complete sentences in Creole was “Gen vréman vre zonbi an Ayiti?” Or: “Are there really, truly zombies in Haiti?”
“Bien sûr,” Delzor said. He had even seen them: affectless men and women with a deathlike pallor, high nasal voices, and the characteristic drooping at the chin – men and women who he knew for a fact had died and been buried.
“Ayiti, se repiblik zonbi,” Delzor added. Haiti is the republic of zombies.
I was eager to meet a zombie for myself, and began making appropriate inquiries. Several weeks later, my wife came home from a judicial conference. Making small talk, a local judicial official mentioned the strange case of zombification that his courtroom had seen not several months before. The case was, he said, “un peu spectaculaire.”
I met Judge Isaac Etienne a week or so later at his unfinished concrete house in the village of Roseaux. Roseaux is on the sea, and the fishermen, their nets already in, were stretched out on the small grassy town square, drinking rum and playing dominoes under a dazzling midmorning sun. The judge was a boyish-looking man of 42, slender, wearing baggy surfer shorts, flip-flops, and a brightly colored Hawaiian shirt.
The dossier was, at bottom, a murder story, the judge said – but it was a murder story with the great oddity that the victim did not die.
Nadathe Joassaint had been, until her death at 26, a native of the village of Joseph, in the third section of the commune of Roseaux, deep in the mountains. Her father was a small farmer; her mother lived in Port-au-Prince, where she worked as a merchant. Nadathe (pronounced na-DAHT) was known for her beauty; had she not been so beautiful, she would have lived. Early in the morning of November 7, 2006, somebody called Nadathe out of her hut. Immediately thereafter, she became ill, then later that night she was dead.
Two months or so later, in mid-January of 2007, Judge Etienne was just finishing breakfast when the huissier of his court announced that a large mob – he estimated the size at more than 100 people – had assembled outside his courtroom, demanding his immediate presence. The crowd was led by Madame Zicot Joassaint, the victim’s mother, who, after several weeks’ manhunt, was bringing to justice the men she claimed were responsible for her daughter’s death.
Judge Etienne was not alarmed by the situation: He was accustomed to crowds arriving at all hours of the day, dragging criminals caught en flagrant délit and demanding justice. The crowd was chanting “Mano, Kriminèl. Mano, Kriminèl.” The mood, the judge recalled, was festive.
In front of the courthouse, two men – Neolién Frankel, known by his nickname, Mano, and Joseph Overne – were sprawled in the dirt. They had both been badly beaten. Mano was young and small, Overne older and larger. Both wore jeans and T-shirts and both had identical looks on their faces, of submission and terror. Judge Etienne opened the courthouse and proceeded to the bench. The dilapidated courtroom was small, and the crowd spilled out into the street. He organized the accused in front of his desk, to his right, and invited the accuser, Madame Zicot, to come forward.
A woman in her mid-60s, her hair in braids, dressed in a neat blue-and-white striped dress, Madame Zicot drew herself up to her full five feet, then leveled one of the few accusations in the criminal code more spectacular than murder.
“Li te mete tifi pam nan zonbi! Remèt li!”
He turned my daughter into a zombie! Give her back!
In 1982, Wade Davis, then a doctoral candidate in ethnobotany at Harvard, traveled to Haiti to explore the secrets of zombification. His work was sponsored by a pharmaceutical company, the supposition being that the zombie’s apparent death was illusory, a transient, paralyzed, coma-like state produced by some sort of poison or chemical agent. Such a poison, Davis’s backers supposed, might very well prove pharmacologically useful as an anesthetic.
Davis’s first book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, is his account of that trip. The book bristles with machismo, in highly wrought prose: “Marcel came so close I could feel his breath, smell it like a buzzard’s. The silence was unbearable, yet only I could break it.” And Davis’s Haitians tend to say things like: “Haiti will teach you that good and evil are one. We never confuse them, nor do we keep them apart.” But for all its bluster, The Serpent and the Rainbow is an admirable book, unfailingly interesting, and at times captures in a single sentence something very much like the Haiti that I came to know: “There in the late afternoon sun was a single individual, quite sane and very happy, standing alone, dancing with his own shadow.”
Such is the book’s narrative power that the author’s conclusions about zombies are almost swept away in the adventurous flood, and it is most likely the novelistic quality of his prose that provoked the ferocity of his critics: Ethnologists, pharmacologists, and old Haiti hands alike responded to the book and its author with a collective “Oh, come on.”
Davis’s second book, Passage of Darkness, is an adaptation of his doctoral thesis on zombification and serves as his response to the critics. It is a book as sober as The Serpent and the Rainbow is overwrought. It demonstrates the value of clear, academic prose, and the importance of the scholarly apparatus – the footnote, citation of sources, the extended bibliography – and has one enormous advantage over The Serpent and the Rainbow: It is convincing. It is the definitive book on zombies.
Davis’s thesis – certainly one of the very most sensational in all of ethnography – goes something like this: Zombies, he tells us, are real, not some figment of the collective Haitian imagination but men and women who have died (or rather who appear to have died), been buried, then brought back to life to pass the rest of their days as imbecile slaves. As proof he cites the case of Clairvius Narcisse, a man whose death certificate was signed by an American doctor in Haiti in 1962, only for him to be found again in his natal village in 1980 with a story to tell of years passed in zombie servitude. Davis shows us a photograph of Narcisse, looking hale, standing beside his own grave.
Davis argues that Narcisse and other zombies do not really die but rather are poisoned with a compound containing tetrodotoxin (TTX), found in the crapaud de mer, a fish swimming off the Haitian coast. (Other ingredients in the zombie powder apparently include human cadavers, a variety of plants, and a toad.) The effect of such a poison is to produce a paralytic state so profound that even medical experts are convinced that the sufferer has expired.
The poison, Davis writes, is always applied “directly into the blood through abraded skin.” At its onset, it is known to cause “malaise, pallor, dizziness,” along with “profuse sweating, extreme weakness, headache, subnormal temperatures, decreased blood pressure, and a rapid, weak pulse.” (Here Davis is quoting Bruce W. Halstead’s Poisonous and Venomous Marine Animals of the World.) This is followed by dilated pupils, glassy fixed eyes, respiratory distress, muscular twitching, and “finally terminates in extensive paralysis.… The victim may become comatose but in most cases retains consciousness.”
The victim, having “died,” is buried, and the zombiemakers return in the night. The tomb is opened. The victim, now in the custody of his new masters, is returned to life.
But TTX alone does not make a zombie. TTX is the same poison found in the deadly Japanese fugu fish, whose sushi is a great delicacy. Every year, several gourmand fools, having eaten improperly prepared sushi, fall victim to TTX poisoning, and upon their resuscitation, if they survive, are normal.
Not so the Haitian zombie.
The Haitian zombie, Davis argues, is the product of a series of terrifying experiences, all specific to the cultural context of rural Haiti. First comes the overwhelming trauma of having been buried alive. Clairvius Narcisse reported total lucidity through the entire ordeal. Upon removal from the coffin, the would-be zombie is fed a hallucinogenic drug from the plant Datura stramonium, locally known by the suggestive name concombre zombi. At the same time, the victim is given a ferocious beating by his captors. The final touch is the total rejection of the zombie by his own community. The cumulative effect is the destruction of the zombie’s will – what the Haitians call the “ti bon ange,” or the good little angel, the unseen thing that gives personality and resolve to each individual soul. The victim is now a zombie, and he knows he is now a zombie: He has fallen into a well-known trap from which no man or woman escapes.
His soul collapses.
The zombie is now like a living corpse.
A precise transcription of judge etienne’s interrogations of Mano and Overne does not exist, but he took notes in French summarizing their statements, which were made in Creole. The judge allowed me to copy these from his private notebooks.
Judge Etienne began with Mano. “Is it true that you are a sorcerer and responsible for the death of Nadathe? How do you reply to this accusation?”
Mano: “Monsieur le Juge, I have for a long time courted Nadathe – but being engaged to a man she loves, she has never hesitated to respond to my entreaties, calling me a trivial man.… In order to avenge this insult, I went to the house of my superior, Joseph Overne, the man who initiated me as a sorcerer, with the aim of deciding what punishment to give her. We decided to kill Nadathe by one of our fetishistic procedures.”
The judge told me that Mano spoke softly, with what the court’s clerk later described as an air of sadness and regret – as if the whole nasty business had just slipped out of control. He began to cry.
He paused, then continued: “Overne was more competent than me in the composition of these powders, particularly the powder by which Nadathe was killed. This powder, on account of its rapidity and power, is sometimes compared to the speed of thunder: poud loraj, or ‘storm powder.’ When we had completed the composition of this powder, I placed it in the middle of the little path where Nadathe passed every morning. Then I called her. I was three meters away from her. I saw her coming toward me. She said, ‘What do you want, Mano? What’s going on? Why are you calling me?’ But for the magic of this trap to work, I was not able to respond.”
Mano looked around the room. This was a point on which he was insistent. His voice was choked. “I could not respond!” he said.
“I kept my silence, and Nadathe went up the path to the church, where her youth prayer group was meeting. At this moment, the outcome was decided.… Several hours later, she gave up the ghost.”
A cry rang out in the small rural courthouse: “We have found the criminals! They killed Nadathe!” and the crowd exploded. Madame Zicot began to weep, and even the judge himself was forced to stand up and walk outside to wipe the tears from his face. Only after several minutes did he bring the proceedings back to order.
“The body was buried at 5 pm Friday,” Mano said. “By 9 pm we were in possession of her zombie. The next day, Saturday, we held a meeting of our band of sorcerers.… We decided to take the zombie to Chardonette, passing by the village of Carrefour Charles. But we were held back there and forbidden passage by the chief sorcerer of Carrefour Charles. According to the rules governing occult societies, we needed to have a laissez-passer signed by the departmental chief, allowing us to transport the zombie. As a result, the zombie of Nadathe was seized. Not having the appropriate papers, we went back home, empty-handed – for this was an act we had performed without the approval of our chief. We had thought we could take the zombie as contraband, without papers! But this, unfortunately, did not bear fruit.… Now the zombie can be found in the hands of the chief of Carrefour Charles, Madame Precieuse St. Louis.”
Article 246 of the haitian legal code explicitly condemns zombification, specifically the “use of substances whereby a person is not killed but reduced to a state of lethargy, more or less prolonged…. If, following the state of lethargy the person is buried, then the attempt will be termed murder.”
But Judge Etienne did not believe that Article 246 applied to either Mano or Overne. These men, he reasoned, had confessed to employing magical means to zombify Nadathe, not a “substance,” and there is no provision in the Haitian legal code for the punishment of sorcery. Judge Etienne told me that he had no choice but to release the men – much to his displeasure.
He was convinced, though, that the men had transformed Nadathe into a zombie, knew where the zombie was, and could help Madame Zicot get her daughter back. For this reason, having held the men in his home for two days, very early in the morning of Sunday, January 21, 2007, he gave the accused back to the leaders of the mob, who headed up the mountains in the direction of Carrefour Charles.
Several hours later, the judge received a series of urgent phone calls from that village. The situation had become tense. By the time Judge Etienne was able to get to Carrefour Charles, he found the men he had released that morning on the front porch of Madame Precieuse St. Louis, the accused sorceress. Witnesses said the men looked like they had sustained another beating. Madame Precieuse had barricaded herself in her home.
Judge Etienne spent 15 minutes or so talking with Madame Precieuse, asking her if she knew the whereabouts of the zombie. She categorically denied any knowledge of the incident.
The intensity of the crowd made further discussions untenable. Judge Etienne ordered both Mano and Overne arrested and took Madame Precieuse into custody as well – for her own protection, he said. All three were transported to the central prison in Jérémie. Four days later, Judge Etienne ordered Madame Precieuse freed. Mano and Overne remained in jail for almost two months, charged with a crime that doesn’t exist – “sortilege,” or sorcery. Then both men were released as well, on the orders of a higher judicial authority in Jérémie. Within days they were back in Joseph, where the local population hacked the men to death with machetes.
Over the course of the next year, i visited joseph, Nadathe Joassaint’s village, at least a dozen times, usually traveling with my Creole teacher, Delzor. Joseph, a place of spectacular, claustrophobic beauty, was accessible only by foot. I spoke with Nadathe’s cousins, her sisters and brother, her friends, and her father, but it was only after almost a year of research that I finally found Nadathe’s mother, Madame Zicot Joassaint. (Madame Zicot was born Enette Paul but as per Haitian custom is known by her husband’s first name.) After I met her, I realized that Nadathe’s life, like her death, had been, after its own fashion, extraordinary.
Nadathe Joassaint was born in Joseph on June 6, 1980, the fourth of five children. The geographical center of the village is a dilapidated church, which doubles as the elementary school. Other landmarks include the cockfighting ring, a small shrine to Baron Samedi (the Lord of the Dead), and a spreading mango tree notable for the quality of the cell phone reception in its shade, within sight of the unmarked grave where Mano and Overne are buried. Otherwise the village sprawls: little tin-roofed house, fence, and garden after little tin-roofed house, fence, and garden. It is not quite one of the poorest places in the Americas, if only because of the coffee trees – coffee being a cash crop – but it’s close: There is no electricity, and the nearest water source is the river, about a kilometer down the slope of a mountain.
When Nadathe was 14, Madame Zicot left her husband and moved to Port-au-Prince, taking Nadathe and the other children with her. There was no school in Joseph beyond the elementary grades, and Madame Zicot saw Nadathe’s intelligence and ambition, saw a child who loved beautiful things and wanted them. Madame Zicot foresaw nothing for her daughters in Joseph but a lifetime of carrying water from the river up the big hill. Madame Zicot, working first as a domestic servant, then in the market, would eventually find the means to buy her own tiny cement house in a twisting warren of tiny cement houses, all with a dramatic view over Port-au-Prince to the sea.
The move to the city did just what her mother hoped it would: It transformed the village girl into a self-sufficient, sophisticated young woman. The girls left behind in Joseph talked about Nadathe and gossiped about her and wanted to be just like her. Nadathe wore beautiful, chic clothes, which she paid for with money she earned in the market. If life in the city and hard work hadn’t made Nadathe rich, exactly, it had made her something equally rare in rural Haiti: It had made her free.
When she was 20, Nadathe returned to Joseph on vacation and went to a kompa dance in a nearby village. Ordinarily she’d rather have been working than dancing, her mother told me. But she went to this dance and there met her future fiancé, Ascqué Neville, 10 years or so older than her, very handsome, and very kind. He had a thick mustache, heavy shoulders, deeply inset melancholy eyes, and a shy demeanor, perhaps on account of his slight stutter. Ascqué followed Nadathe to Port-au-Prince and found work as a mechanic. They lived together in a little house of their own, not far from Madame Zicot.
I was able to find a few photographs of Nadathe. One shows her standing on the steps of a concrete house, about a year before she died. It must be in Port-au-Prince: There are no houses like this in Joseph, not with glass windows and cast-iron railings. She is light-skinned – people said she was as light as a blan, but in truth about the color of Barack Obama, another thing that gave her that air of big-city, faraway glamour. She is wearing sunglasses, a stylish blue jacket over a white dress, and sensible pumps. A small handbag dangles from the tips of her fingers: This might be a churchgoing outfit, a supposition consonant with her well-known piety.
Another photograph, which she had given to a relative, was passport-size and shows a teenage girl, self-conscious but nevertheless wholly self-confident, her chin balanced on a carefully posed forearm. On the back, Nadathe wrote in French, in a girlish cursive: “May this birthday be filled with those beautiful little photos that gladden the heart!” Then in English: “I Love you!”
In the spring of 2006, Nadathe returned to joseph for an extended vacation. She had been working hard for years and was exhausted. Ascqué Neville’s mother suggested that she come back to the village, where her fatigue could be treated with an herbal preparation. The treatment was successful, but Nadathe was in no hurry to return to Port-au-Prince.
Sometime in the fall, Nadathe attended a voodoo dance. In the course of the evening, Mano made a pass at Nadathe’s younger cousin. She pushed him away and cursed him, calling him a “vòlè bèf” – a cattle thief. Mano hit her.
Nadathe stepped forward, pushed Mano backward – she was a large, strong young woman.
Nadathe shouted to be heard above the din of the drums and the cries of those possessed by the gods: “A man like you, how dare you love a little girl like that! How dare you beat her! She’s a child!”
Mano was furious. He called Nadathe a whore, and then one of the most vulgar of all Creole insults: pitit, or a woman who has aborted her child. (This is a common Creole insult and does not imply that Nadathe had ever, in fact, had an abortion.)
“I’d rather be a whore, I’d rather have aborted my child, than be a cattle thief like you,” Nadathe said.
He said, “If you’re not dead Monday, you’ll be dead Tuesday.”
On that Monday, Nadathe spoke with her mother in Port-au-Prince. Nadathe told her mother just how successful the herbal treatment was, how much better she felt. She advised her mother to come down to Joseph to undergo the same treatment. It was decided: Madame Zicot would come down in December. This was the last time Madame Zicot spoke with her daughter.
Tuesday morning, very early: Sometimes the clearest, hottest days are in hurricane season, as huge storm systems brewing over the Atlantic suck up the local weather, leaving behind only clear blue skies and sharp yellow light. Nadathe dressed herself in a white T-shirt and skirt and wandered down to the pathway in front of the house, still stretching. She came back to the house a few minutes later, looking dazed. She told her sister Dina that Mano had been waiting for her in the path below. Nadathe had said, “Mano, what do you want?” Mano had touched her, on her shoulder, hard, and walked away. Nadathe then did something absolutely atypical: The energetic, industrious young woman went back to bed and slept until noon. She woke up and went to a prayer meeting at the church, where she complained again of fatigue, a vague but powerful sensation of feeling unwell – and an unusual sadness. That evening, Nadathe headed to the house of a Madame Manuel. She had promised to spend the evening with her in prayer.
The next morning, very early, Madame Manuel sent urgent word to the Joassaint family: Nadathe died in the night.
Madame Zicot was in Port-au-Prince when she heard the news about her daughter.
“They called me on Wednesday morning,” Madame Zicot later said. “I said, Put an iron on her stomach so I can find her like she died. They told me that Mano killed Nadathe. I said, Mano is going to regret that; she’s the only child Mano will kill. I’d rather have lost four cows, if I had them – even if I had only one cow, I’d rather he’d taken it – than kill my child.”
She arrived in Joseph just after nightfall on Thursday. Her husband’s little house was full of people: Some prayed; women made coffee. Others beat drums, and still others danced. Men played cards and dominoes. Nadathe lay in her elegant, expensive coffin, while paid mourners chanted canticles.
By Friday morning, Nadathe’s body began to smell. The villagers carried Nadathe’s coffin along the steep mountain trails to the village of Grand Vincent, where Nadathe was buried in the Neville family tomb, beside Ascqué’s father.
I later saw the graveyard and tomb where Nadathe was buried. The graves were unmarked. Goats tethered between tombstones munched placidly at the high grass. The cement closing Nadathe’s tomb was chipped and loose, but I saw no clear signs that the grave had been disturbed.
About a week after nadathe’s burial, Madame Zicot received a message from her cousin, Madame Precieuse St. Louis. Madame Precieuse asked Madame Zicot to visit her in Carrefour Charles. Relations between the cousins were never close, and since Madame Zicot moved to Port-au-Prince they had grown only more distant – a wave as the autobus from Port-au-Prince rumbled through Carrefour Charles, or a few words now and again. But Madame Zicot knew that her cousin was a well-known mambo, or sorceress. It was said that Madame Precieuse could fly, and that she could transform herself into a bat, and that she could transform her enemies into animals as well. And, like Mano, she was dyab – a member of a secret society.
When Madame Zicot arrived at her cousin’s trim little cottage on the side of the highway, Madame Precieuse wasn’t there. Her husband, Fleuris St. Louis, a local politician, explained that his wife had gone to buy a pig to kill. Then finally she came home, a short, round, balding woman with the habit of lifting her shirt and displaying to all and sundry who visit her little house the hysterectomy scar cleaving her neatly in two.
The two women made the small talk of the bereft for a few minutes. Madame Precieuse saw Nadathe just a few days before she died, coming back from the market in Beaumont. Sharp-tongued as ever, the young woman had teased her mother’s cousin: They were in the same family, Nadathe had said, but thank God Madame Precieuse was the only bald one!
Then, Madame Zicot later told me, Madame Precieuse got down to business:
First, she said, Nadathe was still alive. She had been zombified. But because she was so young, the secret societies that controlled zombification would not take her zombie into their ranks.
Madame Precieuse continued: If Madame Zicot wanted her daughter back, she was to pressure Mano, beat him if necessary, to convince him to give Nadathe back to her.
Madame Precieuse told Madame Zicot to treat what she told her with the utmost confidentiality.
Nothing in Madame Precieuse’s words suggested to Madame Zicot that Nadathe might have been in her custody. So when Madame Zicot finally found Mano two months later and dragged him and his accomplice down to Judge Etienne’s courtroom, doing just what her cousin suggested, pressuring him to release the zombie, and he finally confessed, nobody could have been more stunned than Madame Zicot to hear the claim that Madame Precieuse – her own cousin! – had the zombie in her possession all along.
When I spoke with Madame Precieuse, she showed me her hysterectomy scar and the Protestant church where she worships, but she told me that she had nothing to do with voodoo, nothing to do with zombies, nothing to do with magic, and nothing to do with Nadathe Joassaint. This may or may not be true, but that’s what she told me.
In the absence of more information from Madame Precieuse, it’s necessary to reconstruct the events from the statements of others and their claims of what transpired. According to Mano’s testimony, he and Overne were passing through Carrefour Charles with Nadathe’s zombie when they encountered Madame Precieuse, who demanded to see their travel documents. (Madame Zicot thinks Madame Precieuse must have approached them because she recognized Nadathe.) Every zombie is made only with the official approbation of the secret society; lacking these documents, the zombie is illicit. (These documents do exist: I was later able to examine a zombie laissez-passer.) Nadathe had no documents. This gave Madame Precieuse grounds to seize the zombie, as she was a great queen within the society, hierarchically superior to Mano and Overne.
But, assuming the story to be true, seizing the zombie would have put Madame Precieuse in a very difficult position, for the rules of the secret society were strict. I later discussed this with various members of the society, who explained to me that Madame Precieuse no more had the appropriate documents to possess and transport a zombie than Mano and Overne did, and by holding the zombie she would risk the harsh punishment of the law and the wrath of other sorcerers. Madame Precieuse might even have feared that she might be zombified herself, for having held the zombie illegally. Thus she apparently conceived her plan: to convince Mano to take Nadathe back to her mother, without ever admitting any involvement in this affair.
But that plan seems to have gone doubly awry. First, Madame Zicot revealed the private conversation between the two cousins to Judge Etienne, thus involving Madame Precieuse with the judicial system. Then, Mano did what no member of a secret society should ever do: He spoke publicly of the “affairs of the night.”
When Judge Etienne arrested Madame Precieuse, relations between the two cousins were ruptured. Madame Precieuse blamed her cousin for her disgrace and humiliation – and Madame Zicot’s best chance for recovering her daughter’s zombie was lost.
For obvious reasons, the ethnographic literature on the secret societies of Haiti is thin. The best source is a single chapter in Michel Laguerre’s 1989 book Voodoo and Politics in Haiti. The societies, Laguerre argues, are a legacy of colonial Haiti – modern-day descendants of bands of escaped slaves. Nowadays, these secret societies have evolved into something of a cross, in Laguerre’s telling, between Cosa Nostra and the Rotary Club: They are violent when necessary but devoted au fond to the cause of justice.
Laguerre offers a portrait of daily life in the society known as the Bizango. There is, he says, a complicated process of recruitment, an initiation ceremony, a period of hazing consisting of nasty jobs like cleaning other members’ outhouses, then another ceremony to welcome the full-fledged members involving, Laguerre says, drinking pig’s blood. The societies meet regularly at night and march around wearing spooky-looking clothes and singing spooky-sounding songs. (“Be careful about what you might say / When we organize a Bizango rally / We don’t wish for people to start talking about our / Songs and dances, the morning after” – but it’s way creepier-sounding in Creole.)
For all of the ritual, Laguerre emphasizes, these societies are not well organized. Rivalries between different bands are intense and often result in fights. Prominent sorcerers and magicians will often be members of several societies simultaneously, and an up-and-coming sorcerer might found his own band in a bid to attract power. The secret societies are as chaotic and ill-organized as all Haitian institutions.
In the course of his research on zombies, Wade Davis himself was initiated into the Bizango in a lurid midnight ceremony. He has drawn on Laguerre’s work and his own observations to draw two important – and somewhat terrifying – conclusions.
Davis argues that these secret societies have been intensely involved in the governance of Haiti. During the reign of the Duvaliers, when Davis conducted his research, the president of a local secret society was very often the Chef de Section of the same community, in addition to serving as the priest of a large and powerful voodoo temple. The president of Haiti no longer appoints the Chefs de Section, but important elected officials are still, today, often well-placed members of secret societies. These societies control large swaths of rural Haiti.
Second, Davis argues that these societies enforce their power through zombification. Generally, those who are zombified are only zombified after a quasi-judicial proceeding, the zombie having been accused of committing some crime against the community. Clairvius Narcisse, for example, was zombified on account of his failure to support his illegitimate children. Zombification is not the only punishment the secret societies can inflict, but in rural Haiti it is the ultimate sanction, more dramatic even than death. The fear of zombification, Davis argues, is absolutely central to the social system of rural Haiti.
One example will suffice.
I asked Judge Etienne why he released Madame Precieuse from prison. He hemmed and hawed a moment, then admitted: “The state in Haiti ignores the persecution of these secret societies. We need to defend ourselves. I was afraid.”
On the same day that Mano, Overne, and Madame Precieuse were arrested, rumor spread through the town of Roseaux that Nadathe’s zombie was being transported from Carrefour Charles. Crowds milled about town and waited outside the home of an ambitious young sorcerer, Predieu Dorval. Then members of the local secret society came out on the streets and told the people to disperse. Still, Madame Zicot says witnesses told her that they saw Nadathe arrive at Dorval’s house. They said she was wearing a white sheet, her hair long against her neck.
