Railroad vs. Motorist Collisions - An Escalating Disaster in Southern California
Early in the morning of February 24, 2015, Jose Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, mistakenly turned his Ford F-450 work truck and utility trailer onto the Union Pacific Cost Line railroad tracks near the intersection of Rice Ave. and Fifth St. in Oxnard, California. Soon after Sanchez-Ramirez abandoned his rig, Metrolink passenger train No. 102 struck his disabled work truck at a place eighty feet west of Rice Ave. A week later, Senior Metrolink Engineer Glenn Steele succumbed to injuries suffered in the collision. During the derailment of the five-car Metrolink train, twenty-nine other people onboard suffered moderate to severe injuries.
After firefighters extinguished the resulting fire, a work crew soon removed the coaches and made emergency repairs to the damaged railroad infrastructure. Almost two weeks later, when I surveyed the scene, all looked well at the Rice Ave. grade crossing. To the casual observer, there were few signs that a major rail collision had so recently occurred. Looking closer, I soon found many deficiencies in the hasty cleanup and repairs that had so recently concluded.
Along the northern border of the crash scene, the tail end of cab-control car No. 645 had whipped into a cinder block and wrought iron wall. After the cleanup, a gaping hole measuring almost one hundred feet remained where that substantial fence once stood. Immediately east of Rice Ave., a misalignment of the north-side rail was obvious to the naked eye. East of the grade crossing, where steel railroad wheels had bent the north-side rail and sliced into the roadbed, workers had reused damaged railroad ties during repairs. Despite the addition of many reinforcing clamps to that damaged rail, train traffic in the interim had loosened many of the railroad spikes intended to stabilize the roadbed. Two weeks after the accident and the completion of emergency repairs, the whole scene appeared to be less safe than it was prior to the wreck of Train No. 102.
In the Southern California press, many articles have discussed the overall safety of the Metrolink system and the Rice Ave. grade crossing in particular. Transportation studies have concluded that a $30-35 million grade separation is the only way to make the crossing safe. That would require a complex roadway overpass spanning both Fifth St. and the Union Pacific Coast Line. Like a freeway, the overpass would require ramps to transition from Fifth St. to the elevated portion of Rice Ave.
To date, voters in nineteen of fifty-eight California counties have approved additional, transportation-focused sales taxes. In 2004, the electorate in Ventura County defeated a levy of one-half percent. Despite the highway and rail carnage of the past decade, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors has steadfastly refused to allow or promote a new popular vote on a sales tax dedicated to transportation projects. Safety concerns at the Oxnard Plains rail crossings alone should be enough to engender a county ballot measure. I find myself asking, “When we need leadership, where are our leaders?”
As a result, there is insufficient funding to complete the design of a Rice Ave. grade separation, let alone building the $30-35 million project itself. Neither state nor federal transportation agencies tend to support projects unless the affected county defrays at least some of the cost. Unless voters approve an additional county sales tax levy, it may be a decade or more before construction can alleviate the menace of the Rice Ave. grade crossing to both rail passengers and vehicular traffic.
Rice Avenue is not the only dangerous rail grade crossing in Ventura County. Less than two weeks after engineer Glenn Steele lost his life on the Coast Line in Ventura County, there was a non-fatal collision of an Amtrak train and a passenger vehicle. This collision was on a rainy night at the nearby Pleasant Valley Road and Fifth St. grade crossing. Confused, the driver of a green sedan somehow came to a stop upon the diagonally crossing train track. Prior to the collision, which destroyed the sedan, the driver and a passenger were able to exit the vehicle without injury. Imagine getting stuck on the tracks in the rain and darkness. After a hurried departure from your vehicle, you and your passenger watch as an Amtrak locomotive crushes your vehicle into a mass of twisted metal. That could be scary.
On April 23, 2015, exactly two months after the collision of Train No. 102 at the Rice Ave. crossing, yet another fatal train/auto collision occurred on the Oxnard Plain. That morning, an unnamed 35-year-old male driver attempted to cross the tracks at South Las Posas Rd. and Fifth St. Remarkably similar in configuration to the Rice Ave. and Fifth St. grade crossing, the SUV driver’s southbound journey ended abruptly on the Coast Line tracks. There, an eastbound Union Pacific freight train struck the side of the SUV, rolling it multiple times along the tracks and into a dirt ditch. After using special equipment to remove the driver from the crumpled vehicle, first-responders declared him dead at the scene.
