Chapter 6 – The Epicenter
Francis Hart’s eyes widened with excited anticipation when the familiar tug of a fish nibbled on her minnow. The bobber near the end of her line began submerging spastically. Temperatures are forecast to be unseasonably warm on this early September day. The weather service was correct as the noon sun had already become a little too uncomfortable. She chooses not to let this fish get away despite her discomfort. She can find some shade to enjoy the lunch she packed under the shade of her Suburban tailgate soon.
The bobber violently submerges into the river. Francis instinctively sets the hook by pulling up and back on her rod. The four-pound test line surges quickly to the left, then back to the right. The choke on her reel gives way to a few feet of line as the fish fights against the resistance of the brake and Francis carefully cranks some line back into the reel while keeping the resistance and line tension consistent.
Eventually the fish begins to give up the fight and is reeled in close to shore. While holding the rod in her left hand, she reaches down with her right hand to grab a net and scoops the fish up and onto shore. After setting both the rod and net down on the shore, Francis grabs the fish by the mouth to free it of her hook and holds it up. A crappie, 8 inches long at the most. The fish is put on the weight scale and measures a little under one half of a pound.
“This is your lucky day, my friend.” Francis and the fish move two steps into the slow current of the river slough. She gently moves the fish back and forth in shallow water before releasing it to the safety of the river. “See you after you grow a few inches!” Catch and release is her norm, but a Crappie over 10” would be a keeper. She rinses her hands in murky river water, stands up, collects her fishing gear, and returns to the SUV.
After all fishing gear is neatly packed away, Francis retrieves a small cooler from behind the driver’s seat. There is a mason jar filled with iced tea, a glass container with egg salad. A plastic dish contains a mix of baby spinach greens, cauliflower chunks and shredded carrot. Plus, a bottle of ranch salad dressing, two slices of multi-grain bread…and for an after-lunch treat; one oatmeal and raisin cookie.
Francis, now sitting in the back of her SUV under the shade of the lifted tailgate removes the mason jar lid and takes a long draw of iced tea while gazing west across the river at Gabaret Island. She loves fishing on the Illinois side of the slow-moving Mississippi river waters just east of Gabaret Island. The current is slow, and fishing is good.
The St. Louis metro is not too many miles from where she stands, but the island hides the city. The Hart’s live on the Illinois side of the river, escaping the chaos and dangers that large cities are known for.
Francis begins to reach for the egg salad sandwich she has assembled when she notices a larger than usual migration of birds flying out of the wooded island. Then the sound of a roar bearing down from the south is heard. At first, she thinks that it is the sound of an approaching train. There are railroad trestles that span the river just south of the island.
There is no train, but the sound is approaching with a train like doppler effect that is deafening. As the sound reaches its apex the ground begins to shake violently. So violently that Francis is bounced out of the back of her SUV spilling tea and ice cubes from the mason jar.
In a dazed jerk, she sits up trying to come to terms with the roaring phenomenon of the quake. Before she can adjust, the roar is replaced by the sound of explosions to the west. Francis also hears what she could only describe as the sound of a gigantic slap, like something taking a belly flop onto the surface of the water. Panic overwhelms her as she fears that perhaps the roar and subsequent blasts are a foreign attack. Are they nuclear blasts?!
Scanning the horizon in all directions Francis sees no mushroom clouds and regains some sense of ease. Impending vaporization will not be her fate today.
Jumping back onto her feet, she returns to the car, grabs her mobile phone from the driver’s side cup holder and attempts to call her husband who is working downtown. No service. Francis then dictates three text messages. One to her husband Frank, one to her mom who lives a few miles from their home, and one to their son Frank Jr. They refer to her son as Franky.
“Frank I’m OKAY sweetheart, text back and let me know that you are OKAY!” She touches the send button, but there is no indication that the message was sent or received. The next text is to her mother; “I’m OK. If your home is OKAY, stay put. I will check on you later. If your home is not, I will ask Franky to get you.” Her last text is to their son. “I’m OKAY Franky, text back and let me know that you are OKAY. If it is safe in the house, do not leave. If it is not safe, go to Grandma’s house and wait for me. I will be home soon.” The last two messages are tagged ‘sent’ while her text to Frank Sr. remains in the unmarked status.
Her attention turns back toward the city as the sound of more explosions fills the sky. She wanders slowly toward the shoreline hoping that Frank, mom, and Frank Jr. are not affected by whatever is going on.
Before she could come to grips with the roar that announced the quake and explosions that followed Francis was about to witness one more inexplicable event. The Mississippi river began to flow north! Soon the shallow calm waters of the slough have emptied out. Fish can be seen flopping in the muddy riverbed.
