The Power Plant Smokestack Third Rail is the Lifesaver

Originally posted November 29, 2014:

It was quite a site at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to see a 400 pound man climbing up the ladder to the 250 foot level (halfway) of the smokestack only to climb halfway down again on the track the elevator used to go up and down the smokestack. I was on labor crew then and I remember thinking, I’m sure glad that’s not me.

A small tour of people from Oklahoma City had come to the plant and one of the engineers was showing them around. I think Allen Gould may remember who it was. I’m not saying it was Allen, I’m just thinking that he was around at that time.

Power Plant Engineer Allen Gould

Power Plant Engineer Allen Gould

I think that day the wind was blowing rather hard and when the elevator was descending (going down) the stack, the power cable somehow blew over into the path of the elevator and it was caught under the roller which brought the elevator to an abrupt halt. Unfortunately. in this instance, trying to free fall the elevator manually to bring it down wouldn’t work since when the brakes were released, the elevator would move because it was really stuck right where it was.

A person that worked for the Alimak elevator company was called in from Wichita Kansas 100 miles to the north of the Power plant, which meant that it took almost 2 hours for the person to arrive at the plant. When he did, he turned out to be the largest elevator repairman I had ever seen. He had to climb up 250 feet up a ladder to the landing, then back down again about 100 feet to the elevator to rescue the people from the elevator.

I first found out about it when someone pointed out the large figure of a man about halfway up to the first landing on the smokestack ladder. He had stopped for a rest and was leaning back on his lanyard that was attached to the ladder. When we arrived in the maintenance shop, Marlin McDaniel explained the situation to us. I think it took well over three hours for this man to take each person out of the hatch in the top of the elevator, then climb with them up the elevator track to the landing, and then take them down the ladder 250 feet to the ground. I think one of them was a lady, and two were men.

The stack elevator is a small box with a capacity to carry 3 people or a weight of 900 pounds. It is crowded enough with only two people in it, but three is always a crowd (as the saying goes, “Two’s company, Three’s a crowd”). That phrase definitely is true with the stack elevator.

 

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

At the time, I didn’t realize that one day I would be an electrician that took care of the smoke stack elevators. Actually, I never gave it a thought about what sort of equipment electricians repaired or maintained. It turned out that electricians worked on anything that had electric power going to it. That’s pretty much anything mechanical.

Electricians would work on the motors while the mechanics would work on the pumps, fans and valves attached to the end of the motors. When it came to the stack elevators, it was generally left up to the electricians to do the majority of the work. We inspected the elevators each month, and when they broke down, we were called to repair them.

When the boiler elevators broke down, it seemed as if I was the person of choice to ask to climb the boiler to the roof to fix it. The elevator controls were located on the top of the boiler, so I would usually end up climbing the stairs to the top cleaning door contacts on the way up. It happens that the boilers are 250 feet tall. So, the middle landing on the stack elevator is about the same height as the boiler as you can see in the picture above.

Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, would always add when he was telling me to go fix the elevator…. “You like climbing all those stairs anyway.” What could I say? “Sure Bill! I’ll go see what I can do.”

I think in the back of my mind I knew the day was coming when I was going to have to climb the stack elevator ladder to rescue someone. I had already climbed it a few times to fix some conduit that had come loose that ran up the smokestack next to the ladder, so I knew what it was like to go straight up a 500 foot ladder to the top of the smokestack. Luckily when my turn came around for a rescue, I only had to go halfway up. There were 4 people stuck on the smokestack.

Unlike the large elevator repairman from Wichita, I didn’t have to climb down the elevator track to reach the elevator. It had malfunctioned right at the 250 foot level when the group was ready to come back down from their semi-lofty visit of one of the Power Plant Smokestacks. My only task was to climb up, fix the elevator and bring the group safely to the ground.

I grabbed some tools from my tool bucket that I thought would be useful. A couple of different size screwdrivers (one large one and one small), my multimeter, fuse pullers, and three wrenches, (7/16, 1/2 and 9/16 inch). I put them in a bag that looked like a feed bag for a horse. It had a rope with a hook on it.

