If anyone could pull together a reunion for the thousands of people who worked on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, it would be crisp, efficient Merle Bailey. After all, Bailey was the one who had organized a spirit-boosting fashion show on board a barge in the middle of Alaska's worst ecological disaster. She even managed to convince a Veco International employee to join in, dressing him like Gen. Patton just to get a laugh out of exhausted oil spill workers.
"Those people were just so committed it was heartbreaking," she said. "They were doing a job no one else wanted to do under conditions that were less than normal."
Yep. If anyone could pull off a reunion, it would have been Merle den mother to the oil spill workers.
But as last Saturday's gathering approached, things looked a little shaky.
First, Veco International, the oil field service company that Exxon hired to run the cleanup and the most likely source for workers' names and addresses, wasn't interested.
Without a mailing list and only a tiny advertising budget, Bailey relied on community calenders, word-of-mouth and public service announcements.
That didn't work out so well. With less than a week until the reunion, hardly anyone had purchased the $12 tickets. Bailey, a 54-year-old real estate agent who doesn't like to give up, had to move the event from the Anchorage Hilton to Moose Lodge No. 1534.
By Saturday morning, Bailey still believed a big crowd would materialize. She gathered up her door prizes (an Exxon hat, a commemorative spill belt buckle, two Veco jackets and a two-night stay at VegasWorld airfare not included). She bought salsa and muffins and roast beef and arranged the food on folding tables covered with paper cloths.
Then she waited.
Saturday night, four years after 10,000 people poured into Prince William Sound to clean the 11 million gallons of oil purged from the hold of the Exxon Valdez, barely 50 people showed up.
Maybe it was what Gordon Collier, personnel director at Veco International, suggested: The spill was painful. Having a reunion would be like inviting people whose friends died in battle to get together for a little party. Maybe it was simply a lack of advertising. Or maybe people just weren't interested.
"Well, it's a start," said an ever-upbeat Bailey, speaking loudly to be heard over the thumping of a band playing at the Moose Lodge bar next door. "We're breaking new ground here."
Actually, she looked pretty upset. The $800 Bailey spent on the bash came from her own pocket. She only made about $500.
Mostly, a friend confided, Bailey was hurt more people didn't show.
"It really takes a lot of guts and gumption to do this, you know," said Nan Thompson, who worked on the spill with Bailey.
In 1989, Thompson was essentially a bored Whittier homemaker. Bailey talked her into applying for a job cleaning up oil. The two women sprained ankles and bruised elbows scrambling across oily rocks. They mourned dead otters and birds together. And they planned the reunion together.
"She thought people needed to talk about what happened to them," explained Thompson.
And it turned out, the small group that somehow found its way to the Moose Lodge Saturday night did need to talk. In fact, after a few awkward introductions and some beers, you couldn't get them to stop talking.
They talked about the look of dead, oily birds and the disorganization that defined the cleanup effort. They talked about what they did with the money they made. At $16.69 an hour plus overtime, many of them had walked away with $20,000 or $30,000 for less than six months' work.
But mostly, they talked about being a part of something much bigger than themselves.
"If it happened again, I'd be out there in a minute," said Bobbie Cross. She loved the work so much she went back as part of smaller cleanup crews in 1990 and 1991. Her picture appeared on CNN and the front page of the Chicago Tribune.
"I was glad to be a part of history," she said.
That's how it was Saturday. For a few hours, everyone was the high school quarterback reliving the big game in front of a new and eager audience.
There were some funny stories.
Dawn Nelson left a job cleaning buildings in Seward to work the spill. She landed on a bird rescue boat. The job entailed cruising the water in a 26-foot Bayliner, picking up oiled birds to send to a cleanup center.
Problem was, she didn't get much training.
"They said if you didn't catch birds, you'd be fired," Nelson said. "So we'd just go out there and chase birds."
They grabbed a lot of puffins.
"They don't really fly all that well," she said. "They have these big bellies and kind of scoot around on the water."
At the time, Nelson didn't know that puffins behave that way all the time. To her and the rest of the crew, the slow-moving birds looked sick.
Needless to say, a lot of healthy puffins got free trips to the cleaning center.
Nelson made close to $20,000 that summer. She put plumbing in her house.
George Chowaniec, now a school bus driver in Wasilla, had just left a crab processing job in Dutch Harbor when he got hired to work the spill. His job was on the boom crew, a cushy assignment compared to cleaning beaches.
Chowaniec spent a lot of the summer waiting for the bosses to decide where they wanted to put the floating tubes used to corral oil. To pass the time, he raced skiffs with his buddies or just kicked back.
"That boom makes a pretty good armchair," he said. "You just set it up behind you in the skiff."
Chowaniec even figured a way to keep a can of soda cold by cutting a hole in the boom. He made $17,000 and spent it having about six months' worth of good times.
Adam Garland went out on the spill when he was 18.
"A lot of the reason I came was to try to remember everyone anyone, really," he said.
Two years ago Garland was in a car accident. A brain injury wiped away his memory. The reunion helped a little. He finally remembered the look of one of the ships he was on.
Roger Perkins came to renew old acquaintances.
"You made friends quick out there, and then you never really saw them again," he said.
Seeing the damage done by the spill for the first time still haunts Perkins.
"It was like, 'God, I can't believe this,' " he said. "It put a lump in my throat."
During that summer, Perkins slept in an old fish processing boat that had been dry-docked in Seattle without having been cleaned first. Wearing ill- fitting rain gear and carrying a sandwich someone else had made, he'd be on the water by 8 a.m. Like most of the workers, Perkins spent the days spraying beaches or picking up old pieces of boom. Sometimes, the work wouldn't end until 9 or 10 p.m. Often, he felt hopeless.
"We kept asking each other, 'Are we doing something better here, or are we making it worse?' " he said. "I still don't know the answer."
Bailey made sure stories like Perkins' were recorded on videotape. She wants to write a book someday and needs the raw material.
When the Valdez ran aground in 1989, Bailey had only been in Alaska four months. Her new husband worked for the railroad, and she kept busy remodeling a condominium in Whittier. Bailey signed up for the spill for the money and the adventure. But she also wanted to satisfy her desire to pitch in whenever she can.
Bailey landed on Seal Island her first day out. The rain was relentless, making the traction on the oil-covered rocks nearly impossible.
"I twisted both my ankles my first day," she said. But she didn't quit. She just wrapped her ankles and kept working.
Good timing and experience as an office manager got Bailey a job as the lead forewoman on a berthing barge. Sending out workers as happy and well- equipped as she could became a mission.
"I got to see a lot of hurt, a lot of personal hurt," she said. "People didn't think they were doing a good job or anything significant. It was sad because these people would wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning. It was rainy, and they'd get out there in all this gear that was ill-fitting. They knew what the day had in store for them, but they did it. They had this commitment."
People kept talking about how nice it would be to get together once the cleanup was over. Bailey held tight to the idea, waiting for the right time. When Exxon and the state finally agreed on a settlement, she decided to go for it.
Despite the bad turnout, Bailey vows she'll hold another reunion, maybe on March 24, the date the Exxon Valdez ran aground. She's started her own mailing list and vows better advertising.
People will come, she said, because they need to talk about it.
And they'll come because, like Bailey and the others gathered at the Moose Lodge Saturday, the spill was one of the biggest moments in their lives.
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