After the explosion

When a gas tank blew up in south Chico, Randy Barclay survived—barely. That was the beginning of his painful journey back to life

A QUESTION OF BALANCE Randy Barclay, severely burned in a February fuel tank explosion, uses a therapy ball to strengthen muscles that will help him better stand and walk.

A QUESTION OF BALANCE Randy Barclay, severely burned in a February fuel tank explosion, uses a therapy ball to strengthen muscles that will help him better stand and walk.

photo by Tom Angel

Randy Barclay heaves upward on the upper-back chest-press in a Chico health club weight room, puffing and pink from effort. His gloved left hand can’t quite grasp the handlebar. His spindly legs, burned to the bone in a February gas tank explosion, are wrapped in Ace bandages.

Barclay’s slender arms stretch upward, pressing 25 pounds, again and again. It’s not much weight for a 48-year-old man who has worked as a truck driver and a bouncer, a man who stands 6’2” and once weighed 245 pounds. But that was Barclay before Feb. 13, when he was maimed by an exploding gasoline storage tank in south Chico.

Now, it’s July, five months after a hellish moment, and 25 pounds feels like a planet. A skin-tight nylon garment that moves body fluids through scar tissue covers his arms and chest. He wears thongs over his bandage-wrapped feet that swell like inflating balloons.

Barclay worked for Chico Drain Oil Service, a subcontractor on a project to dismantle antiquated storage tanks at the Jesse Lange plant that distributes Shell Oil products. He worked as a hazardous-materials hauler who sometimes moved 800-pound drums. His job that day was to haul away oil sludge.

But during the course of that morning he walked into a project that state officials say was marred by flagrant violations of safety regulations. California’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration has charged contractor Northern Lights Mechanical with 30 violations, including failure to use equipment that prevents sparks.

Northern Lights, a Washington state company, is appealing the citations.

Meanwhile, the Butte County District Attorney’s Office is considering criminal charges in connection with the explosion.

The tank project began with almost no government oversight, receiving little official attention until one man was dead and another critically injured. County and state officials say it’s the job of contractors to ensure worker safety.

But at 1:34 p.m., an exploding tank belched angry flames that killed Northern Lights tank cleaner Jack Nickerson Jr., from Empire, Calif. The explosion hurled Barclay, who was probably about 10 feet from the tank, into a concrete retaining wall that opened the back of his head as if it were cantaloupe.

He, too, was engulfed in flames. Somehow, Barclay survived the second- and third-degree burns that covered most of his body. Barely.

Six weeks later, Barclay awoke from a morphine-induced coma, 50 pounds lighter and a mere ghost of his former self. He would soon discover that he was in a race with time to achieve, at best, a partial recovery. Atrophy had stolen muscle mass, time had stiffened ligaments, and scar tissue was creating adhesions. His success in recovering strength and flexibility would depend in the next few months on his willingness to fight, even when the odds were against him and the pain seemingly unbearable.

In some ways, his life had been a training ground for the task at hand. He learned concentration as a high-rise ironworker and learned about attitude when he recovered in a fraction of the time that doctors predicted it would take from a 1971 motorcycle accident.

The tragedy that forced him to relearn those lessons started with a mere spark on a dry and windy February day. Nickerson was mopping up oil sludge inside a 33-foot-tall tank. Outside the tank—Jesse Lange customers were pumping gasoline just a few yards away—Barclay heard a roar as the tank blew its lid skyward.

He turned to run, a move that saved the right side of his body from the severity of burns that he suffered on the left. His beard was ablaze. Someone with a fire extinguisher sprayed him in the face, probably saving his vision. Then he re-ignited.

He remembers trying to flip off a glove as rubber melted onto his hands, and he became a ball of fire, yelling, “Somebody put me out!” Later, he heard but never confirmed that a piece of his blue polyester work shirt had become plastered to the tank’s exterior.

