Monthly Archives: June, 2019

Power Plant Birthday Phantom

Long before Facebook ever graced the pages of our browsers, Power Plant Birthday reminders began appearing in the Outlook E-mail Inboxes of Power Plant men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Today it seems commonplace to be reminded of your friends birthdays as your smartphone pops up a message to remind you.  In 1997, a strange event began happening at the plant.  It sent some scurrying about to find the culprit.  Others found it funny.  Some worried that their secrets were about to be revealed.  One person was totally surprised by the response (me).

January 3, 1997 Charles Foster and I went to our morning meeting with our team in the main break room where we would meet every morning to go over the work for the day.  Alan Kramer began the meeting by asking me a direct question.  He said something like, “Kevin.  Do you know anything about emails from the Birthday Phantom?”  I asked him what he meant, and he went on to explain.

Alan Kramer

Our Foreman Alan Kramer

Alan said that when someone opened up Outlook to check their e-mail that morning, shortly after they opened it up, an e-mail appeared in their inbox that was from themselves.  So, when Alan had logged in that morning, he received an e-mail from Alan Kramer.  When he opened it, it had a subject of “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday”.  The body of the e-mail said, “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday.  He is 48 years old today.  Please wish him a Happy Birthday.  The Birthday Phantom.”

Jim Kanelakos in in the middle in the back (third from the left) with the red plaid shirt standing behind Vonzell Lynn

Wayne Cranford is front and center on one knee between David Evans and John Costello

It happened that when Wayne Cranford opened his own e-mail, the subject said, “Happy Birthday Wayne Cranford!”  and the body of the email had the happy birthday song,  “Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday dear Wayne.  Happy Birthday to you.  The Birthday Phantom.

So, after Alan explained this to me, he looked at me again with a rather stern look and said, “Kevin.  Did you do this?”  What could I say?  So, I said, “Why is it that whenever something like this happens, I’m always the first one to be blamed for it?”  I knew at that point that Alan’s next response was going to mean the difference between night and day, so I put on the most indignant look I could.

Alan said, “Well.  I just had to ask.”  I shrugged like I understood and glanced over at Charles Foster who had a stunned look hidden behind his best poker face.  Something like this:

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

You see…. about a year earlier, before we were using Microsoft Outlook, we were using Novell’s Groupwise for email.  Alan Kramer had come to me and asked me if I had done something “wrong” in regard to emails.  It turned out that I was innocent of any “wrongdoing” in that instance (well, almost).  Charles Foster was my witness.

What had happened was that one day, Danny Cain, who was the Instrument and Controls person on our team had come into the electric shop office to make a phone call to someone at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  I think it was Ed Mayberry.  Email was a new idea for most people at the plant.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

While Danny was on the phone, I turned to the computer sitting on the desk across the room from Danny and wrote an e-mail to the person that Danny was talking to telling him not to believe a word Danny was saying… whatever it was…. it wasn’t important.  I just thought it would be funny to send an email to Ed about Danny while he was talking to Danny on the phone.

The subject of the email was “Danny Cain”.  As Danny was talking on the phone, he happened to turn around just as I was clicking “Send”, and he saw his name in the subject line.  Charles was sitting there next to me, as we were on break at the time.  Danny quickly asked what I was doing and why did he see his name on an e-mail.  I put on the guiltiest look I could and said, “Oh.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.”  Rolling my eyes with obvious guilt.

I didn’t know how much this bugged Danny until a couple of days later Alan came into the electric shop office and said he needed to ask me a serious question.  I could tell he was upset with me.  He asked, “Have you been reading other people’s emails?”  I was confused by the question, because I didn’t relate it to Danny from the other day.  So both Charles and I looked confused.

I told Alan that not only had I not read other people’s emails, but even if I could, I wouldn’t because I considered other people’s emails private.  Then I explained to him that Novell’s Groupwise email was very secure, and I wouldn’t know how to hack into their email if I had a desire.  Which I didn’t.

 

Novell's Groupwise

Novell’s Groupwise

Still confused by why Alan would ask the question both Charles and I asked Alan what this was all about.  He didn’t want to say who it was that told him they thought I was reading their emails, but after we pressed him, he told us that Danny Cain said he saw me reading his email when he was in the office.  Then both Charles and I knew what this was all about.

I explained to Alan that I was just joking around with Danny at the time.  I reasoned with Alan that I would have to be pretty stupid to wait until Danny was standing a few feet away from me before I decided to read his emails.  Alan accepted my explanation.  Especially since it was backed by one of the most honest people at the plant, Charles Foster.

So, fast forward to November 6, 1996.  We were now using Outlook.  That was about as secure as a bag of Oreo cookies in a kindergarten classroom.

I was sitting in the electric shop office with Charles during lunch, and I had just finished writing some fun little programs that automated pulling stock prices from the Internet and putting them in Excel each day.  I asked Charles, “What shall I do next?”

Charles thought for a few moments and said, “You know when we were still all in the electric shop before the downsizing, how when it was someone’s birthday we used to celebrate it by bringing a cake and having a lunch or something for that person?  Well.  We don’t do anything now.  Can you come up with something that will help celebrate birthdays?”

After brainstorming ideas, we settled on sending emails and the “Birthday Phantom” was born.  I thought it would be neat to learn how to write programs that used the Outlook API, sending emails, and stuff like that.  So, I went to work during my lunch breaks writing the program.

It only took a week or so to get it working, and then we ran a bunch of tests on it until we settled on having the emails be sent by the same person that is receiving the email when they log on the computer.  Each time a person logs on the computer, the program would be kicked off.

The first thing it would do was check to see if the person had already logged on that day.  If they had logged on before, then it would shutdown because I didn’t want it to send more than one email for the same day, even if the person used a different computer.

The next thing it would check was if the person was on an exception list.  We had decided that it was best to keep the plant manager and his cronies… um… I mean, his staff from receiving emails, as we didn’t think they would appreciate it since they didn’t have much use for such things.  If the person logging on was on the exceptions list, the application would shutdown.

Then, it would check to see if it was anyone’s birthday that day.  If it was, then it would send an email from the person logged on, to the person logged on.  If it was the birthday of the person logging on, then it would modify the email so that it was personalized to say happy birthday to them.

