"The narratives belong to the genre of tragedy."
November 30, 2018 8:27 AM   Subscribe

Brian Hayes, author of Infrastructure, writes about the Merrimack Valley Gas Explosions, which killed 1, injured 25 and burned 40 homes in and around Lawrence and Andover, Massachusetts last September: Another Technological Tragedy
I admit to a morbid fascination with stories of technological disaster. I read NTSB accident reports the way some people consume murder mysteries. The narratives belong to the genre of tragedy. In using that word I don’t mean just that the loss of life and property is very sad. These are stories of people with the best intentions and with great skill and courage, who are nonetheless overcome by forces they cannot master. The special pathos of technological tragedies is that the engines of our destruction are machines that we ourselves design and build.
posted by the man of twists and turns (14 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I also devour NTSB accident reports. Unintended consequences of design decisions need to be better contemplated by the engineering community. Case in point, the ongoing Lion Air plane crash. Boeing redesigned the automatic control system to avoid another Air France 447-type crash, and look what happened.
posted by hwyengr at 8:44 AM on November 30, 2018 [5 favorites]

We watched that on TV from down in Rhode Island all evening. When I flew over the area a week ago, I was staring down through the plane windows remembering how eerily dark the helicopter shots were that night.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:44 AM on November 30, 2018

This is excellent. I also read the sample pages from his book just now and I MUST READ THE ENTIRE BOOK IMMEDIATELY, this type of thing is EXTREMELY my shit.

I actually hadn't heard about the disaster in MA -- how awful.
posted by capnsue at 9:10 AM on November 30, 2018

Latest wrinkle in this story is that the Columbia Gas remediation workers left water running in houses with no heat, so people are returning to houses where the gas lines have been repaired, but the pipes have frozen and burst, doing damage to homes that weren't originally damaged.
posted by briank at 9:25 AM on November 30, 2018

But...you're supposed to leave water running in houses with no heat. Keeps the pipes FROM freezing.
posted by hwyengr at 11:25 AM on November 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

Started in 1985, Risks Digest is still going strong — here's the latest Volume 30 Issue 92 [see links in original]:
• Commentary on Florida Election Recounts
• 670 ballots in a precinct with 276 voters, and other tales from Georgia's primary
• Voting Machine Manual Instructed Election Officials to Use Weak Passwords
• Electionland/ProPublica had a lovely collection of election problems already in the wee hours of election evening
• At Doomed Flight's Helm, Pilots May Have Been Overwhelmed in Seconds
• Boeing issues warning on potential instrument malfunction after Indonesia crash
• A Runway Train Traveled 57 Miles Through Australia's Outback
• Rules of the Road Evade Driverless Cars
• Siri Shortcuts can now be used with the VW Car-Net app to remotely control a vehicle
• Russia suspected of jamming GPS signal in Finland
• Why Google Internet Traffic Rerouted Through China and Russia
• Operation Infektion
• GPS week field roll-over
• System error: Japan cybersecurity minister admits he has never used a computer
• Tech CEOs Are in Love With Their Principal Doomsayer
• "IoT botnet infects 100,000 routers to send Hotmail, Outlook, and Yahoo spam"
• Buffer Overflows and Spectre
• Police decrypt 258,000 messages after breaking pricey IronChat crypto app
• Guns, drones, and surveillance equipment: Big Brother steps out in Tel Aviv
• The House That Spied on me
• A DJI Bug Exposed Drone Photos and User Data
• Fake fingerprints can imitate real ones in biometric systems
• Public Attitudes Toward Computer Algorithms
• Guarding Against Backdoors and Malicious Hardware
• U.S. Declines to Sign Declaration Discouraging Use of Cyberattacks
• 'The Cleaners' Looks At Who Cleans Up The Internet's Toxic Content
• HealthCare.gov breach compromised applicants' financial, immigration data
• Apple IDs locked for unknown reasons for a number of iPhone users
• Debate in Germany over allowing Chinese to bid on 5G
• Bug bounty
• A thing to worry about: sleep study
• A robot scientist will dream up new materials to advance computing and fight pollution
• AI News Anchor Makes Debut In China
• 3 Crazy Excel Formulas That Do Amazing Things
• Dementia risk: Five-minute scan 'can predict cognitive decline'
• MAS issues principles to guide use of AI, data analytics in finance
• Awful AI is a curated list to track current scary usages of AI— hoping to raise awareness
• Google accused of 'trust demolition' over health app
• AI Could Make Cyberattacks More Dangerous, Harder to Detect
• AmazonBasics Microwave Review: It's a Little Undercooked
• Elon Musk's SpaceX wins FCC approval to put Starlink Internet satellites into orbit
• Customer Complains About Tesla Forums, Tesla Accidentally Gives Him Control Over Them
• Google had a secret bug
• For the first time, researchers say Facebook can cause depression
• Mozilla - *privacy not included
• The digital epidemic killing Indians
• Police: Woman remotely wipes phone in evidence after shooting
• He Helped People Cheat at Grand Theft Auto. Then His Home Was Raided.
• MoneyGram agrees to pay $125 million for failing to crack down on fraudulent money transfers
• Report: Could Your Online Behavior Affect What You Pay for Car Insurance?
• Couple, homeless man in viral GoFundMe charged
• The Dating Brokers
• Osaka woman terrifyingly attacked by intruder while playing video games in her home late at night
• Re: EMV card fraud statistics
• Re: Ethics of whom to kill
• Re: Tesla
• Credit Card Chips Have Failed to Halt Fraud, Survey Shows
• Re: Risks in Using Social Media to Spot Signs of Mental Distress
• Book review: You'll see this message when it is too late, by Josephine Wolff
It's reading more and more like National Enquirer.
posted by cenoxo at 11:33 AM on November 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

I used to work in OSH. When you read accident reports they are almost always horrifying (occasionally stuff blows up at night when there's nobody nearby, but that's unusual) and always terrifying in one of two ways: 1) a series of awful negligent decisions have been made on the basis of greed and/or laziness that made the accident all but inevitable or 2) the accident happened in a fiendish Rube-Goldberg-meets-Final-Destination-type scenario that would have been quite difficult to predict and even harder to understand as it happened; those involved had 4.5 seconds to wonder why Reading A was so low while Reading B was so high, before they were vaporised.

