From the beginning, it was a river of death within an ocean teeming with life, an oil spill of incomprehensible proportions and incalculable consequences.
When the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef 4 minutes into March 24, 1989, and leaked almost 11 million gallons of Alaska crude into the sea, the resulting destruction numbed the mind.
The human impact equaled an invasion force. An army of animal rescuers, beach cleaners, rock scrubbers, bureaucrats, experts, more experts, foreign experts, even tourists, descended upon Prince William Sound.
In Valdez, Seward, Cordova, Homer, Kodiak and all the villages along the soiled seacoast, grocery boys, exhausted phone workers, carpenters, fishermen, merchants, housewives, schoolchildren, veterinarians, police officers and educators found their lives upside down, inside out.
Yet amid all the statistics and clamor, behind all the fingerpointing and 150 civil lawsuits, individual memories are traced in the grease and the grief.
Here are the voices of four Alaskans, people whose lives were changed by what happened that frigid, clear Good Friday in Prince William Sound.
The Park Superintendent
Two glass jars of congealed tar sit on Anne Castellina's desk at the Seward headquarters of Kenai Fjords National Park. They are stinkingreminders of carcasses, tears, lost sleep and disrupted lives, all left in the deadly wake of the Exxon Valdez.
One jar's contents were collected soon after oil blackened the magnificent coastline that Castellina, as Kenai Fjords superintendent, is charged to protect. The other was filled last fall, eight months after the crude came ashore. The stench from both is gutwrenching. The difference in the second jar lies in the residue of dead flesh and a justrecognizable feather.
"I didn't have any idea what was coming, I just knew we were getting sucked into it very fast. Our staff meeting on March 30th was the last sane time for nine months. When I saw the phone man installing 25 lines and dragging in a huge Xerox machine, I knew we were cookin'."
Kenai Fjords is Castellina's first assignment as chief of a national park. At 39, she is a 13year park service veteran, with past assignments in Virginia, Florida and New York.
"The oil hit April 10th. It was the worst day of my life. I couldn't believe how bad it was. It was the daily 6 p.m. briefing of the Multi Agency Coordinating (MAC) Group. Our weatherman stood up and said, "Today we had impacts on the headlands of Aialik Peninsula.'
"I just lost it. My mind blanked. I was stunned. . . . That night I could hardly talk. I had an overwhelming feeling of guilt. That's my park, and I didn't stop the oil from hitting it. . . . I had irrational thoughts then, and I don't think those feelings will ever go away completely."
A divorced mother of three adopted sisters from Costa Rica, her personal life evaporated.
"I used to work 8 to 5 with an hour for lunch. Suddenly, I never got home before 9 or 10. A baby sitter took a cab to my house every day at 3 p.m., cooked my kids' dinner, got them bathed and in bed. She didn't drive so I'd give her cash and she'd go to the grocery store in a cab. My taxes didn't get done until late May. I remember sitting there thinking, "I don't have the energy to do this and, besides, it's not important. The IRS can wait.' I paid a huge late penalty."
Castellina was head of the Seward MAC group, a crisis committee encompassing local, state and federal agencies.
"I gave up worrying about my career about the time the Coast Guard threatened to take my job. Exxon and the Coast Guard kept saying, "You don't have a problem here,' but when Sen. Ted Stevens (RAlaska) showed up he said, "You guys have got a problem here,' and we said, "Yes, we know.'
"That's when (MAC) got in the oil booming business. We took unilateral action. It was a really scary time. (The Interior Department in) Washington was screaming, but Anchorage always backed me up; they were a tremendous buffer even though they were taking it in the shorts.
"I decided the hell with it. If I get fired, I get fired. I've got to go on instinct and what the scientific data tells me. I couldn't secondguess my decisions. If I'd done that I'd have lost my mind."
Kenai Fjords has seven permanent employees and six to 12 summer workers to oversee 670,000 acres and 400 miles of coastline.
"My staff was falling apart. One person withdrew from spill activity, just couldn't handle it. Another who was out in the field most of the summer saw his marriage fall apart. . . . Meanwhile, 77,000 visitors arrived and had to be served properly. I got a series of bladder infections and lived on antibiotics. But my stresscaused asthma cleared up. Funny, huh?"
Since then, Castellina has been elected to the board of the Chamber of Commerce. The Seward Phoenix Log newspaper recently selected her Citizen of the Year. Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. flew in on an inspection tour and presented her with the Interior Department Honor Award.
"I'm a lot less naive. I'm less able to take things at face value because of all the broken promises. I've matured in my understanding of the political aspects of disasters.
"I now hear myself saying to my younger, firebrand colleagues, "Don't worry about it, we'll get it worked out.' I am trying to be consistent and keep my integrity, because more of the same is coming at us again this summer as we try once again to clean this mess up."
"Before the spill, I had it made," said John Devens. "I was a reasonably popular mayor who'd served longer than anybodyever elected. I was a college president with a good income and real good status. I had a charter boat operator's license and ran a little audiology practice on the side. I had as near a perfect life as you could have."
