The tank had worn thin with rust since no one maintained it and more was stored inside than it was designed to hold. Pressure had built high in the oversized vessel and now a jagged crack opened along its exterior. A purple liquid, the secret ingredient in a successful line of chemical preservatives, oozed from it with a noxious smell and pooled on the linoleum floor.
Report on the accident reached Larry Myers, the company executive, who ventured from his office over the factory floor to inspect the damage himself. Myers, an older man, was overweight and had white hair giving way to a huge bald spot in front; the day of the accident, he was dressed conservatively, his outfit, a white button-up shirt, khaki slacks, and black, boxlike shoes. Over his twenty years leading Denison Chemical, he had slipped money to the regulators who would have required expensive yearly upgrades to the factory; he insisted these would interfere with the factory's production level, and he meant to keep production strong to realize profits. Production held steady as he hoped without the upgrades. Riding high on the fact, he pushed Denison's workers to put in longer hours to maximize the factory's profits. Profits did increase, but so did the factory's problems. Myers found signs of accidents waiting to happen everywhere in the place: vats with outdated volume gauges, rusted pipes that led to collecting tanks. Workers were getting upset over their long hours and low pay. He ignored the problems, though, as if they could wait and wait.
When he reached the ruptured tank and saw the liquid issuing onto the ground, Myers told the foreman, a bony, ungainly man, "Have some men spread absorbent cloth around the spill. Then put out a sign telling everyone to keep away. I think that will work well enough."
The foreman looked concerned. "But all the liquid will keep pouring from the tank, and we have nothing to patch the side. Maybe you should clear the factory to be safe."
"Everyone can stay working like they are. We have business to get done." Myers walked away. By clearing the workers, he knew, per Denison policy, that he also would have to contact the local fire department and emergency response teams; if they came, there would be questions. Who needs them to learn about our outdated machinery which everyone would call a safety risk? he thought. Or have them catch hints I'm overworking the employees?
As Myers returned across the factory toward his office, he came to a sudden stop. A worker slumped and sat on the floor by a cooling vat not fifteen feet away. His head hung forward sickly; his face had blanched, lips hanging ajar. The sight worried Myers who had not imagined discovering any mishap this soon after the tank break. He drew toward the worker, and the fallen man lifted his face.
"It's that smell that got to me," the worker said. "What is it?"
Myers whiffed the air and recognized the odor of the purple liquid pouring from the broken tank. It seemed too soon for the liquid's fumes to have drifted across the factory. But he knew the purple liquid was what he smelled.
As he realized it, three workers came walking along the broad passage beside the vat. Their faces were pale and sickly like that of the man beside Myers. Two of the men, each with disheveled hair, were supporting a man between them, whose head lolled on his chest. All of them are in bad shape, Myers thought, his worry sharpening.
"Where are you guys headed?" he called.
The three raised worn faces. Perhaps they recognized him as the company executive and perhaps they did not, but they walked away without answering. Myers watched them to the end of the long passage where they went out the main doors and left the factory. Could it be the tank leak that has set them going? he asked himself. Frightened now, he went to the wall phone and called the security posted by the main doors.
"Do not let any more employees past the doors until further notice," he said after informing them who he was. "We may have an incident to control."
Good, he thought hanging up the phone. Now the employees won't go and embarrass me. Order should hold. Raising his head high, he went to check if the ruptured tank had been tended as he asked. When he drew near it, a few workers gathered beside a large pump not far away. From its shadows, they called sharply to him:
"You catching these fumes, Mr. Myers?"
"The purple from that tank is coming strong. Some guy might slip and fall in that stuff."
"Did they do anything yet over it?"
Ill vibes over the leak had spread, Myers could sense. However, the idea of the workers calling him out irked him worse. He was their boss, not a ready target for discontent.
"Go back to your machines!" he barked. "We have chemicals to make, orders to fill. We're here to do business."
The workers dispersed as he bid. In going, a shy man among them said, loudly enough for Myers to hear, "Do you think he knows what to do?"
Myers glared after the parting men. They don't give anyone orders, he thought to assure himself. I do. Still ruffled, he went over to the damaged tank. He found the floor around it ringed in absorbent cloth as he had wanted. More of the purple liquid had spilled, though; its strong, unpleasant odor hit him powerfully now for the first time. He caught it in every breath. What might happen if I go on inhaling it? he wondered. He walked from the growing pool. As he went down the long passage toward the front of the factory, he saw several workers assembled by the processing machinery in mid-floor. Even more of them now, he considered. He drew to a halt and listened as the men spoke.
"The smell is getting worse," a strident, young one said.
"It's making my head pulse," another said. "I never get these kind of headaches."
"My nose and mouth are burning," another added.
Myers bristled. Don't go on making a scene, not in my workplace! he thought to call out. Then, a tired-looking man among the workers fainted, his body striking the steel frame of a conductive machine. His head pulled down a lever as he fell, and a red warning light blazed on the machine panel. The workers drew around their fallen friend and lifted him.