More explosions, but this time the sound comes from the south east. Towards home! Stunned, and now heart racing with panic again she hurries to the vehicle, quickly puts all food back in the cooler and speeds toward home.
The radio station that she has preset and dialed in is off the air. In fact, all of her preset St. Louis area radio stations are off the air. Her Suburban is old school, with no Bluetooth connection to her mobile phone. However, she is able to access breaking news on her phone through the iHeart Radio app. The news is not good. River bridges are all out near St. Louis! How is Frank going to get home?!
Her heart is racing faster. She needs to fight back run-away panic to get home safely.
Paved roads at spots resembled gravel roads, except the gravel was large chucks of asphalt pulverized by the quake. As Francis approached the interstate highway it was backed up to the east for as far as the eye could see and equally backed up at the onramp. What she can’t see is that the interstate has collapsed at every overpass for one mile from the river bridge east.
The belly flop splash sound that she heard early on was the sound of the Interstate 70 bridge that spans the Mississippi collapsing into the river. The number of vehicles that fell into the river with the bridge will never be known for sure.
She makes a U-turn as soon as it is safe, choosing to take back roads home. Normally this route would be a time waster, but today is anything but normal. Travel on main roads leading into and out of the St. Louis metro have become used car lots at every overpass.
Correctly anticipating a rough ride home, Francis engages the fulltime four-wheel drive transmission on her Suburban. What is normally a 15-minute drive from home to the river turned into a 45-minute trek over crumbling roads. She had to drive off the road frequently to avoid large gaps of blacktop. Thankfully, late summer and early fall experienced below average precipitation. When driving off road was needed, her SUV managed to maneuver the task successfully.
There is smoke in the distance toward her home. Prompting a quicker and rougher pace. As Francis nears the outskirts of town, what was just smoke appears now with flames raging beneath the smoke.
Fear of what may be has now turned into panic of what most likely is. The explosions heard after the initial shocks of the quake are natural gas line breaks that have ignited. She is met by a steady stream of cars driving away from the town. What they do not know is that driving toward the city is an impossible task.
She finally drives into their subdivision of homes. Several small acreages with large newish homes. Most built within the last 5 years. Francis sees some homes on fire and other’s in differing degrees to ruin. There is a slight sigh of relief to see that their ranch home is askew but still mostly upright.
The quake did shift the home about 10 degrees to the north. At first glance the house appears to be leaning against the attached garage which is, for the moment, handling the extra strain surprisingly well.
Francis backed her vehicle into the drive halfway up, for a quick getaway just in case the structures failed and plummeted onto the driveway. Exiting the car, she began to call out her son’s name. “Franky! I’m home, Franky! Are you okay Franky! Franky!”
The overhead garage door would be kept shut, she feared that opening it would compromise the structure’s integrity. Weighing her instinct to survive versus her maternal instinct, Francis unlocked the front door after fumbling with her keychain for the correct key. She could not remember the last time she unlocked the front door with a key. Only visitors entered and exited from this door which they unlocked and locked from inside of the home.
The door was flung open and Francis ran into the house still calling our Frank Jr.’s name. First stop was his bedroom. Empty. Then the TV room in the basement. Empty. She checked every bathroom. No one. Taking a moment to think, she checked the garage.
Franky’s car was gone. Francis went back outside of the house through the front door and closed it. What does the missing car mean? Was he gone before the quake? Did he get my message? She looks at her text stream and sees that her message was sent, but not received yet.
She attempts to call Frank Sr., but phone service is still unavailable. Another round of texts is attempted to both Franks and mom. “I’m home safe. I’m worried, please call or text.”
The house is severely damaged, maybe he’s at grandma’s house. “Why aren’t they texting me?” She takes a moment to inspect the house from the front yard, then circles around the home. Despair begins to creep into her psyche, but she rallies and thinks about her family. “This is just a home and it is insured. We can rebuild. I need to find Franky, mom, and Frank”.
Her instinct is to drive into town and check her mother’s home. But she saw the traffic headed out of town. Maybe Franky’s trying get home. Remembering how long it took her to get home on the back roads of rubble she determines that waiting it out at home is the best choice.
Francis’ next mission is to get ready to leave with her family as soon as they are all back together again. She risks reentry into the damaged home and begins assembling outdoor camping gear including dehydrated camp food for a week and four each 5-gallon containers of water. In a large army style duffle bag, she puts several days of clothing for the entire family. She can get clothes for her mom when they pick her up.
She considers putting the fishing equipment away, then thinks better of it and tucks them into a covered storage well in the back of the spacious Suburban SUV. This act reminds her that they may need to hunt for food as well as fish, so she goes back inside to gather up firearms and ammunition. Two 12-gauge, and one 20-gauge shotgun, a .22 caliber rifle and Frank’s 9 mm handgun are retrieved from the gun safe with all available ammo for an extended hunt or whatever else may demand the use of firepower.