Remarkably, this latest deadly incident barely made news in Los Angeles. Both the Ventura County Star and the Los Angeles Times published online accounts that day. The following day, the Star headlined the story on its front page. Television coverage by Los Angeles TV stations was limited to news crawlers at the bottom of the screen. Was this latest deadly accident a suicide? Alternatively, was it one more distracted driver speeding south along the road that morning? In either event, the dismal state of rail-crossing safety in Ventura County requires an immediate and comprehensive review.
Phillips 66, which operates an oil refinery at Nipomo, in San Luis Obispo County, California has plans to build a railroad spur from the Union Pacific Coast Line to their facility. If San Luis Obispo County approves the Phillips 66 plan, “rolling bomb” trains of eighty-cars each will begin their journey by traversing the Los Angeles basin five times each week.
Phillips 66, which operates an oil refinery at Nipomo, in San Luis Obispo County, California has plans to build a railroad spur from the Union Pacific Coast Line to their facility. If San Luis Obispo County approves the Phillips 66 plan, five “rolling bomb” trains of eighty-cars each will begin their journey by traversing the Los Angeles basin every week. After exiting a train tunnel under Santa Susana Pass, each northbound oil train will encounter multiple grade crossings in the suburbs and fields of Ventura County. In Simi Valley alone, there are ten grade crossings. In Moorpark and neighboring Somis, there are twelve more. Between Camarillo and Oxnard, there are an additional thirteen grade crossings. Each train will carry 52,000 barrels of flammable, highly toxic Bakken crude oil in single-wall tank cars of dubious integrity and crashworthiness.
Explosions of Bakken crude oil trains have recently become an ongoing hazard to anyone nearby. Even with a new federal mandate to upgrade tank cars to double-walled, insulated designs, it will be 2020 before all 43,000 obsolete tank cars are retired from service. If nothing else, the February 23, 2015 Metrolink collision in Oxnard proved that if even one obsolete or deficient car is included in a train, it can compromise the integrity of the entire train. As seen in numerous crashes and explosions of oil trains in the past few years, derailment and decoupling of the older tank cars can wreak havoc on nearby towns.
There are thirty-five grade crossings between Simi Valley and Oxnard. If the oil trains run, there will be more than one hundred seventy-five opportunities for an oil train collision in Ventura County each week. Not counting the return trips made by empty oil trains, the Phillips 66 plan will present a minimum of 9,100 opportunities for an oil train collision in Ventura County each year. Annually, 13,520,000 barrels of oil will move past the makeshift memorial still standing at the Rice Ave. and Fifth St. in Oxnard. That is as much oil as the U.S. consumed on a daily basis within the past twenty years.
Whether any future train collision is the result of driver inattention, excessive speed, domestic terrorism or "suicide by train" is immaterial. Despite slower speeds now required of oil trains in populated areas, eventually a “rolling bomb” oil train will collide with a motor vehicle in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo Counties. If that happens, the ensuing fire and explosions could raise the casualty count exponentially.
After successfully negotiating the now decrepit and dysfunctional grade crossing at Fifth St. and Rice Ave., each proposed oil train will roll north, through the cities of Ventura and Santa Barbara. Only with incredibly good luck will all of those trains reach the Phillips 66 refinery in Nipomo. If only one more Ford F-450 high-centers on the tracks at Rice Ave., a $30-35 million grade separation there will look like a bargain. With both the county supervisors and electorate in Ventura County contemplating their own potential death in a flaming train wreck, I wish good luck to all in the path of this impending rail disaster.
