Melissa Tanaka

Biographical Note

Melissa Tanaka is a recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania. She received a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering with a minor in Environmental Studies.

Artist’s Note

As a chemical engineering student, I’ve learned a great deal about oil refineries, and in the fall following the explosion we discussed the disaster in one of my chemical engineering classes. We looked into the various ways we, as engineers, could have stopped the catastrophe before it occurred. Solutions involved proper safety checks, instrument testing, and other technical fixes but never once did we question the existence of the oil refinery itself.

What struck me the most about the event at the oil refinery were its far-reaching impacts. During the explosion, a 38,000-pound process vessel flew up and soared over 2,100 feet, crossing the Schuylkill River and landing on the opposite bank. While the neighborhoods in close proximity to the refinery have been well aware of its harmful effects for a long time, those farther away from it remained ignorant.

Inspired by the way Henrietta Rose-Innes portrayed the role of privilege in her short story ‘Poison’, I aim to explore the question of what it means to escape, and if you can ever actually escape when threatened with environmental disaster. ‘Poison’ tells the story of a woman named Lynn as she attempts to evacuate Cape Town after a chemical explosion in the city. Lynn shows her privilege through her slow movements and lack of motivation to find help for herself. Aiming to show a similar representation, Marie leisurely strolls through the streets of Philly at the time of the oil refinery explosion. Her slow movements show that she has never been threatened by the oil refinery before and she remains ignorant of the effects of the explosion until she returns home to see that a process drum had been launched from the center of the refinery and found its way to her doorstep. Upon seeing the horrific scene, she walks away, hoping to escape this threat just as she had been able to escape the dangers of the oil refinery her entire life.

Keywords: Fiction; industry; environmental degradation; Pennsylvania; social inequality

An Escape

Philadelphia skyline on a clear day. Light, wispy clouds partially cover a few of the buildings.

Pulling the door shut on her way out, the warmth of Philadelphia’s spring air wraps around Marie’s head as the fresh breeze blows her sun-bleached bangs off to the side of her face. Her dog, Buddy, turns to give her a smile before twisting back around to pull eagerly on the leash. His long white tail flashes by so quickly that it disappears for several moments. Patience, she tells him, before taking her first steps down the concrete stairs leading up to her front door.

Heading south, Marie walks down the block with Buddy happily dragging her along. The sunlight from the morning sun streams in through small gaps in the densely dressed trees, warming her soft, pearly skin as spring flowers rain down around her.

She sees her neighbor’s children playing in the street. The older of the two siblings turns seven in a few weeks and the younger one has just turned five. Their father is stretched out lazily on the porch steps scrolling through the screen of his phone. Their mother is a busy dentist, but the success of her work shows in the bright smiles of her children. Their joy radiates as the kids giggle and chase each other, full of energy, showing no signs of slowing down.

Further down the street, the smell of pollen and freshly lain soil tingle her nose as her feet glide along the smooth sidewalk. Freshly planted tulips have begun to sprout up all around the neighborhood and Marie gently smiles to herself as she sees the vibrant colors glowing, lighting up the streets.

The path Marie and Buddy find themselves moving along is dotted with fellow walkers. Buddy’s tail wags so hard his entire body sways with each movement as he eagerly greets all of the new four-legged friends he meets along the way. As the fifth new friend appears to head towards them, Marie sighs and looks to cross the street. Too many new friends for one day. She thinks to herself, who knew 11am on a Tuesday was the most popular time to walk a dog?

Moving past the street of many dogs, they come to a halt at the edge of a busy intersection and Marie looks down at Buddy who happily returns the loving gaze. Looking past him and his wagging tail, Marie focuses in on the empty lot on the opposite side of the street. She’d passed it a million times but never gave it too much attention before, but right now it screams green with the thick, overgrown grass piling out and onto the sidewalk. Along the edge of the plot and interwoven into the long strings of grass are all kinds of discarded items. Glitters of broken glass glisten in the sunlight, and Marie is careful to make a mental note to keep Buddy away from it all. The added responsibility of having to tend to a bloody paw is the last thing Marie wants out of this day.

As the light of the white walker flashes across the road, she steps into the street. Cars honk as they zoom alongside her, and she feels the ground shake beneath her with each step.

Philadelphia skyline on a clear day. White steam billows up from the refinery below, tops of process equipment become visible.

A particularly loud car rumbles past as the bass bumps to the beat of the music and the revving engine screams. Someone inside the car rolls down the window to yell something inaudible at her. Locking her gaze ahead, she ignores the call, and watches out of the corner of her eye as the car rolls by, headed south, just like her. Frustrated with the potential of what could have been said, Marie takes in a deep breath, only to feel a light burn in the back of her throat as the gas guzzler’s exhaust fills her lungs.