The 9 mm is loaded and placed in the center console of the car.
Impatiently waiting for Frank Jr. to arrive she starts the SUV to head into town and drive to her mom’s home or the civic center in case they are seeking shelter there. The gas gauge reads a little over ¾ of a tank of gasoline. Buying gas may be difficult or impossible. Francis risks reentry into the garage and finds four six-gallon cans of gas.
The SUV will only need about twelve gallons to top off the tank. However, there is no use leaving twelve gallons of gas behind when they will need it soon enough. A tote with tie downs and bungee straps is grabbed. Two cans are emptied into the gas tank, then all four cans are strapped to the top of the luggage rack.
Everything that Francis could think of is now packed to the top of the cabin without putting any items in the front seat or the middle seats for passengers. The back seats were folded down to make room for as much equipment as possible. Side view mirrors will be the only way to see behind the vehicle. The trip to her mom’s home should take less than 10 minutes.
Traffic has slowed down considerably in the last hour. However, the sights she sees piques her nervousness and a feeling of dread is creeping into her psyche. The town looks like a war zone. Debris on the roads and buildings crumbled or afire or both. There are large groups of people roaming the streets on foot. Looting has already begun. She nervously speeds up the vehicle until finally arriving at her mother’s home.
Francis is disappointed to not see Franky’s car in her mom’s driveway, but the house seems to have been spared significant damage from the quake. However, the front entry and overhead garage doors are wide open, and her mom’s car is not in it. That is out of character for her mom who is very security cautious.
Initially Francis leaves the Suburban door open and begins to run toward the front door, then thinks better of it. The sight of looters while driving through town made her reverse course. She circled back to grab the handgun she packed, then close and lock the driver’s side door.
Her gait is now slower and more deliberate as she approaches the door with the handgun positioned up like one would see in a movie or TV show depicting the police carefully entering a dangerous home.
Prior to entering the home, she stopped and yelled out; “Mom! Franky! Is anyone home?! Are you OKAY?!” No answer. The questions are repeated as she slowly enters the home. Francis was not prepared for the scene she was about to see.
The home is ransacked with many items missing that should be there. Anything that may have value is gone, most things with little or no value are turned over or broken. That was not the worst of it.
Lying on the kitchen floor are Frank Jr. and her mom. They are both bludgeoned and bleeding. Francis gasps not knowing who to check on first. Franky is in front of her mom. He must’ve been attempting to protect her. She checks for a pulse and breathing but can’t find either. A frantic but unsuccessful attempt to call 911 is made. No service.
Switching her attention to mom now, there is no pulse or breathing. She makes one more attempt to dial 911. Nothing. Francis stumbles to her feet and runs out of the home screaming frantically for help, but there is no one available or willing to assist. She did, however, manage to get the attention of more looters who are now making their way toward the vehicle when they see the treasures that the Suburban may have for them.
Francis aims the gun to the heavens and fires a warning shot that does little to stop the leader of the group. She manages to unlock the door, get in and lock it before the first looter gets to her. She quickly starts the engine, points her gun at the looter who recoils and backs up. The vehicle is thrown into reverse, backs into the street and speeds away from the scene.
The extreme reactions of fright and remorse are more than she can take. The SUV veers slightly from side to side as she sobs. There is great guilt for leaving her loved ones in that home while those animals hovered around the neighborhood like vultures.
She decides the best course of action is to go home and wait for Frank Sr. to get home. The two of them will be a greater force than one person alone.
Panic again sets in when she sees people wandering through her subdivision. These homes are the newest and nicest in the area. A target for opportunistic criminals. Every home has security systems, but there is no electricity to run them and no law enforcement available to get the warning signals even if there was electricity. There is not enough law enforcement for this type of catastrophe.
Approaching their home, it is clear that someone has broken into the house. All doors are wide open, and the garage is almost bare. She must seek shelter elsewhere, flips a quick U-turn, and heads out of the subdivision and onto the county highway.
Francis makes one more failed attempt to call Frank. No service. She sends a text. “May Day! Do not go home! I’m headed to Wisconsin. Meet me there when you can. I love you!”
Upon sending the text she realizes that the word ‘me’ would confuse Frank, so she sends one more text. “Meet us in Wisconsin.” This is technically true. There will be more than one person where she is headed. At least she hopes so. This tragedy would need to be explain in person, on the phone or face to face.
A few miles down the road she opens up a physical map and begins to chart a route on back roads from west central Illinois to south central Wisconsin. The trip will be a long and sad one.