Dorval later told me that he was never in possession of Nadathe’s zombie. He did admit, though, that he promised to return Nadathe to her mother and accepted from her 5,000 gourdes, or about $130 – what the average Haitian might make in three or four months – to effect various herbal and spiritual treatments intended to restore the young woman’s right state of mind. Finally, after more than a week, Dorval told Madame Zicot that he lacked the unilateral authority to liberate Nadathe and called on Monsieur Roswald Val, the president of the largest secret society in the region, to organize a meeting at which Nadathe’s fate would be decided.
Sorcerers from as far away as Port-au-Prince met on the Place Roseaux, the grassy town square overlooking the transparent green sea, a hundred meters or so from Judge Etienne’s home. This was a gathering of presidents, emperors, and queens, each accompanied by their secretaries – 32 men and women in all. Normally such a meeting was a private affair, but this afternoon Ascqué Neville and his brother, Louis Jean, were allowed to attend, in deference to the pressing urgency of their claim. The brothers contributed three bottles of the best rum in Haiti, Barbancourt Cinq Étoiles, to a table laden with every kind of drink: beer, clairin, and Coca-Cola. Finally the drunken sorcerers brought to order the business of Nadathe. The Neville brothers had not realized the proposal to return her to her family would be so controversial. There was talk of the repercussions of such a decision: The society would lose its fearsome reputation; the zombies, knowing now that their condition was not final, might revolt.
Yet there were those sympathetic to Nadathe and her plight. This was the faction led by Monsieur Val. Nadathe had done nothing, he reminded the others, and neither had her family. At one point, the nervous Ascqué Neville was given the opportunity to speak. He said, “I need my wife so that I can marry her. I need her quickly,” and began to cry.
His tears won over the majority, and although no conclusive decision was reached on Nadathe’s fate that day, there were only muted objections when Monsieur Val asked Dorval his price to give Ascqué back his fiancée. According to the Neville brothers, Dorval later negotiated in private with them for Nadathe’s return, agreeing that the family would pay another 5,000 gourdes – a claim Dorval denies.
Over and over again, according to Madame Zicot and Ascqué Neville, Dorval promised to give back the zombie, each promise sparking a renewed hope, followed inevitably by a crush of disappointment. They say that Dorval failed to attend meetings, invented excuses not to return Nadathe. Then Dorval simply refused to come out of his house altogether.
Madame Zicot then went to visit Monsieur Val, in Jérémie, where she sat with him in his study. But the powers of even the president of the society are limited. The societies are not strictly hierarchical, and Monsieur Val lacked the authority to command another member. Or perhaps he simply didn’t want to. Whatever the case, Madame Zicot says he told her, “Madame, do not say yet that your child is lost. Go to the Parquet.”
Madame Zicot followed that advice and visited the Parquet, or the higher judicial authority in Jérémie, again availing herself of the authority of the state. This decision would prove disastrous, for it gave that faction of the secret society who opposed Nadathe’s release an overwhelming argument: Nadathe’s release was only possible if done secretly, quietly, discreetly.
An official in the Parquet’s office instructed Madame Zicot to return to Judge Etienne and ask him for her daughter’s dossier – the transcript of Mano’s and Overne’s confessions. Madame Zicot did as instructed. But the once-helpful Judge Etienne was distinctly less helpful now. He refused to give her the dossier, would not entertain her pleas. He was abrupt: “The state knows nothing about the devil’s business. I judge the day and not the night.”
Madame Zicot now suffered the deepest panic a mother of a missing child can feel: She had no idea where to turn next.
She went back to Monsieur Val. His manner was grave. He told Madame Zicot that the society had held another meeting. The affair had been concluded. Another sorceress, a woman named Ti Soeur, had given a definitive veto to Madame Zicot’s plea.
At that meeting, Ti Soeur said, “This business has too many echoes. Moun ki mouri mouri nét.” The dead are dead for good.
Madame Zicot had been so close – that was the worst thing of all. She told me that she spent the next year and a half in a maddening and futile attempt to find Nadathe. To this very day, she still hears rumors. The most painful one was this: that Nadathe had had a baby. Some said that she was in northern Haiti, or in the Artibonite Valley. People meaning well enough told her that they had heard that Nadathe was dead, dead in the definitive sense of the word, that Madame Zicot should grieve and put her heart at rest.
Madame Zicot became certain that the secret societies were now actively impeding her progress. One night she had a meeting with a guide who promised to help her find Nadathe, but that evening, she says, a mystical sleep sent by her enemies came over her. She couldn’t wake up, and the opportunity was lost.
She hadn’t given up hope entirely. A story from the north of Haiti cheered her. There, an old sorcerer died and his children, having been converted to Protestantism, released his zombie slaves.
But there were times when hope flagged. She once tried to sell Nadathe’s clothes. She took them to her cousin Margaret’s house and began to weep. Margaret said, “The tears still haven’t finished in your eyes.” And Madame Zicot said, “No, the Good Lord still hasn’t given me to forget.”
I am not wealthy by American standards, but this article will probably pay me more than Madame Zicot could hope to earn in a decade. I wondered whether this money would not be sufficient to buy Nadathe’s freedom, if she were still alive. Strip the story of its exoticism – replace the word “zombified” with “poisoned, kidnapped, drugged, and enslaved” – and you have a brutal crime. To profit from her enslavement, not having done all I could to liberate her, seemed to me to cross that narrow frontier that separates curiosity from exploitation.
So I arranged a meeting with Monsieur Val. I wanted to buy Nadathe’s zombie.
Monsieur Val is 58 years old, stick-thin, the father of 21, the son of the former president of his large and powerful secret society, and the father of the likely next president of the same secret society. In his office, visible through a curtain, there was a human skull on the table, next to a foul-smelling poudre d’amour. But my eye was attracted to Monsieur Val’s collection of plastic fruit, ceramic figurines, and teddy bears. One teddy bear wore a tiny T-shirt that read kiss me. i’m irish.
I said, “Monsieur Val, Nadathe Joassaint is worth nothing to anyone as a slave in the mountains. If we can bring her back and give her to her mother, she’s much more valuable – because I can write about her.”
Our conversation here detoured to the concept of being paid by the word. The general gist of Madame Zicot’s story had convinced me that no appeal on humanitarian grounds was likely to be successful in obtaining Nadathe’s liberty and would only arouse suspicion. So I made Monsieur Val the following offer: If he succeeded in obtaining Nadathe’s zombie, I would give him every dollar earned on every word I wrote about her rescue. Monsieur Val agreed. The search began, naturally enough, with Madame Precieuse, and arrived about four months later at the mountain bungalow of a man whom I will call Monsieur H.
I met with Monsieur H. accompanied by Monsieur Val’s son, Estime, who represents his father in dealings far from Jérémie.
I explained my proposal to Monsieur H. He was a mustachioed man in his early 50s, I reckon. He chain-smoked menthol cigarettes and played idly with a deck of tarot cards as I spoke.
When I finished he said, “I have never had a blan here in my home before. I would before today have never – jamais, jamais, jamais! – discussed these matters with a blan. Because your ancestors are not my ancestors!”
He looked at me for a long time.
“Mais…,” he finally said. Then he said something fast in Creole, the only words of which I understood were Barack Obama.
Monsieur H. told me that the election of Obama had made him realize that blan were not the racist, venal, cruel creatures he had always imagined. This was about two weeks after the election.
He looked at me. His eyes were limned with a tracery of fine red veins.
“Did you vote for Barack Obama?” he asked.
Monsieur H. came so close I could feel his breath, smell it like a buzzard’s. The silence was unbearable, yet only I could break it.
“Of course,” I finally said.
This was not actually true – I had in fact forgotten to file my absentee ballot – but I probably would have voted for Obama had I voted.
Monsieur H. smiled.
“Bien,” he said. “Très bien.”
Monsieur H. told me that he was responsible for giving zombies laissez-passer throughout this zone of the Grand’ Anse. All zombies who passed in or out of this region were required to come to his house and obtain the appropriate documents. According to Monsieur H., some months after Madame Precieuse’s arrest, Predieu Dorval came to his house with Nadathe’s zombie – a claim Dorval denies. Monsieur H. gave Dorval a laissez-passer to transport Nadathe onward. Monsieur H. told me that he saw Nadathe with his own eyes. Nadathe could now be found in the house of her new master, which, Monsieur H. said, was not far from where we were at that moment. If I wished to find Nadathe, Monsieur H. was willing to organize – at my expense – a large meeting of the secret society to discuss the proposal. He felt that my chances of success were good.
I agreed to his terms.
Because I was white, I was not allowed to attend the meeting. So Estime Val, with whom I had formed a friendship, was there to represent my interests, as was my Creole instructor Delzor, who though not a member of the society was allowed to attend the daytime sessions of the meeting. (The midnight sessions were limited only to initiates.)
I remained in contact by cell phone with Delzor for the next three days as the negotiations proceeded. I learned that the members of the society did not refer to one another by name, but only by number. Monsieur 17 was in possession of Nadathe’s zombie. At first, Monsieur 17 was absolutely opposed to her release.
“I’ll kill her before I give her up,” he said.
But a few hours later, Delzor called back. The tide had shifted. Monsieur 17 was no longer threatening to kill Nadathe. Now he was asking precisely what I would do with Nadathe if they gave her back to me.
I had in fact prepared for these questions. In Port-au-Prince, I had found an organization, associated with an evangelical church group, that worked to rehabilitate zombies. I spoke with a pastor there, who had intervened in many cases of liberated zombies, sometimes after years of bondage. He told me that a healthy diet, medical treatment, familial affection, and prayer were almost always sufficient to return a zombie to proper health.
Over the course of the next two days, I could feel Delzor’s patience beginning to fray. Each of the sorcerers was frightened of the others, he said, and only dared proceed with Nadathe’s liberation if there was consensus in their decisions. Although each of these sorcerers was a member of the same society, they were also heads of their own smaller societies. And each of these societies, in turn, required unanimity before consenting to Nadathe’s release. It was a decision-making structure guaranteed to fail.
Slowly, my hopes of winning Nadathe’s freedom began to slip away.
The sticking point in the negotiations was the general fear that Nadathe or Madame Zicot would return to the justice system after Nadathe’s release. Madame Zicot, after all, had gone to court twice so far. Now Monsieur 17 was frightened that Nadathe, returned to full possession of her faculties, would remember who he was and where he could be found.
I could not figure out a way to overcome this problem. I had spoken with Madame Zicot not long before and she had assured me that she had no intention of going to court – she had only visited Judge Etienne initially in the hopes of obtaining her daughter. Through Estime Val, I tried to convince Monsieur 17 that the justice system itself would have little interest in pursuing the case, given the reputation of the society. But Monsieur 17 reminded me that Madame Precieuse had certainly not been immune, and she had paid very dearly.
The sorcerers were by then very drunk. They went home. There was another meeting. Some sorcerers who had opposed freeing Nadathe now wished to free her; some who had supported freeing Nadathe had thought things over and decided it wasn’t a good idea.
And that, more or less, was that.
I thought of going to court myself. But I was too frightened. Not for myself: As I write this, I’m far from Jérémie. But I was frightened that if the court got involved, Monsieur 17 would straightaway kill Nadathe and bury her in some remote corner. Or worse: Some members of the society had already accused Delzor of a kind of race-treason, representing a white man in these dealings. I was worried that if I went to Judge Etienne, they would turn Delzor into a zombie too.
You either believe in zombies, or you don’t.
For my part, I believe that a young woman named Nadathe Joassaint was poisoned, buried alive, stolen from her grave, drugged, transported, and enslaved. I believe that she is alive to this day and in the possession of a man I know only as Monsieur 17, in a region of the Grand’ Anse I feel better not naming in print.
But I don’t know any of this.
Some people see this whole story as an infectious case of mass delusion. To this way of looking at things, Mano and Overne murdered Nadathe and then invented the outlandish story, thus ensnaring an innocent woman, Madame Precieuse. The secret societies took advantage of a mother’s desperation to fleece an easy mark. When I arrived, they took advantage of me in the same fashion.
I found only one witness willing to testify to having seen Nadathe as a zombie, and even I would admit that Monsieur H. was not entirely credible. On the other hand, I found dozens of witnesses to Nadathe’s funeral, people who had seen Nadathe’s lifeless corpse. And, of course, the fact that nobody would produce the zombie for either Madame Zicot or me speaks for itself.
I’ll allow the reader to decide the facts for himself.
But I do have one last piece of evidence.
About 22 months after Nadathe was buried, Ascqué Neville, her fiancé, told me that he had begun to entertain doubts about the whole story. Perhaps Nadathe never came home simply because – because she was dead, dead and in her grave. The simplest way to find Nadathe, he reckoned, would be to go back to the last place he had seen her. So he decided to break open her tomb and look inside. Sometime in September 2008, he did just that.
Her coffin was empty.
Will the West Survive?
Something looked off when I landed at Denver International Airport this past August. It had been about four years since my last visit, and I couldn’t immediately put my finger on what was up. I bought a coffee, glanced at the ‘Denver Post,’ and wandered out into the main terminal, with its silly bedouin design, the domed white ceiling looking as flimsy and tarplike as ever. It wasn’t until I was outside, riding in the shuttle bus to my rental car, that it struck me what had changed: The Rocky Mountains had vanished.
“Oh, yeah,” the shuttle-bus driver confirmed. “We haven’t been able to see them from the airport for about a month.” Colorado had been experiencing its hottest summer on record. In Denver, temperatures would hit 90 degrees or higher on 73 days, shattering the previous record of 61 days set in 2000. (The summer average over the past 30 years has been only 33 days.) Haze from the heat, along with lingering smoke from the wildfires that had been ravaging much of the West – including the 18,000-acre Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs – had conspired to erase metropolitan Denver’s spectacular horizon. If you squinted and the light was just right, you could make out faint outlines of the Rockies’ Front Range, looking like a tentative art-school etching, begun and then inexplicably abandoned.
Record-breaking heat waves, a fire season run amok, sustained levels of drought unseen since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s: Throughout the summer of 2012, the weather came on like a grudge, as spiteful and relentless as an Old Testament plague. It was the hottest July ever in the United States, and the third-hottest summer in the history of the country. By September, 7 million acres had burned across the U.S.: 600,000 acres in Nevada; 144,000 in Idaho; 650,000 in Montana. The record for worst fire year in U.S. history had only just been set in 2006 (9.8 million acres burned), but it’s likely that 2012 will surpass that number. In July, in Guthrie, Oklahoma, thermometers hit 114 degrees, breaking the previous record set in 1896. By August, 63 percent of the country was experiencing drought conditions, drying up wells across the Midwest. On a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, feral horses started dropping dead; horse-rescue organizations around the country couldn’t handle the spike in business. Down in Texas, where the previous summer’s drought had prompted an unprecedented cattle drive north – thinning the state’s 5-million-head herd by 12 percent – an unusually mild winter (even by Texas standards) had allowed plague-carrying mosquitoes to survive and flourish, resulting in an outbreak of West Nile virus that killed at least 77 people.
In Alamogordo, New Mexico, Bonito Lake, which provided water for the city, was declared a FEMA disaster site after being polluted with more than 40 feet of ash and silt from the Little Bear fire, “the odor of charred trees and rotting fish permeat[ing] the air,” according to a July news report. Rivers in New Mexico and Colorado turned black from ash runoff, so threatening the endangered Gila trout that environmentalists had to transport the fish to hatcheries after stunning them with electric shocks.
The governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency in July after 25 people died from heat-related causes; by August, 93 percent of the state was considered in “extreme” drought, battering corn growers and cattle ranchers. On a single day in July, the Department of Agriculture declared a state of emergency in more than a thousand counties in 26 states, the largest such designation in the history of the USDA. In an op-ed in the ‘New York Times’, a trio of scientists, noting that the Northern Hemisphere had just celebrated its “327th consecutive month in which the temperature exceeded the 20th-century average,” warned of the possibility of a decades-long “megadrought” that would fundamentally change the American West. “Climate model projections,” they wrote, “suggest that what we consider today to be an episode of severe drought might even be classified as a period of abnormal wetness [italics mine] by the end of the century.”
National temperature maps began to resemble nasty scabs: the bloodiest reds in the center, turning various bruised shades of purple and pink as the color indexing radiated outward, becoming fleshiest at the coastal fringes. My mother called from Michigan right before my Colorado trip. A neighbor up in the Thumb had just rung her to say the fish in their pond, which is about 40 feet across, had all died. Apparently the heat got them, too.
A cliché began to circulate when people spoke of the extreme weather plaguing much of the United States: It might be a “new normal,” sober commentators warned. Where had this term come from? Its popularity seemed yoked to its widespread malaise-era U.S. applicability, from unemployment numbers and outsourced jobs to shrunken pensions and austerity-hobbled local governments. Get used to the new normal, fuckers – it’s going to suck! The new normal never seemed to refer to anything remotely desirable (delicious new ice cream flavors, say, or an unexplained barrage of suggestive text messages from Norah Jones) and now had extended its reach to the very elements: fire and drought and triple-digit heat waves. I wondered how the citizens of the West would adapt. Would they calmly dig in their boots like the pioneers of yore? Or had they already started bugging out?
And would this new normal mean life out there might revert to the “old normal” – which, not so very long ago, before irrigation techniques and the widespread damming of rivers, prior to air-conditioning and Wal-Mart and overnight FedEx deliveries, had made the West incredibly inhospitable to all but the hardiest of human inhabitants? For so long, the West existed as a sort of heroic painting symbolizing the core aspects of American myth: Manifest Destiny, “frontier spirit,” Yankee ingenuity, bullheaded never-say-die Reaganesque optimism. This persisted even after historians complicated simplistic early portraits of the West by giving voice to Native Americans and others. Now, though, at a time when our confidence was already deeply rattled on a geopolitical and macroeconomic scale, the frontier itself – this thing we thought we’d conquered – seemed to be rearing its head, like an animal roused from hibernation.
It seemed like a good time for a road trip.
Colorado: The Rockies Meet the Suburbs
The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), one of the top climate laboratories in the world, is headquartered in Boulder, Colorado.Its spectacular Mesa Lab, modeled in part after Stonehenge by the architect I.M. Pei, looms in the foothills of the Rockies, the blocky, sand-colored towers looking like three-dimensional puzzle pieces cryptically arranged by ancient alien visitors. Just past a deer-crossing sign on the road leading to the Mesa Lab, an obviously newer sign reads danger: HIGH FIRE RISK.
“In the U.S., the last 12 months have been, by far, the warmest on record,” Kevin Trenberth, the head of NCAR’s Climate Analysis Section, tells me over lunch. “All of the Dust Bowl-era records from the 1930s have finally been vanquished.” The last one to go was the July record: July of 1936 had been the country’s warmest until 2012.
Trenberth is a trim New Zealander in his sixties. He’s been living in the Boulder area for 28 years and very much looks the part, sporting cargo shorts and hiking sneakers as office attire. Trenberth spends his days synthesizing reams of climate data, and he says the evidence is stark. Earlier in the summer, he told the ‘PBS NewsHour,’ “You look out the window and you see climate change in action.” He wasn’t referring to individual weather events or naturally varying meteorological patterns, but rather to the sheer scale of the extremes. Offering a personal anecdote, Trenberth notes that a week or so before my visit, he’d been hiking around the Maroon Bells, a pair of peaks near Aspen, and, disturbingly, found no snow at all. “The heat from the sun was just coming down and heating the ground,” he says. “Normally it would be, first, partly reflected by the snow, and second, all of the water – the melt from the snow – would be keeping things wet, and the heat from the sun would go into evaporating moisture. So there was nowhere for the heat to go other than to raise temperatures. These conditions set the stage throughout the Southwest for heat waves to develop, and the consequences have been wildfires.”
Back in his cluttered office, Trenberth takes a seat in front of a wall of bookshelves groaning with scholarly journals. “I’m quite alarmed,” Trenberth says, “mainly because when it comes to reducing emissions – to cutting down on the fundamental cause of the problem – there’s been no progress since 2009.” He connects this lack of progress to the massive pushback and disinformation campaign that followed Al Gore’s 2006 film ‘An Inconvenient Truth‘ and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report, the largest and most detailed climate study ever undertaken, which called global warming “unequivocal.” Trenberth was one of the lead authors of the IPCC report, and he and the IPCC shared a Nobel Peace Prize that year with Gore.
In the past, despite an overwhelming consensus on the reality of climate change, scientists were reluctant to forensically link any single short-term climactic variation – a particular heat wave or series of hurricanes – directly to warming trends. Weather patterns, after all, vary naturally, which is why things like the Dust Bowl could happen in Al Gore’s father’s time, long before greenhouse gases had become a threat. But the accrual of harrowing data has begun to eat away the science community’s circumspection. This summer, a paper in the ‘Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society’ co-authored by climate scientists from the U.S. and the U.K. stated that “scientific thinking on this issue has moved on, and now it is widely accepted that attribution statements about individual weather or climate events are possible.” In other words, the fact that all of the crazy weather you’ve been noticing the past few years happens to have been predicted by every credible climate-change model is not just a wild coincidence. The authors use a baseball analogy: If a player begins taking steroids and suddenly his number of home runs skyrockets by an average of 20 percent each season, it might remain impossible to say that any one particular home run was the sole result of the doping – other factors, such as the player’s skill, the opposing pitcher, or the layout of a particular stadium, would of course come into play. But one could say that, because of the presence of the steroids, that particular hit was 20 percent more likely to occur.
Likewise with climate science. Droughts, heat waves, flooding, and tornadoes will always occur, but their frequency and severity are what makes climate change impossible to ignore. As one example, the authors cite the 2011 Texas drought, the worst single-year drought in the state’s recorded history. While it was happening, meteorologists generally pointed to La Niña, a naturally occurring weather phenomenon over the Pacific Ocean that can affect rainfall worldwide. But in 2012, a statistical analysis by the authors of the BAMS report concluded that the Texas drought was 20 times more likely to occur today than during a comparable La Niña year in the 1960s, when greenhouse gases were much lower.
A shy, slightly awkward speaker, Trenberth rarely made eye contact during our nearly two-hour conversation, often staring down past his silver mustache at his folded hands, looking pensive, or as if he might suddenly launch into desperate prayer. He says there’s little reason to realistically believe that the total warming of the globe will remain below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F), the target set by the Copenhagen Accord – which has been described as “the bottomest of bottom lines.”
“You continue to have some hope,” he says. “But in order to address this internationally, the U.S. has to be a leader, and Congress has been absolutely hopeless on this whole issue. The environmental groups have hardly any money in comparison to the deniers.” Trenberth’s voice takes on a piquant edge for the first time during our conversation. “The vested interests are very clear in this game, and they’re spending tens of millions of dollars every year,” he concludes. “And most of them are on the denial side.”
After leaving Trenberth, I drive to my second appointment of the day, which happens to be in Colorado Springs. If Boulder, 40 minutes north of Denver, remains the state’s liberal enclave (college town, home of the Naropa Institute, a kite store, and numerous jam-band-flyered kiosks), Colorado Springs, an hour and a half south of Denver, feels like Boulder’s parallel-universe opposite world (bastion of conservative politics, home of Focus on the Family and the U.S. Air Force Academy, the place where the Taxpayer Bill of Rights was created, and, as one local political-science professor told ‘Bloomberg News,’ the “Tea Party before Tea Party was cool”). In 2009, Colorado Springs voters rejected the notion of raising property taxes, which had fallen 41 percent since 1990, to make up for revenue lost during the economic downturn, and so the city became a model of the new austerity, de-commissioning one-third of its streetlights, slashing the number of cops and firefighters, auctioning off both of its police helicopters, and halting maintenance of city parks. When the Waldo Canyon wildfire erupted in late June, jumping containment lines and flying down the slopes of the mountains at 65 mph, critics wondered if some of the destruction (and a rash of post-fire burglaries in the evacuation zone) might have been prevented by a properly staffed public-safety department. Police chief Pete Carey vigorously rejects this charge, describing the fire to me as a “once-in-a-lifetime catastrophic event.”
But when I bring up the shortage of officers during a tour of the decimated neighborhoods with Sgt. Mark DeVorss, a Colorado Springs native and 24-year veteran of the police force, he treats the conclusion as self-evident. “The department was already short on officers before the economy tanked,” he tells me. “And we lost 50 or 60 more since then.” DeVorss has a mild, kindly deportment and wears his pants high on his waist. He drives me out past the Garden of the Gods, a majestic 240-acre park of rock formations that looks like something out of a Road Runner cartoon, to the “upper-upper-middle-class” suburbs (DeVorss’ words) that burned. Luckily, the CSPD had evacuated most residents before the fire spread. A sharp wind had caught everyone off guard, speeding the burn along four hours’ worth of projected checkpoints in only 40 minutes. Chief Carey was holding an outdoor press conference when he noticed all of the cameras swing away from him and toward the direction of the mountain, at which point he recalls thinking, “Oh, this can’t be good.”
Wildfires have become more dangerous not only because they are bigger and burn longer, but also because we’ve come to live differently. While the West of legend meant wide-open spaces and lonely homesteads, in reality, many aspects of today’s West have become fairly indistinguishable from the rest of the country, particularly when it comes to the growth of cities and the attendant suburban sprawl that encroaches upon forests and exposes more and more homes and civilians to wildfire risk.
The Colorado Springs subdivisions destroyed by this year’s fires once offered spectacular views. “America the Beautiful” was written by Katharine Lee Bates, a vacationing Wellesley professor, from the summit of nearby Pikes Peak. But now many of the trees lining the purple mountain majesties are black and fossilized, like a haunted forest from a children’s book. And of course the houses where upper-upper-middle-class folk once enjoyed those views while sitting at their breakfast nooks are mostly gone. DeVorss steers his police SUV along the gently curving lanes wending their way through formerly picturesque developments with names like Mountain Shadows. Often all that’s left of the houses are the foundations, and occasionally an erect brick chimney standing embarrassingly exposed. Amid the piles of ash and rubble, I spot a stack of folding chairs fused together, a metal fan, what looks like a refrigerator turned on its side, or maybe a stove. I see a set of stairs going nowhere: The rest of the house is gone. Cars left in driveways look blown open like firecrackers.