A tool Bag, only ours had a hook on the top of the handle

A tool Bag, only ours had a hook on the top of the handle

I figured I didn’t want to take anything I didn’t need, so I didn’t put all 40 pounds of tools from my tool bucket into the bag. Just those things I thought I might need. I had my handy dandy little crescent wrench in my pocket and my baby screwdriver in my pocket protector on my tee shirt.

4 inch crescent wrench

4 inch crescent wrench

I took a safety belt off of the coat rack by the door in the electric shop and put it on. I figured I could hook the tool bag to one of the rings while I was climbing the ladder up the smokestack. With only the safety belt and the fairly lightweight tool bag, I headed out to the Unit 2 smokestack. Oh yeah. I was carrying one other nifty device as well.

when I arrived, Doug Link was standing at the bottom with some other people. Doug explained that George Bohn and some other engineers from the City (meaning Oklahoma City) were trying to come down, but the elevator wasn’t working. Luckily they had carried a two-way radio with them when they went up (which was a regular safety precaution since smoke signals would largely go unnoticed coming from a smokestack).

I understand from watching movies that when you climb onto the tracks in a subway in New York City or some other large town with a subway, that you are supposed to avoid the “Third Rail”. After Doug Link had explained to me the problem, the first thing I did was to grab the third rail on the ladder that ran up the smoke stack.

Doug Link

Doug Link

You see. Running right up the middle of the ladder is an extra rail. This is what keeps you alive while you climb a very high ladder. Think about it. If you were to try to climb a ladder 250 or 500 feet straight up, what’s going to happen to you? Your arms and legs are going to start getting wobbly. You are going to become short of breath, and your head is going to start to swim some either from hyperventilating or the lack of oxygen… I haven’t figured out which yet.

Anyway, at some point, something is going to stop working. Your fingers are going to miss their grip on the next rung or your work boot is going to slip off of the rung and you will fall. If there is nothing to stop you, then you are going all the way to the ground.

That is why the third rail is added to the ladder. It is there so that you can tie your safety belt to it. It keeps you from falling when you slip, and it also allows you to take a rest when you need it without the worry that if some part of your body momentarily malfunctions, you won’t fall to your death.

A ladder with a safety belt rail

A ladder with a safety belt rail

Here is an example of a ladder with a device similar to the one we had on our stack ladders. I took the nifty device I had brought with me and hooked it into the third rail of the ladder and clipped the tool bag to the other metal loop on my safety belt (this was before we had safety harnesses). Then I began my trek to the landing.

As I ascended (went up) the ladder I told myself that this was no higher than climbing the stairs on the boiler to go to the elevator penthouse to fix the boiler elevators. I do that all the time. This should not be so hard. Just as I would help myself climb the stairs, I could use my hands to pull myself up the ladder distributing the work between my arms and legs as needed so that when one set was becoming too tired, I would have the other set do more of the work (arms and legs I mean).

I told myself it would probably be best if I didn’t stop until I arrived at the 250 foot landing, because I thought that if I did stop for a rest, my legs would get all wobbly. As long as I kept climbing, they didn’t have time for that nonsense. So, I huffed and puffed, and kept focusing on each rung of the ladder as I climbed.

When I reached the 250 foot landing, I swung my tool bag over onto the grating and unclipped my belt from the third rail and sat down with my feet still dangling off the edge of the grating where the ladder came through and rested for a few moments.

George Bohn and the other castaways were around the other side of the stack. They had not realized I had arrived yet. After I caught my breath, I climbed up to the top of the elevator and opened the control panel to see why the elevator was not working. I switched it to manual, and tried to operate it from the top of the elevator, but it didn’t budge.

I used my multimeter to check the circuits and quickly found that one of the fuses had blown out. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a spare fuse with me, and there wasn’t one in the control box, so there wasn’t much I could do to fix the elevator controls at this point.