This is Part 2 of a two-part article. To read Part 1, Click Here.
at 09:52 PM |
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Ventura County Railroad Grade Crossing at Rice Ave. Becomes a Deadly, Serial Disaster
Jack Kerouac began his novel, “The Dharma Bums”, with a northbound train trip on what is now the Union Pacific Railroad’s Coast Line. Kerouac wrote, “Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara. It was a local and I intended to sleep on the beach at Santa Barbara that night and catch either another local to San Luis Obispo the next morning or the firstclass freight all the way to San Francisco at seven p.m. Somewhere near Camarillo where Charlie Parker’d been mad and relaxed back to normal health, a thin old little bum climbed into my gondola as we headed into a siding…”
With its fertile land and mild coastal climate, the Oxnard Plain can support up to three row crops per year. After making a turn south of Camarillo, the Coast Line railroad heads due west for several miles, and then turns north at Oxnard. From Camarillo to Oxnard, State Route 34 (known as Fifth Street in Oxnard) parallels the train tracks. As it was during Kerouac’s 1955 excursion, northbound trains still encounter grade crossings at Pleasant Valley Road, South Las Posas Road and again at East Pleasant Valley Road. Before reaching Rice Ave., there is still one more crossing at North Del Norte Blvd.
The Coast Line, now operated by the Union Pacific Railroad, starts in San Francisco. In his 1950’s journal entry titled “The Railroad Earth”, Jack Kerouac described milepost 0.00. “There was a little alley in San Francisco back of the Southern Pacific station at Third and Townsend in redbrick of drowsy lazy afternoons with everybody at work in offices in the air you feel the impending rush of their commuter frenzy as soon they’ll be charging en masse from Market and Sansome buildings on foot and in buses and all well-dressed through workingman Frisco…”
Just over 406 track-miles south from Kerouac’s surprisingly contemporary description of San Francisco, at Oxnard is the infamous intersection of South Rice Ave. and Fifth St. In frequency and severity of rail collisions, the grade crossing at Rice Ave. and Fifth St. is the most dangerous in Ventura County.
Although the location ranks as only the 23rd most hazardous rail crossing in California, the carnage involved with high-speed collisions at Rice Ave. makes it seem much worse. Since 2009, three separate train collisions have occurred at what is now the deadliest rail crossing in Ventura County. A small shrine near the grade crossing includes three white crosses, two of which commemorate a June 3, 2014 Amtrak/car collision that took two lives. The largest cross features a fading “RIP” for Joel Arias.
Two baseball caps left at the makeshift memorial indicate that one or both decedents were San Francisco 49er fans. A long-dead miniature Christmas tree and wreath commemorated a poignant moment for friends and family of the young men. That fateful day, Arias accelerated his black, 2004 Infinity G35 southbound towards the Rice Ave. crossing. As his vehicle approached the tracks, red lights flashed, bells sounded and the crossing arms were down. Speeding onto the tracks, Arias’ Infinity collided with the engine of the eastbound Amtrak Coast Starlight passenger train. Although no one on the Amtrak train was injured, both twenty-year-old Arias and his nineteen-year-old passenger, Chris Stevens perished upon impact with the Amtrak locomotive.
Nine months later, before sunrise on February 23, 2015, Jose Sanchez-Ramirez, 54, a recent transplant from Tucson Arizona, approached the same location. In the dark, driving on unfamiliar roads, Sanchez-Ramirez turned his vehicle too soon. Eighty feet west of Rice Ave., his Ford F-450 utility truck and double-axle trailer came to rest, straddling the southern rail. After realizing that he had high-centered his rig, Sanchez-Ramirez turned on the emergency flashers, opened the driver-side door and vacated the scene on foot.
Originating from the East Ventura Metrolink Station at 5:25 AM that day, Metrolink Train No. 102 approached the Rice Avenue grade crossing at 5:44 AM. Southbound Metrolink trains typically feature a diesel pusher engine, several commuter coaches of various types and a cab-control car with enhanced crash protection at the front. In this case, the unoccupied pusher engine was the venerable Metrolink No. 870 and taking the lead was the newer cab-control car No. 645.
After a deadly collision in 2008 involving a Metrolink passenger train and a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, California, Metrolink spent $263-million on a fleet of new, more crash-worthy passenger coaches. Although the cab-control car and the Hyundai-Rotem third and fourth coach cars were of the new design, the was of the older, lighter and less crash-worthy design. In retrospect, it seems foolish for Metrolink to create a five-car train in which the second coach car is both unsafe and functionally obsolete.