This is what survived the fire: his belt buckle, the steel frames in his work boots, $77 in bills and coins in his wallet, his will and something else that his friends had always loved him for—his humor.

Looking back on that day, Barclay thinks he was conscious most of the time, and that might explain his new phobia of gas stations.

After the explosion, the flames were extinguished and he sat draped in a sheet waiting for the hospital helicopter. He was unaware of the extent of his injuries. Maybe it was shock. But when he bid goodbye, he asked someone to tell his boss, Chico Drain’s Hugh LaRocque, that he’d need a few days of sick leave.

At the UC Davis Medical Center burn unit, his kidneys failed. Barclay was put on dialysis. As he slept, doctors worked feverishly to sew up the back of his head and graft skin to the left side of his body where he needed it most. They shocked his heart into beating at the right rhythm.

When he awoke, he was still running from the explosion, still rolling on the ground in exasperated pain, trying to extinguish the flames. Then he discovered where he was and what he had become.

He looked in disbelief at his left arm, mottled from skin grafts, and thought that it looked more like an alligator leg. His left hand was pink, flat and unlined. He had suffered a shoulder separation and lost most of his sweat glands and internal thermostat. He felt cold, freezing cold, even when he had a 102-degree fever.

He would have to learn to wash his left shinbone when he showered. He’d need rooms with good air conditioning. Bright sun would expose him to melanoma.

“This is a story of human courage. The progress I’ve seen him make. … It’s been miraculous. When I first saw him, I thought, ‘What the hell happened to this guy?” — Bob Musa

photo by Tom Angel

At the hospital, Barclay suffered through ‘debriding,” a painful procedure involving the removal of scabs. He found that trying to curl his left fingers felt like having his hand smashed in a vise. ‘Getting burned isn’t for wimps,” Barclay observes. ‘I used to think I was pretty tough, but now I don’t know.”

Therapists know that, for burn victims who tolerate unrelenting pain, toughness is a state of mind that can be derived from motivation to recover. They also know that the act of grasping is key to virtually every human endeavor. So at the hospital they pushed Barclay to work harder and harder on his left hand, until one day he almost unleashed his fury.

Then he underwent what he calls an ‘attitude adjustment.” He decided he’d be a burn survivor, not a victim.

He had a new friend on this journey. The words of an occupational therapist named Harry rang in his ears daily. ‘Make pain your friend,” Harry told him at the hospital, ‘because it’s going to be with you the rest of your life.”

That’s when Barclay promised himself that he would always, no matter how much it hurt, do more than he was asked. Assign him 20 leg lifts and he’d do 25.

He was driven by what he wanted—to grasp a fishing rod, to curl his fingers around motorcycle handlebars again. Talk about fly-fishing and motorcycle riding made doctors wince. They said he was lucky to be alive.

But that would not be enough. Barclay was in the wrong place at the worst possible moment, but he had settled into a happy routine in the few years preceding the explosion. He had a job that kept him at home more often. He told anyone who listened this: I want a life, damn it. I’m only 48.

He learned that he would probably never work again. But he hoped to regain use of his left foot and hand in defiance of doctors who said he would recover partial use at best over a long period of time. At the least, he wanted to be able to walk, drive, wash dishes, take a shower alone, make a sandwich, make love. He defied doctors before. He would do it again.

He was released from the hospital May 3 and told that his recovery would depend in part on his ability to stay upright. He could only partially lift his feet off the ground—a condition known as ‘foot-drop” that was more severe on his left. A fall would probably shatter the exposed bone of his left knee and land him in a convalescent hospital.

Being a burn survivor at his small home in Durham—he’s often alone after his girlfriend and partner, Eileen Brennan, goes to work—takes ingenuity, especially at first. He discovers that it’s almost impossible to peel an egg with one hand without exhausting himself and destroying the egg.

He finds that he can use a nutcracker to open a Pepsi bottle when he can’t get his fingers around the screw-off lid.

