Explosions and Evacuations

By: Andrew McRoberts. This was posted Thursday, October 14th, 2010

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Thursday, October 7, 2010 was a normal, sunny blue-sky day in my firm’s high-rise office building, until it wasn’t.

In mid-afternoon, it all started with hearing a loud bang, feeling a jolt through my chair and seeing the power flicker briefly, then no other sign of trouble. My Thursday was back to normal. Or so I thought.

I had a lot to do that afternoon. An important client meeting the following day to prepare for, litigation to move forward, presentations to planners and land use officials to get ready. So, I was busily back to work when my co-workers began appearing to peer out the 23rd story windows near (and in) my office to see black smoke pouring out of the sidewalk adjacent to the Bank of America building, near my almost-corner office. Shortly thereafter, dozens of City of Richmond fire trucks, rescue vehicles and police arrived.

Some co-workers marveled at why I was still working despite the explosion and the smoke. I told them I had a lot to do, and after all, the power was still on. It sounded like a transformer had blown and the fire would shortly be out now that fire and rescue had arrived.

But then the power went out. The emergency evacuation lights went on and the announcement requiring evacuation began its monotone demand. I gathered what work I could, grabbed my laptop and left my office. The elevators had stopped operating. The stairs were our only option.

I was not worried. I enjoy backpacking, and had recently hiked many miles downhill over rough terrain at Three Ridges in the Blue Ridge Mountains. But it was tougher than I had thought.

Concrete steps are unforgiving. My calf muscles, flexing and allowing each foot to step first toe then heel in a repetitive fashion, over and over and over, began to shake after a while. They were sore for days. I began to wonder how the others did it. I still wonder.

Though descending from the 23rd floor, the emergency exit door actually is well below the Plaza level, so we exited after walking down more than 23 flights of stairs. The police urged us to quickly escape from the scene. Despite somewhat shaky legs, I walked to my car and left downtown.

I later learned than many downtown buildings were evacuated, and blocks of streets — even those far from the fire — were closed. Exits off of Interstate 95 were closed. Later, traffic at rush hour was gridlocked. Apparently, before being extinguished, flames had shot up from an underground transformer vault eighteen feet underground to over ten feet in the air! Power was out in my building for days.

My thanks go out to the City of Richmond first responders who came and quickly extinguished the fire and made the area safe, the Dominion Virginia Power workers and others who restored power, and the staff of Sands Anderson who worked to restore email servers and access to important information soon after the evacuation.

In retrospect, it gave me just a small sense of what some of the victims of 9-11 experienced on a similar blue-sky day. The Bank of America building is much, much lower than the World Trade Center towers, and this explosion much smaller and outside the building, but I cannot imagine the difficulty of descending down over a hundred stories from the World Trade Center in the horror of September 11, 2001. And many who attempted evacuation never made it.

From now on, in a small but (to me) meaningful way, I will be able to empathize more with those in that tragedy, as I recall my own experience with explosion and evacuation.

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