There were little tweeks I made while testing the application before we went live with it.  First, I added little things like making sure the gender was correct.  So, if it was a woman’s birthday, then it would say “…wish her a happy birthday”.

Charles and I decided that the application would start running on January 1, 1997.  So, during December, I made sure it was setup on all the computers in the plant except those belonging to the staff.  This brings us to January 3, 1997, when Wayne Cranford was the first Power Plant Man to have a birthday.

As I hinted above, Alan’s response to my indignation at being accused of creating the Birthday Phantom would have determined how short-lived the Birthday Phantom would have been.  Since Alan didn’t pursue the inquiry I didn’t offer any more information.

For instance.  A few minutes after the meeting was over, I walked over the control room, and the control room operators were all standing around talking about the Birthday Phantom.  David Evans asked me if I was the Birthday Phantom.  I responded the same way I did with Alan, I said, “Why is it that when something like this happens, I am always the first person to be accused?”  David responded with, “Yeah, but are you the Birthday Phantom?”  Well.  I wasn’t the type of person to blatantly lie, so I had to admit that “Yes.  I’m the Birthday Phantom, but don’t tell anyone.”  The Control room operators said they would all keep it to themselves (yeah.  right).

Though some people thought the Birthday Phantom was a nuisance, others thought that their personal emails were at risk, and that the Birthday Phantom could be stealing their emails.  Whenever I heard that anyone was upset (such as Alan) with the Birthday Phantom, I just added them to the exceptions list and they never received another Birthday Phantom email.

Jim Padgett, a Shift Supervisor, had received a Birthday Phantom email one day, and called IT to report it as they were trying to track down the program to figure out where it was coming from.  Jim Cave told me that  Padgett had the IT guy on the phone and he was logged into his computer to watch what happened when he logged on and opened up Outlook to try and find what was sending the emails.

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left standing next to Jim Cave in the Jean Jacket.

Jim Cave said that the IT guy was sounding hopeful that he was going to finally be able to catch the Birthday Phantom when all of the sudden he said, “Oh!  That’s a Wiley One!”  I came to understand that in Oklahoma City, the IT department was taking this so seriously that they assigned two people full time for two weeks to try and find the culprit (I added Jim Padgett to the exception list, so he didn’t receive any more emails).

I hadn’t thought about it when I was writing the application, but back at Corporate Headquarters, they thought that the application had somehow gained access to the HR system in order to find the birthdays of each employee.  Even though, things like Birthdays and Social Security Numbers were not as sensitive in 1997 (for instance, the plant manager’s Social Security Number was 430-68-….  You really didn’t think I would put his Social Security number here did you?), if someone was accessing the HR database, that would have been serious.

Even though the IT department was taking this very seriously, there was one timekeeper at the Power Plant that was just about climbing the walls over the Birthday Phantom.  She was so concerned that I was afraid she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  I was not surprised by this at all, and had actually anticipated her anxiety.  Actually, the Birthday Phantom was designed for just this reason.  You see, this particular timekeeper was going to be turning 40 years old one week after the first Birthday Phantom email showed up.

After the second Birthday Phantom email arrived the next Monday on January 6, announcing that Jerry Potter had just turned 36, Linda Shiever called me and asked me if I could find out how to stop the Birthday Phantom.  I told her I would look into it.  I did look into it for about one second.  Linda was turning 40 on Friday.

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

On Wednesday, January 8, not only did Elvis Presley turn 62 (if he had been alive… or…. um…well, you know…) but the Birthday Phantom informed everyone at the plant that Sonny Kendrick (who was only 5 days younger than Wayne Cranford) had also turned 48 years old.  Linda Shiever was thinking about calling in sick on Friday.

Linda knew that when she came to work the morning of January 10, that her cube would be full of black balloons with the number 40 on them.  She had resigned herself to this a while before when she helped blow up the balloons for Louise Kalicki’s cube the previous August 23, less than 5 months earlier.  The appearance of the Birthday Phantom, however, had thrown in a new element of recognition.

The morning of January 10, 1997 finally arrived, and the Birthday Phantom email notified everyone that it was not only Linda Shiever’s birthday, but it was also Gene Day’s birthday as well.  Yeah.  The application could handle multiple birthdays on the same day.  Linda Shiever was happy to find out that the Birthday Phantom had informed the entire Power Plant that she had just turned 29.  In fact, that year, every woman at the plant was turning 29 years old according to the Birthday Phantom. — That was another one of those tweeks that came out of our testing.

Gene Day, on the other hand, according to the Birthday Phantom had just turned 100 years old…. Well.. Everyone knew he was ancient (See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” and the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“).  Needless to say, there was a lot less stress in the office area after that day.

The following week, when I went to the tool room to get some supplies, Darlene Mitchell stopped me and asked me if the Birthday Phantom would do her a favor.  She was turning 45 years old on January 28, and she didn’t want the Birthday Phantom to tell everyone she was 29.  She wanted it to say, “Today is Darlene Mitchell’s Birthday, She is 45 years old and Lovin’ it!  Please wish her a Happy Birthday!”  I told her I would have a talk with the Birthday Phantom and it shouldn’t be a problem.

Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

Darlene Mitchell, a dear friend of the Birthday Phantom

After a month, when I was in the Control Room, Jim Cave, who was now referring to me regularly as “The Wiley One” said that the IT department had told Jack Maloy that they were no longer looking for the Birthday Phantom.  They were not able to find it.  The person that did it would just have to tell them who it was.

I still have the computer code I used when I wrote the program.  Sometimes I take it out and read it and I remember that year when the Birthday Phantom visited the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to remind everyone that we were all growing older and as a family, we should take the time to stop and say “Happy Birthday” to each other on that one day each year when we are special.

Birthday Phantom Code

Page 1 of the Birthday Phantom Code

Power Plant Trouble With Angels

Okay, so, no one ever called me an Angel unless it was one of the fallen type.  I suppose the closest was when Bill Bennett, our A Foreman at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma would call me a scamp.  I don’t know why, but I always seemed to be in trouble over one thing or another.  Well… maybe I do know why.