"He needs to get away from here," a worker said, whose brow had become hectic-colored. "Let's take him outside through the main doors." Two workers each wrapped one of the man's arms around their necks, and several of them walked for the passage leading through the factory. Myers followed, watching their every move with suspicion.
The group reached the main doors in short order. The two guards, who had seen the men come through the door glass, went inside to meet them. The pair stood before the door, their faces stern. A worker in the group, a thin fellow with firm, dark eyes, came forward.
"Let us go through the doors," he told the guards. "This man's sick and needs fresh air."
"We can't. Mr. Myers said no one's to leave."
"But this man fainted. We've been feeling ill, too."
"We can't help you there. We have to follow orders. Mr. Myers pays us. He pays you, too, you know."
"We've been getting worse all morning. There's been a tank letting out fumes. A lot of us are getting sick."
"But you aren't the boss. You aren't leaving."
The worker who had spoken reddened. "Those may be your orders," he said, clenching a fist, "but we won't risk dying here over them." Then, he stepped forward and punched the guard right in the stomach. The guard bowed in half, crumpling on the floor. Quickly, a second worker stepped forward and smashed the other guard in the face. The guard spun backwards and fell hard against the wall. The group of workers, no longer hesitating, rushed through the doors carrying the tired man who had fainted. Myers gaped at the beaten guards, beside himself. If just a few workers can do this, he thought, his mind whirling, what might the rest do?
Myers realized he must act quickly to avoid the trouble escalating. He went and pulled the fire alarm on the nearby wall. As the alarm blared, Myers called the number that allowed him to speak over its loud ronk via the wall phone. "Attention everyone," he told the factory building through the phone as the first fearful faces showed in the hall before him. "Attention. All employees should exit immediately by the back doors and gather on the lawn behind the facility. I repeat, all employees should exit by the back and gather on the lawn." Myers meant to have no one else leave through the main doors that gave on the factory parking lot. If enough employees, worried about the spill, decided to head home from there, it would draw attention in town; then people would raise the questions he was dreading. Rather, he would keep everyone out back for a time. The fire department would not be told about the emergency either, regardless of Denison policy, he decided. He had flouted rules aplenty and this would be only his latest.
From where he stood by the front doors, Myers observed the workers move from their different corners of the factory toward the back. As they emerged behind old, rusted vats and damp, peeling pipes, their faces showed a breed of strain he had never seen. A forty-something man with huge hollows beneath his eyes came from behind a blackened door. A tight-lipped fellow in a ragged shirt left the side of a separating machine. At different points, Myers heard the exiting workers speak. "Finally!" one woman said to her upset colleague in going up the passage. Many Denison employees seemed, in fact, relieved to be leaving the factory. It gave Myers an uncomfortable lurch in the bottom of his stomach.
Outside, the many employees gathered on the grass lawn. They stood in several small groups and cast dark, questioning glances among themselves. Tension held the air. As Myers joined several managers standing before the crowd, the stench of the spilled liquid reached the group from an open window of the factory. Workers grew still and fell quiet. Then, a man's upset voice shot over the crowd.
"What's going to happen about the mess in there? Don't you know what it could do to the machinery?"
Myers realized the question was for him and turned to the group. He had no real plan to stop the spill and feared saying it. "Do not worry," he said. "We have things under control."
The workers studied Myers; their hard look unnerved him. The noxious smell filled the air, and the wind he hoped would clear did not come. A few workers tried to revive talk with their neighbors over the next minute. Some of their stray remarks reached Myers from the crowd. He could not see who spoke among the great many.
"You know, the upgrades never happened like they should have."
"When have they ever checked the safety equipment?"
"He didn't alert us, and he's not warning the neighborhood around the plant."
Their words wrenched Myers. He called, "We don't have to worry!"
The next thing, a shrill man in the front of the crowd cried, "Look there!" He pointed a long, straight arm toward the factory where the people saw the purple liquid from the spill oozing out the back door that had been left propped open. Suddenly, the workers stirred.
"I'm not waiting for that junk to come over here," a stout man said and stalked up the drive beside the factory toward the front parking lot. Several people left on his heels.
"I can't breathe anymore," a deep-toned woman announced and walked likewise from the lawn. Many tagged the woman's steps.
A crazy fear seized Myers watching them go. He sped, one random worker to the next, and said, his eyes wide, "It'll be okay. Don't leave. Stay!" However, the workers kept their faces fixed; they walked from him and headed for the front lot like the others.
As the last few went, a department manager at the factory, known to be a matter-of-fact fellow, came and told Myers, "The spill is getting worse than any of us reckoned. I think I should call the fire department. Someone needs to tend to the problem."
The manager took out his smartphone, but Myers did not object. I can't think of a reason anymore to say no, he told himself as the fumes from the spill made his vision spin. He sat on the ground, overcome with nausea. He felt, with strange certainty, that if he vomited and accepted the trouble to come, he might find relief.