Stuck in Lodi

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Under the gaze of Xena, the Warrior Princess, who proclaims from a poster the power of reading, about 35 students sit around in the Lodi High School library, waiting for the school year to end. They talk, ignoring the crew of New York City filmmakers testing microphones and taping extension cords to the floor.

It is just days before the prom, and the juniors and seniors are not psyched about having to rehash the story of the chemical plant explosion not far from their school that killed five workers three years ago.

“It doesn’t really faze me that it happened,” says football player Kevin Tryanowski, who grew up in this blue-collar New Jersey town, a 15-minute drive from New York over the George Washington Bridge. “It’s history. It’s gone. Can’t do nothing about it.”

The filmmakers, led by award-winning documentary director Judith Helfand, are preparing to film the students as they interview union leaders, the local fire chief and a worker who survived the blast. Lodi High is the pilot site for a new oral history project, called Link the Classroom to the Community, that introduces teenagers to the labor movement. The footage will become part of the permanent collection at the Lodi Public Library. It will also shape a guide for other teachers and organizers looking to conduct their own investigations of working people in their towns’ past.

In Lodi the project’s purpose isn’t so much to uncover hidden history as it is to prevent it from becoming hidden in the first place. “It’s a very important moment,” Helfand says of the students’ opportunity to do the interviews. “This could have been lost.”

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On Thursday, April 20, 1995, at about 5 a.m., employees at Napp Technologies, Inc. began loading thousands of pounds of reactive chemicals, including sodium hydrosulfite and powdered aluminum, into a two-story-high blender.

The process should have taken all of an hour, according to a subsequent federal investigation. But more than 24 hours later, after workers had complained of a rotten egg smell and a supervisor noticed the chemicals smoking and bubbling, employees were still trying to complete the job.

It wasn’t until six the next morning that Napp’s management finally evacuated the plant, and then only by word of mouth. The plant’s alarm was never sounded. It would have made emergency management officials and nearby residents aware that there was a problem.

After consulting with Napp higher-ups by phone, supervisors and a small crew of workers went back inside to unload the blender. They didn’t know it, but they were making a bad situation far worse. At 7:45 a.m., the potion exploded, hurling the 23-ton vat 50 feet. The roof blew off, and a black toxic cloud quickly swept over northern New Jersey, forcing the evacuation of 400 people. It took 700 fire fighters from 34 surrounding towns more than a day to get the fire under control. Chemical runoff from the plant turned the nearby Saddle River kelly green and sent its fish floating belly up.

The Napp accident was Lodi’s third fatal chemical plant explosion in three decades. This town of 27,000 owes its existence to the American Piece Dye Works and the Italian immigrants who came to work there. Although the factories that replaced the dye works have been slowly shutting down, Lodi still has seven chemical plants within its densely populated two square miles.

Jim Gannon, a 47-year-old Napp veteran who’s lived in Lodi most of his life, was one of seven workers sent in to unload the blender.

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“The noise itself lasted a fraction of a second, then everything got quiet,” Gannon tells a circle of students who are interviewing him in front of Helfand’s cameras. “I was getting blown back in one direction and both my arms and legs were getting sucked out in front of me. But I couldn’t do anything, so I just relaxed and said, ‘I’m gonna die.’ Then I bounced off the cinder block walls. I started rolling because my uniform was on fire, then I felt the ceiling caving in.”

With his crinkle-eyed smile and nondescript dress shirt, Gannon isn’t the kind of guy who would attract much attention, at least until he starts to talk.

“I started thinking about the five guys who I’d been there with,” he continues. “I tried working my way back inside to see if I could help them, but the smoke was so thick I could feel it touching my face.”

He also began to think about his wife and two kids, and about the possibility of more explosions. Figuring that if the others weren’t out yet they must already be dead, he gave up his search. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

One of the teenagers asks him what happened next.

“It was funny,” says Gannon. “When I was inside I didn’t feel any pain. When I got out front on the sidewalk it was like someone turned up the burner on my hands. I noticed that I could see the bone. It was like I had no hand. There were all kinds of fire trucks there. I got put on a stretcher and went to the hospital.”

When he is asked how long it took him to recover, Gannon replies: “It’s not over yet. I still get nightmares. I have no short-term memory. Loud noises, my heart beat goes faster.

“I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to see that what I’m going through, what happened to my friends, doesn’t happen to anybody else,” he says. “I need to try to carry the message. Maybe that’s why I didn’t die in the explosion.”

Because Helfand told him that the students think the explosion doesn’t have much to do with them, Gannon tries to recount more than just the horror of that day.

“There are some facts that you may not be aware of,” he tells the kids. “Six thousand working people a year die on the job. The reason for it is that the ultra-rich that own these companies put money and profit margin over human life.”

Gannon is especially angry at the painless $100,000 settlement Napp officials had to pay for 13 violations of health and safety rules. “If they put working people at risk,” he says, “they should be put in prison.”

Last year, with the help of his union, UNITE, Gannon gave a similar speech to 100 residents of Coventry, Rhode Island, where Napp plans to relocate the obliterated plant. When company executives unveiled their proposal, he says, they referred to a fire, but “never mentioned anything about an explosion or anybody dying. I mean these people were totally shocked when I told them.”

There are no current laws that would stop Napp from opening, but thanks to Gannon’s efforts, Coventry residents will be watching the plant carefully if it does. And Rhode Island’s legislature is considering a law that would give local fire marshals more authority over chemical plants.

The Lodi incident also helped Gannon and unionists nationwide successfully lobby Washington to fund an independent board that investigates chemical explosions in the same way that the National Transportation Safety Board investigates airline crashes.

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When the filmmakers call the students and the visitors together to sum up, the mood has shifted perceptibly from the boredom of the beginning of the day. Bryan Nordt is riled up about being interrupted in the middle of his interview with Gannon. “I had another question, but we got cut off!” says the tall, goateed senior.

Speaking to the assembled students, Gannon punctuates his final comments by taking out his silver Marlboro lighter, with the signature Stetsoned smoker on horseback glued on.

The day before the explosion, Gannon says, he dropped it and the cowboy fell off. “I said, ‘Gee, I wonder what that means.’ The next day the plant exploded. This was in my pocket when I got blown backwards.”

As the kids pass around the repaired lighter, feeling its heft and looking at the cowboy, Gannon says: “I know how you can feel how this has nothing to do with you. I grew up in Lodi. I used to play on the roof of Napp Chemical. I used to break into them factories when I was little. I never thought I’d be inside when they were blowing up.”

The lighter lingers for a while in Nordt’s hands.

“I lived in the town and it exploded yet it didn’t bother me,” Nordt says. “I never felt anything, but now that I actually interviewed Jim, it touched, and it hurts. He was in pain for a while. He can’t work anymore. It’s great what he does-all he does is go around and tell people about chemical fires and what happened. That affects a lot of people. It affected me a lot.”

A few minutes later Nordt gives Gannon his telephone number, telling him that he’d like to help out.

“I’ll definitely get you involved,” Gannon says, as the two walk out of the library.