Not long after Bill Bennett left during the downsizing in 1994, when our Supervisor over Maintenance was Jasper Christensen, we had received newer computers all around the plant.  That is, except for the Electric Shop, because we had acquired one a year or so before so that we could program Eeprom Chips.

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

I helped install the computers all around the plant.  I had run the Ethernet cables and installed the jacks so they could be connected to the plant computer network.  I had become the computer person for the plant by default, since I had learned how everything worked on my own.

When we received all the new computers, we were told that we had to keep an inventory of all the computer programs that we were using on each computer to make sure that we weren’t using pirated software.  So, when we installed any program on a computer we were supposed to notify our Supervisor, who in this case was Jasper Christensen.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

I sort of felt sorry for Jasper at times, because, it’s sort of like when you don’t get to choose your parents…. Jasper didn’t get to choose who was working for him exactly.  So, he was stuck with me.

I’m not saying that I was a bad person, or that I wasn’t good at being an electrician.  I was just annoying.  I was always up to some sort of something that no one really told me to do.

One example of this was that I had a CompuServe account, and I would use it to access stock quotes at the end of the day.  I would save them to a file, and then each week, I would pin up charts of our 401k stocks on the bulletin board in the electric shop.  Power Plant Men would come into the shop to see how their stocks were doing.  At this time, the “Internet” hadn’t been introduced to the plant and people didn’t really know much about it.  I would connect to CompuServe through a dial up modem.

 

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

I had a 14,400 baud modem with compression that made it more like 104,000 baud which was really fast for that time.   However, when the World Wide Web became available to CompuServe users, I found that even at that speed, it took a long time just to load one web page if it had a picture on it.  The Internet was just around the corner.  I’ll write a post about how it was introduced at the plant next week.

I diligently kept a log of all the software we had on our company computer.  Whenever I would upgrade CompuServe to the latest version, I would send a form to Jasper letting him know that I now had that version of software on the electric shop computer.  We also had installed other software, such as Reflex, which was sort of a hybrid between Excel and Access.  This was still a DOS based computer.  Windows 3.1 was on it, but a lot of our programs were still run in the DOS mode.

About 6 months after all the new computers arrived, we requested that the computer in the electric shop be replaced, because it was older, and we were using it for more and more things.  The computer arrived about a month after it was approved.

This time, an IT guy from Oklahoma City brought the computer to the plant.  This computer was better than all the other computers in the plant, mainly because it was newer.  At that time, computers were quickly improving.  If you waited six months more it would have even been a better computer.  While the IT guy was in the neighborhood, he installed some software on all the computers.

I was working on the Unit 2 Precipitator with Charles Foster the day that the Electric Shop received the new computer.  Alan Kramer, our Foreman, called me on the radio (walkie talkie)…  He did this because we were using radios a lot more, and were talking about shutting down the Gray Phone PA system all together.

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

Alan said that Jasper wanted to use the new Electric Shop computer at the Conoco Cogen (which stands for Cogeneration) plant in Ponca City.  We needed to take it to Ponca City and use the computer that was there for the electric shop. — Before I tell you my response…. let me tell you about the computer at the Cogen plant.

First, let me explain what a Cogeneration plant is…. This is a small power plant that uses waste gases from the Conoco (Continental Oil) Oil Refinery to create steam to turn the generator to produce electricity.  In exchange for using the waste gases from the refinery, the Power Plant gave any left over steam back to the refinery so they could use it in their refinery.  Plus, we would give the refinery the electricity that we produced.  Any electricity left over, we sold to our customers.

So, there was a desktop computer sitting on a desk in a small control room that allowed the control room at our power plant to dial into it and monitor the plant to see how it was working.  The connection was rather slow even though it had a dedicated phone line to connect to the plant.

The computer itself, even though it was somewhat older than the new computer we received for the electric shop, was sitting idle most of the time.  Even when it was working, it was never processing much.  The problem with the computer being slow wasn’t the computer itself, it was the Network connection back to the plant.

So, when Jasper had said that he was going to replace that computer with our much faster one that we had ordered, I was a little perturbed.  This meant that the nice new fast computer that we had specially ordered so that we could do our job was going to be sitting idle in Ponca City collecting dust doing next to nothing and it wasn’t going to make anything faster as far as the control room was concerned and we would be stuck with a computer that was somewhat older than the one that the computer person had just replaced.

So, in the most smarmy voice I could muster I replied over the radio, “Oh Great!  Another one of Jasper’s ‘Scathingly Brilliant Ideas’!”  I knew the phrase “Scathingly Brilliant Idea” from the movie “Trouble With Angels”.  It seemed like an appropriate remark at the time.

Trouble With Angels

Trouble With Angels

I knew that Jasper would be listening, because he had his walkie talkie set on scan so that he could hear everything we were saying.  Alan Kramer came right back after my remark and said, “Watch it Kevin.  You know who might be listening.”  I said, “Oh.  I know who’s listening.”

Approximately five minutes later, Jasper Christensen called me on the radio and asked me to meet him in his office.  “Okay.  Here it comes,” I thought.  On my way down from the roof of the precipitator I was formulating my argument as to why it was a terrible idea to take the best computer at the plant and send it to Ponca City to sit idle in a room by itself when I could easily put it to a lot of use.  I never really was able to present my arguments.

When I arrived at Jasper’s office, he told me that he wanted me to take CompuServe off of the computer in the electric shop.  I knew why.  I thought I knew why.  I figured it was because I had just insulted him on the radio.  I’m sure that was part of it, but it wasn’t the only reason.

I pressed Jasper on the issue and told him that I used CompuServe to download the stock prices for our 401k so that everyone can see how their stocks are doing and I post them on the bulletin board.  Jasper came back with “That has nothing to do with your job.”  I replied with, “I’m providing a service for our teams, just like the candy and coke machines.  I’m paying for the service myself.  I’m not charging anything.”  Jasper disagreed that I was providing a useful service.

Then Jasper said that the IT guy found a virus on one of the computers and since I was the only person at the plant that had connected to anything like CompuServe, the virus must have come from me.  When I asked him which computer had the virus, he didn’t know.  I told Jasper I better go find out, because if there was a virus on one of the computers, we need to clean it up right away.

