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Reporter’s notebook: fuel and forgiveness

(March 7, 2014) On Saturday afternoon, I filled my gasoline-powered car up with diesel. This, for the uninitiated, is something you’re not supposed to do.

I’d like to say that it was an attempt at some sort of noble, albeit awkwardly misplaced, attempt at experiential journalism – like that time Christopher Hitchens had himself water boarded and wrote about it for Vanity Fair – but with a level of gravitas more appropriate for motor fuels.

However, I did so unknowingly. As it turns out, the West OC Exxon had filled one of their gas lines up with diesel, due to what was later described to me as “an extremely unfortunate human error.”

By Monday morning, enough affected people had contacted the paper that our illustrious publisher proposed I investigate and write it up. I told him no investigation would be necessary.

Mixing diesel and gasoline is like crossing the streams in Ghostbusters. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to do it in theory, but very few people – even the experts – have first-hand experience of what happens when you do.

The short answer is a coughing, sputtering sound followed by a resounding “clunk.” I didn’t even make it out of the parking lot.

As I later found out, several people before and after me did, in fact, make it out of the parking lot. The only person whom I saw being towed was myself. This was likely due to two factors.

First, the tainted holding tank was the one serving the far set of pumps, the greatest distance away from the entrance to the Wine Rack, which are naturally used less often. I still saw a few other folks use my pump as I was waiting to be towed, though.

Secondly, I filled my tank up from empty. Actually, I was running on negative gasoline by the time I pulled in, according to my fuel gauge, which was below the “E” mark. This meant that I got a full dose of pure, uncut diesel fuel. Everyone else may have just been topping off their tanks, meaning the remaining gas had the corresponding effect on the diesel as laundry detergent or baby laxatives would on a brick of Colombia’s finest.

According to the folks at Ocean Petroleum, the infected line was shut down as soon as the problem was discovered. But this was some time after I left. I filled up at 2:20 p.m., and was towed out by 3.

Of course, I didn’t know at the time that I had gotten misplaced diesel. My first thought was that my car’s fuel filter had thrown a clot, due to its Clinton-era vintage. My tow truck driver, Josh, thought the same, even crawling under my car and banging the tank with the palm of his hand to try to break up the clog.

It wasn’t until that night that Josh called me back to let me know that he was going to tow someone else who had just pulled their fuel line and found diesel in the system. They had been at the station around the same time as me.

Ocean Petroleum has kindly paid my $331 repair bill, which constituted towing my car, draining and cleaning the various fuel apparatus, and replacing the fuel filter.

Honestly, I’m fine with this. I could probably make some sort of sympathetic case about how not having a car for two days impacted my work or caused me “emotional distress,” and that I should be compensated for it. Truth be told, I did spend most of Sunday in my underpants watching Netflix with my cat, which I told myself was because I had no means of transportation. But let’s be honest – that would’ve happened even if I had a Maserati parked outside.

Everyone I’ve told about the mix-up has been incredulous. “It can’t be,” they say, “that the guy just put the diesel pipe in the gas hole and no one noticed for at least an hour.”

On the contrary, I think that’s exactly what happened. I once brushed my teeth with contact lens cleaner (it’s very salty, if you were wondering) and nearly put toothpaste in my eye because I had done the same morning/evening for so long that I had become mentally and physically anesthetized to it. There’s a certain cognitive dissonance that develops once you’ve done something so many times that the act of doing it becomes completely separated from its purpose.

I’m sure the guy, or girl, on the truck that day was underpaid and over-worked like the rest of us, and had probably filled up the tanks the right way so many times that they had forgotten a wrong way existed.

So please, Ocean Petroleum, don’t fire whoever was on the truck Saturday. If anything, they need a vacation and a raise.

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