Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting

I knew that we had our work cut out for us when Unit 1 was taken offline for a major overhaul on February 19, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  I had learned to expect the unexpected.  I just never suspected this to happen.  As acting foreman, I had a crew that consisted of a few of our own electricians, as well as a number of contract workers.  I was also coordinating efforts between Brown & Root contractors that were going to be doing some major work inside the Precipitator (that takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler) during the 12 weeks we were going to be offline and a Vacuum Truck Company that was going to vacuum ash out of the hoppers where the ash is collected and blown through pipes to the coal yard to be trucked away to make concrete.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long.  You can see the hoppers at the bottom

When I inspected the precipitator during the first week, I had found numerous hoppers that had filled up with ash.  One in particular hopper was so full that the ash had built up between the plates over 5 feet above the top of the hopper.  Because of this, I had to coordinate with hoppers that were available for the Brown and Root contractors to begin building scaffolding, and those hoppers the vacuum truck needed to vacuum out first.

I had learned to deal with full hoppers the first time I entered the precipitator back when I was on the Labor Crew in 1983.  Since that day, I had understood the potential dangers lying in wait.  Especially with hoppers full of ash.  See the Post “Angel of Death Passes By the Precipitator Door“.

The crew I was directly managing was on the Precipitator roof working on vibrators, insulators, transformers and rappers.  I worked inside the precipitator aligning plates, and removing broken wires and cleaning insulators.  The vacuum truck company vacuumed out the full hoppers by attaching a vacuum hose from a large vacuum truck to clean out pipes at the bottom of the hoppers.  The Brown and Root crew climbed into the hoppers through an access door near the bottom of the hopper and constructed scaffolding in order to work at the top of the hoppers immediately below the plates.

Vacuum Truck

Vacuum Truck

This operation had been going on for 3 days and had seemed to be going smoothly.  The Brown and Root crews and the vacuum truck crews were working shifts 24 hours a day.  I would come in the morning and see the progress that had been made during the night.  We kept a sheet taped to a beam in the hopper area that the vacuum truck would update when they had finished a hopper, and the Brown and Root crew indicated where they had finished building their scaffold.

On Thursday March 3, 1994,  just after lunch, instead of making my way out to the precipitator to continue my work, I went up to the office area to meet in the conference room with the Safety Task Force.  I was the leader of the task force, and we were meeting with upper management to work out some issues that I outlined in last week’s post.  See “Taking Power Plant Safety To Task“.  As you may have noticed, the last two weekly posts are a continuation of a long story.

Our meeting began shortly after 12:30 and we were discussing ways in which the Safety Task Force could work in a more cooperative way with the Maintenance Supervisor, Ken Scott.  I felt that we were making good progress.  We seemed to have come up with a few solutions, and we were just working out the details.

At 1:10 pm, the Electric A Foreman knocked on the door and opened it.  He explained that there had been an accident at the precipitator in one of the hoppers and he thought that I might have been in the hopper at the time.  He was checking to see if I was in the meeting.  Once he was assured that I was all right, he left (presumably to tell the rest of my crew that I was not involved in the accident).

At this point, my head started to spin.  What could have happened?  None of my crew would have been in the hoppers.  Maybe someone fell off of a scaffold and hurt themselves.  I know I had locked out all of the electricity to the precipitator and grounded the circuits that have up to 45,000 volts of electricity when charged up, so, I’m pretty sure no one would have been electrocuted.  Bill’s voice seemed real shaky when he entered the room, and when he saw me he was very relieved.

When working in a Power Plant, the Power Plant Men and Women become like a real family.  Everyone cares about each other.  Bill Bennett in some ways was like a father to me.  In other ways, he was like an older brother.  The nearest picture I have of Bill is a picture of Bill Cosby, as they looked similar:

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett just after he has called me a “Scamp”

I don’t know how long I was staring off into space counting my crew and thinking about what each of them would be doing.  I was sure they were all on the roof.  I knew that if a Brown & Root hand had been hurt that their own Safety Coordinator would be taking care of their injury.  The thought of someone being hurt in a hopper sent flashbacks of the day I nearly dived off into the hopper full of ash ten and a half years earlier.

After about 5 minutes, Bill Bennett came back to the conference room, where we were still trying to focus on the task at hand.  I don’t remember if we were doing any more good or not since I wasn’t paying any attention.  Bill said that he needed for me to leave the meeting because they needed me out at the precipitator.  Someone had been engulfed in fly ash!

Then I realized that the first time Bill had come to the room to check on me, he had mentioned that.  I think I had blocked that from my mind.  He had said that someone had been engulfed in ash, and they couldn’t tell if it was me or someone else.   That was why he was so shaken up.  Bill had thought that I may have died, or at least been seriously injured.  The pain he was feeling before he saw me sitting in the room, alive and well, flooded my thoughts.

I quickly stood up and left the room.  Bill and I quickly made our way to the precipitator.  He said that Life Flight was on the way.  One of the vacuum truck workers had climbed into the hopper to get the last bits of ash out of the hopper when a large amount of ash had broken loose above him and immediately engulfed him in the hopper.

When that happened there was a large boom and a cloud of ash came pouring out from the side of the precipitator.  Scott Hubbard, who would have been my twin brother if I had been able to pick my own twin brother (though I never had a real twin brother)… heard the boom on the roof and when he looked down and saw the cloud of ash, immediately thought that I may have been hurt.  I suppose he had called Bill Bennett on the radio and told him.

As we arrived at the precipitator, a young man was being carried out on a stretcher.  A Life Flight from Oklahoma City was on it’s way, and landed just a few minutes later.  I looked at the man all covered with ash.  I could see how someone may have mistaken him for me.  He was dressed like I was.  A white t-shirt and jeans.  He was unconscious.

