Billy Monroe shoved his cellphone back into the leather pouch hanging from his belt and chuckled. He looked at Pamela Weekes, dressed in her jogging costume and sitting in the shade of the magnolia tree in his back yard watching him clean his large barbeque smoker trailer, preparing for the Memphis-in-May Barbeque Cook-Off, scheduled to start next Saturday morning down at Tom Lee Park. His team had done really well in Jackson and Lynchburg, and he knew they were ready for the competition here in the big city.
Pamela asked, “Who was that? One of your admiring public? And what was that about a big earthquake – something my boss should hear about?” She smiled and shook her long red hair.
Pamela handled Public Relations for the newly formed Memphis Department of Seismic Safety. Even though she held a Master’s Degree from Georgia Tech in Structural Engineering and her experience focused on designing earthquake-proof structures, she had focused to telling the citizens of the central United States, Memphis in particular, about the dangers they faced from the New Madrid Fault, and how they could recover from such a disaster. She had come far for a 28-year old former marine sergeant.
Billy knew from hearsay and experience how she ‘knocked the young men out’ when she dressed to the nines for the city functions, and some of her flirtatious spirit showed even in jogging sweats. They had become fast friends after a few meetings, and he felt a masculine mark of progress when she showed up to chat this morning.
Billy’s old jeans and black pullover shirt displayed several bouts with soot from the portable cooker, but he still wore his radio on his belt opposite the cellphone. With a 24/7 commitment as the Planing Exercise Office at the Memphis/Shelby County Emergency Management Agency, even on his days off he had to be ready for instant action. A 30-year-old bachelor who looked ten years younger, Billy rented a bedroom from his widowed mother near Overton Park, seven blocks northwest of the home of the EMA Operations Center off Flicker Street in the old National Guard Armory.
His stocky frame, strong arms and shoulder muscles, and short-cut hair matched his earlier training, beginning as a 17-year-old paramedic shortly after his father’s death on the fire-fighter force, moving to a stint as a fireman, then county sheriff’s deputy, and finally to the EMA. His dedication to hard work had been noted early in his career, and he looked out of place among the older hands most often walking the halls of the EMA.
He laughed. “That was a frantic call from a young lady at the University who says her boyfriend’s computer just predicted a giant earthquake on the New Madrid. Then she said it was a false alarm. Those pesky predictions again. Don’t people know that the USGS has made it plain that the fault will crack again, and fairly soon. We just don’t know when. If the public would just get serious and start planning and preparing, we wouldn’t have a problem of exactly when it happens.”
Pamela sat up and looked serious. “Did she say who her boyfriend was?”
“No, but her name was Jenny Fox. She’s a student in a University class I talked to a couple of weeks ago about seismic safety.”
“Then that must be Chris Nelson’s work. I know Chris. He’s been modeling the New Madrid Fault, and he told me last week he had made some successful predictions. But he wanted to keep it quiet—afraid the University would have his head on a stick if he breathed a word about predicting earthquakes. I wanted to show my boss Marion at the Memphis Department of Seismic Safety some of Chris’s computer graphics showing what the 1811 earthquake looked like. His video work is awesome.”
Billy heard the sound of a train’s whistle in the distance. Funny how the cooker shell buzzed in response. “Well, this Jenny Fox sounded pretty embarrassed when she told me it was all a false alarm.” Billy stirred the bed of coals in the bottom of the cooker, masking the first sounds of the P-waves from the fracture that had started 17 seconds earlier, sixty miles away, beneath New Simon at the Arkansas/Missouri border. Then the S-waves arrived.
Pamela came out of her chair like a shot when the ground beneath the Monroe’s backyard began to shake. The oscillations grew larger and larger and more chaotic, until the lawn furniture began to tilt and fall to the side.
"Billy,” she screamed. “Chris’s prediction was right. The New Madrid Fault is breaking up. This is a really strong earthquake.” She watched as Billy tried to hold onto barbeque trailer and then moved back as it rocked around, threatening to impale him against the planter. The black metal lid crashed down, splintering a wooden spatula.
