Sunday, March 1, 2009

And Now You Know My Story

Sunday morning I heard a news item which saddened me.

I didn't know Paul Harvey, but when I heard he had died, I reflected back to another time.

I thought back to December 1971. I was on a temporary assignment to Galena Air Station, Alaska. Now closed, the base was located next to the native Alaskan village of the same name on the north side of the Yukon River. At the time, the station housed two alert aircraft, ready to respond to any intrusion into the airspace of the Northern Frontier.

Myself and three other fuels troops from Elmendorf AFB, near Anchorage, Alaska, arrived at Galena for a three month assignment in early October. Our main job was to support the alert aircraft. We also gassed up transient aircraft and motor vehicles. It wasn't hard work, but when the temperatures of the interior Alaska area dropped to well below zero, it made the desire to do the work a lot harder. I spent many a cold hours standing in the weather passing gas.

However, In early December, the person doing the fuels accounting for the office, went on a 30-day leave. Someone had to take his place and the lieutenant in charge of the office, gave that job to me. I quickly learned what I needed to know and when the time came, I settled into the job.

Things were going fine for me at that time. In the mornings, I would walk to work in the cold (there were several days in a row when the thermometer outside the door of the fuels office read -65 or more...yes, that is 65 degrees below zero) and once inside, warm my hands over the oil stove providing heat for the building. I'd then pour myself a cup of coffee, go to my desk and listen to Paul Harvey present the news in only the way he could.

I hadn't been working at my new job much more than a week, when I walked into our office, warmed my hands, got my cup of coffee, settled into my office chair and glanced at the paperwork in front of me as the voice of Paul Harvey came over the radio on the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. As he presented his news, I was getting ready to dive into my work when I heard something which caused me to spit coffee across my desk and stare at the radio in disbelief.

I don't remember the exact words he used, but about midway through that day's presentation, Paul Harvey began his next news item with: "Galena, Alaska...Officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs say the U.S. Air Force spilled more than 15,000 gallons of aviation fuel in the Yukon, killing fish up and down the river. " He continued with more information about the spill, including the date it happened and then went on to other items. By this time, I was in shock.

Everyone in the office turned and looked at me with a puzzled look on their face. The lieutenant looked up from his desk, with a jaw which had dropped almost to the floor. And then my phone rang.

I knew immediately who was calling...and I didn't want to answer the phone. Glancing skyward, I reached for the phone knowing I had nothing to do with the loss of fuel, but also knowing I would be the one catching hell for what Paul Harvey said.

"Fuels...Sergeant Sobkoviak," I said.

"Are you the one who took over for the guy on leave?" came an unfamiliar voice from the other end.

"Yes, I am."

"Were you listening to Paul Harvey this morning?"

"Yes, I was."

"Then why is this the first we are hearing of this massive fuel spill?"

I had no idea what to say to the person on the phone. I knew he was assigned to our headquarters at Elmendorf and he read the daily reports we sent down to him. I also knew he knew as much about our fuel situation as I did, maybe more, considering I had just started at the job. I looked over the lieutenant for help, and he grabbed the phone on his desk.

After a few minutes of talking, he said, "We'll have the report ready as soon as possible and call you back with our findings." He hung up, shook his head and told me some background on the Paul Harvey report. He told me how during aviation fuel (AVGAS) off-loading from the supply barge, a passing vehicle hit the pipeline system and caused a leak. Fuel did fall into the Yukon River, but the amount was determined to be 15 gallons or less.

He then asked me to go stick the AVGAS tanks, so another report could be filed. Sticking the tank meant measuring the depth of fuel. With that measurement and the temperture of the fuel, a chart could be cross referenced, and the amount of fuel in the tank could be determined.

When I completed my calculations, I found that close to 150 gallons of AVGAS was missing...not the 15 gallons as originally thought. I passed this information on to the lieutenant who wasn't happy. He had been in charge of the office when the accident occurred and now had to tell headquarters that his original report was in error. But before he would do that, he told me to double check my figures. This meant returning to the AVGAS tanks, getting another depth measurement and temperature reading, and redoing my calculations.

So off I went, back to the AVGAS storage area.

When I arrived at the tanks, I decided I would check to see if there was any water in the tank. To do this, a person needed to open a drain valve at the bottom of the tank, let about a pint of fuel to flow into a jar, and then visually check the amount of water in the bottom of the jar. If there was any water, another procedure would done to determine how deep the water was in the tank.

I grabbed a jar out of the truck I drove to the storage area, and began removing the three feet of snow covering the area I believed the drain valve to be. After moving about a foot of snow, I was puzzled to see snow stained in the color purple. I knew the AVGAS we had in the tank was dyed purple for visual verification of the type of fuel and I instantly knew there was a leak at the drain valve.

After removing all the snow from around the drain valve, I realized where the extra 135 gallons or so of aviation fuel was in the bottom of the dike surrounding the tank. I checked the valve and noticed a steady drip of liquid coming from around the area where the valve was attached to the tank. After doing what I could to stem the flow of fuel, I redid my measurements and returned to the fuels office. Once inside, I told the lieutenant what I found out and put in a work order for maintenance to fix the leak.

When I completed my new calculation, I came up with the same number as before...150 gallons missing. Reporting this the LT, I speculated that additional missing fuel is inside the dike. Since the dike was sealed to prevent any leaked fuel from contaminating the environment, it was unlikely any more fuel was leaking into the Yukon. However, the river was frozen over and there wasn't any way to tell for sure.

Resigned to the fact that the Air Force at Galena AS may have screwed up, the lieutenant called headquarters back and relayed the news. After talking to his counterpart, he told me to get on the line and I gave my counterpart a blow-by-blow description of everything I had found out since he called me that morning. When I finished, he said, "This isn't over. We have everyone from state officials to people in Washington calling about this. File your report and get it in the next outbound mail." He then hung up.

I then turned to the lieutenant and said, "Of all people...Paul Harvey."

He let out a long sigh, cracked a smile, stood up and proclaimed, "Let's get something to eat, then hit the club before we do the report."

I grabbed my hat and parka and said, "You're buying."

Even after his report on Galena Air Station, I continued to listen to Paul Harvey when I could. I learned things I never would have known from his "Now You Know the Rest of the Story" segments, although I have probably forgotten everything I heard. But as before the incident above, I enjoyed listening to him.

He has passed on now, but I will still think fondly of him and am saddened by his loss...even if he did get me in trouble with my superiors back in December, 1971.

And now you know my story.