I hollered for George and he came around the walkway to the elevator. I explained to him that the fuse to the controls was blown and that I could either climb all the way back down the ladder to the ground to get one, or, I could manually “drop” the elevator down with them in it to the ground. The lady with them didn’t care much for that idea.

I explained that I regularly drop test the elevator and I would be able to let the brake loose long enough for the elevator to go down a couple of feet at a time. After doing that about 125 times, we would be safely on the ground. That seemed to satisfy them, so they entered the elevator and closed the door, while I remained on the top of the elevator.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

I took my large screwdriver out of the tool bag and pried it between the motor and a latch on the brake. This way, I just had to pull out on the screwdriver to release the brake on the elevator until it began to free-fall toward the ground. I turned my head to look up at the elevator track so I could make sure I didn’t let the elevator drop too far. If I did, then my heroic attempt to rescue my elevator hostages would quickly turn from an “atta-boy” into an “Uh-Oh!”

You see, if I let the elevator drop more than 3 feet (or so), then the safeties on the elevator (known as “dogs”) would set. This would bring the elevator to an abrupt halt. It was designed to stop a falling elevator by instantly locking the elevator to the tracks.

If the dogs were to be set on the stack elevator, the only way to release them is to take the cover off of a gear box and start manually cranking the elevator up about 3 feet until the dogs reset. This was a slow process that usually took about 30 minutes, and if I didn’t go up far enough to actually reset the dogs, as soon as we continued going back down, the dogs would set again and I would have to repeat the process.

So, like the tortoise, I decided that slow and steady wins the race. I was not going to drop the elevator more than a foot and a half each time. We would take our time going down.

The first time I released the brakes and the elevator began to free-fall, I heard the lady below me in the elevator let out a loud gasp. I know the guys were gasping as well, they just had to be more quiet about it. I know I was gasping each time on the top of the elevator and I had done this probably 20 times before when we did the elevator drop tests (See the post “After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests“).

After about 10 minutes the elevator was safely back on the ground and so were the engineers. Doug Link came up to me and said with an excited voice, “It took you only 4 minutes and 23 seconds to climb up the ladder! That’s incredible! I timed you!” I said, “That’s about right. One second per foot.”

I went back to the shop and found three fuses for the one that had blown on the elevator. I climbed back on the elevator and opened the control box and replaced the bad one. Then I placed the other two in the control box. I figured this way, if this fuse were to blow again, then at least the electrician could just replace it, and not have to manually ride the elevator to the ground again.

I tested the elevator by riding it up and down the stack a few times and everything worked just fine. I figured that this must have just happened because George Bohn was trying to show off to some cute engineer. That’s just George’s luck. To find out more adventures with George, you can read this post: “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer“.

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7 responses

  1. Were you harnessed to something on the way down? I’m trying not to image an abrupt halt tossing you off the elevator.

    Once at the University of Georgia, several of us in a high rise dorm were stuck in an elevator. There was no budging it. Firemen arrived and gave us the option to walk across a gangplank like device and enter a different elevator car, or wait several hours for a repairman to be dispatched. We all walked the plank.

    1. No. I was just standing on the top of the elevator. Once while an electrician was tight checking the railing the other electrician lowered the elevator leaving the first electrician hanging onto the wrench 400 feet in the air. That person would never tight check the railing again.

      1. Oh my. I think I would have found a new home for that wrench.

  2. Great story. The only time I was caught in an elevator was LaGuardia airport and it took them four hours to get me out.

  3. Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:
    RATHER LIKE THE LUGE-TYPE THINGS WORKMEN USED TO SLIDE DOWN mOUNT wASHINGTON ON THE COG RAILWAY TRACKS???? GLAD THAT WASN’T ME!!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. That was quite a situation. All I can say is thank God, you survived that whole ordeal. How many times did situations like this occur in a month? I ask that because while it sounds like it is far from a common problem, it does sound like the type that could occur more frequently than one would hope. Anyway, keep up the great work as always ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Reblogged this on ' Ace Friends News ' and commented:
    Nice post Kev Ian ๐Ÿ‘

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