DeVorss squints at another melted, carlike object. “Looks like a Mustang,” he says. He points out a home where an elderly couple who refused to evacuate both died. (They eventually attempted to flee, but their electric garage door wouldn’t open.)
DeVorss doesn’t remember many fires growing up. He says blizzards were always the bigger issue. Chief Carey, who moved out from Philadelphia in the Eighties, agrees, recalling the “hellacious” winters of those early years. During especially gnarly storms, soldiers from Fort Carson would transport snowbound officers in their all-terrain vehicles.
In the lobby of a hotel in downtown Colorado Springs, I meet Tim Leigh, a garrulous real estate broker and member of the city council. I’d reached out to Leigh because he’s originally from Grand Forks, North Dakota, a city nearly wiped out by a flood in 1997. As with the Waldo Canyon fire, the flood had been precipitated by extreme weather events, but when I bring up climate change, Leigh grins broadly and asks, “First of all, do you believe in Area 51, aliens? Have you studied that stuff?” I confess that I have not. “My point is, when you say, ‘Is it global warming? Is it the end of the Earth?’ you might as well ask, ‘Are there aliens in Area 51?’ I’m not sure about that. I just read a report within the last week, and when you look at the data, at the actual temperatures, you can make a pretty compelling argument that we’re not in a warming trend. We’re in a cooling trend with an aberrant warm spot. But the long-term trend is generally down. That’s really hard to get your arms around. I get that we’re in a hot cycle, and I also get that we’re dry, and viscerally, you want to say, ‘Fuck yeah, it’s hot out!’ But the data doesn’t trend that way, so do you believe the data or do you believe something else, just because your lawn is dry?”
I wish I could secretly Skype this conversation to Trenberth and make his head explode. But instead I nod impassively. Leigh does not deny that the long-range weather forecast for Colorado is continuous drought, and acknowledges that the water levels in the local reservoir are down about 45 percent, enough to get the city through another year, though after that, Leigh concedes, they’ll have to think about buying water.
A waitress places a bowl of wasabi peas in front of us. Leigh grabs a handful, tastes one, makes a face, returns the rest to the bowl. He says he’s going to tell me something people would probably kill him for saying: To a certain extent, he looks on the fire as an opportunity. The residents whose homes were destroyed would collect insurance money and get brand-new houses, while the Colorado Springs economy, which was devastated when the housing bubble burst, would receive a boost. “It’s unfortunate, because you’re drawing insurance proceeds from other parts of the country,” Leigh says, “but that money is coming here, and it’s employing local contractors, local laborers who need work, selling construction materials, all those folks who have to restock their houses. You hate to say it, but the tragedy creates a financial boon, to a certain extent.”
Leigh understands that a long-term drought will change life in the West. “Politically, what I tell everyone in this town is that we might have to build a moat around this city and become somewhat isolationist,” he says. “You have to interplay with the global economy. But, really, you work to protect your constituents, the local people, your neighbors, that kind of stuff. That’s a horrible model! But I don’t know what else you do. We can sit here and have four glasses of wine and really talk deep. I think aliens landed at Area 51. I think they’re causing this.”
It’s worth noting that Leigh is willing to allow people to cross the moat on special occasions: By late June, for example, the ‘New York Times’ had reported that more than half of the federal firefighting resources had been sent to the state of Colorado.
Wyoming: The Cattlemen’s Last Stand
One of the most resilient symbols of the West has been the cowboy, and I began to wonder how he’d been holding up in the heat. Again, of course, by this late date, the myth of the cowboy was largely that: myth, preserved, Renaissance Faire-style, on the rodeo circuit and on ‘City Slickers’-style dude ranches. Actual working ranches in states like Wyoming have been in decline for decades, much like the family farm in the Midwest.
That said, according to figures by the Wyoming Beef Council, the state still raised 1.3 million head of cattle per year – or 2.3 cows per human Wyoming citizen. Russell Bell, the former president of the Independent Cattleman’s Association, laid out the dire math plaguing ranchers in this era of extreme weather. Bell raised cattle and sheep in Gillette, Wyoming, but his grazing land, where the grass normally hit 14 inches, never topped four inches in 2012. At this point, a rancher had to make a decision: He could put his cattle on hay or feed – the price of which had skyrocketed, again, thanks to the drought – or he could begin selling off cattle early (less fattened, for a cheaper price). An extended drought would put many of the small ranchers out of business.
As I make the drive north from Colorado into Wyoming, Highway 25 cuts through brittle, yellowed pastureland stretched on either side of the narrow, lonely road like the pelts of dead animals, eventually meeting the preposterously massive sky at the horizon. After Cheyenne, I spot cows here and there, and in the distance, windmills. Wyoming, one of our flattest states, has the best wind in the country, and certain entrepreneurial-minded, forward-thinking types have been talking about transforming the state into the Saudi Arabia of wind energy, or something like that, buying up ranches and erecting those stark, modernist windmills that could appear either soothing or ominous, depending on one’s mood. The problem is, Wyoming has already long been the Saudi Arabia of coal, a $1.2-billion-a-year industry that produces (by far) the largest amount in the United States. Wind proponents have charged that the state, controlled by mining, oil, and gas interests, has intentionally stymied wind-farm development with taxes and regulations.
My ultimate destination is Douglas, an old ranching town (pop. 6,000) sitting about dead center and on the eastern edge of the perfect rectangle that is Wyoming. Every August, Douglas hosts the Wyoming State Fair, and the coal industry is one of the prime sponsors. The Cloud Peak Energy booth features a giant black chunk of coal that you can touch and oversize photographs of coal-laden dump trucks. I tell the woman behind the counter that I’m writing a story on how extreme weather might change life in the West and ask if the drought is affecting mining operations. I wonder if she thinks I’m messing with her, but she frowns and considers the question before saying no, she doesn’t think so. Her partner, a young guy with spiky gelled hair, added, “We’re digging into the soil, not trying to grow anything. But the heat probably makes it harder for the miners?” I said that made sense.
Peabody Energy had an entire tent, with children’s games and a flatscreen television showing a video about the benefits of coal power. “Want to answer a question?” one of the Peabody ladies asks me. Consulting a sheet of paper, she says, “Let’s see….no, that one’s too easy. OK. ‘Peabody ships coal to other countries: true or false?'”
I say true.
“You’re right!” says her coworker, who is wearing a COAL JOBS cap, adding, “And 39 states!” She tells me I can choose from an assortment of Peabody knapsack-totes as a prize and asks what I’m doing at the fair. When I tell her about my story, she swats at the air and insists, “It hasn’t been that hot!” She asks me where I live and then pulls out a map shading states by how much they spend on energy. “Places with coal always have lower costs,” she insists. “You’re in New York – see, that’s much higher.” She shakes her head sadly. “People say coal is dirty, but they have ulterior motives. Some people want energy to be expensive. I don’t think that’s good for America. I want to build things here.”
By the time the rodeo begins, I’m freezing. Though the clerk at my hotel told me it had been in the nineties “since June 1,” by the time I arrived in Douglas, the temperature, in a serious blow to my preconceived narrative, had plummeted. For some reason, the cowboys are all wearing pink shirts. I wonder if it’s an elaborate ‘Brokeback Mountain’ joke. Then the announcer explains the theme of tonight’s rodeo: “Tough Enough to Wear Pink,” some kind of breast-cancer-awareness thing. They release a bull that’s been painted entirely pink. I continue to shiver. The special guests of the evening, a group of Canadian Mounties riding some of the largest horses I’ve ever seen, perform an elaborate synchronized dressage routine. I remember how a friend back in New York, an environmental scientist at Columbia University, had told me that climate change would end up shifting the Midwestern American “breadbasket” northward, to Canadian provinces like Saskatchewan. Suddenly, the once easily parodied Mounties take on the sinister aspects of a show of force by a conquering army, taunting my demoralized, vanquished people with their totalitarian precision.
The next morning, I drive to the Torrington Livestock Markets, the largest cattle auction house in the state. The Torrington Livestock Market has been slammed all summer with ranchers desperately trying to sell off parts (or the entirety) of herds they simply cannot afford to feed.
The auctions take place in a miniature arena: basically, stadium seating overlooking a cattle pen. The place is so old-school, there is still a pair of phone booths in the seated section, dating from the days when people called in bids on land lines. Down in the sawdust-covered pit, two wranglers stand beside protective metal railings, working the button-operated swing gates on either end of the bull pens. The one on the left punches his button, and the object of the bidding wanders out onto the stage like a Miss America contestant. After (literally) a few seconds, the guy on the right presses his own button, opening the second set of doors, through which he shoos the animal with what appears to be a giant flyswatter.
“How you doing?” one cowboy near me asks another.
“Droughty,” his friend says.
Only about 20 men, a mix of buyers and sellers, are spread out in the aging stadium seating, but the cattle stream through all morning, nonstop. An old-fashioned scoreboard displays stats like weight and price per hundred pounds. You can distinguish the bidders from the sellers because the bidders are mostly slumped back in their seats, looking deeply uninterested. To bid, they make the tiniest, barely discernible motions with their heads or fingers. Some of them jot notes on scorecards, like they’re serious baseball fans or horse gamblers. The faint, sweet stink of manure permeates the entire building. Almost everyone is wearing some kind of hat, but there’s a divide, roughly even, between caps and proper cowboy hats. The auctioneer has been doing that gibberishy, hyperaccented auctioneer thing, where the only words you can make out are numbers, and they jump out at you the same way as when a person speaking a foreign language you don’t understand suddenly says “iPhone” or “Brad Pitt.”
An obese man wearing cut-off denim shorts and a black tank top that barely covers the awesomeness of his girth enters the arena and takes a seat on the steps. The auctioneer spots the man and interrupts his rap with a greeting.
“Mr. Cress, you’re up early! Did you come from your morning workout?”
The big man grins and says, “Yup. I went or my run and then played some basketball.”
In the cafeteria adjoining the arena, I join the man (Bob Cress) as he tucks into a massive country breakfast (some kind of smothered meat over fried eggs and potatoes). When I ask how things are going this year, Cress says, “Bad. I’ve seen 10,000 cows coming through this sell barn in one week. There’s no grass – it never did come alive. I got some good old pasture, so we’re hanging in there.” Cress ranches in La Grange, 40 minutes south of Torrington, on 65 acres he hasn’t irrigated in a month. He wasn’t selling today; he just stopped by to see what the market was like. He was planning on selling 140 calves the following month. “I’d figured, I got a well, so, shit, I can keep this hay wet,” he tells me. “But the water evaporates before it hits the ground. It’s gotten up to 110 degrees. Yeah, it sucks.”
I hear identical stories from buyers and sellers all morning. A kindly older cowboy in a white hat says if things don’t improve by next year he’ll have to “liquidate the factory,” explaining, “That’s what we call the cows. I’ve lived here all my life. Never saw nothing like this. When you’re in agriculture, there’s always hope. But if this doesn’t change, there just won’t be no cattle here. People will have to figure out something else to do.” His son had landed a job at one of the wind farms, repairing the big turbines. But when I mention climate change, he just smiles and says, “Oh, that’s something Al Gore started. I’m not an Al Gore fan.”
By this point in my reporting, I’d been on the road for a solid week, and Kevin Trenberth was basically the last person I met who, when asked, unequivocally believed greenhouse gases were causing global climate change. I hadn’t been going out of my way to look for obvious cranks who’d make for a good story or confirm my coastal liberal stereotypes: This attitude was conventional wisdom in these parts. And in fairness, the defensiveness of these local deniers made a sort of contextual sense. Getting one’s head around the hugeness of climate change, and what needs to be done to combat it, is an overwhelming proposition even for someone far removed from its front lines. Now consider how exponentially compounded the difficulty of such changes become when they’re all tied up in history and culture and livelihood, when your great-grandfather ranched on the land you’re ranching now, or your whole family has been employed by one of the coal or oil companies for generations, and suddenly you’ve got some outsider coming along and telling you not only that everything you’ve been doing needs to stop, but that it’s also been destroying the planet. Taking offense, hunkering down, even engaging in Fox News–abetted magical thinking is not exactly the craziest of responses.
Regardless of belief in causality, the ways in which these ranchers adapt to the changing West are worth studying, because they know the land better than anyone. One rancher I meet (who actually pulls out his own copy of the Constitution during our conversation and makes a joke about how the document’s authors were smart men who raised animals, not “community organizers”) tells me about how he’s been genetically breeding cattle to “do more on less” – culling the more inefficient members of the herd so his new breed requires less feed and thus becomes more drought resistant.
Down in the pen, the cows work the catwalk in a variety of styles. Some scamper nervously, like amateur singers shoved onto a stage from behind a curtain and blinking in front of an audience for the first time. The bulls tend to strut and flare their nostrils angrily; a giant black one won’t leave the pen until the prodders whack it repeatedly on the side with their swatters. Some exhibit sudden bursts of anger, back-kicking the metal doors. I like when the bulls mess with the swatters. As the bulls exit, their giant balls shake at us from between their legs like angry fists.
“This is the real American West, the last of it,” Russell Bell tells me back at the state fair, where the Independent Cattlemen’s Association has set up a tent. “This is it. We still tip our hats to ladies.” He sounds worried that it’s disappearing. “The last drought this big was in 1934. That lasted seven years and drove the farmers to the cities. If this goes for a few years, you could end up with starvation.” Bell spoke in a quiet voice with a slightly melodious accent, so even when he was predicting apocalyptic events – mass destruction of family farms and ranches, a violently disrupted food chain – there was a gentle quality to what he was saying.
We’re sitting in folding chairs in the back of the tent, near a beautifully restored 1922 Model T with a FOR SALE sign propped on the running board. The sign, with its Home Depot font, looks anachronistic on the old Ford. “Hey, squirt!” Bell suddenly yells, spotting a little kid climbing onto the vehicle. “Don’t hang on it.” The Model T, it turns out, belonged to Bell’s father, who liked to restore old cars. Bell hates to sell it, but he needs the money. “I’m trying to get $12,000,” he says, “but probably the first guy who comes along and gives me $10,000 is gonna own it.”
Yellowstone: An Imperiled Icon
En route to Yellowstone National Park, I pass through Casper, an ugly oil town, and pull over to check out a dried-up creek: It’s all rocks and weeds now, the latter so brittle they crunch like insects under my sneakers. After leaving Torrington, I’d stopped by the Bureau of Reclamation, the Philip K. Dick-sounding name they’d come up with for the government bureau in charge of monitoring and doling out the extremely scarce water supplies in places like semi-arid eastern Wyoming. The friendly BOR chief told me about area conservation efforts, and how, especially during periods of drought, a farmer with junior water rights would threaten inspectors (“Don’t you touch my head gate!”) or actually steal water from his neighbors. An Environmental Protection Agency report says more than 30 states expect water shortages next year, including Oklahoma, where state officials, according to Reuters, are looking to “encourage increased processing of undrinkable ‘brackish’ water.”
As I drive westward across Wyoming, the horizon is flat and endless, right up to the distant mountains. At one point, a train runs alongside me, loaded up with coal. I wind up on one of those two-lane desert highways that always figure in road-trip movies, and then I realize I’ve neglected to fill up the tank of my SUV. Just as I’ve shut off the A/C and started to panic, a roadside gas station appears like a mirage. A handwritten sign in the window of the gas station warns: “This place is Gaurded [sic] by the Honorable Mr. ‘Colt.'”
I see cows biding their time in fields so yellow and dry they look like nuclear test sites. I see a fishing store called Lip Ripper Bait and Tackle. In Thermopolis, the lady in the coffee shop tells me they had to cancel this year’s Fourth of July fireworks on account of fire risk. I’ve started carrying my stuff around in the Peabody Energy knapsack I won at the state fair, in hopes of blending in with the climate deniers, but for some reason, I foolishly chose an almost Day-Glo lime-green bag, so the cowboys still give me funny looks.
I make it as far as Cody, a town on the edge of Yellowstone, named for William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, one of the West’s most tireless (and financially savvy) mythologists. Cody is one of those uniquely American towns that’s both an authentic place of historical interest and a hypermediated Epcot (or in this case, Frontierland) version of that place – like Yellowstone itself, where the epic, unspoiled nature and roaming packs of buffalo preserve an approximation of the “wilderness” part of the West that hadn’t otherwise survived our invasion.
I stay in the Irma Hotel, which was once owned by Buffalo Bill. The gorgeous bar and dining hall has an enormous chandelier made from antlers and all manner of mounted game. Out on the porch, tourists and locals have gathered to drink and watch the nightly fake gunfight, the verisimilitude of which is sort of ruined by the silver Ford Focus parked right in our line of vision. A fat biker with a long white beard knotted into a single tight braid spots a boy in a U.S. Army cap and asks, “You going into the military, young man?” The kid says he’s thinking about it, and the biker advises him to join the Air Force. “It’s the easiest,” he says. “And you can fly planes. You can fly the president.”
“I wouldn’t want to fly this president,” one of the biker’s buddies mutters.
A third chimes in: “I would – right into a mountain.”
I ask the biker standing closest to me, a handsome, sunburned guy with a goatee, if he’s from Cody. He says he moved out six years ago from St. Louis, and that he works for an oil company in North Dakota, repairing the wells. I ask about this summer’s weather, and he chuckles and says, “Almost makes you believe in global warming, huh?” One of the side effects of climate change has been the migration north of bark beetles, which can now survive the less harsh winters of states like Wyoming and Montana, and which have wreaked havoc in places like Yellowstone, where they’ve killed acres of forest. “But even the beetles are leaving now,” my new friend points out. “No more trees to eat.”
The next morning, as I drive into the park, I audibly gasp at the sheer scale of the dead forest around me. Once the bark beetles have killed a tree, it dries out and becomes, essentially, kindling, a phenomenon which has contributed to the frequency and severity of recent wildfires. I pull over and wander around a so-called “ghost forest” of dead trees – normally forest-green Douglas firs gone a spooky, antediluvian gray. The trees tower six stories or so, their pine needles clumped together, drooping like Spanish moss. No one else is around. The only sound is the insectoid hum emanating from these yellow flying bugs, which also have the ability to make insanely loud clicking noises, like someone knocking a couple of sticks together. One of the bugs buzzes my head, and I duck crazily and wave my arms.
Driving on, I come to a cluster of parked vehicles and a surreal scene: tourists photographing an elk grazing amid an entirely burned wasteland. Since 1997, bark beetles have destroyed more than 40 million acres of Western forest; the U.S. Forest Service estimates that over the next decade, 100,000 dead trees will topple daily thanks to the beetle infestation.
Because of all the dead trees, no campfires were allowed in Yellowstone this summer. People sat around their tents wearing headlamps, or just told each other stories in the dark.
Montana: A Dry River Runs Through It
Montana, one of our most beautiful states, is even more striking when you come via Yellowstone, simply because of the number of green trees. In Missoula, I get lunch with Tim O’Leary, a friend of a friend who now owns one of the most popular microbreweries in town, Kettlehouse. Before he began making beer, O’Leary studied environmental science and worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, not far from the Mesa Lab. He uses 100 percent local barley (along with ingredients like pelletized industrial hemp, for his Olde Bongwater Hemp Porter), though he says it’s been harder in recent years for farmers in Montana to make a living growing crops, that they’ve been selling off their land to people he calls “gentlemen ranchers” – wealthy folk from the coasts looking for vacation properties.
After lunch, O’Leary drives me back to his brewery, where I’ve left my car. It’s about 90 degrees. “Ten years ago, on a day like today, I’d have the A/C on,” he says, “but I’ve gotten more heat tolerant.” We pass over the Clark Fork River, which cuts through town. “There’s the effin’ ‘River that Runs Through It,'” O’Leary says drily. He’s referring, of course, to the Norman Maclean short story (and, later, Robert Redford movie) about fly-fishing, set in Missoula, where Maclean grew up. In college, O’Leary himself used to lead fishing and rafting tours. “The Clark is an interesting story,” he says. “Way back when, you’d dam a river for business reasons: to float logs or to generate power. Now they dam it to make the whitewater better, so people can recreate.” I don’t believe I’ve heard “recreate” used as a verb before, but in Montana, where tourism is such a crucial part of the local economy, it makes sense: Extreme weather could have a severe economic impact here. By late August, air quality had gotten so bad in parts of Montana, thanks to wildfire smoke, that the state recommended people “limit prolonged exertion outdoors,” according to an article in the ‘Missoulian,’ and high school football teams began moving their practices indoors. Fishing restrictions were also placed on rivers and streams throughout Montana because of the heat. (When water temperatures reach 73 degrees or higher for three consecutive days, fish are far less likely to survive being caught and released.) “Even business Republicans understand,” O’Leary says, “Montana is about blue skies and clean water.”
Later that evening, I wander along the banks of the Clark, stopping at a marker indicating where Lewis and Clark once crashed their raft, because the water was so rough. Tonight it’s very placid. Some people lazily tube, others fish. Kids dive off a bridge, ignoring signs warning them not to dive off the bridge. I was expecting to see the corpses of boiled fish. Instead, a fat beaver swims by, mocking my unsavory journalistic appetite for bad news.
The next morning, I fly out to Sacramento, where, a couple of hours north, the wildfires now cover 28,000 acres, and Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency.
On the plane, I thought again about how the “new” West might begin to resemble the classic version, at least when it came to upping the barrier of entry. But what would the “end” of the West even mean at this point? The end of rampant overdevelopment in places like Nevada? The final nail in the coffin of “authentic” Western life, the sort embodied in ranchers like Russell Bell? A permanent-enough change in the natural world, drying enough creeks and reservoirs to return certain areas to desert, scorching other places with so much heat and fire they become essentially unlivable? The West has been such an important part of the American mystique for so long that the changes that might occur would certainly affect our collective psyche. For so long, we’ve had this vast place that was so much more than just a place: It was a tangible display of our country’s bounty and near-boundlessness, a living symbol (in its very harshness) of our national character (our people brave enough to tame badlands and carve out desert oases, murderous enough to nearly wipe out an entire race), a trophy of an epic conquest. If that place becomes exhausted, or spoiled, or simply too unfriendly a landscape, well….what, exactly, will we have lost?
I consider this question as I drive to Redding, California. I pass orchards, rice fields, farms, a billboard reading LOOK OUT CONGRESS! THE PEOPLE ARE COMING NOV. 7. The air in Redding, when I walk outside my hotel the morning after my arrival, feels thick and staticky, and though it’s a hot, sunny day, a hazy scrim has been drawn over the sky, polluting the blue so it’s more the color of a stepped-on eggshell, or a fading, grayish bruise. I can smell the smoke in the air, even though the fires are burning about 45 minutes away. It was 99 degrees in Sacramento yesterday. The woman sitting next to me on the plane told me that wasn’t so hot for August.
More than 2,000 firefighters have been mobilized from all over the state. My hotel is packed with them, as is every restaurant I visit. (“One thing about these fires,” a firefighter tells me, “they boost the local economy!”) As I drive toward the base camp – it’s actually the fairgrounds of a little town called Red Bluff – I see a couple of helicopters parked on the grassy shoulder of the freeway. The birds flying in the haze look confused, but that might just be my projecting. How would I know what a confused bird flies like?
Funnily enough, the firefighter assigned to show me around, Shawn Sternick, lives in Missoula. He knows who Tim O’Leary is, and loves his beer, and just got through making an annual rafting and camping trek on the Clark River with some buddies, which they refer to as their Lewis and Clark Trip. Sternick works in Los Angeles, though. He grew up in Orange County, but his wife is from Montana, and they wanted to raise their kids somewhere less hectic than L.A. Because firefighters must be on call at the firehouse 24-7, Sternick’s schedule (5 days on, 13 days off) allows for such a commute, and he says he’s not alone: Other guys in his firehouse commute as far as Idaho and Tennessee. “A lot of us can’t afford to live in L.A.,” he says.
Budget cuts have also hit California hard. One fire chief, coming off the front lines, where his men had been hiking up the side of a mountain (while wearing heavy fire gear) to lay thousands of feet of hose, explains that his team of 15 would have been 20 in prior years. Sternick says he and his colleagues have had pay cuts and lost vacation days. By far the best bang for the California taxpayers’ (literal!) buck are the men in orange pants and ankle bracelets I spot near the fairgrounds’ tent city, prepping food for the mess hall: prison inmates, who get paid “something like a dollar a day,” according to Sternick. “They do some of the hardest work – on the front line, cutting brush. It looks good for the parole board, so they all want to do it. We’re not really supposed to talk to them.”
The Ponderosa fire in Lassen National Forest, finally contained, came close to destroying several towns, traveling seven miles in one night. Sternick drives me up to the front line, on top of a ridge. We pass hilly, yellow-grassed terrain dotted with short, gnarled trees and volcanic rock. As we approach the ridge, I see smoke pouring from the top of a not-so-distant mountain. It looks like a smoldering volcano we should be driving away from. Helicopters hauling buckets of retardant (a kind of reddish slime) fly over our heads to douse the fire.
At the ridge, I see an entire slope of freshly charred mountain. “We call that ‘clean,'” Sternick explains. Meaning, there’s nothing left to burn, so no risk of a fire restarting. (Firefighters comb the area, making sure every stick is cold, even cutting into tree stumps and roots, which can sometimes hide red-hot coals.) Another part of the ridge still has some living vegetation left. “We call that ‘dirty,'” Sternick goes on. “We like it when the fire burns everything, so there’s no chance of reignition.”