Pamela stumbled and grabbed the clothesline post. The ground rocked around in chaos beneath her feet. She heard Billy shout. “Mom, Mom.” She watched him turn and run toward the back porch, then claw his way up the steps to the screen door.
“Mom, hang on. You have to get out of the house. I’m coming for you.” The house flexed on its foundation and made cracking and groaning sounds. She saw Billy grab twice for the handle to the screen before he finally opened it and threw himself through the opening onto the back porch where his mother had been washing clothes.
Pamela’s mind snapped into combat mode: rational and clear, free from her initial shock and panic. Her training as a marine took over and she looked around her, evaluating the situation. The barbeque trailer continued to rock back and forth, strewing its instruments off the hooks and onto the lawn. It fell onto its back, and smoking oak logs tumbled out onto the grass.
Electric, telephone, and cable TV lines strung between the telephone poles running behind the fence in the alley swung back and forth as the poles twisted in and out of synch with the shaking of the land. Wires crossed and sparks flew from their contact points. Some wires melted and broke to fall to the ground of the alley or across the wooden fence, making occasional sizzling sounds. One wire fell into the yard and draped across the clothesline. It took a moment for Pamela to realize what had happened, and she jerked her hand away from the metal pole. “Thank God, it must be a ground wire,” but she backed away from the pole just in case.
Billy appeared behind the porch door and kicked it open with his foot. He carried his mother in front of him with both arms wrapped around her. Leaning against the shaking door jam to get his balance, he stepped out the door and stumbled down the steps to the lawn.
Wilma Monroe kicked her legs and wailed. “I’m okay. Billy, put me down. I can get out on my own. Take care of yourself. Put me down.” When her feet touched the ground, he released his hold, and she reached around and grabbed her son’s arm and clung for dear life.
The roar from the ground continued at a steady level, but the sounds of houses, trees, and utility poles breaking grew, now supplanted with the screaming of the neighbors.
Pamela yelled. “Billy, is your mother okay?”
"Yes, but the dining room breakfront almost fell on her. I thought I had tied it down okay. Things are really flying around in the house. She didn’t want to come out. How about you?”
Wilma yelled over the sound of the shaking. “I’m okay, but I’ll be glad when the shaking stops, if it ever does. It’s been going on for almost a minute.” Wilma backed away from her son but held tight to his arm. “Is this the earthquake you’ve told me about?”
The shaking seemed to be slowing down. “Yes, Mom. We’re having a major earthquake on the New Madrid. We’re the lucky ones because we can stand in the middle of the yard and stay away from falling buildings.” A tree from the next yard cracked and one of its large spreading branches crashed through the fence separating the properties, its branches filled with leaves brushing Billy’s side. Neither the earthquake nor the danger had ended. Then the shaking ended, at least for the time being.
Wilma spoke as Billy righted the barbeque trailer and put the smoking piece of oak back into the fire pit. “Can we go back inside and check out things in the house.”
“Yes, but take it easy. There can be aftershocks.” He led the way up the backyard steps and opened the screen door. The porch was a mess—things thrown all over—and as he stepped over broken bottles into the kitchen and looked through the door to the dining room, he could see broken windows, cracks in the plaster, and all the lamps and books on the floor. None of the big furniture had fallen because Billy had strapped everything, including the refrigerator and freezer, to the walls. But their doors were open and everything had fallen out onto the floor.
Wilma sighed and leaned over in the kitchen to pick up the frozen goods and put them back inside the freezer. “I know without electricity, everything will thaw soon enough, but I don’t want it to thaw too soon.”
She started crying, and it was hard for her to see anything, but it felt good to put things back in place. When she found her good china had all fallen out of the breakfront and broken she bawled and just kept picking things up.
Most of the pictures had fallen from the walls, despite the special hooks Billy had used. Wilma pointed to one small photograph, hanging to the side but still attached to the wall. “At least your father survived,” she said plaintively.
Wilma followed Billy from room to room as they surveyed the damage. He said, “Nothing too serious. The furniture is thrown around and all the closets and shelves have been emptied. The house seems to be firmly on the foundations. I’m sure glad I reinforced the foundation and strapped the frame down to the concrete. But we'll have to do a detailed inspection to be sure.”
