A false alarm sounded one morning. It was the alarm system designed to warn of a leak from the Umatilla Chemical Weapons Depot to the west of Hermiston.
Many people thought the chemicals were out, were spreading, were about to sicken and perhaps kill. And they reacted. Some “sheltered in place,” as they’d been trained to do: close off ways to the outside and wait. Some tried to flee. When it finally came out that it was a failure of the warning system, that things had gone wrong, the people of the Hermiston area were understandably angry.
I found out about the alarm before finding out it was a false alarm. I was in Dundee, Oregon with my family, preparing to drive home. I made my only call back to the office of my entire break, and Lori our receptionist told me “The alarms are going off. No one knows why.” Meaning the town had to assume the worst.
And I had to decide what I was going to do about it. Not an everyday thought process, having to think What do I do if I try to get back home and the freeway’s closed at Boardman? Because that was one of the procedures that would happen if a leak were truly happening. There was a good chance that if disaster were taking place, I’d have to turn back. Get a hotel? Head back the way I came? I finally decided I’d head east, stop at Hood River, Oregon, get lunch, and THEN call the office again -- hoping it would still be there and not look like something from Stephen King’s The Stand -- and find out what had happened. Yes, if disaster was happening, I wanted to face it on a full stomach.
I drove the two hours from Dundee to Hood River. I stopped at a hotel near the bridge to Washington State. The lack of people talking about disaster was a sign that probably disaster wasn’t happening -- had A CHUNK OF EASTERN OREGON BEEN CLOSED OFF DUE TO DEADLY WAFTING GAS, you’d figure that’d be a topic of discussion, yes? -- but still, I got my lunch, looked across the river to one possible place for me to go if I couldn’t make it back (I have family living in White Salmon, some miles north of Hood River), then went to a pay phone and called.
“It was a false alarm,” Lori told me.
“Jesus, a lot of people are going to be pissed,” I said.
That was the beginning of the last big story I covered in 1999. This was a big deal, extending into 2000 with investigations into what the hell had gone wrong.
Interestingly, to me at least, Portland media made it to Hermiston as well to cover the aftermath. At least one Portland TV reporter used a copy of the Hermiston Herald, my newspaper, as a prop. That news program showed my headline for our team coverage of the aftermath. My headline was False alarm, real fear -- melodramatic, but punchy and appropriate to what had happened. Those remain probably the four words written by me to be seen by the most people.
Maybe that expenditure of drama was enough to ensure that little to no drama would ensue soon after with the change from 1999 to 2000. No Y2K chaos. Just a switch in calendars, a switch in the numbers used to mark years.
May your entrance into 2010 be disaster-free as well.