The next morning, I drive up to another fire site, about an hour and a half north, to meet up with some smokejumpers. But by this point, there’s not much else for me to learn. On my way home, I cut through a little valley, and the smoke is so thick, it’s like mist. I switch my A/C to air-circulating mode, suddenly paranoid about choking or passing out. Then I pass a field of cows, chewing on grass, looking just fine. This makes me feel better. Then I begin to wonder if maybe the cows have powerful cow lungs, better equipped to breathe this stuff – who knows? – and I begin to panic again.
But less than before. You get used to these things.
Down in the Sago Mine
Randy McCloy, lean, 6-foot-1, is racing through the black puzzle of the Sago Mine. Nine parallel tunnels, intersected every 100 feet by connecting tunnels, form a grid extending nearly three miles under a hilly forest of West Virginia. It’s an obstacle course littered with loose rocks, flooded in low spots, and ribbed with rail tracks, wires, conveyor belts. For Randy, daylight is now two miles away.
A heavy lamp battery, an emergency breathing canister, and a rock hammer swing wide from his work belt as he runs, their clatter keeping rough time with the clank of the coal-laden conveyor belt snaking along beside him through the tunnels. Randy is a heavy metal fan in a country music world, and to his ear the machines down here have always played familiar Metallica tunes: Trapped Under Ice, Enter Sandman, Fade to Black. It’s the right soundtrack for a hard life.
Into the second mile his breathing is heavy. He slaps his hard hat snug to jump across water holes. His headlamp is the only star in this black universe. “Skinny,” his work nickname, is written across his hard hat in yellow tape. The last part now is a long, uphill slog. Randy climbs away from the conveyor’s riff. Finally, ahead, the sheet-metal swinging doors show a little daylight from their edges. It’s all rumble and the Fear of God going down, but coming up through those old tin doors is Thank You, Jesus, and a deep breath of forest air.
The hospital in Clarksburg looks like any other, except for Randy McCloy, still black from the mine, now racing through the white hallways. His wife Anna is heading into the ER for an unplanned C-section. He got the word from Flea, the mine dispatcher, and Randy just ran out without waiting for the rail tram and without telling his crewmates. For hours his crew thinks maybe he fell into the machinery. That can happen.
Randy and Anna don’t do a thing without each other, not since grade school. In high school Anna got so disgusted with Randy’s hard times at home, an upbringing he doesn’t like to dwell on, that she scooped him up and took him to live with her family. It wasn’t a big mobile home, but they made room for him. Over the years, Anna helped him pass his GED and his mine safety test. Her long dark hair and pretty face became the center of his world.
The couple already have one baby at home, and Randy is determined to be here for the arrival of this one as well. The nurses act put out but are trying not to smile. Sometimes the world bends its rules around such men, and sometimes maybe fate does, too.
Little Isabel – Izzy – comes out fine. And when Randy returns to the mine the men teach him how to be a roof bolter so he can make the kind of money a family man needs.
“We’ll give you a shot, Skinny,” says Owie Jones, his foreman at the time. “But don’t get your hopes up. Bolting is trickier than it looks.”
It looks tricky enough.
The flat shale ceilings of the coal mine tunnels are studded every few feet with roof bolts that usually go six feet up into the rock formations, laminating them into one slab and, with luck, keeping them from falling. Collapses are the most common way to die in a coal mine.
Randy is a little slow at first. But more and more he holds everything just right and hits the levers at the proper split second, so the bit and the extensions go straight up into the rock and come out all in one piece, ready for the epoxy snakes and the long bolt that will go into the new hole. When he finally thinks he’s getting good, someone greases the control handles of his machine, just to remind him he’s still the rookie.
He becomes, over time, a perfectionist. He earns the miners’ respect. He is a steel-driving man in a tunnel under a mountain, surrounded by men who treat him like family. He is a happy man. He’ll be three years in the Sago Mine.Monday, January 2, the first workday of 2006, comes just a few months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast. Oddly warm weather has blown up from the South Pacific, pushing wildfires across 300,000 panhandle acres, wiping out several small towns in West Texas and continuing right into Oklahoma City. It then moves through the Mississippi Delta in a hellstorm of tornadoes and hail. In the first dark hours of January 2, the front assembles in a fiery line along the western and southern edges of West Virginia. It is bringing a particular lightning bolt to Sago.
Hours before the Appalachian dawn, thousands of wives are already awake, pulling clothes from dryers and preparing lunch boxes for their coal miner husbands. Dogs are soon barking their goodbyes to the men. Anna McCloy stands a little longer than usual in her trailer doorway, watching until Randy drives over the railroad tracks and out of view. He always says a little prayer with her before he leaves. If he forgets to do that, or forgets to tell her he loves her, he always drives back. It is 4:15 a.m. as he heads for Sago.
Anna was awakened earlier by a nightmare – of a big family funeral with an empty casket. The same bad dream has haunted her for several nights, and she is exhausted from little sleep.
As Randy drives the long way to the mine, the storm clouds cross the Ohio River from the west and the Tug Fork and Big Sandy from the south. Five miles below this cresting wave, the movements of men and trucks are but fireflies in the woods.
At 5:45 am, the “one left” and “two left” crews, a dozen men each, are suiting up in the shower house of the Sago Mine, a small, 148-miner coal operation, one of a dozen mines owned by privately held International Coal Group. If you’ve worked the mines, you know the routine: Your hard hat, tool belt, boots, and emergency breathing gear are locked high in a steel basket, one basket per miner. You take off your street clothes and put on a rental uniform and your gear. You head over to the dispatcher’s trailer to get your lamp, which clips to the square block on the front of your hard hat. You move the brass tag with your name on it to the inside section of the control board. You buy a cup of coffee from the vending machine.
You nod to the mine dispatcher through his window, and you trudge down the boardwalk into the pit – the shallow quarry where a curved metal canopy frames the mine portal. From the outside it looks like a storage shed. Narrow rail tracks lead inside. You climb aboard a “mantrip” electric shuttle.
The dozen men of the Two Left crew go down first, as they have the farthest to travel. Randy, 26, is the youngest of them. Eight of the men are in their 50s. Everyone is talking about that night’s Sugar Bowl game, which will feature the West Virginia Mountaineers from an hour’s drive up the road in Morgantown. Lightning begins to pop, and rain falls suddenly and hard just as they go under.
That wild ride into the Sago Mine – no falling-apart amusement park has one better. You get inside your beat-up mantrip and down you go. The mantrip’s a squashed peanut of a vehicle, with a low, open center where the driver sits. He can swing around in his seat to go in either direction, as there is no way to turn the vehicle around underground. The low cabins, fore and aft, hold six to eight men each and have wire-grid openings for windows.
The first steep grade is slippery with winter ice. You buck back and forth and always worry that you might fly off the haphazard tracks, which happens often enough. You clutch your lunch pail. There is a black hole ahead, pulling you down. When the tracks finally level off, you hit the fast curves, clickety-click.
You make the last curve, and then it’s up a little underground hill and straight ahead, a bit less than two bumpy miles to go. You are in a drift mine, so named because the coal layer drifts right out the side of the mountain, and you just follow it in, mining as you go. At Sago, you go a good 300 vertical feet down, and it’s coal all the way.
There are two left turns off the main tunnels. The second dogleg, Two Left, a section of eight tunnels running parallel to each other, extends about three-quarters of a mile. Right at that junction the nine main tunnels are sealed off ahead with lightweight fiber blocks. (To get the idea of all the parallel tunnels, imagine drawing a picture of the mine on the ground with a garden rake.) Beyond those seal walls is a recently abandoned section the size of four Carnegie Halls. It is a waiting bomb.
The section was sealed off a couple of weeks earlier because too much water was coming in, too much methane, and the roof kept falling. One man was seriously injured in a collapse six months earlier. Then a six-foot-thick, 100-foot-long piece of the roof came down a month after that, luckily missing the workers. Methane is filling the section at a rate of about 14,000 cubic feet a day. It needs only 14 days to reach the 5 percent concentration needed to be explosive, which is exactly the time it has had. A few more days and it will be too rich to blow and thus forever inert. You might think they would give a mine a little time to itself during that dangerous time, but MSHA, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, doesn’t require that, which means it doesn’t happen.At 6:26 a.m. the mine’s superintendent, Jeff Toler, 42, nephew of Randy’s current foreman Junior Toler, is on the office phone with dispatcher Bill “Flea” Chisolm, 47. Flea, the sole black man at Sago, is describing the storm outside his window when a monster lightning strike very nearby sends a loud pop through the phone lines – enough to make Flea toss down the receiver with a “Damn!”
In the same instant, right across Sago Road from the mine and next to the Sago Baptist Church, Clifford and Victoria Rice are nearly bounced out of bed by a deep boom. Two windows break. And then the earth rolls beneath them. Something is happening.
The sealed area of the tunnel – 4 million cubic feet loaded with methane – has just exploded.
At the far end of the mine, where the Two Left crew is already at work, Randy McCloy is readying his big Fletcher bolter when he hears the boom in the distance. A hot wind rushes through. He shuts his eyes to it. His ears ring. All 12 men quickly gather in the bright lights near the electrical shed, the “power center,” where the 7,200-volt main line branches to the big machines.
“Did you all hear that?” asks Junior Toler. “Well, that was an explosion.” He says it not because anyone requires an explanation, but because he is the foreman and it needs saying. Here it is, the moment you’ve prayed against 10,000 times.
Junior tries to call Flea, but the Two Left phone is dead.
“Get your lunch buckets, and let’s get out,” Junior says calmly.
What he said, and what happened next in the Two Left section, are from the smoked memories of Randy McCloy.
Before the hot wind found randy and the two left crew, it hit the men of One Left, still in the main tunnels. They are closer than any others to the explosion, save fire boss Terry Helms, who was right at the junction next to the sealed area, powering up a conveyor belt. A week earlier another fire boss, John Boni, had noticed a leak in the seal walls. It wasn’t too big. He reported it, but nothing was done. The fact that Terry threw the switch to the conveyer belt right then, at the moment of explosion, would later be pronounced a coincidence, which it might have been. But then again, the switch tended to throw off a lot of sparks. Maybe that, combined with the methane leaking into the junction, caused a small explosion that ignited the larger one.
Or maybe thunder from the storm passing over the mountains shook the ground enough to knock a piece of ceiling off. Falling roof rocks can spark against the bolts and mesh. Or maybe, as scientists at the esteemed Sandia Labs in New Mexico would later theorize, mammoth lightning bolts (they were positively charged, making them many times more powerful than normal, negatively charged lightning) might have created an electromagnetic wave through the ground. The abandoned area had a cable running through the middle, despite rules against this, and that could have picked up the charge, turning it into a giant spark plug.
But God and only God will ever know for certain. All that is known in this first moment is that the mountain is alive.
The One Left crew, on their way in on the mantrip, had stopped for a moment to throw a rail switch when the section blew. A violent blast of hot air and debris hit the men, with rock shot stinging through their heavy clothes and ripping into their skin.
The One Left crew foreman is Owie Jones, Randy’s old foreman and the brother of Jesse Jones on Randy’s crew. Owie is up in the driver’s cockpit, and the blast blows him headlong out of the vehicle.
The explosion pulverizes the seal walls, blasts through a cement block wall, and then through another cement block wall. It picks up a 1,500-pound mantrip charger and sends it tumbling toward the men. That knocks loose a 26-foot beam that comes their way too. Tons of grit, gravel, coal dust, smoke, and soot roar down upon them. They tuck their heads down hard and wait to see if this is it.
The long minutes are probably only about 10 seconds. The wind stops. The big debris hasn’t hit them.
The One Left men are thick with soot. Their hard hats are cracked. They are bleeding under layers of oily-smelling dust and mud.
“What the fuck was that?” somebody yells.
“The mine’s just blew up!” another answers.
They work their way out of the mantrip and swim into the darkness and heat. Limping and carrying one another, they begin the long trudge out. When his crew seems safe Owie turns around and heads back to try to find Jesse, his brother, in Two Left. He is soon joined by managers Jeff Toler and Dick Wilfong, who have raced in on a mantrip. On foot now, they will explore together until the smoke is too much.On the other side of the blast, far back in two left, Randy’s crew begins making their way through the dust. They head back toward their mantrip, which is about a quarter-mile ahead in deep smoke. Some of the “stopping” walls, built between the parallel tunnels for ventilation control, are still teetering down.
They take the middle tunnel, guided by the tracks, then cross to the far left, into the air-intake tunnel – the designated escapeway. In tight formation they shuffle forward in a jittery halo of headlamp beams.
“Stay together,” Junior calls out. “Pay attention.”
With all finally aboard the mantrip, Junior drives it slowly, pushing fallen materials ahead of them. Some men stick their noses into their lunch pails to take a breath of air from home.
They travel only about 500 feet before there is just too much stuff in the way. They are near the junction into the main tunnels.
Though they don’t know it, the body of their friend, fire boss Terry Helms, is just ahead, near the rail switch, dead on his back and so covered with soot that he will later be hard to find.
Junior repeatedly rams into the debris, but it is no-go. They drive back to slightly better air to put on their emergency breathing gear and maybe find a way out on foot.
“Put ’em on, boys,” Junior says as they pile slowly from the mantrip. Everyone is serious. Everyone is sooty. The older men are already coughing hard.
Donning the gear takes some concentration. The breather looks like a big canteen. You pry off the lid and put on a nose clip and goggles. The mouthpiece is like a swim snorkel. You pull a cord, open a valve, hang the whole thing on your chest. You breathe hard into the mouthpiece and a large plastic bag – big as a turkey bag – inflates at your chest. You will rebreathe that same breath for as long as the chemical canister can crack your carbon dioxide back into oxygen. The men have often trained on these SCSRs (self-contained self-rescuers), and they work fine when you don’t need them. Jesse Jones, 44, Owie’s brother, is having a problem with his. Jesse is one of the four bolters on the crew – always serious about his work, and now he is seriously trying to get the breather to operate. He has a gray goatee and is a handsome man; he could be a country music star if looks decided it.
He lets Randy fiddle with his breather, but no deal.
Junior Toler can’t get his to work either. Tom Anderson and Jerry Groves can’t get theirs working. Four of the 12 units seem useless. They will share, if it comes to that.
They explore around for clearer air in the side tunnels, but everywhere the smoke is thick; the men without working canisters are already struggling to breathe.
They could chance walking into the soup, but they don’t know the condition of the mine. It might take one hour or five to go the two miles. They might get caught halfway when their one-hour canisters give out. Or they can just do the thing they have been trained to do, which is to make a barricade and hunker down until rescued.
Randy has always felt indestructible. Maybe he could run out, like before. He thinks about it, but not for long. The men are determined to stick together. They aren’t going to leave the older men behind.
Junior finally says it: “Well, there’s nothing left to do. We’re going to have to get back to section and barricade.” There is no argument.
On their way they gather plastic curtain material to use for the barricade and find triangular nails, called spads, at the power center to tack the plastic into the coal.
Back at the coal face, tunnels three, four, and five have recently been cut the farthest into the mountain. Number three is Junior’s pick. It has a little dead-end side tunnel off to the left – a future crosscut. That alcove will give them some extra air and space. They are now as far back in the mine as they can go, as far away from the bad air as they can be.
Point your right hand’s index finger straight ahead, and stick your thumb out to your left. That was the layout. They nail curtain crossways across the intersection, making a backward L-shaped barricade about the size of a school bus interior. They tack up a second set of curtains for good measure.
With the spads they sew the plastic sheets to the wire grid of the seven-foot-high ceiling and nail the material tight to the walls. They pile loose coal at the base of the curtain to snug it down. The work helps warm them up in the 55-degree tunnel.
They have extra plastic, so they each put down a square to sit on, since the floor is wet with coal mud. Randy picks a spot near the end of the longer tunnel, against the left side. He is as far back as he can go without sitting in water pooled at the end. They sit with their backs to the walls, waiting for the sound of three dynamite blasts on the surface.
Your training tells you to wait for that, then to start pounding on the roof bolts. You keep pounding until you hear five shots above, which means they have located you with seismic gear and are on their way. A sticker inside your hard hat tells you all that, and you have read it a thousand times.
The crew listens. There is an occasional noise outside the curtain – mostly the falling of concrete blocks and other debris. Otherwise, it is dead quiet.
Junior Toler, whose proper name is Martin, suggests they stay out of their lunch boxes until they know how long they are going to be down there. It might take a while for the rescue to get organized.
Randy left his lunch box back on the mantrip, but like most, he’s too worried to eat anyway.
“And we don’t need to all have our cap lamps on,” Junior says. They leave one on at a time. There is nothing darker than a coal mine with the lights out. Most men can’t stand it more than five or 10 seconds.
They have been very anxious and busy through all this, but now they start to settle in.
Junior has 32 years in the mines, which have made him a calm leader, always thinking. He has dark hair and a small, dark mustache, and could pass for a lawyer in town. He has two kids, Courtney and Chris, and a wife, Mary Lou. The Tolers have been in the mines for many generations.
He looks at his watch and keeps waiting for the signal blasts. Randy watches him think.
Farther up in the mine, Junior’s nephew Jeff Toler, Owie Jones, and Dick Wilfong are making their way toward the men. They send for big rolls of plastic sheeting so they can repair the flow of fresh air as they go: They work like madmen patching the downed stopping walls, built to seal the farthest left and farthest right tunnels into incoming and outgoing air ducts. The system is in ruins.
They work through the morning, pushing nearly two miles into the mine. They are almost at the junction of Two Left, almost at the abandoned section that blew, almost at Terry’s body. But the smoke ahead is too thick, curling around on itself like a pit of serpents – a sulfurous, yellow brew like nothing they have ever seen or imagined. It looks alive – mesmerizing and deeply spooky.
They don’t have enough incoming air to deal with it. Even if they could push that serpent farther back, they know they might just be chasing it onto the Two Left men, who might have found a good pocket of air. They have come as close to the missing men as they can get, though they are still more than a half-mile away. The three stay a while, listening for sounds, but they have done all they can do. Their breathing gear is spent and their carbon monoxide warning alarms are fried. They backtrack to a working phone, and Jeff, utterly exhausted, is crying a little as he explains their situation to a mine inspector. At 9:30 am they begin the long walk out. It takes them an hour.Deep in two left, Junior Toler and Tom Anderson decide they are going to slip out from the barricade to see if the air is improving. They come back in less than three minutes, coughing and gasping. They take some swigs on borrowed breathers. “Man, I’m dizzy,” Junior says. He at least found an eight-pound sledgehammer to pound on the bolts for the signal.
He tells the men to tack up the curtain tighter; the smoke is getting worse, and it will want to come in. After a time Junior says something like, “Well, we have waited for those three shots long enough. Maybe we just can’t hear them. Maybe we should pound the bolts so at least they can hear us. They have better listening equipment up there.”
Randy argues that they should pick one bolt and hit only that one, or else they might confuse the listening equipment, as sound can take different routes through rock. They pick one near the curtain, in the middle of the junction of the tunnels – a nice, wide ceiling. Maybe the rescuers will drill down to that spot with one of those little rescue tubes as they did for the nine miners in Quecreek, Pennsylvania, the year before – a little capsule that can haul up one man at a time through a wide drill hole.
They are finally doing something. Each hit makes a deep metal kang sound. Junior rotates the sledgehammer duty around the crew, 10 slams per turn. You can’t use your breathing gear when you’re swinging a big hammer to the ceiling, so you run out of air fast.
By now, some of the men are not doing very well. They have been deep in carbon monoxide for several hours. More and more breathing devices have been coming up spent. Jesse passes Randy’s breather back to him and says he thinks it’s had it. Randy tries to take a last breath from it, but it’s gone.
There is a decent amount of oxygen in the tunnel, but carbon monoxide latches onto your red blood cells in the places where oxygen is supposed to bond, crowding the oxygen out. You struggle harder and harder.
They pound the bolt through most of the morning. They’re beat.
Junior suggests they rest and save their strength; maybe they will finally hear those shots yet, and then they can start pounding again.
It is about 10:30 am. Things go quiet. The men rest and pray.
Just after 11 a.m. the local Barbour County mine rescue team is on-site and ready to roll. The crew will not be able to go in, however, until the mine owner, International Coal Group, submits a written plan to the federal MSHA inspectors and it’s approved. The Bush administration has been making major changes to MSHA; this is the first real test of a new philosophy of letting the mine company, rather than MSHA, run the rescue show. With the company calling the shots and MSHA having to sign off on each step, it plays out slowly, like an underground Katrina: getting things ready, assessing rescue crews, assigning backup crews, arranging backups for the backups, measuring gas levels coming out of the portal.Four and a half hours after the explosion, Junior Toler breaks the silence: “All right, boys, why don’t we just say a little prayer here.” He recites the Sinner’s Prayer, wherein a man asks that there be a place in heaven for an old sinner. It is a simple prayer; most of the men know it in one form or another.
The moment hits the men hard. There is some sobbing, like the low chant of old monks. Then it gets quiet again. Carbon-monoxide poisoning starts with headaches and sometimes nausea, then deep depression.
“You might think about writing a note for your family,” Junior says. Men turn on their cap lamps and share bits of paper and some pens.
The little refuge is getting smokier, as the poison air shows whiter in the headlamp beams.
Randy puts his note in another miner’s lunch box, as his own Igloo is back on the mantrip. His note reads:
Anna, I love you very much. To my son, trust in the Lord always. To my daughter, stay sweet. To Dad and Mom, I love you. I really don’t know how to write this. I’m not all that afraid. I know that we’ll be running through your heads. My greatest fear is never seeing my children grow and be there for them. I just love you all so much. Sorry I got into this mess, not for my sake, for yours. Don’t grieve for long, I want you all to be happy in life. Daddy.
The men don’t read their notes out loud; they tuck them away.
Jim Bennett, at 61, is the oldest. He often reads his Bible over lunch. He doesn’t cuss and doesn’t appreciate any cussing around him, though he’s nice about it. He loves the mines and has never done any other kind of work. He has a wife, Lily, a daughter, Ann Meredith, and a son, John. He has seven grandkids and two great-grandkids, and he is going to retire in three months. He writes:
Lily, I love you. If someone finds this, please give this to my wife. I love you. We have air right now, but the smoke is bad. Tell my mother I love her and my kids. Love, Daddy.
He notes the time: 11:40 a.m.
Up top, the dynamite blasts do not happen. the seismic listening device is not brought in. The rescue capsule used so successfully at Quecreek and now on display in an MSHA lobby somewhere is also not brought in. Why? The rescue-organizing team, mostly first-timers, figure that it will take too long to calibrate exact positions for the seismic gear. If you don’t use the seismic gear, then you don’t need the rescue capsule. That’s the thinking.
When the mine owner finally submits a rescue plan to the MSHA men now on-site, it is a plan to wait and to watch the gas readings. You don’t want to send men into a mine if it looks as if it’s going to blow again. A lot of mine tragedies have doubled when rescue teams have gone in too soon.
If the mine had buried a hardened communication line under the tracks, then the rescuers would be able to talk to the trapped men, and that would move everything along. If the mine had installed underground rescue chambers, the men could wait patiently inside. If MSHA had the kind of mass spectrometer, long used in other countries, that can tell if the gasses venting out of the mine are from the original explosion, not from a still-burning fire, you could go right in, and everybody but Terry Helms would be home by now.
For now the men of TwoLeft mostly pray by themselves and rest their heads on their arms and knees. After several dark hours, George Hamner, 54, the crew’s “buggy runner,” who hauls supplies to the work teams, turns on his cap lamp, looks at his watch, and writes a note to his wife and daughter:
Hi Deb and Sara. I’m still OK at 2:40 p.m. I don’t know what’s going on between here and the outside. We don’t hear any attempts at drilling or rescue. The section is full of smoke and fumes, so we can’t escape. We are all alive at this time. I just want you and Sara to know I love you both and always have. Be strong and I hope no one else has to show you this note. I’m in no pain, but I don’t know how long the air will last.
Jackie Weaver, 51, the crew’s mechanic, is sitting near Randy. He is calm and tries to comfort Randy: “Randy, if it’s our time to go, then God’s will will be done,” he says.
Jerry Groves, 56, is sitting to Randy’s right. He has a big gray beard and a famous sense of humor. He is Randy’s bolting partner. They have spirited competitions every day to get a bolt in faster than the other guy. They eat together on the bolter, and Jerry’s wife Debbie always puts an extra snack cake or something in for Randy.
Jerry and Jackie treat Randy like a son, as do all the older guys – but especially Jerry and Jackie. Randy knows they are fading away. In the dim tunnel no one jokes or tries to lighten things.
On and off they hit the bolt. They are tired and dizzy. They don’t know that no one on the surface is listening, so they keep at it as best they can.
Randy takes long goodbye looks at the men around him as everyone begins to nod. He startles awake when he hears a crash – maybe a rescue crew coming through the roof. But it is one of the men falling over, his gear and hard hat cracking against the floor. He is gone.
Randy says the Sinner’s Prayer once or twice and, for the first time, feels the full weight of despair.
Nearer the entrance to the barricade two of the older men are already dead. Their friends move them into the small alcove tunnel and lay them out, arms across their chests like in a funeral home.
At some quiet moment, Junior Toler writes a note:
Tell all I see them on the other side. I love you. It wasn’t bad. I just went to sleep. I love you.
His words trail off the page.
“Lord, don’t let me die – not like this” is Randy’s last conscious thought. There follows a long time of something between life and death, between waking and sleeping. The last lamp goes out and the men are in darkness. Randy can feel something heavy. Jerry, his old friend, has fallen over on him.All day Monday, all that night, all Tuesday morning and afternoon, the rescue continues slowly in fits and starts. Jeff Toler argues that the rescue should start in the tunnels where he and the others left off. The MSHA men, backed up by the mine owner reps, think they should do it by the book, starting at the portal. When you go into a mine for a rescue, you examine every square foot, measure every breath of air, and document every irregularity. Depending on conditions, it can take an hour or two to cover 100 yards. To some of the Sago men in the command center, that sounds like a death sentence for their friends below.