This was at a time when McAfee’s Viruscan software was freeware.  I always had an updated copy of it that I would run on the computers.  I had checked all the computers at the plant recently, so I was surprised to hear that one of them had a virus.  Jasper told me that the IT guy was up in Bill Green’s office.  Bill Green was the plant manager.

Bill Green

Bill Green

As I was leaving Jasper’s office, I paused and turned around and asked Jasper one last question….. “Do you want me to only remove the CompuServe application, or do you want me to stop accessing CompuServe? Because I can access CompuServe without the application on the computer.  The application just makes it easier to navigate around.”  This question puzzled Jasper.  He said he would have to get back at me on that.  — So, at that point (I thought to myself), I’ll wait until Jasper gets back to me on that before I remove the software.

I knew that he knew nothing about computers, and I knew that this would confuse him.  That’s why I asked it.  I wanted him to know that if he made me remove CompuServe because he was mad at me for making my smartaleck remark about moving the computer to Ponca City it wasn’t going to make much difference to me anyway.

So, I walked back up to him as he was sitting at his desk, and I said, “Jasper.  I know that I’m the only person in this plant that has given you a list of all the programs on the computer I use.  I let you know every time I even upgrade to a new version.  I am the only person in the plant that follows the rules when it comes to what is on the computers.  I know that there has been personal software added to just about every computer at this plant.  I am the only person that has told you what software I am using.  So, just keep it in mind that you are trying to punish the only person that is following the rules.”  Then I left.

I went upstairs to Bill Green’s office where I found the IT guy running a scan on Bill’s computer.  I asked him about the virus he found.  He said that he was running a Microsoft virus scanner on the computers and on the one in the chemists lab, there was one file that was questionable.  The scan said it was a possible virus, but couldn’t tell what virus it was.

I asked the IT guy what the name of the file was.  He handed me a post it note with the file name on it.  I recognized it right away.  It was a GLink file.  GLink is the application that we used to access the mainframe computer in order to work on our Maintenance Orders, or to look up parts, and any other computer related activities.

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

I had been given a beta test version of GLink that I installed on the Chemists computer for Toby O’Brien about a year earlier when he asked me to help him find a way to connect to the Prime computer downtown so that he could work on CAD drawings from the plant.  IT had sent this Beta version of GLink to me because it could connect to the switch twice as fast as the current GLink and they were glad to let us try it out.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

About that time, Bill Green came into the office and I told him that the “supposed” virus on the Chemist computer was given to us by IT and that it probably wasn’t a virus anyway, it just acted like one because it connected to a switch a certain way which was unusual.  The IT guy was still standing there and he agreed that it just indicated that it might be a virus and probably wasn’t really one.

Then I told Bill Green that Jasper had told me to remove CompuServe from the computer in our shop.  He said that he and Jasper had talked about it and were concerned that I might download a virus from CompuServe.  I assured him that I only downloaded stock prices and MSDS sheets (Material Safety Data Sheets) from OSHA.  Everything I downloaded was in text format and would not contain a virus.

The IT guy agreed that at that time, CompuServe was very careful about viruses as they had been hit with one about 6 months earlier.  Now they scanned everything they let you download.  Bill said, “Well, that’s between you and Jasper.”  —  That’s all I needed to hear.  I knew that Jasper would forget about it and never “get back with me” on it.

As you can tell, if you’ve been reading the posts this year, I am constantly becoming more involved in computers at this point in my career.  For good or bad, it was a concern for people like Jasper and Bill.  I knew a lot more than they did to the point that they would call me to help them learn how to use their computers.  They didn’t know if they could trust me.  Luckily for them, even though I was mischievous, I wouldn’t do anything to invade someone’s privacy, or hurt plant operations.

It did seem like I was always in trouble over one thing or another.  It was often brought on by someone’s misunderstanding about what the problem really was, and their feeble incorrect attempt to fix it…. and… well….(let’s face it) my big mouth.

Power Plant Spider in the Eye

If you have been following my posts for very long, you may have the idea that I just like to write posts about spiders.  After writing two posts about Spider Wars (see posts:  “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement” and “Power Plant Spider Wars II – The Phantom Menace“), another post about spiders just seems like a bit much.  Even though there is a spider in this story, another appropriate title could be something like “Another night in the Life of a Power Plant Electrician”.  Without further ado, here is the story.

Ninety nine times out of a hundred, when the phone rang in the middle of the night, it was the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma calling.  I don’t remember a time when the Shift Supervisor on the other end of the phone wasn’t very polite.  They knew they were waking someone from their sleep to ask them to drive 30 miles out to the plant in the wee hours of the morning.

The Shift Supervisor, whether it was Joe Gallahar, Jim Padgett, Jack Maloy, or Gary Wright, they would all start out with something like, “Hey, sorry to wake you buddy…”.  After such an apologetic introduction, how could you be upset that your sleep had just been interrupted?  Then they would proceed to tell you why they needed your assistance.  For me, it was usually because the coal dumper had stopped working while a train was dumping their coal.  This meant that 110 cars tied to three or four engines was sitting idle unable to move.

Each car on the train would be dumped one at a time as it was pulled through the rotary dumper.  The process was automated so that the operator in the control room watching out of the window only had to push one switch to dump each car.

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

The train would move forward to the next car automatically as a large arm on a machine called a Positioner would come down on the coupling between the cars and pull the entire train forward to the next car.

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

There were so many moving parts involved in positioning the car in place and rolling it over to dump the coal, that it was common for something to go wrong.  When that happened the entire process would come to a halt and the train would just have to sit there until someone came to fix it.  That was usually an electrician since the dumper and the positioner was all controlled by relays much like the elevator controls, only more complicated.

This particular night, Joe Gallahar had called me.  It seemed that there was an intermittent problem with the dumper that didn’t seem to make much sense and they couldn’t figure out why it was acting so strange.  One of the train cars had actually been damaged as the positioner arm would start coming up from the coupling to the point where the holding arm on the other end of the dumper had come up, then the positioner arm began going back down, causing the train to move on it’s own only to have the arm on the positioner scrape the side of the train car as it rolled backward uncontrolled.