In conclusion, do not ever live near anywhere that stores or processes large quantities of petrochemicals (basically avoid anywhere with large white tanks outside a factory building). Avoid being downwind of anywhere that makes pesticides of any kind. And don't hang around to make a video if you start to see an impromptu fireworks display begin to happen above a fireworks factory.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 1:52 PM on November 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm also a long-time RISKS reader. Also, the Chemical Safety Board will give you nightmares about the level of incompetence and negligence that's actually going on.
posted by mikelieman at 2:39 PM on November 30, 2018

RISKS Digest is one of those old Internet things I wish we had more of. I’ve been reading it for at least 20 years and hope it’s around for at least that long in the future, although I do think a bit of a web design upgrade might be in order.
posted by adamsc at 5:14 PM on November 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

SW Ontario is full of gas wells. I mean, everywhere. It seems the sandy/limestone mix seals in truly gargantuan quantities of natural gas. And unlike out west, this is sweet gas: almost entirely free of sulfur. So it needs little or no processing before use.

Until a few years ago, homeowners with gas wells on their property could pipe gas directly from wells into their homes. This would be fine if there was the proper (larger than domestic) pressure regulator on the line from the well. But some folks were cheap, or though they knew better and used small pressure regulators, or worse, no regulator at all.

I didn't know this, but apparently underground gas pressure can vary quite a bit. A few farmhouses just exploded, with nothing left standing and few (if any) survivors.
posted by scruss at 6:08 PM on November 30, 2018

fyi, RISKS Digest people
posted by j_curiouser at 6:56 PM on November 30, 2018

I work in North Andover. I was leaving work that day and headed to a little after-work party at a local brewpub, and as I was tooling down Rt 114 I noticed what looked like a cloud of smoke in the distance over Lawrence. Then I saw that there were easily a dozen helicopters hovering around it. Then emergency vehicles started flying past, one after another after another, wearing liveries from towns nowhere near where I was. I switched to my police scanner app and sure enough, there were mutual aid responses from police and fire departments all over the state and up into New Hampshire, fire crews just pouring into the Merrimack Valley from all directions.

When I got to the brewpub the owner was coming out, telling everyone that we had to leave because they'd been told to evacuate. Party cancelled. A coworker told me that her boyfriend was a firefighter, and that dozens of homes were on fire. No word on why at that point, just dozens of homes burning. I decided to head on home before the traffic got so bad that I couldn't, and as I was leaving you could see worried townspeople standing around outside their houses, not knowing what to do or where to go. All the way down to the south shore there were emergency vehicles flying north on 93. I went to see my cousin and we watched the madness on the TV that night. In the morning, the gas station attendant who I see each day because her gas station is right by my work said that she knew the kid who got killed when a chimney fell on the car he was sheltering in. A fine young man, by all accounts. People at the gas station that morning were crying, shouting, saying it was terrorism—a lot of folks had their grip on reality loosened by the trauma of the incident.

There are still people without homes and without gas, as winter is coming on. The trailers they've been moved into leak. My neighbor's elderly father didn't have a stove for months—everyone with a gas stove in the area was made to replace them, as there was a concern that the high pressure might have damaged them. A woman I spoke to when I was picking up a building permit told me that her entire apartment complex was without heat or hot water, that her 90-year-old neighbors didn't know what to do—that was in late September when things were still warm. I hope they're OK by now.

Just yesterday someone told me that they'd heard it was sabotage, that National Grid workers had done it to protest the months-long lockout (still ongoing) that they've been forced to endure. It wasn't even a National Grid pipe—this is Columbia Gas territory, and the incident was the result of a poorly-trained engineer forgetting to add a check valve
to the work plan and then sending it out without anyone double-checking his work—but conspiracy theories rage on regardless. Columbia Gas has already used up their $800,000,000 insurance policy over this.

Sorry for the rambling and slightly incoherent comment. I just have a lot of thoughts about this that I wanted to get off my chest. It's a lousy situation and the city of Lawrence didn't need this shit. Andover and North Andover caught some of it too, but I can't help but feel that the poverty in Lawrence is a big part of why it was so bad there. Andover and North Andover are fairly wealthy, meaning that people generally had newer gas equipment in their homes that was in decent repair and didn't start spewing gas when the pressure spiked. Buildings in Lawrence are mostly much older and poorer and in worse shape—I go into people's homes in all three municipalities on the regular, so I know. And the people in Lawrence, being poorer as a rule, are much less able to weather this kind of storm. It's been bad.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:21 AM on December 1, 2018 [3 favorites]

In conclusion, do not ever live near anywhere that stores or processes large quantities of petrochemicals

This incident involved natural gas, which is a petrochemical that runs under the streets of every American city and into most houses. What do you suggest people do about that?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 2:55 PM on December 1, 2018

That sentence is followed by this clarification - (basically avoid anywhere with large white tanks outside a factory building). Residential gas usage is not really on that scale, so I think the recommendation is to not conflate the two scenarios.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 8:15 PM on December 1, 2018

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