Posted March 23, 2007 by Jim Campbell in Makers

One of those days…

Another entertaining excerpt from Jim’s upcoming book

Every once in awhile, you make a run that is so truly bizarre as to become seared, seared I tell you, into your memory. The engine I was assigned to at the time, Engine 113, was dispatched to investigate a spill at 96th and Michigan Rd. This is an extremely busy intersection as it is within a few feet of an interstate interchange. We were dispatched about 12:00 noon on a hot sunny July day with temperatures in the low 90’s. The wind was calm. Most often a call like this involves a minor car accident where some oil has spilled onto the road way and we are called to either flush it off or put down some absorbent. As we neared this scene though, we noticed several things right off. One- traffic was a mess, backed up a considerable distance from the accident. It was a veritable parking lot and we were having difficulty in getting up to the scene. Two- though there were several police cars already on the scene, no officers were anywhere in sight. This was really odd as they should have been visible trying to get the traffic cleared. Three- as we approached closer to the scene, we saw several enormous black balloon shaped objects in the road, measuring several feet in length and more than a few feet high. Jack-knifed in the center of the intersection was a large tractor trailer rig. The trailer part was an open topped carrier like the kind you’d see hauling trash. It had obviously slammed on it’s brakes very hard causing the contents of the trailer to spill. The several large dark objects were in the road way and were causing traffic to swerve and negotiate around them.

Man oh man did they stink!Actually getting up on the scene, two things hit us instantaneously- the identification of the dark objects as several bloated, rotting cow carcasses and, the other thing to immediately hit us was the odor from them. Man oh man did they stink! The smell of a couple of thousand pounds of long, long dead rotting cattle parts, baking on the road on a hot summers’ day, cannot even be remotely described. It was an almost a palpable thickness in the air that wrenched your guts into knots and caused involuntary contractions of the throat. It required a conscious effort to even breathe. The sight was something else as well. A kind of liquified goo was covering the roadway, which represented the remnants of intestines, internal organs, and God only knows what else.

This was a truck headed for a rendering plant with a full load of rotting decayed animals. A car had cut it off, forcing it to slam on the breaks. The liquified remains sloshed up and over the top, spilling out onto the road. Three of these cows, bloated to about twice their normal size, were lying in the road. There were piles of identifiable parts; stomachs, intestines, hoofs, pig fetuses, and additional piles of unidentifiable parts- not that we were putting a lot of effort into staring at them trying to figure out what they were. When the size and enormity of the job struck us, we did the only thing we could do as professionally trained emergency responders- we burst out laughing hysterically. It was a comic scene like none we had ever witnessed.

The looks on the peoples’ faces driving by were priceless. You had the ‘young toughs’, arm hanging out the window, stereo way too loud, trying to look cool as they cruised down the road, only to have to slow down to navigate the mess. The stench hit them about the same time they came around the jack knifed trailer and found themselves staring eye ball to eye ball with a rotted stinking cow carcass, complete with bugged out eyes and a swollen tongue sticking a foot outside the mouth. They quickly lost their ‘coolness’. They couldn’t begin to roll up the windows fast enough! Many were obviously gagging and we won’t even get into the histrionics their female passengers were going through. We never laughed so hard in all of our lives! I looked about for the police officers to try and coordinate with them some sort of traffic control and action plan. There were three of them on the scene and all three of them were in the same spot- a ditch on the far side of the road furiously vomiting their guts out. We weren’t far from it ourselves but there was no way we were going to let them see us do it. That macho competition thing you know. After their color changed from green as grass to kind of a pasty yellowish white, they came over to us walking a bit unsteady. We talked to the driver of the truck who gave us the story and stated that another truck and a front end loader were on the way to help clean up the mess.

At that point our primary concern was traffic control. The traffic had pretty well managed to sort itself out by this time, narrowing down to one lane to get past the spill in each direction. We had nothing better to do but stand by and laugh until we hurt, watching the public go by. Some of the reactions were absolutely priceless! After an hour or so, it appeared the police had a slightly steadier set of legs under them though their color still wasn’t too good. Needless to say, they concentrated on the upwind side of the spill while we were stuck down wind of course- no point in arguing with a guy who has gun and a badge. There was no getting used to the smell and every once in awhile, as the wind swirled just right, you could feel the convulsing in the throat start. It was time to have some fun with the police. Waving them over, I asked the lead officer if I could borrow his cell phone. Puzzled, he said sure, but asked why. I told him that we were just getting ready to sit down to lunch when the run came out. We hadn’t eaten yet and were starving. We were going to order pizza delivered to the scene and wanted to know if they wanted in on any- we’d treat. A green flash hit their faces and they bolted enmasse back for the ditch to finish tossing up what little could have remained of their lunch.

Eventually, the other truck and the loader showed up and the tough job started. Using brooms and shovels we waded into the goo and started consolidating it into piles to be picked up by the front end loader.

The workers from the rendering plant ambled about appearing immune to the stench that was still threatening to overtake us despite our best efforts. One of them, while bending over to pick up a shovel full of goo, had his cigarette lighter drop out of his shirt pocket. He calmly reached down, fished it out of the pile, shook off the chunks, and dropped it back into his pocket. “Dude, that just ain’t right!” I sputtered. “Oh” he replied, “You kind of get used to it after awhile”.

About this time a city sanitation worker showed up in a little wannabe pick up truck. He was armed with a small shovel and stood next to his truck with a shell shocked look on his face. He continued to just stand there, standing stock still, staring, so I walked on over.

“I got dispatched on a report of a dead animal in the road” he mumbled, still staring wide eyed at the enormity of the scene in front of him.

“I thought it was a possum or something”. “Well, pal” I laughed- “I think you’re going to need a bigger truck!” He showed no signs of moving, frozen in place with a numb look on his face… until the wind shifted again. That got him moving- right back into his truck and off he went, never to be seen again.

After cleaning up the small piles, which seemed endless, we stood back and watched the front end loader go to work on the three huge dead cows. The things quivered and sloshed like water balloons as they were scooped up and poured back into the truck. The first two went in without a hitch, but when the third one dumped in, it exploded. A thirty foot geyser of liquified cow parts shot into the air and came raining down on us. The police, having nothing left to offer up, suffered through another round of dry heaves. We watched a particularly large chunk of the goo arc gracefully into the air and land perfectly in the back of a pick up truck driving past the scene at that moment. The driver appeared blissfully unaware of what had just happened, or the nature of the load he had just obtained. We had another round of hysterics watching that, speculating that he was going to make a rather interesting discovery at some point.

We hosed the remaining residue off of the road and set about cleaning up our equipment as best we could. We soaped and washed it at the scene, bleached it when we got back to the firehouse, washed it again, then sanded down all the shovel handles and put on a fresh cot of linseed oil. It didn’t help. For a month afterwards, the tool compartment absolutely reeked of rotted hamburger.

And, if I mention ‘dinner’ I’m sure you can already guess what was planned for the menu long in advance of the run having ever been dispatched. Yup- steak.

Jim Campbell