Remembering times before March 24, 1989, Devens allows a trace of wistfulness into his voice, as though he's describing an old friend who's moved away.
He was mayor of Valdez from 1984 until last October, when he decided not to run again. He presided over a town of 3,500, a place called "The Switzerland of Alaska" because of its mountains and glaciers that tumble to the sea. Home of the tanker terminal for the transAlaska oil pipeline, Valdez was America's richest city per capita when oil prices were at their peak.
Before the Exxon Valdez ran aground 30 miles southwest of his front door, Devens was content. One year later, everything is different.
"Now I'm running for Congress; without the spill I would never have done this," he said. "I had a personality change. Before, I took a strong development stand. When the spill occurred I wasn't as environmentally conscious as I was concerned about the town. I was very parochial."
Devens, 49, is on eight months' leave as president of Prince William Sound Community College, running for Alaska's single U.S. House seat. If he gains the Democratic nomination, as yet uncontested, he'll face nineterm incumbent Republican Don Young.
"I was never officially notified of the spill. I started working 17 hours a day, seven days a week. I made unilateral decisions, which upset the council and angered people. When I said I did not welcome the Exxon Valdez back into the port of Valdez once they got it off the reef, somebody put up a sign down at the Exxon office that said, "Benedict Arnold Devens.'
"I lost a lot of friends, but I made good decisions and I'm proud of them. Before the spill . . . the dog leash ordinance was what got people riled up most in Valdez. Suddenly Exxon was running wild we didn't know who was who, all we knew was that there were guys in hard hats running around making decisions about our town. . . .
"These guys thought they could do anything they wanted to. There was an arrogance in the way they went about protecting their company that was opposed to our duty to protect our city and our environment. I had to make dozens of decisions a day. I became very unpopular with my Alyeska (Pipeline Service Co.) friends."
Devens says he knows "something about tilting at windmills." With a doctorate in speech pathology, he started Alaska's only accredited community college in 1979 with a budget of $118,000 and no teachers. Today the school has a $3 million budget, 1,000 mostly parttime students and 35 employees.
For his campaign, he admits he has little statewide recognition and hasn't yet raised much money.
"I could have chartered my boat to Exxon during the cleanup for as much as $250,000 and used that money to run my campaign, but I never took a penny for anything my car, my spare room, my boat. As it all unfolded I became more and more concerned about what was happening to the people. I started screaming for reform, help for the Native communities, relief for the fishermen.
"Exxon keeps saying it wasn't much of a disaster, we only found 36,000 dead birds. They missed the whole point. There's a whole lot of suffering going on in Prince William Sound, not just the animals, but the people, too.
"I've learned you don't appreciate how much you care for something until it is threatened. Attitudes in Alaska have changed. This state is looking at itself for the long haul instead of just the short term. We no longer trust the oil industry to take care of us because it won't. We have to take care of ourselves."
In late March the arctic sun rises early over Prince William Sound. It makes the mountains glow like pearls, warms sea otters playing at the water's edge, reveals a bald eagle in a distant tree, exposes a coyote on the prowl.
As Michelle Hahn O'Leary pours $4agallon milk on her $4.79abox cereal, spreads $2.13apound margarine on a piece of $2.70aloaf bread, she gazes at the panorama and says, to no one in particular, for the several thousandth time, "This is why I live here."
"Here" is Cordova, near the confluence of Whiskey and Eccles creeks, just before the glaciercold streams tumble into the bay in front of her kitchen window. There is no road to Cordova. It is reachable only by boat or plane.
There is also no road to the house Michelle and Mike O'Leary built. They like it that way. Walking keeps them in shape for the rigorous commercial fishing season that runs from early spring through the summer. It's also great conditioning for the local ski mountain, an allvolunteer enterprise that takes most of Mike O'Leary's winter time. He's a thirdgeneration Alaskan; she came north from Oregon 16 years ago, when she was 18.
"I've always loved the outdoors, and I wanted handson work. That's why I became a fisherman. The weather's always different, the currents are different. Mike and I mostly fish together; we have our own boat. We fish for salmon in Bristol Bay and have herring permits in Prince William Sound."
Last year, just as the O'Learys were ready to plant their kelpbaited impoundment boxes and collect the herring roe laid in the kelp by passing fish, a delicacy that fetches up to $25 a pound in Japan, the Exxon Valdez ran aground.
"My husband and I were the first fishermen in Cordova to find out about the spill when a friend called from Seattle at 6:30 a.m. He'd heard it on the news. I almost threw up. I felt like somebody'd kicked me in the gut.
"Mike and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes and knew our lives would never be the same, the Sound would never be the same."
Three days after the spill, Michelle O'Leary was appointed to the board of the Cordova District Fishermen United, the oldest fishing organization in Alaska. The fishermen's group has always opposed the tanker terminal in nearby Valdez. At environmental impact hearings in the early 1970s before construction of the transAlaska pipeline, the oil industry brushed aside fishermens' fears about potential oil spills in Prince William Sound.