Rescue teams have rushed to Sago from as far away as Illinois. They are frustrated by the delays. Some have flown in by private jet, only to cool their heels for endless hours now. The teams are let into the mine and then pulled out, once because they find a red light on inside. They think that means there is still some power on in the mine that might spark another explosion, but in fact the light is powered by a battery. Another time a flooded area is considered too deep to allow proper ventilation and has to be drained. Yet another time the teams are pulled out so an experimental robot, meant to take a camera deep where rescuers can’t go, can be tested. It gets mired in the mud.
Jim Klug and his rescue team from Pennsylvania’s McElroy Mine have been waiting in a nearby motel for their turn inside. Klug, like any miner who does rescue work, is anxious but doesn’t want to rush into an unsafe mine; he has a family waiting for him at home.
Around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, his team is summoned to the portal. For four hours, just outside the mine, they wait, acting as backup to a team inside that is backing up another team, deeper in. The teams gradually rotate, replacing the exhausted team at the front. Klug learns that his crew will be the backup to the local Tri-State Rescue team, selected to make the final push to the back of the mine.
Before they go in Klug is taken into a back room and handed a list of the missing men’s names, each numbered. Because there have been press leaks from the command center and because the walkie-talkies may have other ears listening, he is to refer to any discovered dead body as an “item.” The number on the list will be used to identify the victim; miners have brass name tags on their belts.
Klug’s crew of seven climb aboard a mantrip and take the roller coaster down. They go as far as the ‘trip will take them and then proceed on foot to the fresh air base, which is the farthest extension of the repaired ventilation and communication lines. At 53 block, meaning the 53rd point where the crosscut tunnels intersect the main tunnels, they meet the Tri-State crew. One of its men has lost a nosepiece critical to his breathing apparatus. Command center switches the teams: Klug’s men will go in, Tri-State will back up. This is the final push.
Command notifies Klug that his team can blow past the usual 1,000-foot limit. Normally, at that point you would stop to secure a new fresh air base, hanging curtains to bring in good air and extending the phone line. But they are almost at the end. The decision will overstretch their communication capabilities.
Klug’s yellow-hatted McElroy men, wearing full rescue apparatus, make the difficult scramble over the huge pile of steel and cement in the junction – the same pile that had prevented the Two Left crew from escaping.
At the abandoned Two Left mantrip, Klug’s team drops off team member Kelvin Jolly with a walkie-talkie to serve as a relay; otherwise they’ll be too far to signal back to the men waiting at the junction. Even so, the signal is already starting to break up, so Jolly will have to run back and forth a few hundred yards each time to get enough signal to pass messages. He will have to navigate a thigh-deep, 150-foot-long water hole each time.
Farther in, Klug’s team wades through deep water in places and skirts equipment and piles of debris as they move along in standard side-by-side rescue formation, checking every inch for downed men and dangers, stopping regularly to measure the air.
Finally, at the end of the line, Klug sees a plastic curtain ahead, tight against the coal. He hears something from behind it, a gasping sound. He rushes through it and then another curtain behind that. It’s 11:40 p.m., 41 hours after the explosion.
It is the men.
The rest of the team comes in. Someone grabs a walkie-talkie to get word to Jolly, the relay. The breathing gear makes it hard to be heard right, and the signal is breaking up.
The words “We found ’em” and “alive” are part of the intermittent radio message. Then later the words “all 12.”
Jolly gathers that they found the men, all 12, alive. He passes the word down the walkie-talkie line, through other relays and eventually to Chris Lilly, captain of the Tri-State team, who is on the mine phone back at the fresh-air base. Lilly asks for verification. Jolly confirms on behalf of the men at the coal face: 12 alive. That’s what he heard. Chris calls it into the command center at 11:50 pm.
The command center explodes with a cheer. No one can believe the good news. Men are crying with joy.
But in the small barricade in Two Left, Klug surveys a grim scene. His meter reads a deadly 426 parts per million carbon monoxide – nearly twice what’s considered a deadly level. His cap lamp scans a body leaning against a corner of the curtain wall; others are curled against the right side of the tunnel. Same on the left.
Then, at the far end of the tunnel, a man, the last on the left, gasps for air. It is Randy McCloy. He is not exactly breathing, but struggling to take a breath every eight seconds, each time like a drowning man coming up for air.
Klug runs to him. Randy sits slouched against the coal wall. Klug and another rescuer pull Jerry’s body off of him. Jerry is a big man and his weight against Randy’s chest has most likely kept Randy’s breathing shallow and his body warm, maybe saving his life.
The team members break open a rescue breather. Randy takes a good gulp from it. They roll him to the middle of the tunnel and start screaming at him to keep breathing, they scream that they are here, that he is alive, that he will be out of the mine and back with his family soon. Every time he takes a breath it sounds like his last.
“C’mon, buddy! Keep breathing! Open your mouth, bud, stop clenching your teeth!” Klug is having a hard time prying open Randy’s mouth. He finally gets a breather secure as he yells to his team members to send for more help.
Randy’s eyes open a little, and he seems to be looking around. He can’t see. Erosion of the optic nerve from the carbon monoxide has made him temporarily blind, but his glance encourages the rescue workers.
Team members start checking the other men. They are cold and stiff; their whole bodies move when their arms are lifted. Some have been hemorrhaging red foam from their mouths. The rescuers check for pulses. One man seems to gasp when they move him, and for a few seconds they think he is alive, but it is just air escaping.
The rescuers tie Randy to a stretcher with his own bootlaces and move him out. Klug runs beside him, holding one and then another rescue breather to Randy’s mouth as they go. It is a long, difficult carry.From outside the command center the news has jumped across the Buckhannon River to some of the relatives waiting at the Sago Baptist Church. A man bursts up to the front of the church, shouting, “They’re alive!”
Everyone is instantly on their feet, pressing their hands to their mouths or clenching their hair or one another’s shoulders. Hollering and joyful screaming begin to swirl around the room until everybody is caught up in the great dance. Anna McCloy looks around for Ben Hatfield, the mine president. He had told them, “If you don’t hear it from me, don’t believe it.” He is nowhere in sight, but so many people are cheering that something must be happening. The church bells start to clang. Anna gives herself up to the joy and starts to dance. She runs outside to be closer to the mine and maybe see the men just dancing, dancing over the bridge. And why not? For the Lord is merciful! Praise God! Praise Jesus! It is shouted everywhere.
West Virginia governor Joe Manchin corners Anna in the narrow vestibule as she leaves the church and asks her what on earth is happening. She tells him. He starts crying and stoops to hug her. “I told you miracles happen in West Virginia!” he says. He says it to everyone he sees. He calls the command center, and the people around him see him listening with a smile. He gives everyone a thumbs-up.
Family members begin moving outdoors; the walls cannot contain their excitement. In the bitter-cold midnight hour the 200 or so sing “How Great Thou Art.”
At 11:49 an excited man runs up to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, shouting, “We got 12 alive!” as Cooper broadcasts from the gravel lot below the church. CNN cannot confirm the report, and says it cannot, but Cooper starts describing the celebration, which seems to speak for itself. Millions of Americans are also celebrating and can now go to bed happy after watching days and nights of tense coverage.
“It is a miracle; there’s no other explanation,” the governor, soon across the road in the command center, tells several major news organizations by phone.
Half of America’s daily newspapers will have the miracle story on their front pages the next morning.
At the junction to the main tunnel the rescuers come stumbling exhausted out of Two Left with Randy barely alive on the stretcher. The men there have been watching them approach, watching the mad swirl of their distant cap lamps, and are now cheering to welcome them.
“Where are they? Where’s the rest of ’em?” the men shout.
Jim Klug and his team suddenly understand that the word got out real wrong.
“The rest of them is dead,” one of Klug’s men says.
Randy finally gets pure oxygen and is moved to a mantrip.
Klug gets on the mine phone to Rick Marlow in the command center.
“Listen, we got 11 items,” Klug says.
Tim Martin, one of the men who put together the code in response to press leaks, is standing near Marlow in the command center and hears this. Martin suddenly feels ill; he knows what Klug is saying. He yells for the room, still in full celebration, to quiet down.
“Items!” Martin shouts. “They said they got 11 items!”
The room finally dies down.
“Forget the code,” Marlow tells Klug. “What do you mean?”
“There’s 11 deceased people,” Klug replies. “One alive.”
Marlow repeats it to the room. It is 12:23 a.m. There is silence. The half-hour-long party ends in one thickened moment.
Soon the rescue team is out of the tunnel. Randy is loaded into an ambulance and sped away. Klug and his men stumble to the shower house. Klug scrubs his hands. They all do. They have dealt with a grisly scene. They are feeling the weight of the miscommunication. The one corner cut by command center, the 1,000-foot maximum between fresh air bases (and thus phone communications), had been a bad one.
EMTs are sent in to confirm the deaths and ID the bodies. That will take another few hours, during which time the command center and governor are silent to the world, and the little church rocks on in high hallelujah.At 2:40 a.m. people are still waiting in the church to see the miners. Anna is in the community room having coffee and finally looking at some food. A warm happiness has settled into her. The people in the sanctuary get quieter all of a sudden – she figures for prayer – so she decides to join them.
She hadn’t seen the black Yukon arrive, always the bearer of news from across the road. It is idling outside, steaming in the cold. She hadn’t seen mine president Hatfield and Governor Manchin walk ashen-faced into the church. As she enters, Anna hears Hatfield say the words “expired” and “perished” and “bodies.” She sees Hatfield struggling not to cry. All the air falls out of the room, as if this white box full of souls had just gone off a cliff but not yet found the air to scream.
The air comes back with the wailing of women. Many fall to the floor, curling into their screams. Their men are too amazed and angry to comfort them. They strut about with their fists in the air. “Liars! Liars!” they shout at the officials; some clutch their stomachs as if they have been shot. Fathers and brothers weep into one another.
Anna holds on to the end of a pew. She wants to scream but cannot. She starts to faint. She clutches the pew harder. She is nearly out, nearly down, when she hears Hatfield’s voice: “We have one survivor: Randal L. McCloy Jr.”
Anna doesn’t know how to react. Nothing is real. She doesn’t trust her ears or her own thoughts. There is no logic in the world to hold onto. It is all chaos.
A man lunges for Hatfield, who cuts his remarks short. Others surge toward the governor. State troopers surround the officials, pull them out of the church and into the black Yukon. Men run after it, yelling, clawing the road, and throwing gravel and whatever they can find at the car as it speeds away.
Anna is lifted from the molten sanctuary by a nephew. And in the cold rain that had begun to fall outside the church, she suddenly realizes something and screams it to her family: “That was Randy in that ambulance!”
She eventually catches up to him in a hallway at West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital, in Morgantown, 80 miles away. He is unconscious, dehydrated, and hypothermic. Coal is still caked on his teeth. She thinks she feels him squeeze her hand. The gurney is speeding him to surgery.
Randy will later be sent to Pittsburgh for intensive oxygen-saturation therapy. Anna will never leave his side. Prognosis: If he lives at all, which is touch and go, he will probably be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. You don’t suffer that much carbon monoxide and walk home normal.
That might have been true, if not for Anna. The way she bullies and woos him back to health is another story, and a long one. She not only promises him he will drive again; she buys him a red Mustang and presses the keys into his fist when he still can’t say a word.
As the weeks pass Randy comes out of his coma once just to say “I love you” to Anna, then slips back. A few days later he comes out for good. He does so with a scream of “Fuck!” that is heard all over the hospital.
Then come the nightmares. He will wake up at night saying things that might or might not be memories: “Where’s Jerry? Explosion! The other guys!” Anna moves a bed into his room so she can hold him at night.
He says strange things in his half-conscious early therapy. “Not going to wake up tonight,” he mumbles to a nurse. “I got ya! I got ya! Dizzy, dizzy! I’m helping ya out!… Not gone yet!… That’s my rescue tube…. Seems like forever!”
Nurses, using massages, treadmills, a swimming pool, weight machines, even a shopping cart weighted with paint cans, teach him to walk again and to think and speak clearly again. They have to face down the storms of abusive anger that come with brain recovery.
Country music stars keep writing songs about Sago, and when they play in the area Anna drags them into that hospital room. “Randy, look who’s here to visit you,” she says one day.
Randy opens his eyes: “That would be Brad Paisley,” he says, and goes back under. Another time it is Hank Williams Jr. Metallica sends a big box of CDs for her to play for him.
Jim Klug and his rescue team are suffering too. They all wish they could have gone in sooner. While Randy is still in a coma, Klug finds himself driving to the Morgantown hospital with a crew member. When they get there Anna is at Randy’s side, and Randy’s brother Chris is near her, staring at the intruders.
Klug says who he is. He doesn’t know whether he’s in for a lot of anger over decisions that were made higher up. He sticks out his hand toward Chris.
Chris just looks at Klug’s hand, and a long couple of seconds pass.
“Hell, I don’t want to shake your hand,” Chris finally says. “I want to give you a hug, man!” And that was that.
After three months Randy goes home. There are red ribbons all along the roads. The governor renames the path into his hollow Miracle Road. He walks stiffly and talks strangely, and that scares Randal III and Izzy at first. But he keeps at it.
These days Randy, now 29, can pull back his compound bow as well as anybody. He talks pretty well – a little slower and more thoughtfully, but pretty well. He is a little sadder than the old Randy. But not too long ago he gave an acquaintance a short drive in a red Mustang when Anna wasn’t looking.
Mine laws changed because of Sago. Hardened communication systems, better breathers, emergency refuge chambers, stronger seal walls: These are all the law now. Coal mining is still the most dangerous work there is, and it only seems to get safer one tragedy at a time. You could have another long story just about the widows and children of the men who died and all they have done to pass the new rules.
You should know that Flea Chisolm, the mine dispatcher, and John Boni, the fire boss who had reported the leak in the sealed area, took their own lives in the months after the disaster. That also seems to happen after such tragedies. Money that the federal government allocated for stress counseling at Sago, $35,000, got lost for a few months somewhere in the state government. The suicides forced them to find it. The governor’s office issued an apology.
Some of the families of the victims would call the state’s report on Sago a political whitewash for going too easy on the mining company and for just blaming a lightning bolt when, if anything, lightning was simply the match on a big pile ready to go.
As for Randy, he will probably never be physically able to return to the mines, even if he’d want to. He might like security work somewhere when he is a little more ready. For now, he is happy to have his days and nights with Anna and their children in Green Hollow and some disability and settlement money to live on. But, like everyone in the shadow of the Sago disaster, there is a distant and serious look in the eyes that doesn’t really go away.
The Eco Warriors
Roughly 700 feet above the Hudson River, 60-some miles north of New York City, Harrison Ford dips his Bell 407 helicopter toward the river’s eastern bank and frowns. You know the frown, of course: It’s the frown on Han Solo’s face when he’s ensnared in the Death Star’s tractor beam, or of Jack Ryan untangling some terrorist plot. Twenty-five feet tall on the silver screen, that frown – with its crooked, clenched jaw – has become iconic. Up in Ford’s helicopter, however, it merely means that something is wrong. “There’s a brown pipe coming out from that quarry,” Ford says to his passengers. “Comes out at the woods there. See it?”
Seated beside Ford is Basil Seggos, a 27-year-old legal investigator for Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog group that tracks and prosecutes Hudson River polluters. Seggos cranes his neck for a better view. “Whoa,” he says. “Look at this.” Down below, a rust-colored pipe leading out from a gravel quarry is spewing a foamy jet of pump water into the wetlands that line the river. “We’re flying directly over a pipeline that this quarry is using to pump out sediment,” he explains to the three of us in the helicopter’s rear: Alex Matthiessen, Riverkeeper’s executive director; photographer Timothy White, an old pal of Ford’s; and me. “Oh, man,” says Seggos, his voice almost cracking. “That’s gotta be illegal.”
In April, after years of hunting down polluters with kayaks, powerboats, hiking boots, and subpoenas, Riverkeeper’s investigators received an offer that they leapt at: A New York-based pilot was willing to take them up on aerial surveillance runs, and, to boot, he had a photographer friend willing to document the abuses. That this pilot, a longtime Riverkeeper patron, happened to be the biggest-grossing star in cinema history was a glitzy bonus, but it was the prospect of using Harrison Ford’s helicopter that truly thrilled Seggos and company.
“See all that shit coming out of it?” says Ford, his eyes on the pipeline. “Tim, I’m going to give it to you on the right here.” White lifts his camera up to the window glass, aims, and focuses. “Go ahead, Tim,” says Ford. “Fire away.” Click. Within each frame, gallon after gallon of discharge spills into the marsh and seeps toward the Hudson in a curved plume, marking its entrance into the river’s wide stream. Click. Click. Click-click-click. Up front, Seggos is giddy; he and Matthiessen came with a list of surveillance targets – sprawling riverside junkyards, leaky Superfund sites, illegally filled-in-wet-lands – but this discovery is a surprise. “We never would have seen that without a flyover,” Seggos says to Ford. The actor doesn’t respond, which is not unusual for him, but the frown seems to soften.
This isn’t the first time Harrison Ford has put his helicopter to good use. Two years ago, he piloted a rescue team to the top of Wyoming’s Table Mountain, near the home in Jackson where he lives part time, to help a 20-year-old hiker who was too sick and dehydrated to descend. Ford ferried her to a local hospital, where she recovered. Last year, he located and rescued a Boy Scout who’d been missing for a night in Yellowstone National Park.
Not that Harrison Ford wants you to call him a hero. He doesn’t want you to think, “Gee, what a guy, saving Boy Scouts and damsels, whapping polluters with a real-life bullwhip.” And he certainly doesn’t want you to say that the planet would be worse off if it weren’t for him. In fact, Ford really doesn’t want to talk about this extracurricular stuff at all. He’d almost prefer that questions be addressed to his helicopter, since it’s really the helicopter doing the heavy lifting. That’s why Ford has rarely taken the standard celebrity tack in do-gooding, that is, being a spokesman. “Emotion is the language of movies,” he once said. “Not yammering on.” It’s a dictum he applies to the wider world as well.
As a 10-year board member of Conservation International, a nonprofit group that seeks to safeguard biodiversity trouble spots around the globe, Ford has traveled to endangered zones in Brazil, Venezuela, and other South American nations. “He’s an engaged and immersed leader,” says Peter Seligmann, Conservation International’s chairman, “who’s deeply involved in the substantive issues of the organization. Visibility is the most minor part of what he gives us. He’s a strategic thinker, and as passionate an advocate as we have.” In other words, Harrison Ford is a man of action, literally. “I am not,” as Ford says, “a poster child.”
Case in point: Riverkeeper. Ford had been sending checks to the New York-based organization for years when he encountered Riverkeeper’s chief prosecuting attorney, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., at a fundraiser this spring. Although Ford spends a good deal of his time at his 800-plus-acre Wyoming ranch, he keeps his main residence close to the Hudson River, in New York City, where two of his children attend private school. An avid, even obsessive, pilot for the past six years, he stores some of his six aircraft – including a single-engine de Havilland Beaver biplane, a twin-engine Gulfstream IV jet, and his $2 million Bell helicopter – in a hangar in Teterboro, New Jersey, just across the river.
“I think I said to Bobby, ‘If there’s anything I can do to help . . .'” Ford recalls. “He said he might be looking for pilots to fly the Hudson watershed, and I said, ‘Let me know when you’re ready, and I’ll do what I can.'” Kennedy says the surveillance flights were Ford’s idea, not his, but we can probably chalk that disagreement up to dueling modesty. Either way, Riverkeeper gained its first aerial volunteer.
Back in Ford’s helicopter, Matthiessen follows up. “We recognized that with a staff of 15 or 20, it would be impossible to crack down on all the polluters along the river. So we’ve embarked on a program to enlist average citizens, and” – with a nod toward Ford – “not-so-average citizens, to be our eyes and ears. The idea is to allow local people to do some of the work of protecting their river – to let them serve as mini-riverkeepers.”
“So, something like a neighborhood watch for the environment?” I ask.
“Exactly,” Seggos says. “By the program’s first anniversary, we’d recorded 169 complaints, and the rate is skyrocketing. We accept help from anyone who wants to give it to us, from anonymous sources, at the low end of involvement, and, at the another end, a few full-time volunteers: fishermen, kayakers, people like that. Right now, though, Harrison is the only volunteer who can give us an aerial view.”
“Red-tail right beneath us,” Ford announces. All eyes focus on the hawk as it glides upstream, until a junkyard strewn with tires and rusted automotive husks appears on our left. White lifts his camera as Ford swings the helicopter toward their target.
Riverkeeper grew out of the dismay of fishermen, both commercial and recreational, back in the sixties, when the Hudson River was a national joke, a viscous, sludge-streaked, chemical-ridden brown sewer line running beside New York City. Under the provisions of an obscure 1888 law that awards citizens a bounty for turning in polluters, the fishermen began waging a legal war against companies that were dumping into the Hudson, shutting down the polluters and collecting half the fines. In 1983, the Hudson River Fishermen’s Association, as the organization was then called, hired its first riverkeeper, a full-time investigatory with a commission to patrol for evidence of pollution. A year later, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the slain U.S. senator, joined the organization, eventually becoming chief prosecuting attorney in 1993. His goal was simple: expose and prosecute, expose and prosecute. In the past two decades, Riverkeeper has used that tactic to nail more than 300 polluters, including behemoths like Exxon, General Electric, and, most recently, the city of New York, which pleaded guilty last year to negligence that had led to mercury leaking into the drinking supply.
The resurrection of the Hudson River, partly creditable to Riverkeeper’s dogged fieldwork and legal campaigns, has been dramatic. Some anecdotal evidence: My next-door neighbor is a commercial fisherman on the river, which is walking distance from my door. Just the other day, he delivered to me a weighty sack of soft-shell crabs he’d pulled that morning from the Hudson, a routine kindness that not so long ago would have been unthinkable. Two decades back, a sack of Hudson River crabs on the doorstep would have carried the same message as a black rose. But today? “Today, it’s the only major river system that has strong spawning stocks of its historic migratory fish,” says Kennedy. Though polluters still menace it (and fish-consumption warnings still stand), the single largest threat to the river these days is from development; after decades of strenuously avoiding the Hudson, says Kennedy, “people now want to live beside it.”
Unintended consequences aside, the river’s turnaround has proved a durable model for environmentalists nationwide; there are currently 90 licensed “keepers” on waterways across America, with an additional 300 applications awaiting approval, according to Kennedy. “We get up every morning and fight for rivers,” he says. “We’d like to see ourselves put out of business, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
A few hundred feet about the Hudson’s eastern bank, Ford’s helicopter hovers atop a square of land jutting into the river in a clearly artificial way – clearly artificial, at least, from this altitude. “This is a yacht club,” explains Seggos. “A while back, they illegally filled the riverbank to make themselves some new space. We also have an informant telling us that oil drums and old appliances were being dumped here.”
“This was a case referred by a citizen watchdog,” adds Matthiessen.
“Looks like they filled in about an acre, huh?” says Ford, and the frown returns. The Hudson may be 306 miles long, and an acre just an acre, but it’s this type of thing, this gnawing away at nature, that annoys him. “We keep pulling out pieces of the puzzle,” he tells me later, “and expecting it to heal itself.” The Hudson may be hemmed in and its banks built up, but its current still runs wild.
Wildness, on water and land and in the sky, has beckoned Ford since his childhood. As a boy growing up in Morton Grove, Illinois, Ford retreated from neighborhood bullies – who liked to roll him down a hill – into the wildish edges of his subdivision, which sparked his early ambition to be a forest ranger. But after flunking out of Wisconsin’s Ripon College, Ford headed to California, where he flirted with acting and then went with carpentry, which provided him a living for nearly a decade. Then came American Graffiti (1973), then Star Wars (1977), and you know the rest. Never comfortable with fame, never at ease with Hollywood’s tacky apparatus, Ford found refuge in his Wyoming ranch, and then, later, in the cockpits of his plane and helicopter, where, he says, he can keep “from thinking about anything but flying.” That and the wide earth below him.
“There’s still time left to hold the line,” he tells me, “to save sufficient biodiversity, to preserve what’s necessary for nature to function.” Does it ever frustrate him, I ask – flying over some denuded stretch of clear-cut forest? “No,” he says. “Never. People don’t need to despair. They need to know that there are solutions – good, practical solutions – and they need to keep up the good fight.”
“You getting your shot back there, Tim?” Ford says as he buzzes the yacht club, dipping toward it. “About three o’clock on the right, where it juts out into the river. I’ll make another pass. The rule, by the way, in case anyone is interested, is that we’re supposed to be 2,000 feet horizontal and 1,000 feet vertical from any person or object. Obviously we’ve dicked the shit out of that one today.”
Call it vigilante environmentalism. If the government can’t enforce the laws, the people will, by finding and exposing polluters, taking them to court, forcing them to shut off an ugly spigot. “We usually get calls before the government does,” Kennedy tells me later. “If you call the Department of Environmental Conservation, or the EPA, whomever, the chances of something getting done are slim. And don’t even think about calling after hours or on a Saturday. But if people call us, they know that something will get done.” Riverkeeper’s mission is not fluffy and utopian; it’s a grouchy, populist, your-dog-can’t-shit-on-my-sidewalk kind of environmentalism. As Ford puts it, “This is simple stuff; that’s a violation of the law, and the law is there to be enforced.”
Up above the Hudson, headed south, Seggos is explaining what will happen next with the quarry we spied earlier. “We’ll talk to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, check on the permits using the Freedom of Information Act, investigate it further on the ground, and then, if necessary, take them to court.” (As it turns out, the quarry does have a permit to discharge 8 million gallons per day of “pump-out water and storm water,” and the state alleges that the drainage does “not have a significant impact on the environment.” Which means it’s legal, but, as Seggos later tells me, that doesn’t always mean it’s kosher. Riverkeeper has filed a complaint with the state about the quarry’s permit, and investigators will collect water samples in the fall, from boats and kayaks, to monitor the discharge’s actual contents.)