For several months, nurse assistants show up each morning at his door, demanding that he shower and shave standing up. He undergoes several hours of painful massage weekly that softens scar tissue.

Brennan comes home at night, and there’s little he can do to help. He can’t clear the dinner table because he depends on a walker. Some nights he watches her from the sofa, consumed by feelings of anger and helplessness. Before his accident, they were saving for a country home, planning to adopt dogs instead of having kids.

Now, planning the next day is hard enough. There’s massage, rehabilitation, exercise, appointments with his attorney, meetings with a psychologist who helps him deal with the symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder.

He learns to travel by taxi unless he can hitch rides with Brennan. Such expenses are covered by the state workers’ compensation fund, but he finds that his '$12-an-hour mind” works constantly on ways to cut costs.

A few times he weeps. Occasionally he complains to friends that he went from truck driver to ‘Pop-Tart.” The worst part is that there’s never a day off from struggle and strenuous recovery work.

By July he can walk short distances with a cane—far enough to move uncertainly between machines in the weight room at In Motion Fitness. He joins the club, even though he’d be more at home in the basement of the Elks Lodge, where he lifted weights prior to the explosion. He liked to play the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed CD and revel in his solitude.

He grimaces as pain shoots through his left arm as he works on the chest-press at In Motion. He’s dizzy from exertion. His job is to lift and lower 25 pounds until he no longer can.

The weights smack together. Twenty-five reps. Not bad for his first health club visit. In fact, a pair of therapists hovering over him are barely able to conceal their glee. Barclay calls occupational therapist Sharon McElveny ‘Queen of the Mean” and playfully accuses the two women of torture.

His claims on solitude and anonymity went up in smoke along with almost everything else. Sometimes, people who recognize him from newspaper photos wave. Other people approach him curiously with questions. ‘It’s kind of interesting,” he says. ‘A guy like me usually only makes the obituaries.”

Barclay knows how close he came to making the obituaries instead of the feature sections; when he was in the hospital, his mother was warned that she should visit immediately if she wanted to ensure that she saw her son alive again. She left Los Angeles for Sacramento.

It didn’t help to learn that the explosion could have been avoided. Barclay’s mother contacted a San Francisco law firm that’s worked on other tank-explosion cases. Barclay impressed the law firm’s investigator, Stan Jones.

‘Randy’s done a lot better than anyone I’ve ever seen in terms of attitude,” he said in early July. ‘But he won’t ever do [many] of the things he’s talking about. The full impact of this hasn’t hit him. They [doctors] haven’t told him how bad this is because they don’t want to affect his attitude.”

Barclay works with a physical therapist to improve his grip.

photo by Tom Angel

But Barclay—and perhaps only Barclay—has some idea how bad this is. Winning the lawsuit he’s filed against Jesse Lange, Shell Oil and Northern Lights would bring him little solace. He’d rather be a $12-an-hour truck driver than a rich plaintiff in this condition, he says. ‘It doesn’t matter how much money you have if you don’t have your health.”

By September, Barclay’s considerably stronger and stockier from his 4,000-calories-a-day diet and exercise. He goes to movies without his wheelchair and to the Elks Lodge, his refuge. There he plays Liar’s Dice or watches football or enjoys a beer with buddies, people who view him as neither burn victim nor survivor.

At the lodge, he’s just Randy, an 18-year Elks member who likes the organization’s quiet charity work.

His use of his left hand and foot has surpassed the expectations of his doctors, and he can now partially bend his right knee. But he’s still hampered by foot-drop on the left and struggles to press together his left thumb and forefinger.

He keeps at the exercise. At In Motion, he sits on a green therapy ball. Therapist McElveny wants him to punch a ball in front of him with his left fist. He places a loose fist on the ball and lets his 230-pound frame come down. The weight forces the fingers to curl and the hand to tighten. ‘Atta boy, keep going, atta boy,” McElveny cheers excitedly. ‘Good, Randy!”