Though it was less frequent, it was not so strange to have a train damaged by erratic dumper controls.  I have seen the side of a train car smashed in by the positioner arm when it decided to inappropriately come down.  This night, the problem was acting like that.  So, instead of damaging the train further, they decided to call me out to have a look at it.

I always had the philosophy when being called out in the middle of the night to be just as polite back to the Shift Supervisor when I answered the phone.  I had a Marketing professor at Oklahoma State University named Dr. Lee Manzer, who explained this one day.

Here is a short side story about Dr. Manzer —

Dr. Manzer told a story in class one day about how he was travelling home one day from a long and difficult trip where everything had gone wrong.  It was very late at night when he arrived at his house (which, incidentally was just down the street from my parent’s house), he was really beat.  He went into his bedroom and began preparing for bed.

About the time he was taking off his tie, his wife rolled over in bed and welcomed him home.  Then she said, “Oh, by the way.  I forgot to buy milk (or maybe it was ice cream).  Do you think you could run down to the store and buy some?”

Dr. Manzer explained his decision making process at that point like this:  “I could either go on a rant and tell my wife what a long and tiring day I had just had and now you are asking me to go buy milk? , and then I would go get the milk.  Or I could say, ‘Of course Dear.  I would be glad to go buy some milk.’  Either way, I was going to go buy the milk.  So, I could do it one of two ways.  I could complain about it or I could be positive.  I could either score points or lose them…. hmm…. Let’s see…. what did I do?  I said, ‘Of course Dear.'”

— End of the side story about Dr. Lee Manzer who by the way was a terrific Marketing Professor.  I understand he still teaches to this day.

So, when Joe Gallahar called me that night, and explained that the dumper was acting all erratic, Instead of saying “Yes Dear.”  as that wouldn’t have been appropriate, I told him, “No problem.  I’ll be there as soon as I can.”  My wife Kelly knew who was on the other end of the phone when she heard my answer.  She had heard it many times before.  I usually only had to say one word after hanging up the phone, “Dumper”, and she knew what that meant.

A Power Plant Electrician’s spouse knows that this is part of the job.  As I pulled on the jeans that I had laid out before I went to bed, Kelly would usually say something in her sleep like, “Be careful”.  I would give her a hug and tell her I’ll be back in a while, even though, sometimes I would be gone for two days working on the precipitator during a start up or some major catastrophe.  Usually, it was just a couple of hours before I came crawling back in bed.

This particular night I drove to work in silence with the window open so that the cool air would keep me awake.  Normally I had the radio on some rock station so that I would be singing along (in my terribly off-key singing voice) in order to stay awake.  Sometimes I would just take the 25 minutes of silence to just think.

My thought that night was that it was nice to be wanted.  There is some comfort in knowing that the Shift Supervisor could call me with enough confidence to know that I would be able to come out on my own and fix a problem that was costing the company a large amount of money each hour the dumper was offline.  Some might think that I would be annoyed to be wakened in the middle of the night to go fix something at the plant.  That night, as most nights I was feeling honored.

That wasn’t always the case, and I’ll soon write a post about another call out in the middle of the night where Scott Hubbard and I wondered exactly why they called us… but that’s another story.

When I arrived at the plant, I rolled my car up to the speaker at the front gate and said, “Hello” with an arrogant English accent.  I don’t know why, but I always liked doing that.  I think it was Billy Epperson who answered back.  I told him I was here to work on the dumper.  He thanked me and opened the gate and I drove the 1/2 mile down the hill to the plant parking lot.  As I went over the hill, in the moonlight I could see the train up at the coal yard looking like a long silver snake.

I walked into the maintenance shop and grabbed a truck key off of the hook and drove around to the electric shop to pick up my hard hat and tool bucket.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

I took the long way around to the coal yard since the train blocked the shortest route.  We had a tunnel on the west end of the coal yard that went under the tracks for just this occasion.

When I arrived at the dumper, Stanley Robbins explained that he had tried troubleshooting this problem himself, but he couldn’t find anything that would explain the strange behavior.  Since the last downsizing, we were all able to sort of mix our skills so that an operator could do simple electric tasks if they felt comfortable with it.  Stanley knew enough to fix your normal minor dumper issues.  This one was a little different.

Since I had been an electrician for the past 15 years at this point, I felt pretty confident that I would quickly find the problem and be heading back home soon.  So, I walked into the dumper switchgear where the dumper controls are found.  I asked Stanley to go turn on the power to the dumper so that I could watch the relays.  When the power was on, I began tracing the circuits looking for the point of failure.

The problem was intermittent, and when Stanley started the dumper back up, everything seemed to be working just fine.  Stanley explained that this was why they couldn’t use the dumper because they couldn’t be sure when it was going to malfunction.  They had even uncoupled the train and pulled it apart right where the positioner arm was so that I could see what was happening.

Using radios (walkie talkies), I asked Stanley to move the positioner arm up and down while I checked it.  He lowered it and raised it back up without any problem.  When he began lowering it the second time, it suddenly stopped halfway down.  Watching the controls, I could see that it indicated that it had come all the way down.  It would be this case that would tell the holding arm on the far side of the dumper to go back up, which is what happened when the train rolled back earlier that night.

Then the relays rattled like they were picking up and dropping out rapidly.  Then the problem cleared up again.  Somehow the positioner arm had thought it had come down on the car clamps when it was still up in the air.  That was not likely to happen because when something fails it usually doesn’t see what it’s supposed to see, not the other way around.  It doesn’t usually see something that isn’t there.

So, I had Stanley lower the positioner arm down so that it was level with the ground, so that I could check the connections to the electric eye that was on the positioner clamp that detected the train car clamp when it came down.  I couldn’t find any lose connections or anything that would explain it.

So I told Stanley that I was going to look up from under the car clamp to look at the electric eye.  So, I asked him to kill the power to the positioner so that it wouldn’t move while I was doing that and crush me like a bug.  Kneeling on the train track, I took my flashlight and looked up at the electric eye from under the car clamp, and this is what I saw:

A spider almost like this

A spider almost like this

This spider had built a spider web in front of the electric eye on the positioner and was sitting right in the middle causing the positioner to think it was down on the car clamp when it wasn’t.  Stanley was watching me from the window of the dumper control room when he saw me stand up quickly and look up at him with a big grin on my face.  I gave him a thumbs up.

