I stood on the steeply inclined hill’s sidewalk, looking into the center of downtown Seattle in the grey light of the late afternoon. The lowering clouds seemed darker than usual, as though something had blackened them, echoing the inky fogs of mid-century London. The air, however, remained free of the distinctive tang of burning coal and I rapidly forgot the oddly darkening cloud cover.
The crowd of people I was standing in was chattering and happy – friends catching up with friends and people looking for the hook up on their cells. I couldn’t tell what exactly had brought us out here on the sidewalk, spilling into the quiet street. It seemed that possibly there was an art opening in the building we were clumped before. I nibbled at my cheese and crackers.
I became disinterested in the crowd and determined that a glance into the gallery was in order. In the background, the lightly accented voice of Hans Blix murmured, barely distinguishable from the crowd’s blended chitchat.
Just as I stepped into the low, wide, blond-wood space, the sounds of happy chatter outside intensified and changed into exclamations, loud questions and conjecture.
I returned to the street to see that the darkening clouds over downtown appeared to be in motion – the heart of the clouds was distinctly darker than the edges, such as the clouds above our location. The center of the clouds had also begun to drop, very quickly, toward the center of the city. The edges of the clouds appeared to be cascading down at differing rates as though they carried loads of coal dust, from the center out, widening.
The shape of the downward-charging cascade was the same as that of one of the broad tornadoes of my mid-western youth – a quarter of a mile across and three quarters of a mile from ground to the cloud deck.
As the leading edge of the falling mass approached ground level, subunits of the collapsing coal dust rebounded, erupting upward again in showers that formed flat arcs. Curiously, just at the edge of visual acuity, the arcing curves seemed to reveal the winged forms of orca and dolphins for less than a fleeting moment before the cascades of fine matter resumed their hurtling journey to earth.
As the crowd exclaimed, Colin Powell’s voice had replaced that of Blix, murmuring yet with strident inflections that lent urgency to the crowd’s increasing unease. As the first of the columns touched the earth bright orange flashes illuminated the city followed seconds later by the cracking thumps of distant explosives being detonated.
The first of the buffeting shockwaves arrived with the sound, as the flickering oranges of the first explosions had become a continuous wave of flaring orange light. The shockwaves carried a bitter, stinging smell that immediately generated at first a wave of shrieks followed by painful, repeated coughing. A single voice cried “It’s acid! There’s acid in the air!” and the crowd turned to flee as one in pandemonium.
Behind them, the intensifying wave of explosions transmitted its sound and shock as well. The continuous roar of the wind and the overlapping thumps of the events became a wave of painfully loud white noise that obliterated the human voice. The city behind the orange and black cloud of acidic dust was rubble.
I turned back inside again to grab my camera and some other material that I had stashed in the gallery as we’d arrived. I sought my wife, hopelessly, unable to hear my own voice. The howling wind had reversed direction and was being drawn to the advancing perimeter of the explosions. A firestorm was forming. Seattle had become Dresden and Coventry, but I would not live to see the political repercussions of the event. A pity, I thought.
The wind and the shockwaves had made it nearly impossible to stand. Thankfully, the heat was being kept at bay by the suction. I noticed that a bank of televisions was tuned to a local news channel, covering the events and helplessly speculating, repeating what everyone in the city already knew. On the crawl at the bottom of the screen, the news appeared. Apparently, though some unknown means, the cloud was producing the spreading firestorm at the center of the city. Tiny human figures were walking out of the fire, apparently impervious to it, crying for their parents. Somehow large numbers of toddlers and preschool children had survived.
The black cloud and firestorm’s naissance and meaning remained unclear. Was it an act of god? Was it an attack? Had some secret weapon gone awry or had aliens arrived, parking over the White House and blowing it into flinders? No-one knew.
The news cut to footage of firefighters and police approaching a group of the toddlers. A flash, and the camera stabilized on a street strewn with limbs. The children were a part of whatever it was that was happening. Avoid children, any children, at all costs.
I ventured back to the sidewalk, now marked with acrid scorch marks from who knew what. The perimeter of the firestorm had stabilized, curiously, but the heat was extremely intense. I drew back around the corner of the building. I glanced back into the building, and I saw a child, crying, his clothing partially burned away and tears streaming down his agonized, soot-caked and raw burned face. He ran toward me, obviously crying out in extreme trauma and fear.