I suppose we are all born with certain phobias. Some people are scared of spiders. Some people can’t stand the sight of snakes. When I was young just speaking to a girl was the most terrifying thing I encountered. I never liked spiders, but I didn’t have a great fear of them. But there were times in my life when faced with an overwhelming spider army, I wondered if I should fear spiders a little more than I did. This is one of those stories my children would want to hear when they were in the mood for a horror story.
If you are terrified by spiders, then stop reading this post now. I don’t want to be responsible for any injuries that may occur when you fly backward off of your chair while reading this post.
I wrote a Power Plant man post three years ago called “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“. I began that story by mentioning that there were two distinct times in my life when I went Head-to-Head with a horde of spiders. The second time I fought side-by-side with my trusty friend and carpooling buddy, Scott Hubbard. This post is about the second Power Plant Spider War.
I believe it was the beginning of an overhaul during October, 1997 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. Scott Hubbard and I knew where we would be working. It was the Precipitator. The big structure that sat between the boiler and the smoke stacks. It took the ash out of the boiler exhaust before blowing it out of the stack. Scott and I always worked on the precipitators during overhauls. No one else ever wanted to volunteer for that job. It was a dirty, thankless job that the rest of the plant tried their best to ignore. Yet, if not maintained properly, would waste more power than all the other equipment in the plant combined.
Anyway, it was a Monday morning at the beginning of the overhaul and Scott and I decided to carry some tools to the enclosed Precipitator roof to prepare for the next three weeks of work ahead of us. It was an hour earlier than we would normally begin working because overhauls meant working long days. So, we usually came to work in the dark, and left for home in the dark.
Scott and I climbed the ladder to the precipitator roof from the walkway just below. When we did, we were confronted with a site we were not expecting to see, and one that we will never forget. In the previous Spider Wars post, when I walked into the basement below the main switchgear, I was confronted with a black moving mass of bugs, spiders and snakes…. This time, we were standing, staring what looked like a snow storm had blown through the precipitator transformers.
There are 84 eight foot tall transformers on the precipitator roof in 3 rows of 28. Each row has the transformers staggered back and forth like the black squares on two rows on a checker board. The row of transformers we were standing in front of was completely covered in spider webs. — Let me say it again…. Completely covered in spider webs! Not just spider webs strung between the transformers…. No….. It was a solid net of spider webs from the ground to the top of the entire row of transformers.
Scott and I were going to be spending the next three weeks on this precipitator roof working on all of the transformers. I don’t remember exactly how long we stood there staring at this “Kingdom of Spiders”. It seemed like a long time, but I suspect it was actually about 15 seconds. We decided right away that we couldn’t even begin to ground out all the transformers (which was required before opening the precipitator doors) until we had cleared out the spiders.
The spiders that were in these webs were not your typical garden variety. They were a special kind of Daddy Long Leg called a Cellar Spider.
They are also known as “Invisible Spiders” because when they are disturbed, they vibrate so fast that they seem to disappear. We were easily facing well over 200,000 of these spiders.
So that you can see what we were going against, here is a short video I found on You Tube:
For those who are not able to view YouTube videos directly from the picture, here is the link: Pholcidae Vibrating
Scott and I decided to go the the tool room and pick up 4 propane torches and some extra propane bottles. The only thing we could think to do was to burn them out.
We went straight to work knowing that this was going to be a long slow process. I began on one row of transformers and Scott took the next one over. I began from the walkway with a propane torch in each hand, I began burning away the spider webs which quickly melted away in the flames. Spiders went crazy. They were scurrying throughout the mass of webs. Not necessarily trying to get away, they were more interested in standing their ground and trying to intimidate me into leaving them alone.
After clearing the ladder that led down into a section of transformers, I descended down. into the mass of webs, burning them away as I went. I was wearing my Carhartt coveralls, leather gloves, safety glasses and my hard hat.
Once down between the transformers, I had to burn away the webs over my head. Massive amounts of spiders were being burned. Many of them were dropping on me from all directions. I knew that even though these spiders are poisonous, they are not able to bite a human because of the shape of their mouth. I just hoped that the spiders knew that, so they wouldn’t try.
I could feel spiders crawling down my neck, inside my hardhat, up my pant legs, around my safety glasses and the sleeves of my coveralls. Talk about getting the Willies. I could take one hand and wipe off 10 or 20 spiders from one arm at a time. I would just point the propane torch at my coverall sleeve and they would all quickly turn to crisp.