“See all those swans over there?” Ford cuts in. Near the Hudson’s western edge, a bevy of swans sit bobbing in the river. “They’re trumpeters,” he says, and banks the helicopter eastward. “I don’t want to disturb them.” The swans continue their rest as if they never noticed us, high above them in this jet-powered contraption, and that, it seems, is exactly the point. “That’s cool,” Ford whispers, and, with the Bronx ahead of us in the hazy urban distance, he follows the river home.
At U.S. Highway 2 crosses Montana, it is dotted along its 600-mile length with signposts bearing white crosses. They flicker past like small anonymous advertisements, punctuating the mostly empty road, which stretches across the sparsely populated top of the state – from the wheat fields of Wolf Point in the east, past the wind-scoured town of Chinook, where the plains collide with the Rocky Mountains, skirting the lower fringes of Glacier National Park, and continuing through a claustrophobic corridor of ragged hills. The crosses mark the sites of highway fatalities. Some of them are hung with plastic wreaths; some have names scratched on their surfaces; some are bent by winds and ice; many are rusted.
For a while, as if playing a child’s game with myself, I keep tally of the roadside body count, which lends me the impression that I am being shepherded along my route by specters, that death forms the backdrop of this journey. Near Libby, a hamlet on the northwestern edge of the state, the white crosses begin to multiply, like rogue vegetation. In one innocuous stretch, just outside town, there is a cross every hundred yards or so, a cross stands beside a sign announcing the town limits, in view of the great charred steel skeleton of a former sawmill; yet another one decorates the lawn outside the Libby Area Chamber of Commerce, whose officials have spent the past few years battling the notion that the town, population 2,675, has become, as one resident put it, “America’s Chernobyl.”
Directly behind the Chamber of Commerce sits a charmless rectangle about the size of a pair of football fields, hemmed in by a chain-link fence. This is Libby’s cemetery, adorned with its own bland rows of crosses. Diane Keck knows this place. Until 1954, when she was 15 and her family moved away, her father was the town undertaker. “In the course of my father’s job, he noticed something strange,” she says. “A lot of the men who worked up at the mine just outside town were dying young. He made a connection. He told us kids to stay away from the stuff from the mine.” Some of that stuff – a micalike mineral of a thousand uses called vermiculite, which is tinged with tremolite, a naturally occurring and particularly virulent form of asbestos – was forever drifting through the air around Libby. The mineral hung in dust clouds over the town and accumulated on the ground at a plant where ore was processed and shipped. “They would dump it into open boxcars and there would be a big poof of smoke,” Keck remembers. “And there were big piles of it, like mountains, and we would play blindman’s bluff around them.”
Ten years ago, Keck started coughing , and she hasn’t stopped since. When she hikes in the woods, she gets short of breath. Doctors tell her that she has signs of asbestosis, an incurable lung disease that is caused almost exclusively by industrial exposure to asbestos. A few years ago, Keck learned that most of the children from her old neighborhood had also been diagnosed with asbestos-related lung disease. Her brother has it; so does her nephew, who grew up nearby; so, too, it seems, does nearly everyone in town.
It takes little more than five minutes to drive through Libby, but I have no intention of passing through. The town is the site of a toxic contamination that is unprecedented in American history, and I have followed a trail of white crosses here to meet the people and to hear their stories. Libby has always been remote and rugged, even by Montana standards, and until recently it was a tight-knit, seemingly idyllic community, shadowed by the rough peaks of the Cabinet Mountains, their slopes drenched in blue light. You don’t have to hike very far into the hills around town to come upon a chain of secluded lakes, and you can still spend days at those heights without crossing paths with another person. Grizzlies roam the woods, and trout cluster in the shallows of the Kootenai River, which cuts through town. But the fresh, folkloric Rocky Mountain air has become a burden rather than a blessing for many of Libby’s residents, who, like Keck, are enduring the effects of a lung-thickening disease and opening their homes to hazardous-waste workers in hooded Tyvek suits who are equipped with respirators and sensitive monitors.
This is the short form of the telling: Just north of Libby stands a hill that once looked like any other hill. For 67 years, the shape of this hill was altered by explosives and earthmovers, and by the labor of men who were brought up the hill on clattering buses. The men came up, and the rock they dug out was brought down, tens of thousands of pounds of rock each hour. It was hard work, removing the top of the hill, but it was good work. It supported generations of families. True, the miners died young, but danger was an accepted part of their daily routine; grousing about pain and misfortune was not. Miners kept their suspicions about the vermiculite dust that coated their work clothes to themselves.
Then, in 1990, the hill was vacated by W.R. Grace, the multinational corporation that had operated the mine since 1963. Although the company possessed detailed knowledge of the asbestos hazards to which its workers had been exposed, it had kept that knowledge to itself. State and federal governments had also been aware of the risks. Ironically, Marc Racicot, Montana’s attorney general from 1989 to 1993, and its governor from 1993 to 2001, was raised in Libby. But even that didn’t compel state officials to inform the community.
By 1995, a few families had noticed that miners’ wives were dying of their husbands’ ailment, and the miners’ children, too, had learned that they often shared it, as if the hazards of the trade were genetically passed on. But not until 1999 did residents begin to notice that asbestosis was showing up in people who had never been at the mine and had never lived with miners. Still, there was no organized outcry about the contamination until the end of that year, when the Environmental Protection Agency began a belated full-scale investigation of the town’s legacy of pollution.
The EPA discovered that asbestos has probably shortened the lives of most of the 1,898 workers who toiled at the mine between 1940 and 1990. What’s more, the effects are ongoing. An astounding one third of Libby’s residents are believed to have contracted asbestos-related lung disease. “We haven’t begun to count the number of people who have been, or will be, killed by this,” an EPA scientist, protective of his identity, told me, before adding with disgust, “This was deliberate murder.”
Soon after I arrive in Libby, I meet a man named Les Skramstad, whose thin, wavering voice barely rises above a whisper. Skramstad, 64, is grizzled and bowlegged and wears a camouflage cap with a dirty feather stuck in its side. A toothpick often hangs from his mouth when he speaks. Although Skramstad didn’t receive a high school diploma until he was in his 40s, he is as forceful and eloquent a man I have met. He has worked as a rancher and a logger and a mechanic. Once, for barely three years, he worked as a miner in Libby and as a result has full-blown asbestosis. “Full-blown is when you got a death sentence,” he says. “You better put your affairs in order.” In 1997, Skramstad sued W.R. Grace for personal injury. His was the first of only three cases in Libby to reach a jury, and he won a judgment of $660,000 against the company, which has made him something of a pariah in town. But his victory didn’t dispel his bitterness about what he and his community have suffered. “Should a person have to die just because they live in Libby?” he asks.
“It was more or less like a brotherhood at the mine. The first day of work, I got on the busy downtown and they hauled us up on the hill. There was a guy named Tom DeShazer, and I walked over to him and said, ‘Here I am,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you’re going to go be a sweeper in the mill.’ He sent me over to the warehouse to get a respirator. I’d never seen a respirator before. A guy named Shorty Welch handed it to me, and I said, ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ and he kind of laughed and said, ‘Well, wear it if you can.’ It was a little aluminum gadget, about the size of your hand, that fit over your nose and mouth.
“I got on the man-lift and rode up to the top floor of that mill, and, my God, I’d never seen anything like it in my life. I guess a guy has seen a dust storm before. The dust was probably three, four inches deep. It was almost like walking on a real plushy carpet. It was so dusty that it was hard to see what the heck was going on.
“I believe I was getting $2.10 an hour. I really wanted that job, so, boy, I started sweeping with all my might. After about 15 minutes, Jesus, I couldn’t breathe. So I threw that respirator off, and it was plagued with dust. I thought I was going to suffocate. Everyone who worked up there looked the same after a few hours. We all looked brown.
“I was beating this dust off myself so I could eat lunch when Tom DeShazer said, ‘Oh, don’t pay any attention to that. It’s just a nuisance dust. It won’t hurt you. You can eat a ton of it and it’ll never hurt you.'”–Les Skramstad
I am standing on the porch of a whitewashed house three miles from W.R. Grace’s defunct mine. The house is owned by history buff, gentleman farmer, and amateur toxic-contamination expert Mike Powers. Powers, 64, came to Libby 20 years ago and Kootenai, where he tends his small herd of exotic Swiss cattle and lives in an old farmhouse built from hand-hewn logs.
Once, long ago, Powers’s farm played host to the workshop in which the potent dust that helped build and bury Libby was first stirred up. The wizard of Libby, a man named E.N. Alley, who died two years before Powers’s birth, slept in the house where Powers now sleeps, and left traces of his handiwork all over the property.
In 1921, Alley ventured into a disused 40-foot-deep shaft that had been dug into a hill near his ranch. He carried a torch to light his way. Before long, he heard a sizzling sound. His flame had roasted some of the loose rock in the tunnel, and the pebbles had puffed up, like popcorn, and drifted before his eyes. Alley had found the world’s largest deposit of vermiculite, whose peculiar exfoliating properties are due to the evaporation of water molecules between the rock’s layers. Alley staked his miner’s claim, came up with the suitably Jazz Age name Zonolite for his product, and christened the mountain after the brand. What he didn’t know was that the vermiculite was inextricably braided with asbestos fibers, and that inhaling those fibers – especially in high concentration, especially over long stretches of time – would kill a man.
Zonolite was marketed as a lightweight, nonflammable additive to construction materials, and by 1926 a hundred tons of it were being produced in Libby daily. Its most widespread application would be home insulation – today, as many as 15 million attics in the United States may contain asbestos-laced Zonolite. A mill was built on top of Zonolite Mountain to separate valuable ore from waste rock. The mill stood 10 stories tall, higher by far than any building in Libby, and featured a tangle of grinders, steel screens, conveyor belts, and chutes. Ore would be poured in at the top, and by the time it tumbled to the bottom, being crushed as it fell, it had been sifted into a granular residue. The milling produced plumes of thick, white dust – containing up to 5,000 pounds of asbestos each day – that billowed from atop the mountain, settling on the hillside and in creek beds and hovering over Libby like a fog. Children in town would write their names in the dust on sidewalks.
By 1942, when the state of Montana first contacted the Zonolite Company to express its concern about the dust at the mine, there was already ample medical knowledge about the danger of asbestos. The author of a 1937 article in The New England Journal of Medicine did not mince words. “Asbestos,” he wrote, “is extremely dangerous and fatal.” Such warnings did not deter W.R. Grace, then based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from buying Zonolite in 1963, or from doubling the mine’s daily output – to 15,000 tons of ore, containing 900,000 pounds of asbestos – between then and 1990, when the mine closed after mounting signs of a future filled with asbestos-related litigation had become impossible to ignore.
Although Powers never worked in the mine, he recently learned that his lungs are diseased from inhaling asbestos. “My only exposure,” he says, “is living here.” We tour his farm, and everywhere we go he points out glittering flecks of vermiculite. Standing in the former chicken house, Powers tells me, “The carpenter who helped me work on this building – his lungs are full of asbestos. The guy that worked on the furnace shield has it. The electrician, the plumber – they have it.” Powers figures that the property into which he has sunk his savings and his labor is unsalable. “Maybe,” he says, “W.R. Grace will buy this farm and turn it into an asbestos theme park.” As he talks, Powers bangs on a wall and jolts a puff of vermiculite dust loose into the air.
“Look there,” he says. “Strange how it catches in the cobwebs.”
“I’d come home from work pretty well laden with dust, and my kids were little at that time, and they’d meet me at the door and grab my legs, and they’d get a blast of it. Then my wife, Norita, would give me a hug at the door, and she’d get a dose of it, too. I contaminated them every single day. If it had just took the lives of us miners, that would have been bad enough. But I carried it home and gave it to my wife and three of our five children. That’s a pretty poor percentage. My daughter Laurel, she’s got six kids. She’s got it. And my boy Brent, he’s got it real bad, like me, full-blown. My grandfather lived to be 88. My dad lived to be 78. I may not make 68. Brent, he may not make 48. Any man should look out for his family first, and being that I had a hand in their destiny, that’s pretty grim.” –Les Skramstad
Chris Weis, a 47-year-old toxicologist, was not, at first, alarmed. Based in Denver, Weis specializes in emergency response for the EPA’s Region 8 office, which covers the northern Rockies. Just before Thanksgiving 1999, while attending a meeting in Helena, Montana, Weis was paged by his managers. The agency had seen an inflammatory report in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer concerning a small town that Weis had never heard of where close to 200 deaths and another 400 cases of fatal illness were being attributed to exposure to mine contaminants.
“Look,” he tells me, in the EPA’s field office in Libby, “I’ve got a doctorate in toxicology and a doctorate in medical physiology. My first reaction to the reports was, This doesn’t happen.”
Weis nonetheless went to Libby to investigate, visiting the former mine and a number of sites where ore was processed and handled. He contacted a pulmonologist in Spokane, Washington, 200 miles to the west, who had treated hundreds of Libby residents for asbestos-related lung disease, which occurred in town at 60 times the national average rate. He learned of at least 19 local cases of an invariably fatal cancer called mesothelioma, whose only known cause is exposure to asbestos, and which is so rare that, as Weis says, “one case in a population of a million is considered an epidemic.” He spent some time talking to residents. “Libby is a small town,” he points out, “so if you talk to 40 or 50 people and every one of them has a neighbor or family member with an asbestos-related disease – to say the least, that’s unusual.” Weis returned to Denver persuaded that Libby had the distinction of hosting “the most severe human exposure to a hazardous material this country has ever seen.”
Within two days, the EPA descended on Libby in full force, bringing in a team of scientists, physicians, geologists, and toxic-cleanup experts. None of them were prepared for the dimensions of the disaster they would discover. They learned that W.R Grace had “pumped so much asbestos fiber into the airshed here, it hung in the center of town in concentrations that were probably 20 times higher than the present occupational-exposure limit,” Weis says. They learned that when W.R. Grace left town in 1990, the company had done a sloppy job cleaning up its former properties, which remained highly contaminated. And there was more. “We found disturbing evidence that the material had been readily accessible to the general public in Libby. Ore was often free for the taking. Kids played in it; it was in sandboxes and on ball fields. People would load up their pickup trucks and take it home to use in their gardens as a soil amendment and on their driveways as a surfacing material. When the high school track needed resurfacing in the 1970s, W.R. Grace brought down truckloads of raw ore – almost, in some cases, pure asbestos – and covered the track with it. Kids ran on mine tailings until 1983.”
Finally, the EPA called in the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, which invited the residents of Libby and the surrounding valley, past and present, to undergo screening for signs of asbestos-related disease. As Weis recalls, “We anticipated that, given the severity of exposures in Libby, we might see possibly as much as 10 or 12 percent of the population come back with scarring on their lungs.” Chest X-rays were taken of 6,144 people. Preliminary results released this March, representing 1,078 of those examined, revealed that 30 percent showed symptoms of lung disease. “We just weren’t prepared for that,” Weis says. “What’s unprecedented is that so many of these sick people had no known source of exposure to asbestos. They only lived in Libby.”
Weis was also shocked to discover that his predecessors at the EPA and other federal agencies had been well informed of the dangers in Libby. “The pieces of this situation were put together in the seventies,” he says. “Very detailed studies were done. The results were unequivocal.” While it’s true that until 1970, when Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, regulatory oversight of work places was severely limited, rarely had a year passed since the mid-fifties in which some government agency did not visit Libby and come back with troubling findings. In 1968, for instance, the U.S. Public Health Service warned W.R. Grace that “the dust concentrations are from 10 to 100 times in excess of the safe limit.”
Nonetheless, a series of EPA memos in the early eighties addressing the health risks at the mine were allowed to languish. At that time, President Reagan, in his first term, was intent on reducing government spending in order to cut taxes. (In a report issued this spring, the office of the EPA’s inspector general acknowledge that the “EPA did not place emphasis on dealing with asbestos-contaminated vermiculite due to funding constraints and competing priorities.”) It’s worth noting that in 1982, Reagan convened a closed-door gathering of advisers to come up with suggestions for where to trim the budget. The group, called the Grace Commission, was chaired by an old friend of the president’s, J. Peter Grace, the president and CEO of W.R. Grace.
The EPA is still cleaning up Libby, having spent $12 million on its efforts in 2000, with another $16 million budgeted for 2001. Sixty to 70 percent of Libby’s homes are thought to contain vermiculite insulation. Most yards have vermiculite in the soil. At dusk, the streets downtown still glisten with a sheen of powdery ore. Nights at my motel, I often pass hazardous-waste workers in the hallway. They have been brought to Libby by the EPA. By day, they can be seen entering sealed houses around town, beating pillows, vacuuming curtains, and dusting mantels in an effort to measure how much asbestos fiber has worked its way into the fiber of daily life in Libby.
Naturally, the ore that was taken from W.R. Grace’s mine did not stay in Libby for long. It was transported to more than 250 processing plants around the country. The EPA has barely started examining these sites. In Minneapolis, though, the agency tracked down 57 former employees of a factory that had received its share of Libby’s vermiculite. Twenty-four of those workers either had died or were dying of asbestos-related disease.
“You can still go to your local Kmart and buy gardening supplies that contain Libby vermiculite,” says Weis, who is in charge of gathering and evaluating scientific data on Libby’s contamination. “Speaking purely as a toxicologist, I’ve never seen as hideous a poison as this material.”
“Around the last part of 1960, a boss at the experimental lab come down and told us, ‘I want you to get in the pickup and go up on the hill and get a load of asbestos.’ That was the first time I ever heard the word. I’d seen a lot of it up there, but I didn’t know what it was. We got shovels and picks and dug it out of the hill. We brought it down to town, and spread it out as thin as possible in our work area, and put electric heaters on it to dry out. We got on our hands and knees to pick out rocks from it, because we’d been told they wanted 100 percent asbestos. We worked every day on it, all day long, for a couple of weeks. When the stuff got dry, the wind would blow through the door and scatter it all over the building. We didn’t want to lose any of it, so we sealed up all the doors with rags. I had no idea what they wanted it for. But like I say, we were just paid to do a job. There was not a peep about it being dangerous.” –Les Skramstad
Its name comes from a Greek word meaning “inextinguishable,” and it endures fire, flood, and frost as fiercely as it clings to a person’s lungs. A human hair is well over a thousand times as thick as one of its strands. It can be woven like cotton, which cannot be said of any other mineral. It has been an ingredient in at least 3,000 products, common and rare, and, despite the widespread and mistaken impression that it has been banned – efforts by the EPA to do so, in 1989, were overturned on legal technicalities – it remains ubiquitous, not only in insulation but in clutch and brake linings, in pipe and boiler insulation, in wallboard and floor tiles, in oven mitts and plastic pot handles, and in baby powder.
Its advocates and apologists will dispute it, but over the past century, a vast medical literature has exhaustively described the means by which asbestos has killed, according to EPA estimates, 259,000 people in the United States, with another 166,000 deaths anticipated over the next 30 years. Among the proud array of carcinogenic products, natural and fabricated, only tobacco has contributed to a higher death toll. Most of its victims will never know what caused their death, because they are unaware they have been exposed to it, and the lapse between exposure and the onset of illness is typically longer than 10 years. In this way, it maims not like a gun, inflicting harm at the moment of contact, but rather like a land mine, which lies dormant for years.
“There’s something about this fiber that’s not average,” says Dr. Brad Black, the director of Libby’s new Center for Asbestos-Related Disease. Black’s job is not what he bargained for when he opted to be a small-town doctor in a place served by a 24-bed hospital and fewer than 10 physicians. Since the “asbestos clinic,” as everyone in town calls it, opened last year, Black has seen, he estimates, four or five hundred asbestos-diseased patients, including the construction worker whose chest X-ray he has put on display for me.
“See those large patches of white?” Black says, pointing to blocks of washed-out-looking glare that rim the dark crescents of lung. “They wouldn’t be there in a healthy lung. It’s scarring.” Black explains that tremolite asbestos fibers, once inhaled, embed themselves in the lining of the lung – the pleura – like needles, and stay there. The body can’t flush them out; medicine can’t destroy them; surgery can’t cut them out. Surrounding tissue responds to the irritation by calcifying. A healthy pleura is as thick as Saran Wrap; in a person with asbestosis, it may be as thick as an orange peel. Then the lung itself gets covered with calloused tissue; oxygen struggles to find its way into the lung, and carbon dioxide struggles to find its way out. “It’s just a progressive scarring,” Black explains, “until respiratory or heart failure.”
If one were to attempt to devise the perfect suffering, death by asbestosis would come close to fitting the bill. It is slow and incapacitating. It steadily wastes the patient. It brings the patient to the very verge of suffocation and allows him to remain there for months, even years, on end, to reflect on his situation. A typical patient will cough until he vomits. His lungs will fill with fluid. He will feel as if he is swimming in the fluid, drowning.
Just ask Don Kaeding, who survived four years as an artilleryman during the Second World War, but is paying for his 28 months of service on behalf of Zonolite. I find Kaeding yoked by a 50-foot length of tube to a noisy machine in the corner of his living room. The tubing fits snugly in his nostrils, curls over his ears, runs down his shirt, and snakes its way along the wall to a canister that feeds Kaeding his breath. “God damn, but this is an irritating disease,” he says apologetically. “I got these cords to drag around, and they’re always in everybody’s way. My wife’s mother tripped on them one night and broke her arm.” Kaeding is 78. His skin is ashen, his hair waxy, his lips blue. He’s been on supplemental oxygen for five years, like a puppet on a life-giving string, and, as he tells me, “ain’t no one volunteers for this.”
Kaeding – who filed a personal-injury suit against W.R. Grace, only to have his claim dismissed for exceeding the three-year statute of limitations – is one of a cadre of Libby residents being kept alive by mechanical means. Most of them don’t leave the house much, because the effort of slipping into a portable oxygen unit, which weighs down a frail body and which gets unpleasantly frosty, tends to consume as much energy as an oxygen-deprived person can muster on a given day. Nonetheless, I spot shoppers resting their air tanks in their carts at the local grocery store. I see an oxygen-outfitted man wheeling a bicycle around town, stowing his gear as others would their Gatorade. And one of my new circle of asbestos-diseases acquaintances tells me the tale of an old woman in Libby who, not long ago, while hooked up to her air supply, put her head beneath her bedcovers, lit a furtive cigarette, and blew herself straight to the next world.
EXCERPT FROM THE DEPOSITION OF EARL LOVICK,FORMER LIBBY MINE SUPERINTENDENT, OCTOBER 27, 1998
Q: And you knew at least by 1962 that your men were being diseased, correct?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: It wasn’t at risk of disease, they were in fact being diseased, correct?
A: Some of them, yes, sir.
Q: And they were in fact dying, correct?
A: Some of them, yes, sir.
Q: You had absolute proof that these men had been diseased up there at the mill by 1966 at the latest? Is that true?
A: Yes, sir, that would be true.
Q: And none of the records you had on that were shared with the men. Is that true?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And so at this point it wasn’t just a matter of men being exposed to something that might injure or kill them, these men were already injured and dying, and they were continuing to be exposed every day, is that true?
A: Yes, sir.
Q: And is it fair to say that since you knew that workers were going home with asbestos dust on them, that they were taking home toxic dust?
Alan Stringer is in a bind. Stringer, 57, is an engineer of mines, after all, not an engineer of facts, and it turns out that it was an easier job to run an operation that exposed a town to hazards, as Stringer did in Libby from 1981 until the mine shut down, than it is to deal with the emotional, medical, and political fallout. But Stringer is a loyal man, a company man, and when W.R. Grace called on him to be its stand-up guy in Libby once again – dealing with flak from the press and the EPA and the community – he opened an office on Mineral Avenue, downtown, just down the block from the EPA, a few blocks from the Center for Asbestos-Related Disease.
“There’s no question, it’s a sad story,” he says. Sadder, too, because W.R. Grace was an excellent record keeper, which only makes Stringer’s job of defending the company tougher. A detailed paper trail demonstrates the company’s awareness, even before it purchased Zonolite in 1963, of the asbestos problem in Libby. How to respond to a 1956 report by an inspector for Montana’s Division of Disease Control noting that “the asbestos dust in the air is of considerable toxicity”? Or to an internal company memo, from 1967, that refers to “a potentially large group of employees who may already have the beginnings of [asbestos]”? Or to a 1969 company briefing, marked CONFIDENTIAL and given the subject heading “Vermiculite Report for Mr. Grace,” that concludes with the sentence “Tremolite asbestos is a definite health hazard at both the Libby operation and at the expanding plants using the ore”? Well, for Alan Stringer, the response is, “It was another time, another understanding.”
Indeed, when times were good in Libby, no one – not workers, nor union representatives, nor politicians in a community in which W.R. Grace was the largest taxpayer – felt pressed to inquire too deeply into the health of miners. Among town doctors, silence was the rule. While the mine was active, W.R. Grace always occupied a seat on the board of the local hospital. As Black remembers, “If you’d have brought up this topic for discussion, you’d have been run out of town as a rabid environmentalist.” The company was a pillar of the community. When civic groups were raising funds, the company was there. When the ball field needed new bleachers, the company was there.
But the company also failed to share the results of its own medical-screening program with its employees, even when, in 1969, those tests showed that 92 percent of longtime mine workers were diseased. It would not, it seems, have been cost-effective to acknowledge that working at the mine could make a man terribly sick. A 1968 memo from high-ranking W.R. Grace executive Peter Kostic suggested that 32 diseased miners be shifted to less-strenuous work so that “we may be able to keep them on the job until they retire, thus precluding the high cost of total disability.” The company failed, as well, to provide workers with on-site showers, an amenity that might have reduced the amount of toxic material miners brought home with them. Neither company memo, from 1983 – when Stringer was mine superintendent – considered the $373,000 cost of installing such showers in forbidding tones, concluding, “I recommend that no action be taken at this time.”
W.R. Grace says that the company compiled with ever-changing regulations limiting asbestos exposure, which became more stringent during the 1970s and ’80s, and that, alarmed by high rates of lung disease in its workers, it did take steps to reduce dust at the Libby mine. Only in retrospect, the company says, did it become clear that workers and residents had been exposed to harmful levels of tremolite asbestos. Still, the company’s files are filled with material that has given Stringer a serious public relations headache.
