The blue dome of sky over Valdez, Alaska, is brilliant and cloudless. Majestic white tongues of snow and glacier press toward the blue-black sea, crowding the gritty oil boom town. A frontier on the wide northern ocean, isolated Valdez thrives on its own breathtaking wilderness landscape and juggles its identity between oil-tanker superport and fishermen's harbor.
Here the Alaska pipeline meets one of the earth's richest waters, Prince William Sound - waters that normally glisten in the sun and teem with fish and other wildlife virtually unrivaled in North America. Yet our team has just witnessed there an ocean that, as far as the eye can see, seems to have turned to oil.Not since 1910 has a ship wrecked on the well-marked, well-charted Bligh Reef in the great sound, even though thousands of oil tankers have navigated the waterway. But it took only one wreck to change life in Valdez, perhaps forever.
Instead of shrinking or hiding from the enormity of the event that has occurred, the people of Prince William Sound have thrown themselves into battle against the oil spill with every ounce of strength they can muster.
"We've never had to pull together like this before," Jeannine Buller told our team, lowering her eyes to calm a swell of emotion, "but everything, all our lives, are involved here."
Normally at this time of year, Buller, who has been fishing for 15 years out of Cordova (a fishing community on the sound), would have been gathering kelp to "pound" herring - collecting herring eggs on kelp for export, then releasing the fish.
Normally R.J. Kopchak, also a fisherman and Valdez City Council member, would have been working in his warehouse, cleaning out his boat for the upcoming season. Now instead, he, Buller and hundreds of fishermen and townspeople were up day and night, eating on the run if they ate at all. They mobilized in an all-out effort to save the fisheries that provide their livelihood.
They worked out of the Valdez courthouse, which had been converted to the fishermen's command post. In a room that usually houses judge and jury, flurries of message slips and maps were pasted to every wall. Many were notes of grim information critical to all concerned, notes like "oil hit the first boom at San Juan."
Port San Juan is the site of a large salmon hatchery. If the oil were to reach the young salmon fry, they would die. But where could the fry be released? Two fishermen thrashed it out, trying to think of a place the oozing oil might not reach. Bleary-eyed and desperate, they even thought of flying the fish to another part of Alaska.
"I'm telling you," one of the fishermen said, "I don't think anywhere on the sound will be safe if that oil blows farther west."
Indeed, since the spill began, the oil moved inexorably across the sound, catching along the notched coasts and islands that were perfect traps. Held in these bowls, oil splattered on rocks and settled in pools, clinging to all it touched.
"When I saw it off Knight Island this morning, I just started to cry," our rugged pilot admitted without shame.
Tracking the oil was like watching a vile rodent moving across a room, for these waters, these beaches, these secluded pristine bays - perhaps more than the houses in which they live - are home to the people of the sound.
All cleanup costs, including those of the fishermen, were being paid by the Exxon Corp. Company officials declined to speculate on the extent of those costs, but they will surely amount to millions of dollars. And, as part of accepting responsibility, Exxon also promised to compensate all damages incurred by the fishing industry. It could amount to an indefinite subsidy of the entire fishing economy, since the spill could affect profits well into the future.
Meanwhile though, in spawning disaster, the spill has also brought forth untapped human heroism and strength.
While many fought the oil itself, others rescued animals. At the local community college, workers showered down oil-soaked, terrified otters on makeshift bath tables constructed of hand-hammered wood and wire mesh. Using simple dish detergent, they rinsed the otters, which were brought to them on boat and plane by game officers, cleanup workers, anyone with the means.
Water hoses ran like spaghetti along the floor, and still there weren't enough water lines. A rescue worker carefully fed a white mound of snow to an exhausted otter as it waited to be washed. The once-sleek animal, now matted and black as coal, licked at the snow. Jeremy Fitzgibbon, a specialist in marine mammals from the Vancouver Aquarium, walked in orange waders among a half-dozen animals and told our team he'd be happy if they can save "maybe 10 percent" of the animals they clean.
How many otters, seabirds, seals - not to mention humpback whales returning north from their annual migrations - will be killed or damaged by the oil spill? How many salmon, herring and other fish? No one can know yet.
Before the spill, Prince William Sound showed the world as it once was, earth and ocean before they knew a fouling hand. But the wrecked Exxon Valdez, a mere toothpick in the vastness of the sound, vanquished that innocence.
And, while heroines and heroes do sleepless battle with the oil, the questions for us all remain: how to deal with the prospects of another such catastrophe; how to confront the environmental risks our industrialization has created; how to determine not just whether the risks are manageable, but whether they are worthwhile.
"Suppose the spill had been twice as big?" one disheartened local woman asked Alaska's governor at a press conference. "I don't know," Gov. Steve Cowper replied. No one does.
But the message of Valdez is all too clear. This tragic spill cannot be measured only by statistics and carefully worded press releases. The disaster of Prince William Sound must also be measured by the small but indelible tears that escaped all who heard about or saw the oil's relentless progress hour after hour.
"I can't talk about it anymore," Buller told us. "It is too much to think of right now. This is the place that is written in my heart."