It’s been nearly two years since Nadia Levine fielded the frantic calls — the first one from her husband, the next from a coworker.
Panicked, Levine dialed both her children’s schools as she scrolled down the front page of CNN.com on Feb. 18, 2015. A fire raged blocks away from the Torrance, California, home her family had moved into only a month before. On a business trip nearly 3,000 miles away in Connecticut, Levine scrambled to find numbers for neighbors who could check to see whether the house was still standing.
“All I knew at that point was that my kids and husband were alive,” she said. As the smoke cleared, it became clear her worries were far from over.
Just before 9 that morning, pent-up gases at ExxonMobil’s Torrance refinery south of Los Angeles had triggered an explosion so massive it registered as a magnitude-1.7 tremor. A five-story processing unit had burst open, spewing industrial ash over a mile away that some mistook for snow and propelling a 40-ton hunk of equipment into the air. The debris had narrowly avoided piercing a tank containing tens of thousands of pounds of hydrofluoric acid, or HF — a gas so toxic it corrodes bone.... Read more