But slick PR doesn’t seem to be a strength at W.R. Grace, which was notably vilified in the book and movie A Civil Action for allegedly dumping cancer-causing chemicals in the drinking water of Woburn, Massachusetts. The company’s image wasn’t burnished any in Libby when, in this past April, W.R. Grace filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, citing its need for protection from some 325,000 personal-injury claims that had been made against its asbestos-containing products, especially a fire-retardant spray-on insulator called Monokote. By its own account, the pared-down company, which began spinning off its assets in 1995, when it had revenues of $6 billion, did only $1.6 billion in business in 2000, while it forecasts asbestos-related liabilities of $878 million. “Grace cannot defend itself against unmeritorious claims,” said Paul J. Norris, the company’s chairman, president, and CEO, in announcing the bankruptcy.
Two days after the announcement, I meet with Roger Sullivan, a lawyer in Kalispell, Montana, 90 miles away. About 15 years ago, a handful of diseased miners in Libby started suing the company, receiving small settlements – generally said to be less than $100,000 each – and agreeing to remain silent about the details of their suits. By the time Sullivan began advocating on behalf of clients in Libby in 1995, settlements had begun to creep up into the middle six figures – still barely enough to cover long-term medical costs. “In the course of developing a few early cases,” he tells me, “the circle of victims just kept getting bigger and bigger.” Sullivan and his partners, Jon Heberling and Allan McGarvey, have since settled 30 cases against W.R. Grace, have won three trials – including that of Les Skramstad – in front of juries , and have 80 suits pending, representing 200 individuals.
Of course, these suits have been put on indefinite hold by W.R. Grace’s bankruptcy filing, and according to Sullivan, his clients are “frustrated and confused by the chasm between the law and justice.” Those with claims pending against W.R. Grace, and those who only recently learned of the harm done to them by the company, now stand a better chance of getting a payoff from gaming machines in local casinos.
“It ought to scare the hell out of the whole town, but it don’t. The town looks at us like were the villains. Like this was a nice little town and we come along and upset the apple cart. A lot of people think we’re dreaming this up and taking out on this poor company. Well, if I strangled a single person – and that’s what it amounts to if you’ve got asbestosis, you suffocate – I’d be in the penitentiary. And yet they do it to families, they do it to kids, and they get away with it.” –Les Skramstad
Every weekday morning at 10, a group of men, mostly middle-aged or older, meet for coffee and conversation at a grimy little Mexican restaurant in downtown Libby called La Casa de Amigos. The restaurant doesn’t open for business until 11, which suits the members of the coffee klatch just fine. Although they would deny it, their meetings are not open to the public, but are instead the preserve of Libby’s dilapidated power elite. Among the regulars who gather beneath faded piñatas and walls hung with threadbare serapes are an assortment of bankers, lawyers, and businessmen, as well as Alan Stringer, the mayor, and a representative to the state legislature. They take wagers on who will pay for their 70-cent cups of coffee, and they trade gripes about the stigma that has blotted their town. “We’re in dire straits,” says Mike Munro, who runs a bar and restaurant called Treasure Mountain Casino, “and we’ve got no way of turning it around. The EPA has brought a different kind of cancer to this town.” The men are scornful of the claims of those affected by asbestos-related disease. “There are people in town who are disappointed they haven’t been diagnosed,” one of them tells me. Another adds, “They thought they’d hit the lottery with this asbestos thing.”
Since the EPA arrived in 1999, the town has fractured into a collection of outraged tribes. If Libby was, at one time, divided between blue-collar workers and managers – they lived in different neighborhoods, drank at different bars, prayed at different churches – now it is health, not wealth, that turns neighbors against one another.
Some, like the men in La Casa de Amigos, think the health hazards have been overblown by the shiftless residents looking to cash in at the expense of W.R. Grace. Many others have refused to be examined for asbestosis, not wanting to condone the hysteria. Businessmen worry about the local economy: Tales have circulated about out-of-towners calling the Chamber of Commerce to ask if it is safe to drive through Libby, even with the windows rolled up. And there are those who want nothing more from W.R. Grace than acknowledgment in the form of an apology, which has not been forthcoming.
Then there are Libby’s sick, who believe they are being persecuted for staining the town’s reputation and ruining its economy. According to Laura Sedler, Libby’s sole clinical social worker, who runs support groups for people with asbestos-related diseases, “There’s an old-fashioned term for what happened to victims in this community: shunning.” In 1997, when Les Skramstad took W.R. Grace to court, his suit didn’t receive a word of coverage in the local newspapers. The country courtroom was empty of spectators, except for a few widows who wanted to find out what had happened to their husbands. More recently, a woman whose husband had just died of asbestosis stood in the checkout line at the supermarket and listened to the clerk gripe, “I’m sick of hearing about asbestos. We won’t be done with this until they all just die off.”
But residents in Libby are not only coming to terms with the realization that they have been liberally sprinkled with toxic dust; they also seem to be experiencing a childlike sense of abandonment. In the past decade, a prosperous silver mine shut down, and the timber mill that was the largest local employer scaled back its operations by 80 percent. Two thousand jobs have been lost, prompting an exodus of young, able-bodied, and motivated residents. Libby is the seat of what is now the second-poorest county in the second-poorest state in the country. A quarter of the town’s population lives below the poverty line; another quarter isn’t doing much better.
It’s hard not to wonder whether the remoteness of Libby, and the complacency and lack of wealth and lack of influence of its residents – compared, in particular, with that of a onetime Fortune 500 company that donated $764,618 to political campaigns during the 1990s – might have allowed the disaster to occur in the first place. Several hundred sick poor people don’t make for much of a political constituency.
Still, the week after W.R. Grace filed for Chapter 11, about 200 residents air their grievances to a U.S. senator, Max Baucus. Baucus embraces the role of crusader for Libby’s wounded. Facing the crowd at a local theater, he takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves, radiates Clintonesque empathy, and tells the audience, “What happened here is an outrage. We’ve got to get you justice. Grace can buy all the fancy lawyers they want, but I’m going to make sure you will be made whole.” He listens to pleas for health-care facilities, pleas for criminal action against W.R. Grace, and, toward the end of the meeting, a plea from a young man, just diagnosed with scarring on his lungs, for Little League ball fields to replace the contaminated old diamonds. Then, just as suddenly as he arrived in Libby, Baucus is gone.
I mingle with the crowd after the meeting breaks up. I nod at Alan Stringer, who sat forlornly through the event in the back corner of the auditorium with his windbreaker zipped up. I spot Don Kaeding, with his oxygen tank, and Les Skramstad, in his loudest western shirt. Diane Keek is there, coughing dryly, and a few feet away stands Mike Powers, speaking vehemently about the need for aggressive cleanup of private homes. And I exchange a word or two with Jimmy Racicot, who has asbestosis and is a relative of the former governor. Or, as he tells me, in a joking and contemptuous tone, “He’s related to me.”
When I turn to leave the auditorium, I spot a plaque about the theater entrance, listing the donors who funded its renovation, and I read the familiar name W.R. Grace.
EXCERPT FROM THE DEPOSITION OF LES SKRAMSTAD, JANUARY 13, 1997
Q: I understand you have had some psychological problems?
Q: Tell me about those.
A: I have a little problem once in a while justifying my existence on this planet.
Q: Since you were diagnosed with asbestosis, have you experienced an increase in the bouts of depression?
A: Somewhat, yes.
Q: And what do you think it is attributable to?
A: Lack of air.
The day before I am to leave Libby, I give myself a tour of the haunted landscape. I start at the base of Rainey Creek Road, the dirt road that miners took up Zonolite Mountain for 67 years. Chris Weis, of the EPA, told me he will no longer drive up the road without wearing respiratory equipment. Yet it remains open to the public. A few days earlier, I saw a young man motor up Rainey Creek on a dirt bike, kicking up a storm of dust. Barely a mile up the road, I pass a clearing littered with beer bottles – and littered, according to recent tests, with asbestos – where teenagers party. Farther up lies a pond, rimmed with high grasses and cattails. Geese float on it. The pond was constructed to capture and neutralize waste from the mine. A hawk glides overhead. Cottonwoods are reflected in the surface of the water. The day is thoroughly still.
Rising above the pond is a reddish-brown world of loose rock, hundreds of feet high, striped with late-season snow. This is the waste mountain: millions of tons of discarded ore – slag – brimming with some five billion pounds of asbestos. The state of Montana once gave W.R. Grace an award for reclaiming the mountain, for planting yellow sweet clover and seeding the tailings with grass and speckling it with pine saplings. But as far as I can tell, nothing is growing there.
I drive back down the road, past the site where, for years, ore was sifted into bins and moved across the Kootenai River on open conveyor belts, and then dumped into boxcars of the Burlington Northern Railroad and spread across the country. Then I drive back to town, past the oval track at Libby High School, home of the Libby Loggers. A lone pole-vaulter practices his stride. I continue my drive past W.R. Grace’s old expansion plant downtown, where the ore once popped like popcorn. The storage shed is still standing. It looks like the weathered plank barn in an Old West theme park. Part of a rope dangles from a rafter.
If Libby were a fallow kingdom in some obscure myth, a hero would appear to restore the landscape and its people. Libby, being real, has no such luck. When the EPA decides it has scraped W.R. Grace’s old facilities clean, it will leave town. But being clean is not the same as being healthy. W.R. Grace says it will cover the medical costs of residents with asbestos-related diseases in perpetuity, but give its bankruptcy proceedings, its word is no longer considered good in this town.
Justice for Libby is a fantasy beneath the western sky. Senator Baucus vows to do his best to convene a Congressional inquiry into what happened in Libby and whether anyone at W.R. Grace should be held criminally accountable; perhaps he’ll succeed. There is a legal precedent: In 1993, three managers at Film Recovery Systems, a silver-extraction company in Chicago, pleaded guilty to manslaughter charges after a worker died of cyanide poisoning in 1983. But no one in Libby is counting on it. Late this past May, 32 townspeople, realizing their efforts to get legal redress against W.R. Grace were futile, filed suit against the state of Montana, saying the state had “conspired with Grace to conceal the results of … studies and correspondence” related to the mine. The suit is the stuff of symbolism, which is not in short supply in Libby, and which will have to do for the moment.
Driving out of town the next day, I see a local named Richard Weeks standing on the side of the road, and I stop to say goodbye. Weeks claims to be a prophet – or, more specifically, as he tells me, “the seventh spirit of Moses.” He refers me to the texts in the Bible that prove his visionary powers, and that establish Bob Dylan as the prophet Ezekiel. Weeks lives in a red-white-and-blue van parked by the river. He has half a mustache and half a beard, which may be the right look for a town as divided as Libby. “I’ve been thinking about this asbestos thing,” he says. “Dylan has a song about a great flood that will rise up and wash away sin. The flood begins on the Day of Reckoning, which is coming anytime. Look,” he says, pointing to the sky, “it’s beginning to rain.”
Indeed it is. I drive off and leave Weeks standing in the rain, waiting for a cleansing tide to find its way to Libby. I roll down my window and let the rain wash in. It feels good. And the air, the mountain air, tastes good, full of spring. I leave town and take a deep breath and hold it in my lungs. Breathe out. Breathe again.
A Mountain of Trouble
Climbing hard all day, Jeff Lowe forced the route through a wilderness of false leads and frustrating dead ends, but darkness caught him short of the ledge he had hoped to reach, stranding him in a vertical labyrinth. He was left with no choice but to carve a makeshift cave in a fan of snow plastered against a steep rock, then crawl inside. Wet, cold, and physically spent, he lit his balky stove and began the task of turning pot after pot of packed snow into drinking water.
In the middle of the night the storm hit. A heavy snowfall poured out of the black sky, and as the snow gathered, it set loose spindrift avalanches that filled Lowe’s cave and threatened to smother him. All night he lay in his sleeping bag, pashing and pounding the walls of his flimsy bivouac sack to maintain some breathing space inside the cave.
A lifelong tendency toward claustrophobia compounded Lowe’s distress. As he grew drowsy, he would be seized with panic; ripping open the door of the bivouac sack, he would gasp fresh air, allowing snow not only to spill inside the cave but to fill his sleeping bag, where it melted and soaked his clothes.
By morning, Lowe was in a perilous situation. It was February 28th, his ninth day on the north face of the Eiger. He had climbed 4,500 feet over those nine days, but in the 1,500 feet of frozen limestone that still hung over him, he was sure he would find the hardest passages of all. His food was almost gone. He could not stay warm at night. And he was on the verge of exhaustion.
This, Lowe knew, was how climbers died on the Nordwand. In just such a way the audacious Toni Kurz had come to grief, his rappel jammed on a knotted rope; or Stefano Longhi, left behind by his partner to freeze to death after a bad fall; or Max Sedlmayer, climbing hopelessly toward the avalanche that would pluck him from his life.
Getting down from so high on the north face, in the midst of a storm, would take a desperate effort, if it was indeed possible at all. At the moment, with avalanches thundering over the cliffs above and sweeping the fan of snow, descent was out of the question: Lowe could not even escape his snow cave.
Hunkered inside his claustrophobic hole, alone in a gray universe of nothingness, Lowe brooded on his predicament. During the last few days, with the weather holding, he had climbed so well; at last he had felt in perfect form, as success had dared to whisper in his ears. Now the prospect of failure loomed larger with every hour of snowfall. And if the situation got any worse, Lowe would be in a battle for his very life.
No, things were not going right – and the pattern was all too familiar. For a year now, things had been going wrong for Jeff Lowe. Major things, disastrously wrong. Bankruptcy. The failure of his marriage. Separation from his two-year-old daughter. He had scrambled to hold it all together, but his despair had peaked in late October, just after his 40th birthday, leaving him sleepless, his antic mind tormenting him with a parade of furious creditors and disapproving friends. Out of the nadir of that depression had come the decision to climb the Eiger. A new route on the north face – a clean, direct vector between the Czech and Japanese lines. Solo. In winter. Without bolts.
If he could pull it off, it would be greatest climb ever accomplished by an American in the Alps. And at a deeper, more personal level, the Eiger might somehow tame the internal voices howling of failure and loss. It would be a way for Lowe to return to his strength, to the thing he did better than almost anyone in the world.
Twenty-four hours after burrowing into the mountainside, Lowe was still stuck inside the inadequate snow cave. As he prepared to spend a second night there, shivering in a soggy sleeping bag, he got out his two-way radio and warmed the batteries against his body. Rousing his support team at the hotel far below, Lowe spoke slowly, his voice seamed with fatigue: “I’ve got a decision to make. Whether to go up or down. It’s a tough one.”
There was a long pause. “I don’t know how hard it would be to get down from here,” he said. “I figure it’ll take three days minimum to reach the summit if I go up. And that’s only if the weather’s good tomorrow and Saturday.”
Another pause: “I guess tomorrow’s going to tell. If I go for it, I’ll have to pull out all the stops.”
Had Jeff Lowe been born a Frenchman or a German, he would be a celebrity, sought after for product endorsements, asked to write his memoirs. But in the United States, great alpinists remain as obscure as chess champions.
Lowe, moreover, is a purist. He makes a wry distinction between “expeditions” – large, highly publicized assaults conducted in the spirit of the Desert Storm campaign – and “trips with friends,” on which, from one to three cronies, he can attempt brazen routes on unexplored mountains. From his only Everest expedition, a massively funded attack on an easy route involving 14 climbers, Lowe came home disenchanted. But on some of Lowe’s trips with friends, he has performed splendid deeds on spectacular Himalayan mountains such as Tawoche, Kwangde, and Nameless Tower, but on his ascents of Pumori and Ama Dablam, the only friend was himself.
Climbs like Tawoche and Ama Dablam, however, do not make headlines in the U.S. Since his early 20s, Lowe had been one of the two or three best ice climbers in the world. Names such as Bridal Veil Falls, Keystone Green Steps and the Grand Central Couloir – extraordinary ice routes that Lowe was the first to master – can bring an awed hush over parties of cognoscenti, but they mean nothing to the lay public.
In the last two decades, the cutting edge of mountaineering has become “good style” – and nobody’s style has been cleaner, bolder, or more prophetic than Lowe’s. Says Michael Kennedy, editor of Climbing and a frequent climbing partner of Lowe’s, “Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he’s the most visionary American Himalayan climber who’s ever lived.”
In a family of eight children growing up in Ogden, Utah, Lowe and his brothers were pushed hard by their lawyer father to excel in sports. He was climbing seriously by 14, quickly developing his skills and managing to survive the usual near disasters of adolescent ambition. After he spent three years at unaccredited Tahoe Paradise College on a ski-racing scholarship, Lowe became a full-time climber; meanwhile, he scrounged up a living from the kinds of marginal jobs most American climbing addicts resort to: pounding nails, teaching at Outward Bound, and tutoring beginners in the sport.
In 1968, Lowe’s older brothers Greg and Mike launched an outdoor-equipment company called Lowe Alpine Systems, which quickly gained cachet for its innovative packs and began turning a robust profit. Fifteen years later, Jeff Lowe started his own company, Latok – named for a mountain in Pakistan that was the scene of one of his most memorable climbs – which sold technical climbing gear. His first full-scale business venture, it began to collapse in 1987, and Lowe’s brothers took over the company’s debts to bail Jeff out.
Looking back, Lowe says: “I think part of my business problems stemmed from a feeling that I had to be more than a good climber, that I had to do something more ‘meaningful.’ And that may come from my father.”
As if remounting the horse that had thrown him, Lowe soon joined with Texas entrepreneur Dick Bass to organize the first international climbing competition on American soil, at Snowbird, Utah. Contests on artificial walls had become one of the hottest new spectator sports in Europe, and Lowe was gambling that Americans would similarly embrace the spectacle. In the end, Snowbird ’88 was an aesthetic success, but far fewer people than anticipated were willing to fork over 20 dollars to stare at the inch-by-inch progress of European climbing stars they had never heard of.
Undaunted, Lowe incorporated himself as Jeff Lowe Sport Climbing Championships Inc., attracted sponsors and investors, and laid plans for an ambitious nationwide series of climbing competitions to be held in 1989 and ’90. Thus began the downward spiral that in two years sucked Lowe into a whirlpool of failure. None of the events came close to breaking even, and Lowe’s debts piled up to vertiginous heights. He began borrowing from future projects to pay off past ones. By the time the final competition of 1990 approached – an event organized by the late Bill Graham, the legendary rock promoter, to be held in Berkeley, California, in August – Lowe was teetering on the brink of financial ruin.
In need of a quick infusion of cash just to pay his personal bills, Lowe concocted a trip with friends to Nameless Tower, a soaring tusk of granite in the Karakoram Range of Pakistan, to be filmed for ESPN. The big draw for European sponsors would be a summit push pairing Lowe with 31-year-old Parisian Catherine Destivelle, the most famous woman climber on the planet.
The Berkeley competition, which took place while Lowe was out of the country, turned into yet another financial fiasco plagued by dismal attendance. Lowe persuaded the North Face, a purveyor of high-end outdoor gear, to lend its name to the event as the leading sponsor. In order to keep the competition from sullying its good reputation, the company claims it was forced to cough up $78,000 to cover Lowe’s bills. “We believed that when Lowe went to Pakistan, he’d secured his loans,” says Ann Krcik, director of marketing operations for the North Face. “Three days before the event, it became evident that Sport Climbing Inc. didn’t have the money.” Bart Lewis, an entrepreneur who helped market the competition, claims that when the dust cleared, Lowe owed him $40,000. Lowe counters: “That’s absolutely insane. I owe Bart not even close to $40,000.” Other creditors emerged, clamoring for payment. Says Lowe: “I always emphasized the risks involved. Those who were misled, misled themselves.”
On the other side of the glove, meanwhile, Lowe and Destivelle managed to climb a difficult route on Nameless Tower. The film was broadcast on ESPN, but several European sponsors had backed out at the last minute. The upshot was that Lowe came home from Pakistan deeper in debt than ever, owing money even to close friends and fellow climbers who had worked as his support party. For decades Lowe had been one of the most admired figures in the tight-knit fraternity of American climbers; now, around certain campfires, in various climbers’ bars, his name began to elicit bitter oaths and tales of fiscal irresponsibility.
BY the fall of 1990, Lowe had been married for eight years to a woman he’d met in Telluride, Colorado, where she was a waitress. The couple settled in Boulder, where Janie Lowe became her husband’s full-time business partner. In 1988 they had a daughter, whom they named Sonja.
On Nameless Tower, Lowe was deeply impressed by Destivelle’s performance. As their teamwork evolved, Lowe realized that with only one or two men had he ever felt so confident climbing in the great ranges. At some point, he and Desitvelle began an affair. Because her private life is intensely scrutinized in France, and because she had a longtime partner of her own back in Paris, Destivelle urged Lowe to be discreet about their relationship.
When Lowe returned home from Nameless Tower, “he seemed very angry and distant,” says Janie Lowe. “It was as if he wanted nothing to do with me. I asked him if he was having an affair with Catherine. ‘No, no, no.’ Finally, it came out. I asked him, ‘Why did you lie to me?’ That hurt me so bad. He said, ‘I’d promised Catherine.’ I said, ‘After 12 years, you tell me your loyalty to Catherine is greater than your loyalty to me?'”
On September 30, 1990, Lowe turned 40. He was deep in a whirlpool, clutching for flotsam. At the end of October, Lowe declared bankruptcy. As his business partner, Janie took an equal brunt of the misfortune, and their relationship grew more troubled. As she tells it: “Jeff would come home and go straight into his study and close the door. Sonja would say, ‘Mommy, why doesn’t Daddy want to talk to me?’ ” In mid-December, Jeff moved out of the house, and they began the process of getting a divorce.
“I fell apart,” Jeff says. “I felt hopeless. All I knew was that I couldn’t stand it after a couple of weeks. I had to start dealing with things one by one.”
By early February, Lowe was in Grindelwald, Switzerland, staring up at the north face of the Eiger.
Beguiled by the shape of this unfolding drama, Jon Krakauer and I had come to Switzerland as well, to serve as Lowe’s support team. Lowe’s business woes were common knowledge in the climbing community, and word of his Eiger project had spread far and fast. More than one observer suggested that Lowe might be on a suicide mission. Boulder writer and climber Jeff Long, a loyal friend of Lowe’s, later admitted, “With all the pressure he had on him, I was afraid he was going to the Eiger as some kind of exit.”
Suicidal or not, the scheme – a new route, solo, in winter, without bolts, on the most notorious face in the Alps – seemed wildly improbable to most climbers. Destivelle later told Lowe that her French friends were of a single mind: “He’ll never do it. It’s too cold in winter, and too hard.”
Jeff Lowe does not look like a climber: an accountant, you might guess on meeting him, or maybe a viola player. He stand five feet 10, weighs about 150, and his spender physique seems more wiry than muscular. Clean-shaven, he has an open face, on which alertness struggles against natural placidity. He wears the wire-rim glasses of a professor. The long, straight blond hair conjures up the hippie he once thought himself to be. Though his hairline is receding, he combs his locks straight back, as if daring them to retreat further. When he smiles, his eyes crinkle shut, and incipient jowls shadow his jaw. To call his low, cadenced speech a drawl is to suggest a regional twang it does not possess: His voice is rather that of a tape recorder whose batteries are running low.
“For the first five years, we were extremely happy,” Janie had told me. “I think our problems had a lot to do with having a daughter. When Sonja came along, things changed.”
Now Jeff Lowe commented obliquely on marriage and business. “It’s a lack of freedom,” he said. “I’m trying to get my freedom back. I could have saved my marriage if I had chosen to. But when I was forced to take a new look, I realized, ‘Hey, it’s not what I really want – it’s a weird thing, but climbing is still at the center.”
Lowe paused. “The Eiger – even if I succeed – isn’t going to make all the other shit go away. I don’t expect this climb to make everything right.” A grin spread across his face. “It’ll just feel real good.”
THE BASE CAMP
The hotel at Kleine Scheidegg near Grindelwald is a rambling Victorian masterpiece, festooned with tiny rooms supplied by elegant if quirky plumbing, with linen wallpaper and richly varnished wood wainscoting, cozy reading nooks, 18th-century engravings, and oak floors that creek and undulate like a glacier. For 56 years the hotel has been the headquarters for Eiger watching. As he prepared for his ascent, it became Lowe’s base camp.
The hotel is owned and run by the legendary Frau von Almen. She is a handsome woman of 70 with an imperious manner and a constant frown of disapproval on her brow. Checking in on the three of us, I told her about Lowe’s plans. The frown deepened. “This is insane,” she announced. “It is more than insane – it is mad.” She turned and walked away. “I do not like the accidents,” she nattered. “Because they are so unnecessary.”
To stay in the hotel is to put up with Frau von Almen’s tyrannical regime. There was a lengthy codex of unwritten rules, a good portion of which we managed to break. I wore my climbing boots upstairs; Krakauer and Lowe brought sandwiches from outside and ate them in her café; I foolishly asked her to unlock the front door of the hotel before 8 a.m.; and Krakauer had the nerve to wonder if he might move and photograph a portrait of the pioneers who had made the first ascent of the Nordwand in 1938.
There was no way to get on her good side. After dinner one night, I complimented her fulsomely on the four-course repast. “And did your friend enjoy the dinner, too?” she asked ominously.
“Oh, yes.” I answered.
“Because he will not eat like this up on the mountain.”
Only Frau von Almen’s longtime guests – those who had come every winter for more than a decade and skied innocuously each afternoon – seemed to bask in her approbation. The truth was the she was down on the climbers. And this was sad, because her husband, Fritz, who died in 1974, had been the climbers’ best friend, watching them for hours through his telescope, exchanging flashlight signals with the bivouacs each night. The Frau still had the telescope but would unpack it, she said, “only for emergency.” An old-timer told us that a few years ago some climbers accidentally knocked over the telescope and broke it, then ran away.
