Tara could so easily have died. Even so the investigation seemed interminable. She’d been coughing blood, distraught not only for the pain, but for betraying Dan’s trust. Dan in turn blamed himself, for making the cages seem too safe a place. More than devastated, gutted, that he should cause her harm, that he might be responsible for this.
How close they’d been, standing in the shade of the cage that summer, barely touching. The tall chlorine cylinder painted yellow, the bright steel tube they’d stood next to as if it were harmless, ‘the colour of a dandelion’ she’d said.
But chlorine turned to acid in the water of her lungs, alien, burning deep inside her chest.
When the ambulance had gone, the CEO demanded an urgent briefing, bypassing Dan’s immediate boss. ‘I’m sorry,’ Dan said. All he could say.
‘This is going to get messy Dan. Have you told HSE already?’
‘Not yet,’ Dan hesitated, he wanted to leave, to be with her…
‘You must do it now. Write it all down for me, your statement, the truth of what happened. Then let’s meet again before they arrive. Leave everything as it was, but safe.’
He couldn’t wait, he had to follow in the wake of the ambulance, along country roads, racing deep into the nearest city centre.
He kept saying to himself, she could’ve died. He had repeated flashbacks of her laid out, coughing, sobbing on the grassy slope undergoing first-aid, bottles of tepid water poured over her eyes, her face and hands. The same slope where he wished he might’ve stayed with her on a brighter summer’s day. ‘What if I’d killed her?’ he thought.
He knew there was pressure on her for getting the tried and tested photometric monitors out of the door for clients. But nonetheless this was manageable, part of a normal production line. Except that calibrations could be tricky and may have to be repeated several times over, and hold up dispatch for days. Then the pressure was really on, thousands of pounds worth of monitors stuck in the system, going nowhere, generating no income.
When he saw her, she was on a ventilator, pipes coming out of her, bleeps, ticks, buzzes, alien electronic conversations. He turned up every day, to begin with she slept, and slept.
He was almost in tears, in front of his pc, for what he hadn’t done, for what he hadn’t checked, how much he’d assumed things were working well, and so worried that it could happen again, in spite of his good intentions and controls.
He’d written his statement and he knew she must do the same, when she was ready. He kept to the facts, didn’t expand on any doubts he may have had about the management system for running the place. He emailed Jim, and they had fifteen minutes reading through his account together. Jim asked for some reference to the pervading attitude and culture of the Institute, emphasising that this had never happened before.
It was days before Dan could talk with her, but he’d been there in silence beside her every day. At first she could only utter a few words: her throat and chest were raging and she said it felt as if someone were banging into her head with a jackhammer. She’d been close to getting pneumonia, her lungs reacting to the toxic irritant.
When she was well enough to speak, she confessed, ‘I wasn’t thinking…I should have known…I just turned it on, I’d checked it was the right line just didn’t notice that it wasn’t fully connected…’
‘Don’t worry Tara, give yourself time to heal.’
She tried to hide the unnatural reddening of her skin, ‘fortunately’ he thought for her, ‘there’s no scarring.’
A few days later, she gushed: ‘such a busy day, drifting in calibration had to finish with chlorine then carbon monoxide…out to cage raining lightly…. Sam had connected earlier, but not pressurised…turned open the valve on the cylinder head and a sudden rush of gas as the hose flexed…escaping into my face. My hand clamped onto the valve, I knew I had to turn it off…but I couldn’t see…my eyes, face and throat were burning…as fast as I could I managed to twist the valve, rolling it back two turns…shut!’
With Tara in hospital, he’d broken his routine. His journey to work was heavy with all that could have been. He paused between the dry stone walls in relentless rain, moss facing north, and listened to the echo beneath the bridge of the river in spate.
Peter Flanders, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Factories, from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) served an Improvement Notice requiring an overhaul of all procedures, systems of work and training for the handling and use of gases. For Dan it felt like a prison sentence, but relieved that it wasn’t one. ‘This could take months!’ he exclaimed to the quiet of his office, in total frustration. ‘My boss must carry the can’, he thought, ‘he’s on the Board – calls himself a leader!’
He was approaching his 30th birthday. ‘I can’t stick this, responsible for God Knows What, and at my age! Surely it is time…time for change?’ His question persisted, lay unresolved.