As I was working my way down the row of transformers, if someone else had entered the precipitator roof and seen me in there, it would look as if I had been caught by the spiders and wrapped up alive. There were times when I looked a lot like this picture, only with Cellar Spiders….
While I was in this situation, I kept having a feeling of claustrophobia, as if I was being smothered by the spider webs crawling with massive amounts of spiders. I did my best to fight this feeling by concentrating on the task. I pretended in my mind that I was back in my bedroom as a child cleaning my room.
When I was young my bedroom would be so messy, you couldn’t walk across the floor. I would start in one corner of my room and clean it systematically by expanding out from that one spot, making sure that everything behind me was clean. That’s what Scott and I were doing. As we moved through the thick mass of webs, we made sure that we had a clear path back to the ladder.
Another thought that entered my mind was “What would happen if this massive ball of spider web were to all go up in flames at once?” Luckily that never happened. The webs just melted. The spiders were so thick that the burning flesh from the spiders gave off the same odor as any other burning flesh, which is a very unpleasant smell.
As I pointed out, when Cellar Spiders are agitated, they vibrate up and down very quickly, so as I was burning my way through the webs, the webs were shaking every which way. There is a good video that shows a cellar spider in India vibrating so fast that it appears to become invisible. Watch this:
Here is the direct link: Vibrating Cellar Spider
After a day and a half, we had completely wiped out the spider population on the roof of the precipitator and were ready to go to work. I had also taken a few of these spiders home with me. Some had climbed down into my clothes, so that when I was home and took off my shirt and pants, out came some spiders. It wasn’t long before we had our own colony of cellar spiders at our house. They tried taking over my garage.
A few years later when I moved to Texas to work for Dell, some came along with me. I would find them in my garage, and various places around the house. I don’t think they liked living in Texas though. It was probably too hot for them. They eventually died out, so that I haven’t seen a cellar spider in my house for many years.
One day in 2003 when I was working at Dell on a project, and was sitting in a small team room, a cellar spider crawled out of my laptop bag and climbed up the wall next to me. When I saw it, I pointed it out to the consultant I was working with and showed him how the spiders vibrate when you disturb them. I also told him this story about the day when we went to battle a solid wall of Daddy Long Legs that had taken over the precipitator roof at the Power plant where I used to work. That spider stayed in the team room with us for about a week until I think it died of boredom.
It was clear why the spiders had invaded the roof of the precipitator. It was always full of flying bugs because the lights were always on. At night, moths, gnats and flies would fly around the light fixtures. It was a warm protected environment. We had worked to clear the pigeons out of the enclosed roof area, so they weren’t going to keep the spider population down.
I think there was another reason the Cellar Spiders liked the Precipitator roof. I suspect that these spiders use their vibrating skills when they are mating to attract each other. Well. The roof of the precipitator has 168 vibrators that are used to shake the ash off of the wires inside precipitator. Vibrators are always buzzing on the precipitator roof.
I suppose to a little Cellar Spider brain (I know… they don’t really have brains), the precipitator roof must have seemed like a Holy Temple to them with all those vibrators buzzing constantly.
For years after this event I would occasionally wake up in a sweat suddenly in the middle of the night, throwing the sheets off my bed in a panic because I felt spiders crawling all over me. My wife would wake up wondering if I was all right. I would realize that it was just a dream (or was it?) and go back to bed.
Ok. I have a side spider story about this:
When I was in the second grade, occasionally, I would wake up at night after having a dream where I picked up a spider in my hand, only to feel a spider really sitting in my hand. I would yell for my parents who would come running to my room (which I shared with my sister and brother). I would tell my parents that a big spider was on my hand. My dad would pull my mattress away from the wall and look under my sheets and under the mattress, but would never find a spider. So, then I would go back to bed.
This happened about three times during a 3 month period. The same thing. I would wake up feeling like there was a big spider in the palm of my hand. Each time, my dad would come and check it out, but never find a spider.
Then came the day that we moved out of the “Married Student Housing” where we lived in Columbia, Missouri to move into a real house where I only had to share my bedroom with my brother. I was in my bedroom when my dad took my bed apart to load it into the U-Haul. As he pulled my bed away from the wall, there was a very large wolf spider on the wall. I yelled out, “There! That’s the spider that has been crawling on me at night!
End of Side Spider Story
I would like to point out one more thing before I end this post. It was always an honor to work alongside my friend Scott Hubbard. I could not have had a better partner during this Spider War. He had my back throughout this conflict. Those that work around Scott every day may not realize the amount of bravery and outstanding character that he possesses. Scott is truly one of the best Power Plant Men I was ever blessed to work with.