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15 Years Earlier
Jennifer Cortez could not sleep.
It was a little past four in the morning and, in less than seven hours, she and her builder were scheduled to conduct their final inspection of her new home. Her husband, Porch, was on a business trip to San Francisco and was not due back into Denver until just after nine that morning. He had promised to meet them at the homesite as soon as he could pick up his bags and drive there from the airport.
Her excitement was palpable. This was their dream home, the home they had worked so long and so hard to be able to afford. Life had been good to Jennifer, a woman in her mid-forties whose five children were all still in school. This was the home in which she would finish raising her family, the home to which her children would eventually bring their own children when she and Porch became grandparents, the home in which she and Porch would grow old together.
It was early July and the kids were on vacation from school. Pete, her oldest, would be starting his sophomore year in college at Texas A&M in the fall, while Ann would be entering her freshman year at the University of Colorado. Tim, who looked and acted exactly like Porch, was going into the ninth grade, while the twins, Jenny and Kelley, were still in elementary school. Only Pete had inherited her cobalt-like blue eyes. The others had their father’s rich brown eyes.
Five kids, she mused. Life was certainly full of surprises.
Jennifer glanced at her alarm clock again. It was now a little past four-thirty. Having finally given up all thought of ever falling back to sleep, she rolled out of bed and headed downstairs to the kitchen to fix herself some coffee. The sun was due to come up in another hour, and she figured she had just enough time to quickly drive by the new house to check on a few details and still get back home before the kids woke up.
She slipped on a pair of shorts, a blouse and sandals, and headed for the garage, where she kept her new yellow VW Beetle parked. It was only a fifteen-minute drive to Timber Falls, and she knew she could be back home by six-thirty, at the latest, in plenty of time to get the kids up and be ready to tackle the day.
* * * * *
Bob was a fiery man, a man so consumed by anger that nothing else in his life seemed to matter. His passion was politics, and he lived it, breathed it, ate it, drank it, slept it. It oozed from his pores like garlic on a hundred-degree day.
For the past ten years, he had lived in Boulder, Colorado, a trendy college town nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, just north of Denver. Bob loved Boulder. He felt comfortable there among people who shared his outlook on life. Walking outdoors along the Pearl Street Mall was like stepping back in time to the Haight-Ashbury days of the 1960s.
The faint smell of marijuana always seemed to hang in the air, as did the stench of body odor in the summer, as transients virtually doubled the population of this progressive college town. Charming Victorian houses still surrounded the downtown area, and residents fought long and hard to protect Boulder’s innate charm against the twin dangers of growth and sprawl.
Bob was now in his late-forties, forty-nine to be exact. Like most men his age, he suffered frequent bouts of nostalgia. He missed the excitement of protesting the Vietnam War, of sailing with Greenpeace, of standing up to injustice wherever he found it. To him, his was a life with purpose.
Tonight, Bob was poised for action. He and his three team members were going over their final checks before setting out for that night’s objective: a new subdivision nestled in the foothills just northwest of Denver.
Their target was simply the latest in a seemingly endless succession of upscale suburban residential developments, each of which served to diminish, in its own incremental way, the once unspoiled majesty of the Rocky Mountains. Bob knew in his soul that history would judge his actions as having been both noble and just.
Because this was Brandi and Ted’s first operational mission, Bob spent extra time explaining to them the best placement for explosives, why certain techniques achieved a hotter burn, and how to properly sequence explosions in order to achieve the maximum effect. As a result, they took about forty-five minutes longer than the plan had called for.
It was now ten minutes past five in the morning. Their work complete, they had hiked back to their Volvo, which they had hidden in the woods about a half-mile from the new housing development.
Bob and his team loaded their equipment and empty containers into the station wagon and quickly climbed in. He was always careful to never leave anything behind that might lead either the police, or the inevitable insurance investigators, back to Green Action.
As the dusty brown Volvo made its way down the mountain roads toward Denver, Bob rolled down the window to take in the fresh mountain air. He took a deep breath. This was what they were fighting for—that future generations would be able to come here and take in the full beauty of this majestic countryside.