"Knowing it could happen didn't help prepare us for the physical, mental, emotional stress and strain to come. By noon we had 50 fishing boats ready to fight the spill, but Exxon never returned our phone calls.
"I think Exxon was in a state of denial for the first six weeks. I think they felt it happened in an area where people weren't sophisticated enough to communicate the crisis to the rest of the world, that we'd all sit home and let it go by.
"They'd say to me, "It's 60 miles away from Cordova, what are you worried about?' Exxon didn't understand that 60 miles in Alaska is nothing, it's our front yard."
Michelle O'Leary became a fixture at spillrelated meetings in Valdez, Anchorage and Washington. Her poignant testimony was captured on national TV and radio. There was no herring season, no spring skiing. The O'Learys finally got to Bristol Bay in July for the salmon run, so when they added that profit to their Exxon claims, they earned about the same in 1989 that they had the year before.
But "the bottom line isn't just money any more. The old ways of rape and pillage are no longer acceptable, but Exxon hasn't figured that out. I think they thought if they threw enough money up in the air people would say, "Oh, yeah, that's enough, that will take care of it,' but that's not what happened."
Exxon says it has spent $2 billion on the spill; the company is under federal order to return to the cleanup May 1.
"This spill has raised the environmental consciousness of the whole world. I believe the 1990s will be spent trying to achieve a balance between good ecology and sound economics.
"I love oil. I love to have a fishing boat that burns oil, instead of having to row it to catch salmon. But there has to be a balance. Every person has to do their part. Corporations and Congress have to take responsibility and change their ways.
"I will never be as uninvolved in the political process as I was before the spill. I know now that I am not afraid to be emotional and to speak from the heart. And I have learned that one person, one voice, can make a difference."
The Oil Man
Lyle Von Bargen, 61, has worked in the oil industry most of his adult life. For 17 years he's been community relations manager for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., theumbrella company created by eight petroleum giants who built the $8 billion transAlaska pipeline. Exxon owns about 20 percent of Alyeska.
In the decade since Von Bargen moved his family from Alyeska headquarters in Anchorage to Valdez, they have built a place in the community. His two teenage daughters are star students; Lisa, the elder, will probably be valedictorian of her graduating class. In the year since the Exxon Valdez tainted the entire oil industry, life has not been easy.
"The first month I left the house at 6 a.m. If I got home before midnight I was lucky. The days all ran together. I just tried to assist, to keep updating information. I was working with Exxon; I'd keep asking them what was going on. I took a lot of people on tours, got in a lot of helicopter time. . . . We usually had an Alyeska vice president or the president here, but I usually gave the tour. . . . It was my territory."
Von Bargen came to Alaska from Minnesota in 1952 and took a job driving for Anchorage City Transit. Then he hired on with a company that delivered fuel up and down the Kenai Peninsula. He transferred out of a truck cab into an office job and by 1968 was Alaska sales manager for Union Oil Co.
"I'm the kind of guy who . . . can get dirt on my hands, I know I can still do that if I have to. A lot of people have never done that. If I were uncomfortable in my job, or didn't like it, I could leave it."
He still drives 30,000 miles a year around interior Alaska, often in blizzards. He says it's safer than flying. Once his path was blocked by a snowslide 100 feet wide and 6 feet high. Just before he turned around, another avalanche buried the road behind him. In the dark, he and a few other motorists shoveled their way to safety. It was, he said, the Alaska way.
"The mayor (exValdez Mayor John Devens) was really hammering on Exxon, and we (Alyeska) took that as hammering on us, too. The mayor got on the bandwagon that we had let them all down, but that's not true. Most everybody here the technicians, the workers felt we did our job. We followed the oil spill contingency plan.
"Every day, every day, everybody was hammering Exxon for not picking up the oil five minutes after it got on the water. It got demoralizing to some people . . . it just plain got demoralizing."
But Von Bargen says attacks on the oil industry never depressed him or his family.
"I've had an awful lot of people walk up to me and say they were sorry about what was in the news, because they live here in Valdez and they know better. They know it wasn't like that."
As Alyeska's frontline representative to communities along the 798milelong pipeline, Von Bargen attends many civic and social events.
"Every place I go I'm asked questions, and 99.9 percent of the people . . . understand what happened and say, "Yes, it was an accident, it's something we have to live with and we don't ever want to happen again, but we have to move forward, put it behind us and get on with our lives."'
These days Von Bargen spends a lot of time escorting reporters and government types through the tanker terminal, explaining Alyeska's new spill response team, SERVS Ships Escort Response Vessels System. The consortium has two new tanker escort ships and 100 people trained to respond immediately to spills.
"I think memories of the spill will go away, but it will take a while. For a long time March 27th was always remembered as the day of the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. That's the way March 24th will be the day of the Good Friday oil spill. . . .
"What I've learned from all this is that accidents do happen, that after 13 years of smooth operations the Exxon Valdez spill did happen, that this is part of progress. We have learned from this spill, learned that it is easier to prevent it than clean it up."