Antarctic Reflections on the Ice: 12-2018

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I was just talking to my co-workers back here stateside just how dangerous it is. Everywhere you turn. To be alive, yes. To be a tech. More so. We just had one of our subs with an injury in Miami. He set himself up. Boasting how he can still pull it off; said you must be a circus acrobat. You do. All balance and have no fear. Jinxed himself.

And that was just in reference to ladders, scissor lifts, booms and catwalks, working with your tools in places you cannot imagine. Here. December 13th, 2018.

Now imagine 12,500 miles out on a dry, barren ice covered expanse of magnificent desolation.

On my way to work

The day ended, and I rolled out.

I looked at a text from a woman I worked with on the ice, that had come in while I was driving from our headquarters, back at the capital. Now just getting around to it, as I sat on a recumbent bike to exercise and relax. Deep house chill in my headphones blasting. Another risk. She worked the comm in the Antarctic Fire Department, now back, she’s Security at SFO. San Francisco. Weather is a little more pleasant with the bay breezes and not the McMurdo Bay icy barrage. Way, way down under.

“Did you get my message? 2 fire techs dead at mcmurdo.” — she texted.

“No.. what happened?” and then, “Anyone we know?”, I asked.

She continues by text: “Causes undetermined at this point. A helicopter pilot saw smoke or something and investigated and one of them was dead on site and the other died shortly thereafter. Look for the article online it just happened a day or so.”

Yes, December 12.

Emergency Generator Shed – High Pressure CO2 inside at Arrival Heights

I thought of the suppression systems right away. No smoke from a fire but the gas venting from an unfortunate release of carbon dioxide used to put out fires; it would look like that. Deadly. But we had to maintain them. Disconnect them, weigh the tanks, replace them as needed, test the solenoid firing, put it all back together and hope the sensors (we put in alarm, for the test,) had normalized before re-engaging everything. Acrobatics. And a little luck.

Sometimes a heat sensor goes rogue and trips again. Resulting in horns blasting, strobes flashing and people evacuating as if were an actual.

Not when suppression is involved. The agent releases and robs everything of oxygen. Including anyone alive.


The helo pilot was there waiting for them to finish up before bringing them back to base. These buildings adjacent to radio transmitters for the science. Generator buildings for power. All for science: astrophysics, biology, climate studies and ramping up for Mars, Enceladus and Europa.

“This totally could have been you,” she says.

Continuing: “I’m curious as to whether it was anyone we know,” then asking if I found the article.

I did and read on, a piece from The Guardian.

“Yes, names aren’t released.”

The American press, even more vague.

First off, I opened Outlook to contact my associate that came from Pole during the summer season of 2015-16 whom I worked with, now on another contract as a Fire Tech in the Marshall Islands. He was already on it, emailing me.

Ironically, he emailed me 6:26 PM CST, the exact same time as my other friend from San Francisco: “2 Fire Techs Dead – McMurdo” with a link to the National Science Foundation press release:

“FYI  Jeff.

Followed by the URL … Here

He then speculated on the suppression also.

“CO2 is dangerous I deal with it all the time here in Kwajalein. The incident did NOT occur where I thought up the hill at Arrival Heights. It was out in the dry valleys.” Dry Valleys, of special interest as it is the most like Mars than anywhere on this the Home Planet, Antarctica. And, yes, as they found life there in the ice, chances are they’ll find similar on other worlds. No little green men but rather microscopic life. At least for now.

I got out my “Green Brain,” that’s what they call it. The little government issue notebook everyone gets when on the ice as a contractor. A leftover most likely from before the Cold War. I picture they must have warehouses full of them somewhere along with C-rations riddled with worms prepping for Armageddon. I still have mine with my notes and the emails of coworkers, scientists, curiosities.

I got a response. The fire tech we were training to winter over for 2016-17, got back to me. Training to be alone, sole fire tech, in total darkness, when McMurdo’s population dwindles to a few hundred souls, but there are still a couple hundred buildings with fire protection. The smart machines: needing the presence of a fire tech as their crazy shepherd.

Like the rest of us, he cut his teeth in commercial industrial institutional and military fire protection. And like the rest of us he had a life outside the day job. Front man for a ska band and horn player (he would hate me for calling Sturgeon General a ska band) — but that’s what the fans, the people that came to see him would be expecting. When they toured America eleven months a year. I remember during Karaoke at Gallagher’s (every other Thursday at one of three bars on the ice) he heard someone do “Just My Type” — the Saint Motel number and he exclaimed, “I hate that. There’s always some ass that wants us to do it as a cover.” Not even ska. As bad as shouting Free Bird, right? or “More Cowbell.”

We always said we’d stay in touch.

Craig Waddell, his email:

“It has been a lifetime ago it seems. Yeah this was horrible. That would have been me if I hadn’t canceled my contract.”

New question: who wintered over 2016-17?

Later early Friday into Saturday morning, I got an FB Messenger text from a co-worker that said he just saw my posts on Facebook. Co-worker and friend that is currently down there. Even further down there. This season, he’s at Pole, just around 850 miles South of McMurdo. The South Pole: they call it Pole. Isn’t everything South down there or is it all North at that point?

“I just seen your post. It was the 2 new guys, the CO2 system went off, they don’t know if they tried to stay inside and turn it off. That is what they suspect. It is sad.”

He then asks, “how is everything else,” switches gears back to the tragedy, as if reading my mind as I think — where was it? “oh, on mt newell.”

Mount Newell site wasn’t on our tour for maintenance in 2015-16. I wish it was. I didn’t get to take a chopper to the Dry Valleys, let alone a frozen lake thought to be teaming with life perhaps a precursor to the sister planets. Wasn’t on our schedule. But Crary Lab was for its new generator building. The building with its new power plant back-up, for those precious ice cores; and we put in its new electronic fire alarm system, its suppression system and a lot of hard work.

Friend at Marshall Islands, the Fire Tech continues reflecting on the tragedy…

“Maybe pre-warn not installed.  Maybe manual agent release doesn’t give a
prewarn.  Maybe they confused manual agent release with fire alarm and
weren’t prepared for discharge.”

“850 PSI to 1800 PSI.  Discharge is 30 seconds, with loud noise and
complete loss of visibility in a small space – couldn’t get to door.
Loss of conscious occurs in 9 seconds to a 1 minute depending on
concentration density.”

I looked again to see if there was anything new on what happened with the fire techs last week. I never did get their names. Just because my colleague at Pole didn’t know them doesn’t necessarily mean I didn’t know them. A lot of activity as the season ends and incoming trains for the upcoming long dark night.

It is said do not go quietly into that dark night, but in the end, there is only the solace of cold silence.

I trust their names will be added to the others that have lost their lives — all for science.

Godspeed fellow Fire Techs.

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I’ve attached several images. The only time they told us not take pictures was when we toured Crary Lab and we were shown the robotic Artemis prototype from Stone Aerospace for the upcoming Clipper mission to Enceladus in the late ‘20s. National Geographic got the scoop on that one. (except for its slotted mission and its working name) I was just happy to be working. These pictures show what a Fire Tech does — for science.

Click on the photos to enlarge