Sunrise was scheduled for about five-forty that morning, so he had set the timers to go off at five-thirty on the dot, while the construction site would still be empty. The first construction workers usually didn’t begin arriving until after six.
Normally, he liked to time them to go off at least an hour before dawn so he could enjoy the stunning visual contrast of flames dancing in the night sky, but this morning they were running late. He looked at the luminescent dial on his black digital runner’s watch. It was five-twenty-nine and forty seconds.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Cortez was taking some last-minute window measurements in the family room of her soon-to-be home in the Timber Falls subdivision.
She did not feel a thing.
* * * * *
60 miles off the Galveston coast
A ship the size of four football fields, stuffed to the gills with a couple million barrels of crude, was transferring that oil through giant hoses from one supertanker to another while on the high seas. Who would have ever thought anything could possibly go wrong?
The blinding glare from the midday sun caused the captain to squint as his eyes struggled to adjust to being back inside. He had just reentered the air conditioned comfort of the ship’s bridge moments before, having spent the previous hour down on deck.
The cool air felt luxurious against his skin and a few goose bumps even popped up on his leathery arms. He could still taste the salty sea air as he licked his lips every few seconds to keep them from chapping.
He was standing on the bridge of the VLCC Northern Lights, a Panamanian-registered supertanker that measured nearly a quarter of a mile from stem to stern. The bridge was the equivalent of twenty stories above the water’s surface. Even so, the glare from sun’s reflection off the water was blinding.
“Let’s hope that Homeland’s warnings are overblown,” Jack Holcomb said anxiously to his chief officer, a fellow by the name of Santos. “It’s already mid-August and I’ve only got four more months until retirement.”
Holcomb’s thinning white hair and weather-beaten face made him appear older than his sixty years. He had been the captain of the Northern Lights for the past decade and most of that time had passed uneventfully. He prayed the rest would, too.
“My wife already has a spot picked out for us,” the captain said. “It’s a nice little villa up in the hills overlooking a tiny fishing village on the Costa del Sol.”
He shook his head and smiled wryly, saying, “I think the entire village could probably fit into the bowels of this ship…and still leave room for future generations.”
The giant vessel was preparing to offload its cargo of more than two million barrels of crude oil onto several smaller tankers over the next few days. The whole idea may sound completely crazy to outsiders, but supertankers like the Northern Lights, with its enormous size and displacement, cannot navigate into the Port of Houston while fully loaded.
Instead, it must “trans-load” its cargo of crude—while on the open seas—onto smaller oil tankers which, in turn, deliver the oil to refineries located in or near the port complex. The process is commonly known as lightering.
Holcomb and Santos had spent the past couple of hours observing the Emerald Star, a smaller petroleum tanker located several miles off in the distance. It was being rigged up by the crew of a third ship, a lightering support vessel christened the Hoek van Holland. The Hoek was busily preparing the smaller tanker for the ship-to-ship transfer of several hundred thousand barrels of oil from the Northern Lights.
* * * * *
Several hours had now passed and the Emerald Star was carefully maneuvering into position alongside the Northern Lights. She would be the first of four “smaller” oil tankers scheduled to offload crude from the giant supertanker over the next several days. Of course, small is a relative term, since the Emerald Star, by herself, could carry nearly five hundred thousand barrels of crude.
Standing on the deck was a crusty old man named Van der Pol, who would serve as the “mooring master” during the lightering operation. His legs spread apart for better balance, he carefully watched as the two tankers edged ever closer for their eventual coupling. The Dutchman, as most people referred to him, was a short but powerfully built man in his late fifties. He had been engaged in lightering operations for more than forty years, ever since he was a teenager in Rotterdam.
He was also the owner of RGC Lightering and the Hoek van Holland was his ship.