He’s wearing a grimace on his crimson, trembling face. He pants at the finish, for the moment spent.

There’s an odd stillness in the gym. People working out nearby look as if they want to applaud. Patron Bob Musa, 78, asks whether there’ll be a newspaper story about his new friend, Randy Barclay.

‘This is a story of human courage,” says Musa. ‘The progress I’ve seen him make. … It’s been miraculous. When I first saw him, I thought, ‘What the hell happened to this guy?’

‘Then I realized this was the guy who was in that damn tank fire. As a veteran of a couple of wars, I’ve seen people succumb to a lot less. He’s an inspiration.”

As McElveny nears the end of her work with Barclay—Oct. 11 is their last session—she’s increasingly reflective. When she first met Barclay, she wondered whether he’d ever be able to pour himself a cup of coffee. But she watched him talk himself, day by day, into staying motivated.

‘His hand was so impaired and disfigured,” McElveny says. ‘He had divorced his burned parts. He’s done far better than I ever thought he’d do. He’s surpassed our original goals. He’s a fighter. That’s why we’ve gained so much from each other.”

On Sept. 27, Barclay trips on his living room rug and topples over. His left knee, which even now has an open wound, bleeds through the bandages, then becomes swollen and painful. But he’s far enough along in his recovery that it’s not a catastrophe.

A few weeks later, at the Enloe Rehabilitation Center, he places an order for a plastic leg support that will force the left foot into a more natural walking position. Some of his hopes have been dampened by a slow or complete lack of progress. Placing the order suggests a tacit acknowledgement that foot-drop will likely be with him forever.

‘I didn’t want my foot to be spoiled by the babysitting it’s going to get,” he says. ‘But exercises won’t do it—it’s nerve damage, not muscles.”

He meets with Enloe occupational therapist Katie Heyerly. They sit on opposite sides of a narrow table to work on his left hand. Posted on a wall behind Heyerly is a 1-to-10 pain-scale rating chart; zero equals no pain and 10 equals ’emergency pain.”

She hands him round objects to grip, each trinket smaller than the one before. His fingers wrap around the containers, something he couldn’t have done a few months ago. ‘Hold it, Randy, hold it! As long as you can…”

Barclay’s at eight on the pain scale. He’s baring his teeth and with his right hand picking at his auburn goatee. Afterward, he says in a girlish voice something he thinks Heyerly might say: ‘I got into this [work] to help people get better, not to make them suffer.”

Heyerly shrugs off the teasing. ‘The more [pain] he can tolerate the better he’s going to be,” she says. ‘He’s already dealt with an extraordinary amount of pain better than I could. Some people give up; some people are fighters.”

Law specialist and investigator Jones predicts that Barclay will someday be able to drive an automatic-transmission vehicle but will never again ride a motorcycle. That he’ll walk with a cane but never completely overcome foot-drop. That pain will forever be his closest companion.

Barclay wonders whether he could someday work with kids in a hospital burn unit. He knows that a lot of stuff he wanted to do is falling into the ‘never again” category, but there’s still the ‘maybe” and ‘probably” categories.

For today, the fight’s over. A taxi’s waiting. It’s Monday, and Barclay wants to ‘pay homage to the gods of the NFL.” He’s got his hat and cane and he’s reaching for his gym bag. On the tired third try, his fingers wrap loosely around the handle.

He turns to the reporter who’s tailing him. ‘I don’t see myself as a hero,” he says in an irritated outburst. ‘I don’t see this as being an act of courage. Shit happens. You can sit around in your wheely chair and watch soaps all day, or you can get well. Hopefully, God will give me another 20 years.”

Barclay doesn’t want to be a victim or a hero; he just wants to keep up the march toward his goals without a lot of fanfare.

But to many people, he’s both a victim and a hero. It’s the latter that makes him interesting. The world is rife with victims, but heroes are in short supply.