The tide came in Tuesday night, under a moon almost full, and when the sun came up and the water retreated there it was: a broken band of oil about 5 feet wide and 8 miles long.
It looked like tobacco spit and smelled foreign, and it pooled in yesterday's footprints as far as you could see. State officials called it the worst show of crude on shore from the gusher 120 miles away.
As word spread, the people of Pensacola Beach walked to the black band to take a look, to take photographs, to be sure this wasn't some apocalyptic dream. They poured over the dunes all day, on pilgrimages to bear witness.
Here came Courtney Laczko, 16 and sunkissed, who has been coming to the beach almost every morning since school let out because she knew the days were numbered.
"It's actually really here," she kept saying.
She thought about the dolphins and how she used to pretend they were a happy little family. She thought about the time her mom wasn't working and she took the kids to the beach every day. Bologna sandwiches and Capri Sun in the cooler.
"It was always the prettiest beach around here. You can't say that anymore."
Here came Kathy Allen, 15 and native. She thought about that night in November, after the homecoming dance, when a boy named Dakota leaned in and kissed her lips, her first ever, and how the stars seemed so bright and sparkly.
Here came Stef Ackerman, 22 and tattooed, who learned to fish here and surf here. He walked to the oil and squatted and ran his finger up under his sunglasses. He thought about all those journeys to the beach with his dad to watch the Blue Angels zing down the shoreline and about that fishing trip when his older brother came home from war. How they talked and fished all day.
This? He doesn't know how to process it.
"I don't know what to do," he said. "I don't know if anybody knows what to do."
Four buses of cleanup men showed up. Bulldozers rolled onto the white sand. Men with shovels scooped black onto plastic sheets and fed them to the dozers.
Gov. Charlie Crist came, too, with his people, to the same beach where a week ago he walked and talked with President Barack Obama. He was expecting scattered tar balls, not this.
"It's pretty ugly," he said.
"It's worse than I expected," said Mike Sole, secretary of Florida's Department of Environmental Protection.
"What do we do now?" asked Morgan White, 15, who has a scar on her hip from skimboarding on this water. "This is what we do. We wake up and we come here."
Up the road, a sign flashed: OIL ON BEACH. The bulldozers beeped. News crews gathered.
If the beach is church, Wednesday felt like a funeral.
Kevin Reed, 36, who learned to swim here and taught his own son, right here, how to swim, walked to the oil and cried.
"I can't help it," he said. "This just kills me. It feels like somebody just ripped my heart out. I knew it was going to be bad. I didn't know it was going to be like this."
He looked back at the band. He noticed there were no birds.
"It's damn near biblical."
"Revelation 8:8," said his girlfriend, Dana Gardner.
And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood.
"It does kind of look like blood," Gardner said.
"This place is done for," Reed said. "You can't fish. You can't get in the water. The tourists aren't going to come.
"We're done for."
This is how it went all day, with the photos and tears and gnashing of teeth, until the sun set on the water and oil and on a sign in front of the Pensacola Beach Properties real estate office:
ALWAYS HAS BEEN
ALWAYS WILL BE
MOST BEAUTIFUL BEACH
IN THE WORLD!!
Mary Ellen Klas, of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau, contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.