Four massive floating fenders—each one measuring thirty-feet in length, ten-feet in diameter and shaped like huge oblong boilers—were secured along the waterline of the Emerald Star. Their purpose was to prevent the hulls of the two giant supertankers from damaging each other as they maneuvered into a side-by-side position, which they would maintain for at least the next twelve hours. Each fender was wrapped in a blanket of oversized vehicle tires that were fastened together using heavy chains to provide additional strength and cushioning.
Once the ships were side-by-side, the two crews methodically stretched thick steel mooring cables from one deck to the other to secure the two tankers into position. This would help prevent any independent movement by either of the vessels during the lightering operation.
Using the large, deck-mounted cranes to lift bulky equipment from one ship to the other, the four transfer hoses already attached to the Emerald Star were then connected to the larger ship. These ninety-foot hoses were roughly twelve inches in diameter. Through them, the crude would be transferred from the Northern Lights to the smaller tanker.
The crews of the two vessels worked methodically—not unlike NASCAR pit crews—to ensure that everything was done quickly and precisely according to established procedure. Once he was satisfied that everything was in order, the Hoek’s engineer radioed the Dutchman on his yellow walkie-talkie.
“Everything is ready to go, Dutch,” he said, giving the old man a thumbs-up gesture that he was probably too far away from to make out.
The engineer noticed his knuckles were covered in blood and his greasy right hand was slightly swollen, although, for the life of him, he couldn’t remember how or when that had happened. He just knew that his hand hurt like hell.
Van der Pol, who earlier had transferred over to the larger supertanker by grasping ahold of the boom of one of the giant cranes during the rigging process, was now standing next to Holcomb on the bridge of the Northern Lights. He turned slightly to face him and said, somewhat formally, “Captain, we’re ready to commence the transfer at your command.”
Holcomb nodded his head and signaled with his right hand for the transfer operation to begin.
The pumping of the crude from the giant supertanker began slowly, allowing the crews on both ships the time to ensure that the connections were secure and that there were no other problems. Ever so gradually, the rate of flow was increased, with the gauges being carefully monitored to make sure that everything was still in order.
The chief officer of each ship was stationed in his respective control room, closely monitoring fluid levels in the cargo and ballast tanks. They would remain there throughout the transfer operation. Likewise, both vessels would keep a bridge watch throughout the entire process to ensure safe navigation.
Eventually, they reached normal flow.
The two crews then settled in for the long process of transferring half a million barrels of crude oil. At a flow rate of twenty thousand barrels per hour per hose, using only two hoses at a time, the entire process would continue throughout the night, taking a little more than twelve hours to complete.
That is, if everything went according to plan.
Sometime just before four o’clock the next morning, the captain of the Northern Lights was awakened suddenly by a sharp pinging sound coming from his cellphone, indicating he had just received a text message.
Glancing at the brightly lit face of his mobile phone, he saw that the message simply read, “THE FUTURE IS NOW!”
Moments later, the deafening roar from an explosion shattered the predawn calm. It was immediately followed by the ear-piercing wail of the ship’s alarms that could be heard from miles away. Crew members on both tankers, most of whom had just been unexpectedly roused from a deep sleep, scrambled frantically out onto the decks, like cockroaches after someone suddenly flips on the lights in the galley during the dead of night.
All attention was now focused on the starboard side of the Northern Lights, where the smaller tanker, the Emerald Star, had been taking on crude.
Despite the darkness of the night sky, the ship’s bright spotlights now blanketed the deck area and made it almost seem like midday. Thousands of barrels of gooey black slime were now hemorrhaging from the cavernous holds of the Northern Lights and into the Gulf of Mexico.
The ultimate destination of the rapidly expanding swath of black carbon was the crowded summer beaches and rich fishing spots along the Texas and Louisiana coasts.
The only question now was how much of the crude would make its way to the shoreline, with the high number being two million barrels…or more than the nation of either Great Britain or France consumes in an entire day.
* * * * *
Two supertankers are transferring half a million barrels of oil on the open sea 60 miles off the Texas coast. What could possibly go wrong?
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