A little shaken from the interaction, she takes the time to give herself a mental pat on the back once she reaches the other side of the crosswalk. She’s quite impressed she was even able to get herself out here on a walk this morning. She had been so content sitting on her couch earlier but having promised herself she’d do at least one productive thing on her day off, she chose to get some exercise.

At work, Marie didn’t always see eye to eye with her boss and feeling underutilized and underappreciated, the workplace had become a major source of stress in her life. Feeling the need for a break, she had called in sick that morning, faking a cough over the phone.

The street Marie now finds herself on is only lined with a few sparsely leafed trees. Feeling the heat settling in as the sun arches above her head, beads of sweat begin to well up against her forehead. Spotting a park in the nearby distance, she charges towards the plot of green partially hidden by sweeping branches of shade.

Philadelphia skyline on a clear day. White steam billows up from the refinery below, major pieces of oil refinery process equipment become visible.

Entering the park, she sees that it sits right up against the bank of the Schuylkill River. Finding a bench facing the water, Marie lets out a sigh of relief as she can finally take a moment to rest. Buddy is grateful for the recovery time as well and quickly stretches out in the cool grass, extending his paws in all directions, tongue out, panting.

As the water softly laps against the wet, sandy soil, Marie looks out across the river to stare up at the steam wafting out of the Philadelphia Oil Refinery.

She leans back in her seat and reaches up to fix her hair. The thin, smooth front strands have slipped out from her hair tie and have become matted to the sweat glistening on her face. Sweeping the long strands back into a ponytail, she wonders about the refinery protest she had heard about a few months back. She recalled the demands for a shut down, but why? Were workers underpaid? Or was it community members that had called for the closure? She couldn’t recall exactly. She hadn’t thought about it since that day the pale blue flyer had somehow found itself jammed underneath the welcome mat on her doorstep. But judging by the quick rate of wispy white clouds billowing out of the tall stacks, it seems the protest had failed.

Eyes tracing the line of the smoke, Marie looks up towards the blurred but blazing sun. She squeezes her eyes shut for a minute, as the humidity swarms her head, swelling red and hot. Looking down at Buddy, his eyes are closed as he comfortably rests his head against his crossed paws. His ribs poke out with each deep inhale and disappear again with the slow exhale. Taking one final deep breath herself, Marie decides to return home. Tenderly, she stands back up, gives Buddy a good scratch behind the ears to bring him back into consciousness, and turns around to head back north.

Philadelphia skyline on a clear day. White steam billows up from the refinery below, entire oil refinery comes into view.

Stepping out from under the shade and back onto the sidewalk, a loud bang explodes behind Marie. The sound of the blast darts across the river and rushes up around her, shooting shock waves through her body. The bang races by just as quickly as it came, and an eerie silence follows as she steadies herself. She gives a quick glance over her shoulder and across the river, the refinery has been transformed into a fiery red dome, flickering with yellow streaks as a dark black cloud billows out and into the sky. Buddy and Marie exchange a look of confusion, but it only lasts a fleeting moment as Buddy is quickly taken by the smell of the remains of a half-eaten chicken wing discarded along the sidewalk. With an uneasy feeling churning deep in the pit of her stomach, Marie heads home, eager to get back to the safety of her couch with some freshly popped popcorn to binge the news.

Philadelphia skyline on a clear day. White steam billows up from the refinery below, major pieces of oil refinery process equipment become visible.

The streets darken around her as black clouds fill the sky. Looking to avoid any confrontation with the scene of doom unfolding behind her, Marie walks on, and as she turns the corner, the danger disappears from view.

The afternoon air now sits heavy on Marie’s back, feeling warmer than ever. She regrets not turning back earlier. She could have been home by now.

The wail of an ambulance echoes in the distance, the sound growing softer and softer as it moves past, heading towards the shadow of darkness behind her. 

Buddy stops for a moment to sniff around a light post stained by the dogs who have come before him. Although she has strolled along this block hundreds of times before, she has never truly seen it. With her surroundings now crying out for attention, Marie regards the house she stands beside while waiting for Buddy. The front door is a faded red, now appearing to be a soft pink. All of the windows are shut tight against the splintering window panes with the blinds drawn behind it. The house seems dark inside except for the small amounts of sunlight streaming in through the kinks bent into the blind’s well-worn slats. Outside, small patches of dry grass surround the base of the home with the front section of the yard split off from the side by a rusted chain link fence. Several small items of trash line the base of the fence, an empty bag of Cheetos, a plastic bag from Wawa, and a few other things so broken down that they are unidentifiable. Marie spots another discarded chicken wing stuck against the fence and hopes that Buddy doesn’t discover it too. On the side yard, a few children’s toys lay strewn about. The plastic pieces are sun bleached and appear as if they haven’t been played with in years. Through the thin walls of the building she thinks she can hear the faint sound of labored breathing and a hacking cough.

