Scott Hubbard and I weren’t too sure why we had been called out that night when we met at the Bowling Alley on Washington Street at two o’clock in the morning in Stillwater Oklahoma to drive out to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. Something about a fire on the top of the precipitator.
I was glad that Scott was driving instead of me when I climbed into his pickup and he began the 20 mile journey up Highway 177. I wasn’t quite awake yet from the phone call at 1:45 am telling me that there was a fire on the Unit 1 precipitator roof and they were calling Scott and I out to put it out. I figured if there was a fire it should be put out long before the 45 minutes it takes me and Scott to arrive at the plant.
We had all been trained to fight fires this size, so it didn’t make sense why we had to go do this instead of the operators.
My head was still swimming from the lack of sleep when we arrived at the plant, and headed to the Control Room to find out more about the fire we were supposed to fight. The Shift Supervisor explained that there was an oil fire under one of the high voltage transformers next to some high voltage cables, and the operators that were on duty didn’t feel comfortable climbing under the transformer stands to try and put it out because of high voltage cable tray that ran alongside the fire (ok, now it made sense. Electricity was involved. Electricians had to work on anything that had an electric cable attached even if it was a fire).
The operators had already brought a number of fire extinguishers appropriate to putting out an oil fire to the precipitator roof, and they had an SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) waiting there as well.
Scott and I went to the Electric Shop to get a couple of pairs of asbestos gloves just in case we needed them.
When we arrived on the precipitator roof we could smell the fire smoldering right away. The operator explained that some oil soaked insulation was on fire under the transformer stand for Transformer 1G9 and that he had tried to put it out using the extinguisher, but since the transformer oil was soaked into the bricks of insulation, it didn’t seem to do any good.
The transformer stands are about 18 inches tall, so climbing under them reminded me of the time I was sandblasting the water treatment tanks and Curtis Love turned off my air (see the post: “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“). This time I had a self-contained breathing apparatus, so I was in control of my own air… only there would only be about 30 minutes of air in the tank.
After assessing the situation Scott and I decided that the only way to put the fire out was to remove the blocks of insulation that were burning. This meant that I had to lay down under the precipitator transformers and come face to face with the burning insulation and pull them out while wearing the asbestos gloves and put them in a barrel.
The plan was that we would then lower the 55 gallon barrel down to the ground and extinguish the fire by filling the barrel with water.
The precipitator is on the outlet end of the boiler. The boiler exhaust blows through the precipitator and the ash in the exhaust is removed using static electricity generated by the large transformers on the precipitator roof using up to 45,000 volts of electricity. When the precipitator is on, the roof is generally a warm place to be.
When a person is laying on the insulation under a transformer, the temperature is somewhat higher as the heat is trapped in the enclosed space between two enclosures called “Coffin Houses” (how appropriate). When the insulation is soaked with burning oil, the temperature seemed to rise significantly. Luckily the insulation was not fiberglass as you may have in your attic, because I was wearing nothing but a tee shirt and jeans. So, I was not subject to the itching I would have if the insulation had been fiberglass.
I had turned the air on the SCBA without using the “Positive Pressure” setting. That meant that when I inhaled, I pulled air from the air tank, but the air didn’t apply pressure on the mask to keep out the bad air.
I did that because, this looked like it was going to be a long job and I wanted to conserve the air in the tank, and I found that on this setting I was not breathing the smoke pouring up around my face. Otherwise I would have reached down to the valve on my belt and changed the setting to positive pressure.
I kept wondering while I was lying there with my face a few inches from the smoldering blocks of insulation why I was so calm the entire time. The hot temperature had caused my sweat reflex to pour out the sweat so I was quickly drenched. I would just lay my head on the insulation as I reached into the hole I was creating and pulled a glowing brick of insulation out using the asbestos gloves.
I knew I was only half awake so I kept telling myself… “Pay attention. Work slowly. One step at a time. I tried to work like Granny would when she was digging Taters on the Beverly Hillbillies (see the video below):
In case you are not able to view the video above, try this link: “Granny Digging Taters“.
It’s funny when you’re half dreaming the various things that come to mind. I’m not sure how picking up smoldering bricks of insulation translated in my mind to Granny teaching beatniks how to pick “taters”…. but it did.
There was also something about this that reminded me of eating chocolate…. oh wait… that was probably left over from the dream I was having when the phone first rang back at the house.
For the next hour or so, I filled the barrels with the burning insulation and then lowered them down to the alleyway between Unit 1 and 2. During this time I was still groggy from the lack of sleep and the entire process seemed like a dream to me.
I remember lying on my stomach next to the burning insulation. Pulling the blocks out one at a time, layer by layer until I reached the precipitator roof underneath. I placed each block of smoldering insulation in the barrel that had been lowered down by an overhead chain-fall near me.
When the barrel was about 3/4 full, we would work the chain fall over to the motorized hoist that would lower it down to the pickup truck bed 100 feet below. When the barrel left the confines of the precipitator roof and the night air blew over the top of it, the insulation would burst into flames. By the time the barrel landed in the back of the pickup truck the flames would be lighting up the alley way.
Scott doused the flames with a hose and an extinguisher and hauled the barrel of insulation off to a hazardous waste bin while I repeated the process with the next barrel that Scott attached to the hoist.
By the time we were through I smelled like something that crawled out of a damp fireplace. My shirt and jeans were soaked with sweat and caked with pink insulation. The SCBA was out of air after using it for an hour and we were ready to go home.
The operators said they would bring the empty extinguishers back to the plant and send the SCBA off to have it recharged. We checked back in with the Shift Supervisor in the control room and told him we were heading for home.
I don’t remember which Shift Supervisor it was, though Gary Wright comes to my mind when I think about it.
I don’t remember which operator was helping us on the precipitator roof either. I would usually remember those things, but like I said, I was still dreaming during this entire process.
Normally at this time, since it was close to 3:30 in the morning, we would opt to stay over and just do some odd jobs until it was time to start work because the 6 hour rule would still require us to come back to work at the regular time (see the Post: “Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rule“). Scott and I decided that we both needed a good shower and if we could catch even one hour of sleep before we had to head back out to work, that would help.
So, we climbed back into Scott’s truck and headed back to Stillwater to the bowling alley where I had left my car. I don’t remember the drive home. I don’t even remember taking off my shirt and jeans in the utility room where I walked in the house and placing them in the washing machine straightaway… though that’s what I did.
I know I took a shower, but all that was just part of the same dream I had been having since the phone rang earlier that night. Usually I didn’t have trouble waking up when the phone rang in the middle of the night, but for some reason, this particular night, I never fully woke up.
Or… maybe it’s something else…. Could I have dreamed the entire thing? Maybe I never did receive that call, and we didn’t have to go out to the plant in the middle of the night to put out a fire. I mean… how crazy is that anyway? Does it make any sense?
I suppose I will have to rely on Scott Hubbard to confirm that we really did fight that fire. How about it Scott?
As Bill Gibson asked one time…. “Is the Fact Truer than the Fiction?”