Another cylinder, coloured yellow in warning and standing in the Toxic and Corrosive cage, was chlorine. Gas sensors monitored every cage for leaks – all the gases were harmful in one way or another, some in a combination of ways. Carbon monoxide, for example, was kept in the flammables gas cages, although also toxic.

In the Toxic and Corrosive gas cage, one of the sensors had been isolated, disabled, because it had been giving false readings and would raise the alarm unnecessarily. It needed to be fixed, and would be replaced as routine, along the others on the annual visit of the manufacturer’s engineer. Only the sensing cell had to be swapped. A tiny red light signified that it was out of service. The cells were replaced routinely, but it wasn’t unusual for one to expire before it was due to be replaced. The plant engineer, Mike, was in charge of this cycle of work. Mike knew gases inside out.

When Dan carried out inductions and trained new starters, he would make a point of reminding people that Chlorine was one of the gases used in the First World War, to kill thousands. It would be released when the atmospheric weather conditions were such that a gas cloud would drift over no man’s land to the enemy trenches. Chlorine loves membranes, the delicate surfaces of inner skins. To accidentally take a breath, allows it to eat the airways, burning through the nasal passages, the windpipe, reaching deep into the lungs, choking, gasping with pain as you struggle to breathe.

Tara was in the chlorine cage. She only needed to make one measurement. It was already late in the afternoon. She thought the gas line into the laboratory had been connected, and leak tested, but it wasn’t, and when she opened the valve chlorine was released at full pressure, some 3000psi. Automatically she twisted the valve shut, but the cylinder had ejected a burning cloud into her face and she screamed and screamed. The thick walls of the cage didn’t heed her. And there was no one outside to hear her.

Tara had collapsed onto the concrete floor convulsing, trying to retch at the pain which had eaten into her lips, the lining of her nose, her mouth, burning deep within her chest.

The chlorine cloud drifted further down the cage triggering a hydrogen chloride (HCl) sensor, setting off the alarms.

From within his office, the sound of the alarm and orange flashing lights alerted Dan. It was not the first time, he’d had to reset sensors on several occasions from false readings, but the alarm could not be ignored. There was always the fear in the pit of his stomach that something dreadful had happened. Checking the gas panel outside the office, he could see which HCl sensor had alarmed.

Following the drill, he went down to the technical lab and began systematically donning his self-contained breathing apparatus, checking that the cylinder pressure was full and the face seal airtight. He had to work with a buddy. This time Paul, the lab supervisor, joined him. They burst through the steel fire exit door to the side yard.

It was still daylight, the insides of the cages cast in shadow. The mesh gate to the Toxic and Corrosive cage was open.

‘My God! Oh Fuck! Over here!’ Dan exclaimed, muffled through his mask. He’d caught the colour of her blouse. He tensed, panicked, froze. Tara was lying crumpled on the concrete floor. He felt as if he stood there for hours, not knowing what to do, where to start. But only seconds as Paul pushed past him, gesturing wildly.

Together they lifted her. She gasped, gurgled, choking as they placed her urgently on the grass at the opposite side of the yard. Her lips were blistering, a thick phlegm oozed from the corners of her mouth, as they put her down. Dan tore off his mask, ‘Tara!’ he exclaimed with horror, mixed with relief that she was still breathing.

‘We’re getting help Tara, and water’ and under his breath, ‘Thank God you’re alive!’

Paul had dialled 999 for the ambulance and fire brigade. They briefed the fire brigade that toxic gases were involved and self-contained breathing apparatus may be required.

Paul came back with water, grabbing gauze from the first-aid box, to do what he could to cool her skin and help halt the burn. Thank God Mike was there as the trained first-aider knowing exactly how to help make Tara comfortable until the ambulance arrived.

‘Jesus!’ He said.


Horizon 2040 – Chapter 16 – The Gas Cages