As he walked by a broken window, he stopped and raised his head. “I smell gas. But the valve turned off automatically. The gas must be coming from next door. That could be just about as bad.” He turned and ran toward the back door. “I bet no one else on this block has bothered to make sure the gas is off at their place.”
Billy ran out the back door of his mother’s house and grabbed the gas-line wrench he had left hanging next to the gas meter. He ran down the driveway to the tree-lined street and joined his neighbors milling around amidst the fallen tree limbs and staring at their houses.
“Billy, you know about these things. Is it safe to go back inside my house?” his neighbor from the house to the west of his mother’s house asked. “You told us what to do in an earthquake, but I forgot.”
“Mr. Knowles, the first thing now is to be sure you’ve turned off the gas valve. Do you have an automatic shutoff or is it manual?”
“Why, I don’t rightly know. I haven’t done anything to it.”
Billy sniffed again. “I smell gas coming from somewhere, so let’s be sure your gas line is closed so if there is a leak inside your house it won’t collect more gas.” He led the way up the driveway to the standard location for the gas meter at the side of the house, positioned the wrench on the hexagonal nut in the line, and turned it ninety degrees.
“Now, the gas is off. Go turn the electric power off at the main circuit breaker to be safe from an electrical short starting a fire, and be sure to avoid any fallen power lines in the alley behind your house. Then try to save any water in your hot water tank. If you have some clean plastic jugs, fill them with water. You’ll need it later.”
“Thanks, I’ll get on it right now.” He reached to the breast pocket of his shirt and fished out a pack of cigarettes while reaching into his pocket with the other hand for his lighter.
“No,” yelled Billy as he grabbed the hand with the lighter. “If you light that cigarette, you may blow up us and everything around here, what with all this gas around.”
Knowles mouth dropped open and he looked surprised, then turned red in his face. “Oh shit. I didn’t think.” He threw the cigarettes to the ground and started to throw the lighter into the bushes.
“Save the lighter. You’ll need it later after this gas clears. Now, I’ve got to check the other houses. After you get things started in your own home, go tell everyone else what I said.”
Billy hurried to the house on the other side of his mother’s place and again turned off the open gas valve and gave the same set of basic instructions before hurrying to the next house down the street.
“Billy Monroe,” yelled a neighbor from across the street. “My husband—the refrigerator fell on him. He needs help. And I can’t get anyone on 9-1-1. Can you help?”
Billy turned away from his path to follow middle-aged lady to a house sitting askew on its foundation. “Let me turn the gas off first, Mrs. Wilson, then I’ll come in and see if I can help.” He ran down the driveway, pushed aside the bushes and closed the valve. He could smell the strong odor of gas in the area, probably through one of the foundation vents from under the house.
Hurrying back in the front door, he made his way through the front room toward the kitchen. Furniture lay strewn about; nothing had been tied to the walls.
Inside the kitchen, he saw Mrs. Wilson kneeling on the other side of the fallen refrigerator comforting her husband.
Billy looked over the fallen box and asked, “George, how are you doing?”
“Billy.” The gray-haired man gasped. “I tried to hold the damned thing up, but it just outdid me. I fell back and it came down on my leg and foot. Feels like its crushed. Hurts like hell.”
Billy leaned over to look. “George, it’s going to hurt, but we’ve got to get you lose. I want you to push back with your hands and Mrs. Wilson pull you to help when I lift the refrigerator off your leg. It’s too dangerous to leave you trapped here.” He came around to the top of the refrigerator and put his hands under the side of the top. “You ready? Now both of you pull when I lift.”
He strained in a leg lift and raised the refrigerator four inches. George pushed and his wife pulled to slide his leg and foot out from under the fallen box. He screamed, but kept pushing and wriggling his body. Billy heaved the box to the side and away, dropping it with a crash onto some of the fallen cans and dishes. George arched his back on the floor, pounded his fist on the floor, and screamed again, his foot free.
“What now?” asked Mrs. Wilson with alarm. ‘George has fainted.”
“Go get somebody to help you carry him out of the house. There is too much gas in here and it could explode too easy. Maybe some of your neighbors know first aid. Check with them. Take care of him as best you can.”