On February 11th, Catherine Destivelle arrived from Chamonix. Five feet four inches tall, with curly brown hair, a conquering smile and a formidable physique, she is a superstar in France, yet fame has left her relatively unaffected. Though they could hardly disguise the fact that they were staying in the same room, at first Lowe and Destivelle maintained a demure propriety. Gradually the handclasps became less furtive, the kisses semipublic.
For a first-rate climber, Lowe seemed woefully disorganized. For days his gear was spread all over his hotel room, but as he inventoried it, he discovered that he was lacking essential items. From Krakauer he borrowed a headlamp, pitons, first-aid supplies, and a crucial pair of jumars for ascending ropes. Destivelle brought him foodstuffs (she swore by powdered mashed potatoes) and a two-way radio.
Destivelle was scandalized by Lowe’s preparations. “I can’t believe he is climbing with equipment he has never used before,” she told us again and again. “I would never do this.” Lowe dismissed the problem, omitting one of its causes: He was so broke he had to sell much of his climbing gear and now was dependent on the largess of European companies intrigued with his Eiger project.
On the night of February 18th, Destivelle joined Krakauer and me in the bar, where she chain-smoked half a pack of Marlboros. (Ordinarily, she goes months without a cigarette.) At breakfast the next morning, she said she had dreamed obsessively about an all-out war in which everybody was hunting Lowe. She had spent a fitful, miserable night, while beside her Lowe had slept soundly.
In the morning, Destivelle rode the cog railway up to the Eigergletscher station, where she kissed Lowe goodbye. He put on his skis and headed for the base of the wall.
On February 19th, the first day on the Nordwand, Lowe waltzed up 2,000 feet in only two hours. The going was easy but dangerous, a matter of planting the picks on his aces in a steady rhythm, of stabbing the crampon points strapped to his boot soles into brittle ice overlying steep rock. He soloed without a rope: If he slipped, he would die. But Lowe was in his element on the nerve-stretching ground. The speed and precision that had made his technique famous among a generation of American climbers spoke in every swing of his axes.
It was, however, still the heart of winter, and this was the Eiger. Over the last six decades, it was the easy start on the north face that had seduced so many alpinists. Between 50 and 60 of the best climbers of the world had died there, in a variety of gruesome ways.
The names of the Eiger’s most historic landmarks – the Ice Hose, the Death Bivouac, the Traverse of the Gods, the White Spider – are canonic touchstones to alpinists everywhere. Whether or not they have ever seen the notorious wall, all climbers grow up with a keen awareness of its history. Eight of the first 10 men who set out to climb the Nordwand were killed trying. The first man to attempt a solo ascent backed off prudently, only to die on a subsequent attack with a partner. The second, third and fourth solo attempts all ended in death. Early on, the wall acquired its punning German nickname, the Mordwand.
Accounts of these disasters built up the Eiger mystique. Every climber knows the tales, as visceral as tribal legends passed on around the campfire: Hintertoisser falling to his death as he tried to reverse his traverse on iced-up rock. Angerer strangled by his own rope. Toni Kurz expiring when the knot jammed in his carabiner, only a few feet above his rescuers, as he spoke his last words, “Ich kann nicht mehr” (“I can do no more”). The last words of Longhi, borne on the wind from the ledge high on the face where he froze to death: “Fame! Freddo!” (“Hungry! Cold!”)
At the foot of the sheer 350-foot rock cliff called the First Band, the climbing abruptly turned hard. As Lowe used his rope for this first time, his pace slowed to a vertical crawl. In three and a half hours, he gained only 110 feet. On the second day, a dogged and ingenious struggle over nine intense hours won Lowe a mere 80 feet more.
On other great mountain faces, clean vertical cracks, good ledges and solid rock abound. The Eiger, however, is notorious for limestone knobs that crumble as you grasp them, for down-sloping ledges covered with ice and for a scarcity of good cracks. The severity of the terrain brought out the best in Lowe, as he used tiny metal hangers and the tips of his axe blades to “hook” his way upward.
But already there were problems. Lowe had what he called fumble fingers, dropping three or four of his most valuable nuts and pitons, and the pick on one of his axes had worked loose. He climbed on anyway, adjusting his technique to the loose wobble of the pick, which meant he could never really swing the ax hard and plant the blade securely into the ice. It was a bad compromise, like driving at 30 mph on a flat tire.
Late on his third day of climbing, he had put most of the First Band beneath him, but the climbing was the most frightening yet. The storms of the last few weeks had glued snow and ice onto vertical and even overhanging rock. Lowe had to shift back and forth between rock and snow, from spidering with bulky plastic boots and gloved hands among the limestone nubbins to crabbing his way up the hollow snow with crampons and axes. When he could, he placed protection – a machined nut or piton in the rock or a screw in the ice.
At 2:50 p.m., Lowe clung to a particularly flimsy patch of rotten snow. Two thousand feet of cold, empty air fell away beneath his boots. He doubted whether he could reverse the moves he had made above his last protection eight feet below and had no idea whether he could find protection above or climb through the looming overhang, that blocked his view of the rest of the gigantic wall. For all he knew, he was creeping into a vertical cul-de-sac.
The boldness of Lowe’s choice to go without a bolt kit was now manifest. Throughout his efforts to surmount the First Band, he had been stymied right and left by blank, unclimbable rock. With bolts, it is possible to drill the rock and build a ladder through the most featureless impasse. Every other new route on the Eiger in the last 30 years had employed bolts; the Japanese who had pioneered the imposing line just to the right of Lowe’s had placed 250 of them.
Bolts also bestow a huge bonus in safety. When a climber is “running it out” – leading into uncertain terrain, with bad protection – he never knows whether he can find a reliable anchor before he reaches the end of his rope. With bolts, a solid anchor can be manufactured where nuts and pitons are useless. Without bolts, the process is like creeping farther and farther out on a lake covered in thin ice.
Lacking bolts, Lowe fiddled with a tiny nut, trying to wedge it into a crooked, quarter-inch crack that split the First Band. Suddenly the snow broke loose beneath his feet. He was falling.
In conventional climbing, with two people on a rope, one anchors himself to the precipice and feeds out the rope as the other leads above. If the leader falls, he plunges a little more than twice as far as he was above his last protection, until his partner “belays” or stops him by holding tight to the rope. For a soloist, the belayer is a mechanical apparatus. As one might suspect, solo-belaying is far less reliable than the kind afforded by a human partner.
As he started up the wall three days before, Lowe carried a new kind of self-belay device he had never used. Before his first hard pitch, he had not even taken the contraption out of the plastic bag it was sold in. The question now, as he fell through the air, was whether the device would work.
An abrupt jolt gave him his answer: The rig had done its job. Lowe was unhurt. He had not even had time to be scared, but now the delayed adrenaline rush started to surge. In response, he edged his way back to his high point, where he found another plate of snow to try. Gingerly he moved up it, anticipating another fall with each step, until he stood beneath the rock overhang.
The only way to proceed was to angle left through a weakness in the browing cliff. Lowe made a series of delicate moves on rock, until he could plant the picks of his axes on snow above, the left pick wobbling in its disturbing fashion. But here the snow was worthless, sloughing loose under the slightest touch. For a full hour he struggled in place, patiently probing the terrain for its arcane secrets. At last he found a small patch of more reliable snow. He planted both axes, moved his feet up and stabbed the front points. The snow held. He moved a few feet higher, then surged upward.
He was over the First Band, but by now it was getting dark. Lowe placed three ice screws at his high point, then rappelled back down to the snow cave he had slept in the night before. He crawled into his thin sleeping bag and pulled the frosty bivouac sack over him. Tired though he was, sleep escaped him. His problems danced mockingly in his mind, their shadows darting from wall to wall inside the cave of unhappiness in which he’d lived for a year. The loose pick on his ax nagged at him, and at the rate he was burning stove fuel, he would run out of gas canisters long before he could reach the summit. And he needed those nuts and pitons he had dropped.
In the morning Lowe turned on his walkie-talkie and called down to Krakauer and me at the hotel. “Guys,” he said in his slow, gravelly voice, “I’m thinking about a slight change of plans.” He had decided, he told us, to leave his rope in place over the most difficult part of the First Band and, while he was still low enough on the wall to do so, descend briefly to Kleine Scheidegg, where he might fix his malfunctioning ice ax, replenish his supply of food and fuel, and replace the hardware he’d dropped. Then, in a day or two, he could go back up the wall.
Lowe reached the hotel before noon. “Why did you not tell me before the weekend that you were coming down?” Frau von Almen complained, fingering her room charts. It happened to be Friday. “Now I have to put you in 88, way up on the fourth floor.”
“That’s fine with me,” said Lowe.
“I know,” said the Frau as she walked away. “But you are very simple.”
A stack of faxes was waiting for Lowe at the hotel, most of which were from furious creditors demanding payment. These did not appear to rattle his composure, but a long missive from Janie seemed to trouble him deeply.
Having come to admire and like Lowe, I was puzzling over the vehemence of his detractors. Jim Bridwell, who claims Lowe still owes him $3,000 for Nameless Tower, had said: “I think of Jeff as a climber and what that used to mean. You used to be able to trust climbers. But Jeff’ll say one thing and do another. I just think he’s disturbed. Either he doesn’t know he’s lying, or …”
Janie Lowe thought Jeff’s problems had been compounded by his pride. “He can’t say he’s sorry,” she told me. “‘Hey, I really fucked up.’ Just a few sentences would resolve his debt with his friends.”
One voice in Lowe’s defense, however, was that of Jeff Long, who insisted: “These people want Jeff’s professional corpse swinging in the wind. I think what they did in investing in Jeff was to invest in his vision. What collapsed, they thought, was a whole vision they shared. The brotherhood of the rope. But what was going on was really just business.”
For all her sorrow, in any case, Janie was determined to keep the channels open. “We’ll always be parents,” she said. “We have a wonderful little daughter. For Sonja’s sake, I hope we can keep our own bullshit in the background.”
One night in the hotel, Lowe had watched the three-year-old daughter of a guest carrying her plate heaped with food from the salad bar. The sight had brought tears to his eyes. “Yeah, I really miss my daughter,” he admitted.
As Janie had pointed out, though: “Yes, he totally loves Sonja. But you know what? He doesn’t love her enough to be with her.”
In his own way, Lowe acknowledged that stricture. “I think I know now,” he said in a reflective moment, “that you can’t do this sort of climbing and have a domestic side. You’re not a practicing father if you’re not there. You’re maybe a visiting father.”
There had been a snowstorm on the morning of Lowe’s descent, but by the following day the precipitation had ceased and the weather had stabilized. The temperatures were strangely warm, however – well above freezing at the 6,000-foot elevation of the hotel. That was better than brutal cold, except it meant bad avalanche conditions. In the weekend prior to his start on the Nordwand, 31 people had died in avalanches across the Alps.
There were, in short, plenty of reasons to give up the climb, excuses lying ready to be seized. But Lowe spent the evening in room 88, sorting his gear in his slow, fastidious fashion. Early in the next morning he returned to the foot of the wall, and by noon he was back at his bivouac cave, at the lower end of the ropes he had left in place. By the time the evening fell, he had reascended the ropes and wrestled his 100 pounds of gear up to his previous high point.
Then, boldly, he led on into the dusk. It was not until three hours after dark that he suspended a hanging tent from a pair of ice screws and crawled into his sleeping bag. He was halfway up the Nordwand.
“Good morning, Vietnam,” he radioed us in the morning. “I just woke up from one of the best sleeps I’ve had in a long time.” When he started climbing again, his route coincided for a few hundred feet with the classic 1938 line. This section of the route, known as the Ice Hose, had been a formidable test to most of the expert climbers who had attempted the Nordwand over the years. For Lowe, with his impeccable ice technique, it was almost like hiking. He raced up the Ice Hose and across the Second Icefield and at day’s end was bivouacked at the base of the summit head wall.
Only a little more than 200 feet of climbing remained, but it promised to be severe and unrelenting. And as he inched his way up into the dark, concave head wall, it would be increasingly difficult to retreat. Somewhere on that precipice, he would reach a point of no return, after which descent might well be impossible, and the only escape would be up and over the summit.
It was Monday, February 25th. The forecast from Zurich was for continued good weather though Wednesday; then a warm front bearing heavy snow was predicted to move into the area. A fiendish scenario began to propose itself. With two days’ steady climbing, Lowe might well find himself near or at that point of no return, only to get hammered by a major snowstorm.
Krakauer and I were using the coin-operated telescope at the gift shop next to the hotel to follow Lowe’s progress, but he was so high now that we could tell little about his individual moves. On Tuesday night we took a walk. There was a full moon directly behind the Eiger. We caught sight of a pinpoint, impossibly far above us, three fifths of the way up the wall: Lowe’s headlamp, as he dug his bivouac site, a lonely beacon of purpose in the mindless night.
Later, his voice came in on the radio, raspy with lassitude. “Watch that forecast real carefully,” he said. “It’s going to be a strategy-type thing. If it comes in hard and I’m not in a good place, it’s not going to be good.”
On Wednesday night, the storm indeed came in hard, forcing Lowe to hole up in the claustrophobic snow cave he’d dug in the vertical fan of snow. It was from the pathetic shelter that he’d wondered aloud over the radio “whether to go up or down.” After a long, pregnant silenced, he confessed: “I don’t know how hard it would be to get down from here. I figure it’ll take three days minimum to reach the summit if I go up … if I go for it, I’ll have to pull out all the stops.”
Lowe’s miserable snow burrow proved to be a poor place to ride out the tempest. On Thursday morning, he remarked over the radio: “I’ve never been so pummeled in my life. There’s a big avalanche coming down every five minutes. I couldn’t move if I wanted to.”
At noon Lowe radioed again. He had managed to get out of his snow hole, but a search for a better bivouac site had been fruitless. The avalanches were still rumbling down, his clothes were soaking wet, and he was cold. It seemed that Lowe had little choice but to descend, and even that would be exceedingly sketchy. Much to our surprise, however, he declared, “I’m going to sign off now and try to get something done.” He had resolved to push for the summit.
More than a week before, I had probed Lowe’s motives by alluding to the suggestions I had heard of a suicidal impulse. “I think everybody has had thoughts about checking out early,” he said. “But I wouldn’t do it this way. I’d do it a lot simpler.”
Even if Lowe could complete his route, what lasting difference would it make in his life? Magnificent though the climb might be, was it little more than a superstitious gesture, a way of lashing back at the furies that bedeviled his path? The finest climb ever accomplished by an American in the Alps could indeed bring with it a huge bestowal of self-esteem. And in the chaos that his personal affairs had become, self-esteem might what Lowe needed most.
He had said: “For me there’s no future. All I’m interested in is now.” In the hotel, that had sounded like wishful thinking. Divorce and bankruptcy turned now into a crumbling wall between the flash floods of the past and the future. But up on the Eiger, all that changed. The past was the piton 10 feet below, the future was that handhold three feet above and to the left. Now was what held him to the world, and the trance of grasping its ledges and cracks gave it a glorious breadth. It expanded and became the ocean of all that was.
Friday, March 1st, marked the sixth day of Lowe’s second attempt on the Nordwand, his 10th day of climbing overall. A south wind sent hazy wreaths of fog sailing over the mountain, but the favorable weather that had blessed the first week of the climb had returned, although another storm was forecast to arrive by Sunday. If he didn’t reach the top before it hit, his prospects for survival might be grim. By noon, Lowe had hauled all his gear up to a distinctive ledge called the Central Band. Only 1,200 feet remained.
Here the wall was scored with ice-glazed ramps leading up and to the left, most of which led nowhere. The protection was minimal, the climbing nasty. Lowe was aiming for the Fly, a small ice field 500 feet above. But now, when he needed to move fast, with the threat of the next storm hanging over him, he was slowed drastically by what turned out to be the most difficult climbing yet.
Watching through the telescope, I could gauge how steep the cliff was when I saw him knock loose chunks of snow that fell 40 feet before striking rock again. At one point it took him more than an hour to gain 25 feet. The rock had turned loose and crumbly; stone towers, teetering like gargoyles, sat waiting to collapse at the touch of a boot, and pitons, instead of ringing home as he pounded them, splintered the flaky limestone and refused to hold. Bolts would have been a godsend.
Yet on those pitches, Lowe’s brilliance came to the fore. He thought of one particular stretch of 50 feet as a kind of never-never land: it was the crux of the whole route to this point. A more driven, impatient alpinist might succumb to dizzy panic at this point, where the slightest misjudgment could rip protection loose and send him hurtling into the void. With his phlegmatic disposition, Lowe inched his way through his never-never land in a cloud of Buddhist calm.
On Saturday, Krakauer started up the west ridge – the easiest route on the Eiger and the path by which Lowe would descend. Krakauer wanted to camp near the top to greet Lowe and, if need be, help him down. As soon as he skied above the Eigergletscher station, however, Krakauer realized the venture was a mistake. A few days before, he had cruised halfway up the ridge in only two hours; but in the interim, the conditions had completely changed. The storm had blanketed the slope with steep, unstable snow; without skis, Krakauer sank in to his waist, and even with skis on he plowed a knee-deep furrow as he zigzagged laboriously upward.
At the fastest pace Krakauer could sustain, it would take days to get to the summit. What was worse, the slopes were dangerously close to avalanching; indeed, as he climbed slowly up the ridge, his skis periodically set off small slides.
At two o’clock Krakauer came over the radio. “I’m getting the hell down,” he said in a jumpy voice. “The hundred feet just below me is ready to avalanche. Watch me carefully. If it releases, it’s going to be massive.” With a series of slow, deliberate turns, he skied down as delicately as he could. The slope held.
When Lowe next radioed, I had to tell him about Krakauer’s retreat from the west ridge. He took the news calmly, even though it raised a specter of serious danger for his own descent. For the first time we talked about the possibility of a helicopter picking him up on the summit.
Lowe climbed on. By early afternoon clouds had gathered around the upper face, where it was snowing lightly, even though the hotel still baked in sunshine. Pushing himself beyond fatigue, again well into the night, he managed to set up an uncomfortable bivouac just below the Fly. His two-day push from the Central Band had been a brilliant piece of work, but the Sunday storm was coming in early, and 700 feet still lay between him and the summit. He was well past the point of no return.
That evening he slithered into his dank bivouac sack and tried to sleep. Lowe had two gas cartridges left to melt snow, but his food supply was down to a couple of candy bars. His hands were in terrible shape – the incessant pounding, grasping, and soaking had bruised his fingertips until they had swelled into tender blobs, and the nails had begun to crack away from the cuticles. Each morning, his fingers were so sore and puffy that merely tying his boot laces was an ordeal.
Worse, his sleeping bag, thin to begin with, was soaked like a dishrag: It provided almost no warmth at all. That night Lowe got not a wink of sleep. For 14 hours he shivered, waiting for dawn, as the snow fell outside his cave.
On Sunday morning it was still snowing. “Where I am,” he radioed, “it’s hard to even peek out of the bivy tent without dislodging everything. I’m going to sit here and hydrate.” He faced an acute dilemma. If he hunkered down and waited for the storm to end, he could run out of food and gas and succumb to hypothermia. If he pushed upward prematurely, on the other hand, the storm itself could finish him.
By noon he had not moved. At two o’clock, through a break in the clouds, we saw him climbing slowly above the Fly. As he started to climb, however, he grew deeply alarmed. Something was wrong. He felt week all over, weaker than he should have from fatigue alone. He had been going on too little food, not enough liquids, insufficient sleep. This was how climbers died on the Eiger. This was too much like what had happened to Longhi and Kurz. After stringing out 300 feet of rope, Lowe returned to his bivouac hole of the night before and spent the rest of the day resting and hydrating and trying in vain to get warm.
Once more, sleep was impossible. Lowe shivered through another night, even though he lit the stove and burned precious fuel in an effort to heat his frigid cavern. The weather had cleared late Sunday afternoon, and the sky was now sown with stars. There was odd acoustic clarity: Toward morning he could plainly hear dogs barking in Grindelwald, miles away and 10,000 feet below. And he thought he heard something else: a humming, crystalline, harmonic music in the air. Was it an aural hallucination? Was he beginning to lose his grip?
Monday dawned luminous and clear, a perfect day, of which he would need every minute. Good weather had been forecast to last through the evening, but a major storm was due on the morrow. We called REGA, the government run rescue service, and alerted it to a possible need for summit pickup. Then we watched Lowe climb. At 9:15, he turned a corner and disappeared into a couloir we could not see. Two hours later, there was still no sign of him, no murmur over the radio. Though we did not admit it to each other at the time, Krakauer and I each separately trained the telescope on the base of the wall, where we swept the lower slopes. In just such a way over the decades, the fate of several Eiger victims had been discovered.
Lowe had hoped that once he was above the Fly the going would get easier. But in icy chimneys broken by bands of brittle rock, he was forced to perform some of the hardest climbing yet. Normally he never let himself be rushed on a climb: It was one of the secrets of his sangfroid and his safety. Now, however, he kept looking at his watch, and his brain hectored, Oh, no, hurry! Ever so slightly, his technique lost some of its famous precision. He felt less weak than he had the day before, but the sense of struggling to meet a terrible deadline oppressed his efforts.
It was hard to place good protection anywhere. Lowe found himself hooking with front points and ax picks on rounded rock wrinkles that he had to stab blindly through the snow to locate. His balance was precarious, and then, just before it happened, he knew he was going to fall.
The picks scraped loose: He was in midair, turning. Twenty-five feet lower, he crashed back into the rock. The self-belay had held, but he was hurt. He felt as though someone had taken a baseball bat and slammed it into his kidneys.
Oddly, instead of panicking him, the long fall calmed him down. Okay, he said to himself, you’ve done that. Don’t do it again.
He pulled himself together, starting up again and found a way through the dicey hooking sequences despite the pain pounding in his back. At last he surmounted the buttress and reached a good ledge, only 400 feet below the summit.
But here he faced a problem. The warm sun has loosened the summit snowfields. Every chute and depression became an avalanche track. One swept right over Lowe, filing his goggles with powder snow, buffeting his body as it tried to knock him from the wall.
He was moving faster now, as slides shot down all around him. For two hours he climbed doggedly on. During that time, three more avalanches engulfed him. One of them knocked his feet loose, but he managed to hang on with his axes. At 3:20 he called.
“God, Jeff, those avalanches looked bad,” I said.
“Yeah, they were pretty horrendous.” His voice was ragged with strain. “I got really douched. I’m totally wet. Am I about a pitch from the west ridge?”
“A pitch and a half, maybe.”
“I’m going to call for a pickup. I just want to get up this thing.”
We signed off and called REGA. They were waiting in Grindelwald, ready to fly the moment Lowe emerged from the west ridge, a few feet below the top. But a stiff wind had begun to blow a steady plume off the summit. The wind could prevent the helicopter from approaching close enough to execute a pickup or even cause it to crash.
To our dismay, Lowe disappeared once more into a couloir. The minutes ticked by. At 4:15 he emerged, fighting his way through out of the top of the gully, spindrift hosing him at every step. He was only 40 feet below the crest of the ridge.
We prepared to call REGA, then watched in distress as Lowe stopped at a mottled band of rock and snow, only 20 feet below the ridge. For 10 minutes he thrashed in place; we saw him grabbing chunks of black limestone and tossing them into the void below.
In the hidden couloir, Lowe had found it impossible to get in any protection. He had dashed upward, aiming at the mottled band, but when he got there, he found only a skin of ice holding together rocks that were as loose as a pile of children’s blocks. When he flung stones aside and dug beneath, he found only more of the same. He could engineer no kind of anchor – neither piton, nut nor ice screw would hold.
Only 20 feet short of safety, he had run out of rope. His own anchor, 300 feet below, was imprisoning him. In despair, he realized he would have to climb down at least 40 feet to the previous rock band, try to get some kind of anchor there, rappel for his gear and jumar back up. He was not sure he could make that down-climb without falling. What was more, he was running out of daylight.
Lowe got on the radio. Krakauer said what we were both thinking.
“Jeff, if you just dropped your rope and went for it, could you free solo the last 20 feet?”
“No problem,” said Lowe. “But are you sure the helicopter can get me?”
If we urged Lowe to abandon his gear and the helicopter failed, he would be stranded near the summit without ropes, sleeping bag, food, stove, or even his parka. He was soaked to the skin. The wind was whipping hard, and the sky had grayed to the color of lead. Tuesday’s storm was arriving early.
Krakauer said, “I’m almost positive they can pick you up.”
“Let’s do it,” said Lowe.
He untied his rope and draped the end over a loose rock. He was abandoning all the gear that he had fought for nine days to haul up to the 6,000-foot precipice and, with it, deserting his own last refuge.
We called REGA, and the helicopter took off from Grindelwald. To be picked up on the summit of the mountain was not a true rescue; more than one previous Eiger climbers had resorted to flying from the top when he was far less strung out than Lowe was. It would, however, be a kind of asterisk attached to his great deed. It would not be the best style, and that would bother Lowe. But it was survival.
He sprinted up the last 20 feet. All at once, Lowe had escaped the north face. He stood on a broad shelf of snow on the west ridge, just below the summit. The helicopter spiraled upward toward him.
Still talking to us on the radio, Lowe couldn’t keep the shivering out of his voice. Krakauer instructed him: The helicopter would lower a cable, which he was to clip on to his waist harness.
Now the chopper was just above him, hovering in the stiff wind. Suddenly it peeled off and flew away toward the Jungfraujoch. For the first time, Lowe seemed to lose it. He wailed, “What the hell’s going on?” Nervous about the strong winds, the helicopter pilot, we later learned, decided to drop off a doctor and a copilot who had been on board, so he could fly as light as possible when he made the pickup.
The helicopter reappeared and hovered above the summit, its rotors straining against the wind. The steel cable dangled from its belly. We saw Lowe swipe for its lower end, miss once, then seize it. He clipped in, and the helicopter swept him into the sky. Down at the hotel, the guests and skiers cheered wildly all around us. Lowe was off the Eiger.
The cable wound upward as he rode it toward the open door. The winch man reached out his hand. Lowe climbed through the door and crawled back into the conundrum of his life.