"No one would tell us what was going on," explained Alex, an animated woman, who lives with her partner across the street from the elementary school. For an entire four-block radius, the neighborhood in Southeast Portland (just south of Powell Blvd) was closed down as dozens of rescue personnel wheeled around. Earlier in the evening, several fire fighters were carted out from the elementary school with mysterious burns.
A jaundiced haze filled the air and, according to neighbors, it stunk to high heaven--a putrid aroma something like burning hair and rotten eggs. "You just knew it was bad," said Krista, referring to what they would later discover was a fog from a chemical fire in the school--a flameless fire of hydrogen cyanide that sparked when construction crews were retrofitting the school for earthquakes.
Although neighbors were understandably alarmed and anxious about potential health concerns, city officials did nothing to evacuate the residents or reassure them that there was no danger. The Oregonian reported that neighbors were encouraged to shut windows and stay indoors, but according to those in the neighborhood, there were no warnings. Instead, on Friday night at midnight, hours after the fire began, several officials dressed in detox suits slipped quietly into the school to clean up the mess.
By the following morning, the rescue vehicles were gone and the men in detox suits had packed up and left, as if nothing had ever happened. In spite of the overwrought clean-up efforts, public school officials told the Mercury there is nothing to be concerned about. However, in place of an open courtyard where dog walkers and basketball players have gathered for years, there are now foreboding gates crowned with barbed wire, and giant fans pumping air out of the school and into the neighborhood.
"It is suspicious," said Alex. "If it's not bad [the fumes], why does it need to be blown out?"
That night and in the weeks following, city and school officials have been quiet about the whole event. Round the clock, a guard stands sentry. There are no signs posted and neighbors have never been contacted with an explanation as to what happened. Residents have found the secretive and diligent clean-up effort to be contrary to the city and school district's assurances that there's no cause for concern. A few residents have complained they felt ill for a few days following the mysterious chemical fire, but none are confident they can pin blame on the toxic plume.
One resident whose home sits directly south of the school--precisely in the path of the wind and toxic plume that evening--claims she was given $200 in cash to leave her home for two days after the fire. She claims a man, who refused to identify himself by anything other than "Santa Claus," told her to move into a hotel for a few days as they scoured her home.
Another woman agitating for a class action lawsuit is trying to rally residents to join her cause. But so far, no one is ready to jump on that bandwagon. "She claims to be an Erin Brockovich," scoffed one resident, "but she doesn't have enough cleavage."
Portland Public Schools plans to open the Arleda Elementary School in three weeks when the fall term begins. Meanwhile, residents continue to worry about any long-term health impacts from the polluted air; In the absence of concrete information from the city, rumors and speculation have begun to take root.
"We grow vegetables in our yard that we eat," said Alex, worried that any toxins in the air may be enveloped into their garden and eventually digested. "You would think they would at least post a sign, but its sort of been dropped, like nothing ever happened."