Soon after Sanchez-Ramirez abandoned his rig, Train No. 102 approached the Rice Ave. crossing at fifty-six miles per hour. Senior Metrolink Engineer Glenn Steele, 62, was in the right-hand seat of the cab. Steele, of Homeland in Riverside County, had 42 years of experience and ranked No. 1 on the Metrolink seniority list. Operating the train from the left seat was an unnamed student engineer. This was to be his final check ride prior to the student becoming a Metrolink engineer.
Survivors of a train collision often describe the events as happening in slow motion. Because of their immense size, railroad rolling stock takes time to derail, head off in different directions and then come to a rest. Still, in less than one minute the calamitous events of that February morning came to their inevitable conclusion.
Moments before the collision, the truck’s headlights and emergency flashers loomed into view of cab-control car No. 645. From there, the student engineer applied the emergency brakes. It is unknown if the student engineer stayed in his seat throughout the inevitable collision with the truck and trailer. Later reports indicated that engineer Glenn Steele stayed in his seat throughout the flaming collision. In those brief moments, he witnessed and felt the derailment, decoupling, spinning and toppling of the cab-control car.
With the train's brakes in full emergency mode for only eight seconds, cab-control car No. 645 collided with the Ford F-450 eighty feet west of the Rice Ave. grade crossing. Lighter than its diesel pusher engine to the rear, the cab-control car derailed and then rode up over the wreckage of the F-450, slicing it almost in half. Forensic evidence shows that the derailed left wheel-truck of the cab-control car hit the steel edge of the grade crossing platform, hopped into the air for several feet and then veered diagonally to the left across Rice Ave.
As Sir Isaac Newton taught us, objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Metrolink Engine No. 870, an EMD F59PH rated at 3000 horsepower, took longer to stop than the four lighter coaches that preceded it across the roadway. Although cab-control car No. 645 featured an anti-derailment device, which looks similar to a small snowplow, that lightweight blade was no match for the mass of a 14,000-pound utility truck and trailer. A photo taken after the collision shows that the anti-derailment “plow” had detached from the cab-control car and was lost in the collision.
As cab-control car No. 645 veered to the left, the obsolete Bombardier bi-level coach car No. 206 behind it pushed forward, exacerbating the derailment. Just east of the Rice Ave. grade crossing, the cab-control car and the second coach car fully derailed and soon decoupled. As the cab-control car veered to the left, its steel wheels ripped up wooden railroad ties, further compromising the roadbed. Meanwhile, Engine No. 870 continued decelerating at the rear of the train.
Like a highway patrol officer performing a “pit maneuver”, momentum from the second coach car pivoted the cab-control car to the left. As it veered off-track and down an embankment, its crash-resistant nose dug into the bottom of a shallow depression. Because of its lightweight construction, the obsolete second coach car had not withstood the extreme pressures exerted on the couplers at each end. Inertia from its previous mate pivoted the cab-control car 180-degrees, while toppling it onto its side. Coming to rest, cab-control car No. 645 lay on its right side, pointing opposite its original direction of travel.
Meanwhile, the lightweight Bombardier second coach car was off the rails at both ends and decoupled from both the cab-control car and the third coach car. Having expended so much kinetic energy pushing the cab-control car asunder, the second coach car launched off the rails to the right, where it came to rest, on its right side, many yards away. The newer and heavier third and fourth coach cars derailed, yet stayed in alignment with the tracks. In the final moments of the collision, the third coach car toppled onto its left side. Although partially derailed, Engine No. 870 came to rest in an upright position.
As the nose of the cab-control car hit the dirt, Engineer Glenn Steele remained at the controls. As his lead car finished its tumultuous pirouette, the right side-window of the cab broke out and disappeared into the rubble. According to news reports, Steele suffered chest injuries in the crash. Later, a family member told the press that Steele’s heart had stopped twice in the days after the accident. One week after the collision, Glenn Steele succumbed to his injuries.
This is Part 1 of a two-part article. To read Part 2, Click Here.
at 05:37 PM |
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In Southern California, Rain Barrels Allow Cost Effective Water Storage
In California, and throughout the West, residents who care about long-term environmental viability are monitoring and changing their water usage habits. Here at Casa Carrie, we have been replacing water-hungry outdoor plants. Our new landscape features succulents capable of growing in our now warmer, drier climate. In our parkway, we replaced eighty percent of the lawn with slabs of Arizona sandstone. In our shower and tub, we have five-gallon buckets ready to capture water previously lost during the warm-up process.
