Stewart's Favorite Chip Pan (contains several expletives)
Stewart, a British expatriate from Darlington lent me his favorite “chip pan”. I was peeling and cutting raw potatoes into French-fry sized strips (or as Stewart and the other Brits called them, “chips”). His pan was half full of cooking oil heating up to frying temperature on the electric burner of the stove.
I was living the bachelor life for the first time in my life. Married as soon as I graduated from high school, I had never lived on my own until the impending gulf war separated me from my wife and children. They were evacuated back to the United States, living in an apartment since August, five months earlier. I stayed in Saudi Arabia, first to pack up our belongings and ship them back home, later enticed by the large amount of money they were waving in our faces to stay, and now because the war had started, the borders were closed, and I couldn’t leave.
The Saudi owned steel company I worked for provided an enormous three-bedroom apartment for us. The large empty space reminded me daily how much I missed my family. It also reminded me of how they were cramped into a small, two bedroom apartment, back there in Indiana, since our house was rented out and the apartment was all my wife could find on such short notice.
My “guests” had not shown up for the evening yet. Stewart had made arrangements to stay at my apartment from the first day of the war. He had an apartment just down the street from mine, but it was a third floor apartment in a three story building. We were told by the military advisors that if one of the scud missiles Saddam was shooting at us were to hit one of the apartment buildings, it would most likely take out the top floor, part of the second, but that we had a slim chance of surviving the blast in a ground floor apartment. Since slim is better than none, we took it.
Jim, an American co-worker, joined Stewart in staying on the ground floor with me the night the first scud hit Jubail, about a week into the war. During the next week, another Brit and two Filipino men who worked with me at Hadeed started sleeping in my apartment as well. I got the king sized bed to myself (it was my apartment, after all), Jim and the two Brits got a twin bed each, and each of the Filipinos got a couch apiece (there were two living rooms).
The scud missile attacks had done very little physical damage, but they were effective in their real intent, terrorist weapons of mass destruction. We went to some of the first impact sites out of morbid curiosity and saw some of the craters where these missiles had landed, as CNN broadcast, “harmlessly in the desert”. Harmless, my ass. Those craters caused us permanent mental damage. The relentless launch of missiles every two hours, every night, all night long for two weeks had taken its toll on us. Lack of sleep and constant fear had broken us down into mind-numb zombies stumbling through our days at work and long nights at home.
The fact that the Patriot anti-missile missiles were successful in intercepting almost every incoming scud offered us no consolation. The Patriot simply knocked the scud off course. It didn’t destroy the scud’s warhead in air - that explosive was still going to land somewhere and if we unlucky bastards happened to be in its path – it was going to blow us to hell.
That is if it was an explosive warhead, and not a poisonous gas warhead like the mustard gas laden missile that had already hit the industrial port in the first few days of the war. If we were hit with poison gas, we had our gas masks, had sealed off a “gas-proof” survival room, and we would probably survive through missile near-hit. Don’t get me wrong, we would probably still die from it but not instantly, as if that was comforting to us.
So, why was I standing there frying chips? Because I was hungry, I like chips, and Stewart was right – that was a great chip pan. I had just dropped my cut-up potatoes into the pan when the first air raid siren of the evening sounded. I looked at my watch as I rushed to my safe room to seal myself in and wait out the attack – 5:30 PM, a little earlier than usual.
I sealed the door with wide packing tape, sat down on the bed, and turned the TV on. CNN came on – we only received four stations, two in English and two in Arabic. The two English stations began broadcasting CNN nonstop since the first minutes of the war, the Arabic stations had done the same with BBC world-news.
Charles Jaco was on the screen, from his familiar perch in front of The International Hotel at the Dhahran airport telling us that air raid sirens had sounded across the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. He had his gas mask close at hand, as it had remained ever since the big on-air live scare he had with scud missiles in the first few days of the war. He knew, like we did, that we were being attacked with chemical weapons. He was warned, as were we, that this information was not allowed out of the country. We knew our phones were monitored and outgoing mail screened – it was all part of living in Saudi Arabia during a war.
As was usual, the air raid siren sounded continuously until the all-clear siren went off to tell us that the threat was over. When that occurred, I heard the frantic beeping coming from the kitchen for the first time. I opened the door cautiously and stared in confusion down the hallway to the kitchen door where smoke was billowing, the smoke detector was beeping, and I could hear a popping and crackling. It took a few seconds for my sleep-deprived mind to catch up to my eyes and ears. Shit! I forgot to turn the stove off and my kitchen was on fire.
I ran down the hallway and looked in to see orange flames rising from the pan, engulfing the exhaust unit, and continuing over the cabinets to the ceiling. I stepped toward the flames, took in a lungful of thick, black smoke and retreated quickly back into the hallway, choking and coughing. I realized that the toxic smoke would probably kill me before I could put the flames out so I stood in the hall and let my brain kick into panic-mode. Toxic fumes. Poison. Poison gas. Gas mask!
I ran back to my bedroom, grabbed my gas mask, and put it on as I rushed back down the hall and into the kitchen to confront the hellish flames of overheated French fried potato grease. I grabbed the fire extinguisher from its wall mount and managed to point it in the right direction before I pulled the pin and pressed the lever – just like I had been taught in numerous fire safety sessions, from the top of the flames down.
