When we last left big Bill McChristian, the 82-year-old Korean War vet had invited me into his downtown apartment to show me the melon-size holes in his jeans and underwear.
The damage, he claimed, was caused by some mystery liquid that was on the seat of the Spokane bus that took him to the VA hospital on May 27. McChristian volunteers there twice a week.
There was just one problem with this ragged complaint.
The Spokane Transit Authority wasn’t buying what McChristian was selling.
Granted, a wet seat had been reported on the No. 22 bus by an earlier rider. But there was “no evidence that the wet seat was made wet by a corrosive agent,” STA Chief Executive Officer Susan Meyer stated with conviction.
Ah, but that was then.
“Do we have egg on our face,” Meyer said at the STA’s security office on West Boone.
I spent some quality time on Friday with Meyer and security and safety manager Mike Toole.
We watched video footage captured inside the bus on the day of McChristian’s ill-fated ride and tried to solve a perplexing puzzle.
Who put acid on that bus seat?
It’s now been scientifically proven than McChristian isn’t a nut job. Nor was his wardrobe malfunction self-inflicted as some STA honchos first theorized in their rush to judgment.
“I didn’t believe him in the beginning,” said an apologetic Toole, who struck me as a sincere and highly professional man. He was, after all, a former command chief for the Washington Air National Guard.
Chalk up part of the doubt to that overprotectiveness that seems to infect most large institutions.
The other part is probably due to the sheer weirdness of what happened.
McChristian didn’t notice his fanny was practically hanging out until hours after he had departed the bus. Someone at the VA pointed out that McChristian had a massive hole in the back of his pants.
But now we know that McChristian’s clothing was eaten away by something “highly acidic.”
That’s the preliminary verdict from the lab where the STA sent McChristian’s clothing and the bus seat for analysis.
Yes, the bus seat, too, was affected.
Finally ordered to remove the seat, an STA worker’s fingers easily penetrated the now-disintegrated fabric.
So how did this change of attitude happen?
I credit Meyer for being uncommonly open-minded.
True to her word, she agreed to meet me one afternoon at McChristian’s apartment and hear the man out.
After my own face-to-face with him, I knew Meyer would see that McChristian is no crank. He’s a wonderful guy, articulate and good-humored.
Plus, in one of those crazy Spokane Vortex coincidences, it turns out Meyer and McChristian have a long-standing relationship with a mutual friend. So, what could have been a tense confrontation quickly turned into a delightful gabfest.
Then McChristian brought out the plastic sack containing his acid-eaten duds.
I don’t get paid enough. For the second time, I had to gawk at McChristian’s wrecked undies.
I was too polite to ask what brand of underwear the man favors. But after that bus ride, these things are Fruit of the Ruin now.
You didn’t need a scientist to tell you that, without burning McChristian’s skin, some chemical agent had disintegrated and destroyed the fabric in his brand-new jeans, white briefs, a folded handkerchief McChristian carried in his back pocket and a section of the commemorative U.S. Navy shirt that his daughter gave him last summer.
A few of my readers are convinced about what caused the damage.
“The holes in the clothing described in your June 5 column are evidence of battery acid contamination,” wrote Colville’s Gordon Hensley.
“Sulfuric acid is the culprit. I used to get it on my clothing while working with car batteries in a retail store, and even small drips on the outside of the battery would eat holes in my pants, but not burn your skin.”
Sounds logical, but we’ll see.
What is beyond dispute is that Meyer saw it, too.
After some heartfelt goodbyes, she left with the bag, promising to have the clothing as well as the bus seat lab-tested.
But as I pointed out, that’s just one part of this whodunit.
After watching the security video – which has an excellent view of the entire bus as well as the contaminated seat – there is no indication of how the acid got there.
Although there is a circumstantial suspect.
The day’s first rider to sit there was a younger man with a backpack strapped to his shoulders.
The bus picked him up on Crestline and Rowan at 6:16 a.m. He’s also toting some sort of hollow, wooden box.
But if something leaked out of the pack during his 10-minute ride, it doesn’t appear to be by design.
The man sits there, biding his time, and fiddling with his smartphone. He makes no furtive moves. And since the seat is just a few feet away from the driver, it would seem like a poor location for a vandal with mischief on his mind.
He departs at 6:26 a.m. at Courtland and Crestline and never looks back.
A few minutes later, a mom in a green shirt and her young son get on. The kid, who wears a blue jacket, sits in the seat and immediately starts squirming.
Something is wrong. He tells his mother. She checks the seat with her hand and moves her boy to another seat.
They continue their ride to the downtown bus plaza.
Before leaving, she tells the driver that there’s a wet seat but doesn’t say which seat.
The driver moves through the bus to make a cursory inspection. A bit later, McChristian steps inside and plops down on the very seat the boy complained about.
Twenty-four minutes of riding, the bus nears the VA.
McChristian steps off the bus and the camera catches something quite telling. His first movement after leaving is to reach around and feel the right part of his backside.
As he said from the beginning, McChristian knew he’d sat in something wet, but it dried quickly in the open air and he quickly put it out of his mind.
“This is a spill unlike any other,” Meyer said.
“I apologize for the wet seat. I’m now going to apologize for an acidic seat that ate his clothing.”
So what happens now?
Toole vows to continue the investigation although the outcome is far from certain.
“I don’t like mysteries,” he said, adding that he also plans to keep a more open mind when confronting passenger complaints.
As for McChristian, the STA will replace or pay for his wrecked garments as soon as he submits a claim.
I think the STA should go a step beyond that.
Because of the way they wrote him off in the beginning, I think Meyer should give McChristian a lifetime bus pass to cover those twice-weekly trips to do good work at the VA.
It would be a nice and appropriate gesture.
As for the rest of you bus riders, I have a five simple words of advice based on my time in the STA security room.
Beware. You are being watched.
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