You know the phrase, “Everyone has 10 minutes of fame….”  It indicates that some time in most people’s lives they are famous for a brief moment.  It may or may not define the rest of their life.  Well.  This was that spiders claim to fame.  This one spider had successfully stranded a coal train with 110 cars of coal.  A train crew, a coal yard operator, and one lone electrician that had traveled 30 miles to watch it act out it’s drama of catching gnats on it’s web being constantly watched by one large electric eye.

I did not drive home in silence that early morning.  I laughed out loud all the way home.  I still laugh to myself to this day when I think about this night.  Phrases like, “Isn’t life wonderful” comes to my mind.  Or “Even Spiders desire attention every now and then.”  Could there have been a better malfunction than to have a spider dancing in front of an electric eye out in the plains of Oklahoma saying, “Look at me!  Look at me!”  and by golly.  Someone did!  I’m just glad it was me.

Power Plant Invisible Diesel Oil Spill Drill

Many times in my life I have been in both the right place at the right time and avoided the wrong place at the wrong time.  I have attributed this to either a very persistent Guardian Angel, or the sheer luck of someone who usually walks around in a mist more as an observer than a commander. Either way, it has made for an interesting life.

One spring day in 1996 I had a job to perform at the Intake pumps (Condenser Water Pumps).  These are the pumps that pump lake water through the condensers just below the Turbine Generators at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Each pump can pump 189,000 gallons per minute.  This particular day I had to work on the overhead crane at the intake because it wasn’t working correctly.

It was a perfectly cool sunny morning, so I decided instead of finding a truck or a four wheeler I was going to just walk the quarter of a mile to the intake.

Honda Four Wheeler

Power Plant Honda Four Wheeler

So, I grabbed my tool bucket and headed for the intake.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

Just as I left the maintenance shop, I could glance to the right and see the sand filter building next to the water treatment plant directly across the road.  This was where I had worked with Ed Shiever 13 years earlier when I had rambled on for days testing his sanity.  See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“.  This was also where I had my first brush with death at the hands of Curtis Love.  See the post “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“.

Just beyond the water treatment plant are the large fields of grass where 16 years earlier I had learned my lesson about listening from Ken Conrad.  See the post “When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays to Listen“.  When I first came to work at the plant years earlier, this large field was nothing but dirt.  On this day, the fields were green from the spring rain.

The intake was just across the field.  It was a perfect day for a walk, and I did need the exercise.

The Intake is just to the right of this picture across the canal

The Intake pumps are just to the right of this picture across the canal

The picture of the plant above shows how the intake is across a field from the main plant.  On the very far left in the picture you can see the edge of a large tank.

A view of the coalyard from the top of the Smoke Stack

A view of the intake from the top of the Smoke Stack

In this picture you can see the four pumps at the bottom of the picture.  You can also see why people who live around the plant love their beautiful countryside.  In the distance you can see glimpses of the Arkansas River.  The lake was formed by pumping water from the river up hill.  The Intake overhead crane is just above the white truck parked at the intake.  That was my destination this particular morning.

As I walked down the road toward the intake a company truck drove by rather slow.  It was being driven by someone from Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  I recognized Julia Bevers sitting in the passenger seat.  She was in the Safety Department.  Toby O’Brien may have been in the truck as well.  They slowed down enough to have a good look at me.

I waved at them and they waved back.  They had curious grins on their faces.  With years of Power Plant Jokes under my belt, I recognized that grin as one indicating that something was up.  So, as I continued walking, I watched them closely.  They turned left at the road across from the large Number 2 Diesel Oil Tanks.  Each tank could hold up to one million gallons of oil, though, we never kept that much oil in them.

This is an overhead view of the plant

This is a Google Maps overhead view of the plant

In the picture above you can see two white round circles just right of the center of the picture.  These are the oil tanks.  The long line running from the coalyard to the plant is called 10 and 11 conveyors.  They carry the coal from the crusher to the plant.  The truck from Oklahoma City turned left on the road from the right side of the plant by the tanks.  I was about halfway up this road when they drove by.

After they turned the corner, they parked their truck under the conveyor.  You can see this area clearly in the first picture of the plant above taken from across the intake.  All three occupants climbed out of the truck and walked into the field.  They were all looking around as if they knew something was out there and were trying to find it.

My curiosity was definitely stirred by now, so as I walked by their truck, without saying anything, I gave Julia a funny look.  She looked at the other two as if she should say something.  Finally one of them said, “There has been an oil spill right here in this field.  A Diesel oil truck spilled a bunch of oil here and it’s going to be flowing into that drain over there and if it does, it’s going to end up in the lake.”

I could see that obviously there was no oil in the field.  Now that I think about it, the third person may have been Chris McAlister.  He had worked on the labor crew at our plant before the downsizing.  He was given a job in the safety department and had been assigned to track hazardous materials for the company.

Julia said that this is a drill for the Hazwoper team at the plant.  In a few minutes they are going to sound the alarm that an oil spill has taken place, and they are going to see how long it takes for the Hazwoper team to arrive and alleviate the problem.  Julia grinned again, because she knew that I was a member of the hazwoper team.

The word Hazwoper is an acronym that stands for “Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Rescue”.  Our team was the “ER” in HAZWOPER.  We were the Emergency Rescue team.  Julia told me to just go about doing what I’m doing.  In a few minutes they would sound the alarm.

I walked over to the Intake Switchgear.  This is the little building next to the road at the very bottom of the picture above taken from the smoke stack.  This was my first stop when checking out the overhead crane.  Since the crane wasn’t working, I wanted to make sure that the power to the crane was turned on before assuming that there was a more complicated problem.  You would be surprised sometimes.  Those are best problems to solve.  Just close the breaker and the problem is solved.

Instead of checking the breaker to the crane, I was more interested in the Gray Phone on the wall by the door.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

Gaitronics Gray Phone

This was our PA system.  You could page someone on it and wherever you were in the plant, you could usually find the nearest gray phone and immediately be in touch with the person you were trying to find.  At this point, we all carried radios, so we rarely needed to use the gray phones.

