Last Wednesday a large warehouse of a local gear-production company, just 2 miles from my house in the Menomonee Valley, exploded after a propane leak. Three workers were killed, more than 40 injured. The explosion was felt miles away, rocking the city and causing a five-alarm fire.
I was already sitting in my Waukesha office when it happened, a few minutes after 8:00 am, but thousands of Milwaukeeans witnessed the explosion, in their cars on I-94 or from one of the viaducts bridging Milwaukee’s north and south sides.
As I crossed the 35th Street viaduct driving home that night, I couldn’t help think about the structural damage they had been searching for in the hours since the explosion, or the potential for other explosions because of the destroyed building’s proximity to other utility lines. I wanted to get off that long, narrow bridge as soon as possible.
I thought about how terrifying it must have been to hear the explosion, to have your car shaken or even thrown a few inches because of the impact, to look across the city and see thick, black smoke rising around the skinny Falk smokestack. Drivers and people in the vicinity were all over the Journal-Sentinel web site after the explosion, sharing their experiences, describing the impact, the fire, the boom, and the smoke.
I thought about how silly and how out of character it was for me to be worried about the possibility of the bridge I was driving over collapsing. I thought about whether I would feel this fear here on out crossing these bridges, approaching the valley, wondering at what my reaction would have been had I been a half an hour late that day, and felt the heat of a deadly explostion at the back of my car.
This morning, as I tuned in to NPR like any other day, the reporter in Iraq was describing the explosion caused by an IED at a day labor site in one city or another. The news from Iraq is so constant, so ubiquitous, yet often so shallow it hardly impacts us. Another 10 U.S. soldiers killed in a roadside bomb. Another 100 young Iraqi men killed by a suicide bomber. Another, just another.
The reporter, describing the scene, mentioned the black smoke rising from the site of the explosion, and I couldn’t help imagine, and relate in some extremly miniscule way, the complete fear Iraqis must feel very day in their country. Milwaukee’s black smoke was the result of a freak accident, a few innocent people died, a tragedy, nonetheless.
The Falk explosion was the biggest piece of hard news in Milwaukee in months. There was constant media attention, that day and for days afterwards. Profiles were done on each of the killed workers, investigations started on the safety of the factory procedures.
In Iraq, if we’re really honest, this wouldn’t even have made the news. Black smoke rises from Baghdad, Fallujah, Tikrit daily. Bombs go off, people die, much less fuss is made.
Recent estimates, albeit debated, suggest hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in Iraq since 2002. In fact, they suggest 75,000 more people than live in the City of Milwaukee have been killed in the violence we began in Iraq. Even if the estimates are inflated, most of us cannot imagine even a suburb like Brookfield or Waukesha for example, leveled, destroyed. Our scope of tragedy, as Americans, is ridiculously small. They’re just pictures on a screen, distant, quick-moving.
We have never lived in a world where driving over a bridge is an immediate threat, where a man in a crowd could have a bomb strapped to his chest. These things are reserved for our entertainment – 24, Law & Order, James Bond movies.
We’re the among the most educated, wealthiest and technologically advanced people in the world, yet most of us only speak one language, we get news from excessively dumbed-down television programs, we care little for what happens in the far reaches of the world, until it affects us directly.
We are shocked and awed by black smoke rising above our city, unable to comprehend an existence its presence is everywhere.