In November 2014, we purchased two fifty-gallon rain barrels. At that time, I assumed that Southern Californians would want to save every gallon of rainwater runoff possible. While that may be true, companies that sell rain collection barrels focus their marketing efforts on consumers in the Midwest, where summer storms are often plentiful.
An accompanying brochure scolded us not to leave our rain barrels out in freezing weather. If freeze damage occurs, it will void our warrantee. “Store your rain barrel indoors during winter months”, we were admonished. Copywriters of the brochure may wish to add “In cold climates” to their verbiage. At Casa Carrie, in Simi Valley, California, we rarely have frosty nights, even in midwinter. Unlike many Midwestern or Eastern states, Southern California gets almost all of its rainfall during the winter, between November and March.
After visiting our local Do-It Center, Home Depot and Lowe’s Home Improvement Center, we realized that not one brick and mortar store in our area stocked rain barrels of any kind. I can picture Midwestern marketing types believing the hype that “it never rains in Southern California”. If so, who in Southern California would want a rain barrel? My answer is that every homeowner in Southern California should want one or more.
After a Google search, I located the “Good Ideas 50 gal. Khaki Rain Wizard” on the Home Depot website. At just under $100 each, I ordered two, plus a sturdy plastic stand for each barrel. With free shipping from Michigan to California, the total cost for two barrels and stands came to $285. With a $150 rebate expected soon from our local water agency, our net cost for two barrels and stands was $135.
In December 17, 2014, four cartons arrived via United Parcel Service. Shipped from Michigan, the cartons looked like they had traversed an international war zone. Fortunately, the barrels, stands and hardware packages arrived mostly undamaged. Setup consisted of unpacking, and then using a wrench to thread the brass spigots into pre-threaded plastic holes near the base of each barrel. I found it difficult to tell if I was cross-threading the spigot as I turned the wrench. I suggest drop-shipping your barrels to a local Home Depot and then having them install the spigots, free of charge. After setup, the stands were strong and wide enough to stay upright, even on uneven ground. With their faux whiskey barrel appearance, the barrels blended nicely into our garden.
After placing each barrel under a rain gutter downspout, all we needed was some rain. By the next morning, we received about one third inch of rain, which quickly filled both barrels. Actually, one barrel was full and the other had a small pinhole leak on the “winter-storage hanging knobs” found near the top of each barrel. By the time I discovered the leak, I had recycled the shipping cartons. My easiest recourse was to keep the barrel and try to patch the hole with some glue. So far, that process has not been successful.
Reflecting on “quality control” back at the factory, I thought, “Hey, it’s a rain barrel. Shouldn’t it at least hold water?” Maybe the “Good Ideas” people should use an inspection lamp to check for pinhole leaks and then cushion the protruding knobs prior to shipment. An upgrade in the shipping cartons and heavier packing tape might help avoid damage to both the cartons and the barrels on their long trip to California.
After fixing the leaky barrel, I will have 100 gallons available for rainwater storage. With a net price after rebates of $135, that meant my first hundred gallons of rainwater cost me $1.35 per gallon. Luckily, we were able to use all 100 gallons before the next storm hit. Although the second storm brought less rain, runoff again filled each barrel. By then, my cost for stored rainwater had dropped in half, to $.68 per gallon. At first, that seems like a lot of money for such a modest collection of water. However, we can now reap the benefits of chlorine-free garden water for decades to come.
Now, in mid-February 2015, blizzards and freezing weather continue to lash New England. Boston has received over six feet of snow in less than a month. Here in Simi Valley, California, it is eighty degrees Fahrenheit outside and there is no precipitation in the forecast. Since December 2014, Mother Nature has filled our rain barrels three times. Along with the other buckets that we used to collect rain and shower water, we have saved and reused over six hundred gallons during this rainy season alone.
