The Hinton Gas Field Christmas Tree Incident

Shale, I imagine, lies below the undulating terrain in the gas fields north
of Hinton, Alberta, and that usually means bad gas. Any steeper a country
and it would have been a dynamite program. The surveying was done with
Wild T16 optical equipment and without reciprocal vertical  angles, zero
backsights. This meant we had to apply a mean correction for Earth
curvature and refraction. By surveying to a forward working rod man we
could run several kilometers of survey each day. This is not a theoretically
correct procedure but large regional loops closed year after year with
decimeter accuracy, it increases production four fold and it was used
industry wide in the Seismic Industry, in Canada only.

Courtney Aindow was a hard working man and always set up in perfect
tangent the way I liked it. The cover was all poplar interspersed with birch
and the odd buff of evergreen. Courtney and I were traversing West on a
sunny winters day, mid eighties.

The buggy vibes were set to chain up and were accompanied with a D7
Cat for when they hits the hills but today they were doing SIMS, testing.
They were crowded up on the only cleared flat area large enough to hold
them all, a wellsite. In the center stood a wellhead. This was sour gas
though and no normal wellhead, we called them Christmas Trees, and
was two foot taller than a man. Nowadays they’re safely isolated but in
those days, this one, was unprotected. We channeled the radios to match
the Recorder and had to “Steady  Up” when Rob sent the tone as we
were on the Spread. As we went through the wellsite there became a
Turn Point close to the wellhead and I Occupied the Point. Courtney
was West five hundred meters and had just given me the next Turn Point.
I had just finished the Horizontal Angle and was still set up when one of
the Line Drivers in a one ton jug buggy backed into the wellhead. I yelled
to “Hey STOP” and watched it happen. One of those things you remember
in slow motion detail. The heavy wielded steel bumper hit straight on to a
valve on the Tree and a yellow brown liquid released horizontally. On the
radio I called everyone off the site, abandoned my instrument set up,
checked each vehicle on site, and then left the site in my truck. It was eerie.
Silent. They’d all taken my radio call and ghosted away through the woods.

High and upwind I called to Courtney on the radio. I explained all that
happened and gave him a choice. The shot he had given me, completing
the forward traverse, had placed Courtney through a creek Dragout;
inaccessible by truck. Either return high and upwind, a course I mapped
out for him, or wait on his side of the Dragout while I went on a two hour
detour. The Recorder, Vibe Ops, some from the Line Crew not on Layout
and me we were all sitting on a hill, high and upwind, and I knew Courtney
was making his way back. The radio sparked and there was Courtney.
We all heard the sounds of a dying man. It was the way he gagged between
words that drew this conclusion. The sound of black bile, rasping for air. I
thought a picture of green smoke wisping from his mouth.

In Exploration, two dimensional Lines are often projected through a tie
wellhead so the Geo can utilize the core information in conjunction with
and the seismic data as a controller. Courtney had  taken the Line straight
back to it walking the path of least resistance. He was in shock. He said
later in Hospital that he’d felt the same eerie silence so loud it blocked out
sound with a deafening hum. He made it known between gags that he couldn’t
make it, needed me to come and get him. I told him to start walking away
down the Access Road I was on the way. We’re all trained specifically not
to do this. Sour Gas is a bad deal. Rob advised me this on the radio, real
diligence, as we all have heard the sour gas second man down stories.
I throttled up, took a deep breath, and released the brake. When I got
there I reached over, threw open the passenger door, dragged Courtney
in by the collar and sped reversed back up the hill.

I turned around at the top, we slowed and, almost stopped as we went
by the Recorder on our passenger side. Rob and the Boys had a close
up face to face encounter with Courtney. He was green in pallor and
frothing bubbled white with something black in it. Deadly concern
reflected back in their faces and was on mine. The winter road South
to Hinton was in good condition and I flashed lights when I met the
Ambulance that Gus Lorenowicz had sent out to meet us. Shining Knights
all. We had also been in communication via XJ Radio.

The XJ System was vital in the province prior to cell phones and affordable
satellite transmissions. Spanning the entire province and North East British
Columbia, this system was the only external system of communication in
all remote areas. Huckleberry Tower. Zama. Simonette. They all had
names and voice operators. Lots of times I had to drive up to a high area
and scan channels until I found a Tower that could pick me up. Occasionally,
on a cloudy night, the signal would bounce off of the atmosphere and once
I picked up Rainbow Lake from hundreds of miles away.

