The Deadly Smell of Success

Meet the invisible fellow traveler in the search for more energy: poisonous gas. 
Illustration by Mike Steirnagle

Outside the aging brick building that houses the Denver City Po­lice Department, a chilly and wet February drizzle was transform­ing red West Texas dirt on a highway patrol car to red West Texas mud. The steady drizzle, a welcome reprieve from blowing New Mexico grit, fell on quiet, deserted Sunday morning streets, lessening the pervasive stench from the miles and miles of oil fields encircling the flat town. Visitors, say the local folks, are the only ones who ever complain about the smell. That’s the smell of money, they’ll tell you. You’ll get used to it, they say.

This Sunday morning—February 2, 1975—the cars and pickups with gun racks in rear windows that normally angle-park along the streets were parked in church parking lots. The night police dispatcher had already headed home, probably to yield to the sleep normally fended off with the help of notoriously bad jailhouse coffee and infrequent Saturday night nuisance calls. But the extra cars in front of the police station, the highway patrol sergeant leaning on the cigarette machine, and backpacks of oxygen tanks piled haphazardly in the middle of the floor were indications that this particular night shift had ex­perienced no problems staying awake.

It had been only a few hours earlier, about 5:15 a.m., when patrolman James Tucker received a frantic call from a near-hysterical woman. She identified herself as Mrs. J. C. Patton, then told Tucker she and her family were about to be killed by leaking gas. The two men who now silently sipped coffee in the police lobby and several others headed for the Pattons’ modest frame farmhouse about 3½ miles north­east of Denver City. Speeding along the slick county road, they came upon a pickup truck that had veered into a nar­row ditch. Inside, slumped over the steering wheel, was nineteen-year-old Steve Sparger, erstwhile Denver City High School football and basketball hero and more recently husband, father, employee of Atlantic Richfield, and dead.

Sparger, a “well runner,” or night troubleshooter, had himself been en route to the Patton house to investigate the leaking gas. He apparently realized he had driven into a lethal gas cloud and shifted the pickup into reverse.

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