We kept the Gray Phones around for safety reasons.  There were some places where the radios didn’t work well.  At this moment, I didn’t want to talk on the radio where anyone could listen. — well, they could on the gray phone, but only if they went to one and picked it up and turned to the same channel.

I paged George Pepple, our head Chemist and the Doctor that did the Jig in the puddle of acid 17 years earlier in the Water Treatment plant.  See the Post “A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“.  Doctor George was also the leader of the Hazwoper team.

When George answered the phone, I told him about the oil spill drill that was about to happen.  Julia had told me to go about doing what I was doing, but she hadn’t told me not to tell anyone, so…  I did.  I explained to him that the Hazwoper team was about to be called to respond to an oil spill by the intake.  We will need some oil absorbing floats to put around the pipe where the drain in the field empties into the intake.  We also needed something to block the drain so that the oil won’t go down the drain in the first place.

George understood and I left him to it.  A few minutes later, a call came over the radio that the Hazwoper team was required at the intake to respond to a Diesel Oil Spill.  It’s interesting, but even though I was anticipating the call, when it came over the radio, a lump of excitement went up in my throat.  I become emotional over the silliest things some times.

I left my tool bucket in the switchgear, and took only my radio as I jogged back to the three people standing in the field.  About the same time that I arrived, Dr. George pulled up with a truckload of Hazwoper Heroes.  They piled out of the back of the truck and began spreading out oil booms to catch the oil before it went down the drain.  A couple headed for the intake, but the Safety team said that wouldn’t be necessary.  I can remember Ray Eberle, Randy Dailey and Brent Kautzman being there.  There were others.  They can leave a comment below to remind me.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

The final result of the Hazwoper Oil Spill Drill was that our Plant Hazwoper team was able to respond to the oil spill in four minutes.  Much faster than any other plant.  Of course, this was partly because I happened to be in the right place at the right time.  The Safety Team said that was perfectly all right.  The drill was setup so it took place during the normal operation of the plant, and I just happened to be working nearby that day.

I know this isn’t what you were waiting to hear.  I know that you are sitting at the edge of your seat wondering if I’m ever going to tell you what was wrong with the overhead crane.  Well.  It wasn’t as simple as turning the power back on.  Actually, when it came down to it.  We didn’t even have a wiring diagram or a schematic of how the overhead crane worked.

an overhead crane. The gray panels on the far side is where the controls were found

an overhead crane. The gray panels on the far side is where the controls were found

So, I took a bunch of notes in my 3 x 5 handy dandy pocket-sized Sparco Notepad:

My Power Plant Sparco Wirebound Memo Book

My Power Plant Sparco Wirebound Memo Book

After I made my way back to the plant, I went pulled out a ruler, and a blueprint stencil

Electric Symbol Stencil

Electric Symbol Stencil

and I drew the following wiring diagram for the Crane Hoist Controls:

Intake Crane control Circuit

Intake Crane control Circuit

After troubleshooting the controls with Charles Foster, it turned out that the problem was in the push button controls.  A button was malfunctioning and needed to be fixed.

Push button controls for the Overhead crane

Push button controls for the Overhead crane

Anyway, not long after the Hazwoper Spill Test, our Confined Space Rescue team was also tested.  We received a call that someone was down in the Truck scales and had passed out.  The Confined Space Rescue team was called to rescue them.

This consisted of taking our equipment bags with us and arriving at the truck scales to rescue a person that had climbed down inside and had passed out.  When we arrived, we found that this was only a drill.  The Safety department from Oklahoma City was testing our Confined Space Rescue team to see how long it took us to respond.

I could point out in the overhead picture of the plant exactly where the truck scales are, but it would take a long time.  Let me just say that they are in the upper left part of the picture where that road looks like it widens at the corner where that smaller road branches off to the upper left.

Our response time?  Four minutes and 30 seconds.  And this time, we didn’t know this one was coming.

About being in the right place at the right time…. I was in the right place when I first became a summer help at the plant.  I was in the right place when Charles Foster asked me if I would think about becoming an electrician.  I was in the right place when I was on Labor Crew and the electricians had a opening in their shop.  But most of all, I was in the right place in history to be able to spend 20 years of my life with such a great bunch of Power Plant Men and Women at the best power plant in the country.

UK Kudos for Okie Power Plant

I began writing this blog more than three years ago in order to share some of the stories about the great Power Plant Men and Women that I was privileged to work with for twenty years at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  I have put the men and women of this plant on a well-deserved pedestal.  Don’t just take my word for it.  The rest of the world had their eyes fixed on our plant.  Of the 700 Coal-fired Power Plants operating in the United States, there was one that stood out above all the rest.  It was no wonder to me.

The Power Plant had been told that in 1995 our plant had the lowest operating and maintenance cost of any fossil fueled Power Plant in the United States.  This included the cost for the fuel, which was coal being transported from Wyoming on trains.  The second lowest operating Power Plant was our sister plant in Muskogee.  After that was a plant in Texas that happened to sit on coal mine, and didn’t have the cost of shipping their coal 1,000 miles before they burned it.

The company was so proud of our achievements that they gave each of us a Jean Jacket with our names embroidered on it.  On the upper right it said, “1995 Low Cost Award”.

1995 Low Cost Award Jean Jacket

1995 Low Cost Award Jean Jacket

I don’t do Selfies, that’s why I draped this over a chair.

A couple of years later, we were again awarded as the low cost provider of electricity in the country.  This time they gave us Denim shirts.  Okies like Denim… I guess you could tell.  The cuff on the sleeve says, “1997  Sooner Power Plant Model Of Cost Efficiency”.

Denim Shirt awarded for being the 1997 "Model of Cost Efficiency"

Denim Shirt awarded for being the 1997 “Model of Cost Efficiency”

In the spring of 1998 (someone can correct me on the year), a plant manager, Mark Draper from England came to our plant to study us.  He wanted to see how a group of 124 employees could run a plant the size of a small city as efficiently as we did.  Throughout the year he worked on various teams to see how we operated.  He wanted to learn our secret.  The plant was willing to share everything with Mark.