Without going into detail as to the cause of the accident, as that will be in a later post, let me tell you about the heroic Power Plant Men and their actions before I had arrived on the scene…

James Vickers, a 26 year old vacuum truck worker, had climbed in the hopper carrying a shovel.  He had a hole watch standing out the door keeping an eye on him.  They had sucked out the hopper from the outside pipes and had banged on the walls in order to knock down any ash build up on the sides until they figured they had cleaned out the hopper.

James had opened the door to the hopper, and maybe because he saw some buildup on the hopper walls, he decided to climb in the hopper in order to knock it down with the shovel.  While he was doing this, a large amount of ash that had bridged up in the plates above was knocked free all at once and immediately filled up the hopper probably more than half full.

James was crammed down into the throat of the hopper, which at the bottom is only about 8 inches in diameter with a plate across the middle about 2 feet above the throat of the hopper.  He was immediately knocked unconscious by the impact.

The person assigned to be the hole watch was standing at the door to the hopper and when the ash fell down, he was knocked back about 6 or 7 feet when the ash came pouring out of the door.  Panicking, He ran to the edge of the walkway yelling for help.  Luckily, he was not also knocked unconscious, or this would pretty much have been the end of the story.

Men came running.  Especially a couple of Power Plant Men working in the area.  I wish I could remember who they were.  When I try to think of the most heroic Power Plant Men I knew at the plant at the time, the list is about a long as my arm, so it is hard to narrow it down.

The Power Plant Men began to frantically dig the ash out of the hopper to uncover James Vickers.  When they reached his head, they immediately cleared his face to where they could perform Mouth-to-Mouth resuscitation.  They began breathing for James as soon as they could, and continued mouth-to-mouth as they dug out more of the ash.

As they dug the ash out, they were using their hardhats for shovels.  When they tried to move James, they found that he had been crammed down into the bottom of the hopper to where he was trapped in the throat of the hopper.  Heroically they continued without hesitation to breath for James, while simultaneously working to free him from the hopper.  The shovel had been wedged into the bottom of the hopper with him.

Almost immediately after the accident happened, the control room became aware that someone had been engulfed in a hopper, they called Life Flight in Oklahoma City.  A helicopter was immediately dispatched.  By the time James was safely removed from the hopper, placed on a stretcher and carried out to the adjacent field, the Life Flight Helicopter was landing to take him to the Baptist Medical Center.  I would say the helicopter was on the ground a total of about 3 or so minutes before it was took off again.

Bill and I inspected the hopper where the accident had taken place.  On the ground below under the grating was a pile of ash, just like I had experienced years before when I almost bailed off into the hopper to look for my flashlight.  I was suddenly filled with a tremendous amount of sorrow.

I was sorry for James Vickers, though I didn’t know who he was at the time.  I was sorry for Bill Bennett who thought for a while that I had died in that hopper.  I remembered hanging by one finger in a hopper only two rows down from this one, ten years ago with my life hanging by a thread, and I just wanted to cry.

So, I gave Bill a big hug as if I was hugging my own father and just started to cry.  The whole thing was just so sad.

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….

On the roof of the Baptist Medical Center, a Triage unit had been setup waiting for the helicopter to arrive with James.  Hazardous Waste protective suits were being worn by the people that were going to begin treating James.  They had heard that he had been engulfed in hazardous chemicals which consisted of:  Silica, Aluminum Oxide, Hexavalent Chromium, arsenic and other unsavory and hard to pronounce chemicals.  The Life Flight People on the helicopter had to be scrubbed down by the Hazmat team as soon as they exited the helicopter to clean off the hazardous Fly Ash.  The news reporters were all standing by reporting the incident.

Yes.  The same fly ash that I went swimming in every day during the overhaul.  The same fly ash that I tracked through the Utility Room floor when I came home at night.  The same fly ash used to create highways all across the country.  It’s true it has some carcinogenic material in it.  I’m sure I have my share of Silica in my lungs today, since it doesn’t ever really clear out of there.

Besides the psychological trauma of a near-death experience, Jame Vickers was fairly unharmed considering what he went through.  He came out of the ordeal with an eye infection.  Randy Dailey pointed out that this was because the Safety Coordinator from Brown & Root had opened his eyes to check if he was alive when he was laying on the stretcher, and had let ash get in his eyes.  Otherwise, he most likely wouldn’t have developed an eye infection.

When I arrived at home that evening I explained to my wife what had happened.  She had heard something on the news about it, but hadn’t realized they were talking about our plant since the person was in Oklahoma City when the reporters were talking about it.

All I can say is… Some Safety Meetings in the past have been pretty boring, but nothing made me want to improve my Safety Attitude like the Safety Meeting we had that afternoon.  I’m glad that I had to experience that only once in my career as a Plant Electrician.

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10 responses

  1. I remember when this happened. I know some prayers went up for James.

    They had to “decontaminate” the helicopter too. It was always amusing for me to see a hazmat worker strain at a “gnat” removing every molecule of fly ash, then take his respirator and suit off and light up his “camel” cigarette!

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  2. Thankfully glad you made it to safety *blessings*

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  3. Donna Westhoff Collins | Reply

    Hope you don’t mind I posted on my Innovative Safety Solutions facebook page along with a link back to the blog. Good article!

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  4. What a harrowing account! Clearly, those of us not in the industry have no idea of its dangers.

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    1. Thanks Anna for your comment.

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  5. I remember hearing about that on the news that day. Also that Dad told us how strange it seemed that they were wearing the haz mat suits to deal with flyash.

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  6. Reblogged this on createthinklive and commented:
    Work at the power plant sounds sexy: vibrators, insulators and rappers

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  7. oh wow. thanks for sharing

    Liked by 1 person

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