“What about you? You’re a fireman. Why can’t you help?” she cried.
“Ma’am, I have to go to the other houses to check the gas valves. I’ve got to make sure we don’t have a gas explosion around here and burn down the whole neighborhood. That’s the most important thing right now.” He turned and hurried out of the house through the debris.
“Damn. I wish people had listened when we told them to lash things to the wall.” He slammed out the door and ran on down the street to the next house on his block. The smell of gas seemed stronger.
Billy felt pretty good. He had checked each of the homes on his mother’s block and turned off the gas in most of the houses. Only two neighbors had the forethought to turn the gas off before he reached them, but he could still detect the strong odor of natural gas.
An explosion down the street told him from where the problem came. Across and three doors down an older brick house erupted in flames, and an elderly couple scurried out the front door, screaming, their hair and clothes already aflame.
Nearby neighbors ran forward and beat out the flames on the bodies of the couple, but not before they had suffered severe burns. The neighbors led them across the street, away from their house. Someone called, “Call the Fire Department or 9-1-1.” Others tried to douse the flames with the hoses, but no water streamed out to quench the flames.
A voice answered, “Can’t. The phones are dead. What are we going to do?”
Billy raced toward the bright red EMA truck parked in front of his mother’s home. He could use its radios to call the Fire Department into play.
Unlocking the door and jumping inside, he picked up the microphone and punched in the preset for the Fire Department repeater frequency. “Alarm. Alarm. This is EMA-3 mobile at North Hollywood and Harvard near Overton Park. We have a gas explosion in a two-story residence. The house is now fully engaged in flame. There is no water pressure in the area. We have injuries. Respond.”
Billy waited, but there was no response. There was no radio traffic. He checked the frequency. Yes, the radio was tuned to the 800 MHz band, and set to the correct repeater frequency. Then it occurred to him, the UHF repeater atop the 201 Poplar Street Jail could have been wiped out in the earthquake, and the back up could also be down.
He quickly powered on the primary radio in the truck so it could act as the emergency backup repeater on the Fire Department frequency, allowing the various fire stations, battalions commanders, and fire trucks to communicate. Suddenly, a stream of voice traffic spewed forth from the radio. Now someone who transmitted could be heard by anyone who listened, and everyone had something to report. There had been some short-range communication on the simplex frequencies, but the primary multiplexed frequency had been unavailable until Billy had rigged his emergency radios to fill the gap.
Billy listened in dismay as battalion after battalion reported their condition. Fire station buildings had collapsed. All available equipment had been dispatched, but much of the equipment was trapped within fallen buildings. Major casualties had occurred amongst the firefighters. Few ambulances were available to handle the injured. Calls were going unanswered for lack of someone to respond. No water pressure was available at ongoing fires. Pandemonium. Chaos.
Finally, Billy made his Alarm call again. “EMA-3 mobile at North Hollywood and Harvard near Overton Park. Gas explosion in a residence. Fully engaged in flame. No water pressure.”
A voice came back over the radio. “Sorry EMA-3. That’s our district, but we have ten calls ahead of you. Do what you can.”
Billy’s stomach clutched, but he understood. The conditions he had here had been repeated throughout the city at a time when many of the county’s seventy Fire Battalions had been severely wounded themselves. The corp of First Responders had been decimated.
Billy left his truck and ran back to group standing around staring at the fire, watching helplessly as the houses next door began to smoke and show small flames. “There are fires all over the city like this. The Fire Department won’t be able to help anytime soon. We have to handle this ourselves.” He called to everyone in the street, hoping they would understand.
“What can we do?”
“Try to keep the fire from jumping the street. If you have a fire extinguisher, bring it out to the street and protect the houses across the street from the fire. Try to limit it to the houses on that block. Beat out the little fires that start in the bushes or on the roof.” Billy paused and watched a third house explode. “Go tell people on the next street what to do. Make sure people are out of all the houses on the burning block. Save what you can, but don’t let yourself get trapped or burned. And get all the gas valves turned off.”
Billy rushed about, trying to save his neighborhood. He watched a disaster unfold.