Moving along, she comes back up on the empty lot she had passed by earlier. Marie watches as Buddy’s nose stays glued to the ground, sniffing out all of the interesting trash items left behind. Realizing how long it’s been since she’s had a drink of water, Marie moves her tongue around in her mouth, searching for moisture. At work the day before she’d had a seltzer, and then after work a beer. She thinks about how the only thing she’d had this morning was a coffee, but there’s water in that right? With a dry gulp, she looks out across the street, urging the light to change. A gentle tug on the leash by Buddy shakes her from her thoughts just in time to yank the leash up as Buddy nearly sticks his face into the pile of shattered glass. It looks to be the remnants of a jar of pasta sauce as a thin, dark red crust splatters the sidewalk beneath it. So much for that mental note, she thinks to herself, glad to have narrowly missed such a disaster.

The intersection that had been so busy on her way out now seems abandoned. The quiet gives her peace of mind as she will no longer have to deal with the shouting, the speeding cars, or the deafening sound of the earth-shattering bass. Looking up, she watches a small flock of white birds flying against the dark sky, headed north. Across the street, the white walking person reveals itself, and Marie steps into the road to continue home.

Philadelphia skyline on a clear day. White steam billows up from the refinery below, tops of process equipment become visible.

As Marie approaches her neighborhood, the tight grip the dark clouds held loosens and the sky begins to open up, allowing the sun to beat down again. She sees full, lush trees lining the sidewalk ahead of her and she quickens the pace just slightly to reach the shady oasis.

Finally protected by the branches above, a light breeze refreshes her. Marie sighs with relief and slows her walk down just a bit to soak in the fresh air exhaled for her by the trees.

Philadelphia skyline on a clear day. Light, wispy clouds partially cover a few of the buildings.

Also seeming to be restored by the power of the shade, Buddy seems to have hit a second wave of energy and starts eagerly pulling on the leash again. He sniffs around each and every crevice of the ground beneath him, whipping his head left and right in search of any new friends that might cross his path. As Buddy pulls Marie forward, the familiar smell of freshly lain soil and pollen wafts back into Marie’s nose.

Much to Buddy’s disappointment, no new friends are within sight for now. Even the children playing in the streets, with their father lounging on the steps seem to have packed up and gone back inside. Everyone’s probably getting back to work Marie thinks. The thought of work makes the corners of Marie’s mouth turn up slightly. She’s so glad she called in sick today. She really did hate that place.

Church bells chime in the distance, with the melodic tune ending with one resounding strike. The sun should still be high above her head, but the sky looks as if it has begun to set, reflecting a warm, red glow down on Marie and the surrounding streets. As she nears her home, the sounds of chattering birds fluttering about dies down for a moment, giving way to silence. The quiet is short lived and is soon cut by the sharp wail of sirens as a string of four police cars race down the street, approaching her from behind.

The soft white fur on Buddy’s back is raised; she can tell he is on edge. He’s not used to alarms this loud, and definitely not this close to home.

The flashing lights of red and blue reflect off of the buildings as the cars aggressively storm down and past her, each one tilting up a bit as they barrel the turn at the four way stop in front of her. Marie’s heart skips a beat as she sees they had turned onto her own street.

Curious to see what all the drama could be about, she quickly makes her way across the final few blocks separating her from her home. There had been a nearby robbery once, and of course there was the time her bike had been stolen after she’d lazily left it out unlocked one evening. But this many cop cars? A stolen bike was unlikely. She reaches the corner of her street and turns to get a full view of her home.

A massive, badly bent, lump of metal lies crumpled on her doorstep. The base of the object is circular, indicating that it may have been cylindrical not too long ago. The metal appears to have once been coated in a bright orange, but now only a few speckles of the original paint are visible behind the crust of the rusted surface. Spotting a label, dry and flaking off of the side of the metal barrel, Marie can make out the letters: PES. A gaping hole in the side of the drum oozes a slow-moving, dark liquid as a puddle forms, spilling into the street. The concrete steps leading up to her porch are smashed in, with crumbly remnants reaching all the way to where she now stands. Her favorite, brightly colored potted geraniums are hidden from view. Presumably smashed beneath the hunk of metal.

None of her neighbors are out, seemingly unbothered by the mess that has now become of her home.

Filled with confusion, she stands still. Silent and unmoving, she demands information.

The loud bang she had heard earlier rings in her ears. Could that have done this? She had been so far away, there was no way.

Looking south, she sees the darkness creeping in. In the other direction, she sees that the blue sky is still showing its face.

Taking one last lingering look at her home, she turns to walk north.

image credits: The Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery is seen at sunset in front of the Philadelphia skyline in Pennysylvania, U.S., March 24, 2014. REUTERS/David M. Parrott/File Photo

Refinery fire still from WPVI, 6ABC video