I was able to extinguish the flames just as the fire extinguisher ran out. I sat the empty extinguisher on the counter and started toward the smoking pan when I heard a low pop, as the hot grease, with the burner still on, reignited. Even in panic-mode, the thought to simply put a lid on the burning grease to put the flames out never occurred to me. I was still in fire extinguisher mode. The problem was, I had just used up the only one in the apartment.
I took off running again – this time for the third floor apartment where I knew Ian, the other Brit who was sleeping at my place at night, was at because we walked into the building together after work. Had he not been half drunk already, I probably would have scared the shit out of him, pounding on his door and standing there like a lunatic with black soot on my face and hands trying to tell him through my gas mask that I had a fire and needed his extinguisher. I got the message through, though, and he quickly brought the extinguisher from his own kitchen back to me, gave me a pat on the back as I turned to run back, and said, “Good luck, mate”.
Him patting me on the back and leaving me to run back to fight the fire on my own never even occurred odd until this moment when I recall the incident in writing. I always suspected he was one of the enterprising Brits running a bootleg still in his kitchen to make booze – illegal in Saudi Arabia and now it makes sense why he wouldn’t want to leave it unattended. While a runaway burning chip pan can cause some damage, a runaway unattended still could blow the entire wall of the kitchen out and result in him going to prison for a long, long time. People who ran those stills never left them unattended – never.
On the second attempt, I was able to extinguish the flames again, turn off the burner, and throw the smoldering pan out the window into the sand. I was standing in the kitchen staring in disbelief at the blackened exhaust fan, scorched cabinets, sooty ceiling, and fire extinguisher chemical covered everything when Stewart and Jim came through the front door I never closed when I rushed back in. They saw me standing there, face and neck black everywhere my gas mask hadn’t covered, looked at the mess from the fire, and they took over.
I’m not sure how else to describe them helping me at that moment in time. I can’t recall a single word they said just that they got a broom and dustpan, started cleaning up the mess, and opened all of the windows in the apartment to let the smoke out. It was a moment of unspoken compassion of three men trapped in a situation beyond their control, pulling together in a moment of strife and stress, and helping each other. I didn’t ask for help, they didn’t offer it, they just did it. If there is any redeeming factor from that fire, it is that moment of camaraderie that will always be with me.
We were actually joking and laughing a little while cleaning up the kitchen when another air raid sounded. No matter how many times that siren had gone off already, there was something about that moment that gave me a start, my stomach clenched, and my testicles drew up in instant fear. To this day, I still feel that moment of panic when civil defense sirens go off here for testing and tornado warnings. All three of us jumped at the siren and I do recall Jim saying, “Oh shit! All the windows are open.”
We ran in three different directions hurriedly closing all of the windows. When we heard the distinctive pop of Patriot missiles being fired, we stopped in unison and quickly put our gas masks on. Shortly after the Patriots being launched, the aac-aac guns (anti-aircraft) located at the tip of the peninsula of Al-Fanateer bay began their rapid boom, boom, boom, boom. The Saudi army had begun firing the big guns into the sky thinking that they would be able to hit an incoming scud before it could hit its target. The only damage ever done in our apartment complex during the war came from aac-aac shells failing to explode in the air that then came down to blow holes in the roofs of a few apartment buildings. Once again – the reason people wouldn’t stay in their top-floor apartments during air raids.
When we finished closing the windows and I was sealing us into the bedroom, we felt the apartment shake, heard the windows rattle, and then both heard and felt a tremendous explosion that caused us all to cringe and throw our hands up to cover our heads in instinctive reflexes.
We brought our hands down and I looked through Stewart and Jim’s Plexiglas visors of their gas masks and knew that they could see the same wide-eyed raw fear in my eyes as I saw in theirs. We were still breathing heavy from running to shut the windows. Jim was the first to speak what we didn’t want to think about, “Do you smell ammonia?”
The American state department had provided Jim and my gas mask, as the British counterpart had provided Stewart’s. We were assured that these NBC masks (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) would protect us from almost everything. Ammonia, however, was one of those chemicals that has a molecular structure that allows the chemical to get through the filters and will result in a fairly quick, and probably painless death.
For most of the cities in Saudi Arabia, there was no worry about ammonia. Jubail, however, was the location of SADAF – a petrochemical plant located three miles from our apartments that produced ammonia as one of their main products. There were storage tanks containing a million gallons of ammonia just sitting there as a target for a lucky hit from a scud warhead or a stray aac-aac shell.
I definitely could smell the ammonia too and based on his look, knew Stewart could as well. Just before he pulled his gas mask off, Stewart said, “We’re dead”.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, let it out with a puzzled look on his face and took another. He then held the mask up to his face and sniffed. His laughter began as a chuckle and he said, “It’s the mask. Breathing hard through them must have created an ammonia smell.”
Jim and I took our masks off and joined in with his laughter. The intensity increased to near hysterical level and lasted for a few minutes. We turned CNN on to hear Charles Jaco announce that there were reports of explosions in Jubail. That started us laughing again. We continued to laugh at just about everything the rest of the night until we were too drunk to laugh any more.