Rob Brink. Rob ran the recorder and he is one of those guys where you talk to
him for five minutes and you know he’s an Ace. A humorous Bill Gates
look alike. When people are isolated by language and culture they are
predisposed to group together, and to become friends. I had been in
country already a year or two, Chief Surveyor of a 150 man Trocha crew,
when Rob, his wife Marlene and their adventurous child Sarah moved to
Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia. I hadn’t remembered that Rob was on
site in the Hinton gas fields from nearly a decade before. But he remembered.
We worked a schedule six weeks in the Jungle, two weeks off.

Grande Cache is an old home town of mine having spent there the last of
my teenage years and I know the rivers, and the lakes. I was on a fishing trip
up there between a couple of stints in Argentina with a friend of mine named
Bernie Cavan back in the nineties. Bernie worked as a hand at Dufferings
Transport in Red Deer but he looked and lived otherwise the stereotype of
an author and everyone at the pub, on the hill, thought this was so until they
asked him. He had this one trick where he pulled out a small blade swiss
army knife and could stick it in the bulls eye every time at a dart throwers
distance. He wrote a letter to me once that held truth. He talked about the
true meaning of the word “Friendship”. Big Jim from Inisfail would know
what that means. We were in the Valley Pub in Grande Cache after a day
seeking Victor Lake for one of the big Rainbows of old but they were all
gone, stocked over now with Eastern Brook Trout. I was telling some of the
old people some stories of the southern lands, El Otra Lado. Madre de Dios.
This river system winds through the very heart of the continent, an area
deeply remote from even anything along the Amazon, which the river
eventually joins. We were in a tributary system in from that. The bartender,
in Grande Cache, was a jovial sort, tattooed and boisterous. He thought
the jungle was a dangerous place and wanted to know what type of
firearm I carried.  He just couldn’t understand there was no need to
carry one. In most respects the Jungle, triple canopy even as it was there,
is no different than walking through an Alberta Park. The forest isn’t
dangerous if you learn how to move in it. Neither is the jungle. Only it
is a different forest, differently populated.

Rob was mostly town based but there were times, on a start up or
firmware update for example, when he spent extended days on the
crew. I stopped in for Rob and to see Marlene and their small child
on some of these occasions if I was around Santa Cruz, where I kept
an apartment at Hotel La Quinta during breaks. She would be so happy
to see someone who spoke some English and we would hang out. She
told me she was very glad to have someone like me working with Rob.
Someone that she knew would take a risk and bring her man back to her.
Someone like my son Alex.

Alex went into a burning house. Four schoolmates came to see Alex at
our house about an hour after classes let out. The boys were not allowed
into the home and one of them started playing with a lighter outside by
the front door and burned down our house. Alex was a cool hand under fire.
He tried to prevent the fire by telling the boy to stop playing with the lighter.
After the fire started, he went into the burning house and got his younger
brother out of his bedroom. He tried to put out the fire himself, called 911,
went to the neighbors and alerted everyone to the danger.

There’s an ancient story about Uncle Stanley saving a mans life in the
back woods of New Brunswick. If you’ve ever poled a boat you’ll
understand it takes some talent. I heard Grandfather once compare
Uncle Stanley to my Father, Gary. They’d both get up the river he’d said,
but differently. Uncle Stanley was burly and rock strong. Grandfather
said Stanley would defeat the river using brute strength whereas Dad,
strength unseen at a glance but there the same, would finesse his way
through the currents and rocks, working with, the river. Stanley and
another man were working big wood and a timber or a railroad tie broke.
To save his companion Uncle Stanley stood the weight of the timber
on his shoulder until the man could be freed and there was absolutely
no doubt that he had saved the mans life the way it’d happened. Fate
had marked this man and he lost his life a week later in a car incident.

Courtney. Courtney had taken some poisonous gas, deadly in small
amounts, into his lungs but was rescued before ingesting a fatal amount.
He was a Calgary man and though I found Mike from the crew the next time
I came in, I never heard of him again. Courtney Aindow where are you now?