(Let me share a piece I wrote a couple of years back. )
Towards the end of the movie Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins’ character Andy Dufrense says, “Hope is a good thing – maybe the best of things – and no good thing ever dies.” That simple statement made a lot of sense to me. Hope epitomises all that is good in this world. It is the beginning of every new adventure, and the cure for the nervousness we feel while approaching a stranger. It is the sliver of light which keeps us going in our darkest hours.
For me, the worst feeling imaginable is the feeling of hopelessness. It is arguable that the fear of death may be the worst feeling. But I think even when people are fearful of mortal danger they carry the hope that they will escape their impending doom somehow. Any kind of fear is accompanied by a curiosity for the future where we imagine ourselves coming out unscathed. There cannot be anything more terrible than when you feel you cannot do anything to change your fate.
This was precisely what I felt in the two minutes that followed the moment when I saw the flames engulf the hydrocracker unit on the evening of 7th April, 2012. The inferno seemed to grow by the second, and the flames were so bright that they appeared six stories tall. There didn’t seem to be anything left except the terrible yellow light and the blood-red sky. And I knew it was the end. There was nothing I could do to change what I was sure was going to happen next – a bigger explosion followed by total incineration of everything in view. A hundred and sixty atmospheres of hydrogen was bound to explode sooner or later.
I averted my gaze from the horror unfolding before me and looked to my left. Some people were running here and there in a chaotic manner. I did not know where they were heading. The look on their faces was of pure terror, and I remember wondering why were they scared? For one wild moment, I felt the urge to join them – to run – to which destination I don’t know, but to run, if only to escape my fate. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t because I didn’t feel any fear. Fear had left me, and as it left, it drained all the hope in me. I didn’t see any point in running away, for I could never outrun the flames. I didn’t see any point in going back to the control room and saving my plant, because there wouldn’t be anything left to save within a couple of minutes, anyway. I just stood my ground and watched them run, all the while thinking that this wasn’t the end I had imagined. So many dreams never realised, so many adventures never embarked upon…so many secrets never told. I had accepted my fate.
As if out of nowhere, one of my unit’s operators shouted, “Hussain, I’m going to the explosion site. You go and normalise the plant.”
Those words went through me like a blast of cold air on a December morning. It felt like someone had turned on a switch which made my senses go into overdrive, which only moments ago had been numb. Suddenly, I was fearful. I was fearful for my life, for my subordinates who were out in the field, and for my friends who were in the main control room, which was closer to the fire. I was fearful for my career, which was at stake if I couldn’t take a safe shutdown. But through all these emotions, I saw the elusive hope. I, somehow, saw myself coming through this terrible nightmare. All the things I was made to memorise to handle such emergencies started coming back one by one. All the necessary emotions filled my mind: logic, reason and faith in my abilities. I was thinking clearly again.
I still don’t know why his words affected me so strongly. Perhaps, it was the sight of a man running towards the possibility of death, or serious injury. Or maybe, it was all those people – seniors, bosses, and friends – who kept calling and reassuring that they were coming soon. I realised those men I had spotted running before, were actually running towards the fire and not away from it. No one seemed to care that they were risking not only their lives, but also the futures of their families.
As every one of them went to the explosion site and started helping the fire-fighters, the lines which divide us ceased to exist. There were no bosses, no managers, no operators, and no foremen. Everyone was equal, fighting for the same cause – even if they had different reasons. Were they fighting for their families who lived close enough to the refinery to get hurt in case of a bigger explosion? Were they fighting for their friends who were in the refinery? Were they fighting so that they wouldn’t be branded cowards later? Whatever might have been their reasons, they all knew this was something they had to do. They were the owners, the servants…the experts. Guiding them was the self-belief, born out of technical expertise and dedicated training exercises. Guiding them was hope, born out of a fear for the lives of their close ones.
And they were not giving up. The never say die spirit that was on display shone brighter than the blaze. Hopelessness could not conquer me for long because hope was all that was around me: through the hard work of the operators, through the calm headedness of the engineers, and through the courage of the fire-fighters. Soon it all ended. The fire was put out. We were victorious.
For me, all that remained was the faint memory of those dreadful moments – and a major realisation – that the greatest fear is the fear of losing hope, which if we apply the rationale I mentioned above, is a contradiction in itself.
This piece is in reference to the major fire that occurred in the refinery where I work. The cause of the fire was determined to be a technical fault. It was the biggest fire in the history of the refinery. It took the fire-fighters and the refinery employees nearly three hours to put out the fire. Fortunately, no casualties took place.