Here is an idea for homeowners all over Southern California and the West. Rather than letting your rainwater run into storm drains, install rain barrels and residential cisterns throughout California. If all homeowners participated, California and the West could save untold amounts of our most precious resource, which is clean potable water available to all.
at 12:37 PM |
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In California, Private Lakes Scramble for Sustainable New Water Sources
In 2014, California state government began to take the Great Western Drought seriously. The state legislature passed bills to authorize the sale of over $7.0 billion in “water bonds”. That legislation aimed to add more long-term water storage, clean up polluted groundwater and regulate indiscriminate water mining. For the first time, California required local and regional water officials to manage their ever-shrinking supply of groundwater. Although the legislation may provide some relief a decade hence, we expect to see little relief from current water shortages.
About eighty percent of the developed water supply in the state goes to the seemingly insatiable needs of California’s agribusiness. Even so, the governor recently asked all Californians to reduce water usage by at least twenty percent. During 2014, Northern California scored better on water saving than Southern California. Did necessity or indifference drive Southern Californians to use more water per capita than their northern neighbors?
In Orange County, California, Lake Mission Viejo is a reservoir created solely for the private recreation of its members. With a surface area of 124 acres and an average depth of thirty feet, that “fake lake” comprises 3,720 acre-feet of water. According to water management standards in the U.S., a water supply of that size could support 3,720 suburban households for one year.
Rather than devoting lake water to the needs of all Californians, the association that owns Lake Mission Viejo dedicates the lake to the exclusive water sports and scenic enjoyment of its members. Although the Lake Mission Viejo Association is exploring ways to reduce water usage in and around the lake, currently they fill their lake with up to eighty-eight million gallons of drinking water each year.
In the 1960s, during the creation of Westlake Village, California, developers dammed up Lower Triunfo Canyon, and then dubbed the seasonally dry arroyo "Westlake". Upon completion of the planned community, the Westlake Lake Management Association (WMA) became responsible for dredging, maintaining and refilling the lake as necessary.
As the ongoing water crisis in California intensified, WMA found that traditional groundwater sources for its own “fake lake” were dry. In order to keep Westlake full and its surrounding property values high, WMA recently tapped potable (culinary) water supplies. With summer evaporation rates of over 900 gallons per minute, seasonal inflow of potable water at the lake is equal to a two-outlet fire hydrant fed by a twelve-inch water main.
Similar to Lake Mission Viejo, there is limited public access to the shoreline at Westlake. One can enjoy a sunny winter afternoon on the patio at Boccaccio’s Restaurant, and then stroll along a promenade adjacent to the lake. In keeping with the tranquil atmosphere of the place, all private watercrafts on Westlake are either electric boats or sailboats. From a residential perspective, Westlake is an idyllic setting. With the tightening of domestic water supplies throughout California, residents and visitors alike should enjoy the lake while they can.
In the second half of the twentieth century, development of new “fake lakes” in the desert-like conditions of Southern California was still a viable business option. Lake Mission Viejo and Westlake are prominent examples of a Southern California trend that ended when developers finished filling Lake Mission Viejo with imported water in 1978. At both lakes, unscrupulous or ignorant developers sold aspiring Southern California homeowners “lakefront property” adjacent to potentially unsustainable bodies of water.
In 2014, many water wells ran dry throughout Southern and Central California. Hardest hit were the poor and working class communities of the San Joaquin Valley. Ironically, irrigation districts in the same area consume almost half of the developed water supply in the state. In that area, farmers cherish their nut tree crops, which are notorious water wasters. There are credible estimates that it takes one gallon of irrigation water to create a single almond. With 944,000 acres of nut tree crops planted in Central California, just “a can a week” is all that the Almond Board of California TV ads ask us to consume. If their ads admitted that production of just one can of almonds requires several hundred gallons of water, how many of us would buy a can each week?
Many San Joaquin Valley farm workers and their families bathe with buckets of cold water and rely on donated bottled water to survive. Meanwhile, residents of Westlake Village and Lake Mission Viejo, ply their exclusive lakes on electric boats, eating California almonds and drinking Perrier.
It is a free country and if you have the money, you can buy the resources for your own pleasure. With luck and money, you can keep an unsustainable lifestyle going long enough to sell your fake lakefront property to the next true believer. If I owned lakefront property in either community, I would sell my property and move away while the lakes are full and the unsuspecting are still ready to purchase. After all, every bubble must someday burst.
at 04:49 PM |
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