Mark Draper

Mark Draper

Mark would spend a month working as a welder, then another month working as an Instrument and Controls Technician, then another in the machine shop.  He continued throughout the year bouncing from job to job watching and learning.  He spent a lot of time working with the Engineers.  I kept waiting for him to work as an electrician.

I had our second biggest secret just waiting to show to Mark, but it seems that it never occurred to Mark that electricians had something to offer to the efficiency of the Power Plant.  Because during the twelve months Mark spent at our plant, he never worked as an electrician.

The first biggest secret came in the form of an Engineer named Larry Kuennen.  He had studied the way the coal burned in the boiler and had come up with ways to increase the efficiency.  I’m sure Mark learned a lot from working with Larry.

I kept itching for the day that Mark Draper ended up working out of the electric shop.  I was going to take him on a tour and show him how we were saving a huge amount of electricity at our plant in a way that is totally overlooked by everyone else.  Without this secret, there would be no way we would have been the low cost provider of electricity.  I think at the time our plant could create electricity at a rate around 1.5 cents per killowatthour (someone at the plant can correct me.  It has been a while and I may be confusing this with the percent cost of IT by revenue at Dell).

Before I tell you about the report that Mark Draper gave us at the end of his year of studying the heman habits of Oklahoma Power Plant Men, let me expand on the way the electricians had increased the efficiency of the power plant.  It has to do with what a foreman, Mark Fielder would refer to as “My Baby.”  The precipitator.

Mark Fielder

Mark Fielder

The Precipitator is the piece of equipment that uses more power than just about everything else at the plant combined.  It takes the ash out of the exhaust before it goes out of the smoke stack.  That is why you don’t see smoke coming out of the smoke stack on a coal-fired Power Plant when it’s running.  When a precipitator is running efficiently, it should be able to take out 99.97% of the ash from the exhaust from the boiler.

The amount of ash going out of the smoke stack is measured by opacity.  That is, how much do the particles in the exhaust block a ray of light shining across the stack.  We tried to keep the opacity below 5%.  I think we legally had to keep it below 20%, but anything above 8% didn’t look good when you drove by the plant.  You would be able to see the smoke.

The precipitator at our plant used Static electricity to collect the ash.  Like I said, it used a lot of electricity.  Megawatts of power.  The secret is that Static electricity shouldn’t use much power.  Practically none.  If you calculated the work that actually had to be done, it was miniscule compared to running a conveyor or a big fan or a bowl mill.  This meant that 90% or more of the electricity used by an Electrostatic precipitator is wasted energy.  It is leaking, and in many cases actually working against collecting the ash.  A fine tuned electrostatic precipitator shouldn’t use much electricity.

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

We had found a number of ways at our plant to manipulate the electric pulse used to charge the plates in the precipitator in order to reduce the wasted electricity.  When everything ran correctly, when the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator could have an opacity close to 0% using less than 100 Kilowatts (yes.  I said Kilowatts) of power.  This was so unheard of that the company that manufactured our controls refused to believe it even when they were standing in the Precipitator Control Room watching it operate.

To put this in perspective.  One winter day, while I was tuning the precipitator, the space heaters in the Precipitator control room was using more power to heat the room than the entire precipitator was using to remove the ash at full load.  The opacity was almost 0%.

Another side story about this is that at one point, the opacity monitor was measuring a negative 0.2%.  Tony Mena, the Instrument and Controls Technician worked on calibrating the monitor.  He would take it to the logic room and set it up on some stands there that had the same measurements as the stack.  No matter how many times he calibrated the monitor, he was still coming out with -.1 or -.2% when he hooked it up to the smoke stack.  The final conclusion was that the precipitator was operating so efficiently that the exhaust going out of the smoke stack was cleaner than the ambient air.  — I know… I know… impossible… right?

I’ll admit, it wasn’t just the manipulation of the electric pulse, it was also sensitive to the temperature of the exhaust and the amount of sulfur in the coal.  We burned Wyoming coal which has a very low amount of sulfur.  This made it more challenging.

I couldn’t wait to show this to Mark Draper, the UK Plant Manager.  This was my baby, and I was proud of it.  Only, Mark never showed up.

One day I saw a man with a clipboard walking around the precipitator hoppers writing something down as he studied them.  So, I walked up to him.  I could tell right away that he was someone from England that had come as part of Mark Drapers crew of spectators.  I asked him if he was interested in learning how we ran our precipitators.

I thought, maybe this is someone who is finally interested in how we save tons of money in operating cost each year by not wasting it on the precipitator.  He was an engineer taking notes on our ash transport system.  He wasn’t interested in how we operated the controls.  He said in England they just throw the switch and power up the precipitator to full power and let it go at that.  — A total waste of power and it’s less efficient.  I couldn’t even convince him to take a walk through the control cabinets just to see the voltage and amp meters.

Oh well, I thought…  This would just be our plant’s little secret.  No one else seems to want to know about it.

At the end of the year during our monthly safety meeting, Mark Draper gave us a report of his findings.  He went through a lot of bullet points in a PowerPoint Presentation. — Yeah.  We were beginning to get fancy with the computers around that time.

The first thing that Mark brought up was this…. He said that there was no way he was going to be able to go back to England and repeat what he had learned here.  The reason was that the Fine Power Plant Men and Women at our plant came to work each day and began working at 8:00.  They took close to a 20 minute break in the morning and in the afternoon.  They took a 40 minute lunch (Breaks were technically 15 minutes and lunch was 30, but…. you know how it is… you have to stretch them a little).  He explained that at our plant, we had about 6 and a half hours each day of productive time.  6-1/2 hours of actually working on something.

In England, this was impossible.  When the workers arrived at the plant in England, they took a long time getting ready for work.  They took longer breaks and longer lunches, and at the end of the day, they would take a long time to take a shower and clean up.  Almost an hour to clean up at the end of the day.  In England they were lucky when they were able to get 4 hours of actual work out of their workers.  Because of union agreements and such, they were helpless to change this culture.

Mark was impressed at the amount of pride people took doing their jobs.  I will paraphrase what Mark told us:  He could tell that the Oklahoma Power Plant Men and Women wanted to do a good job.  They received satisfaction by applying their skills to their work.  In England, the attitude of the worker was more like this was just a job.  Their real satisfaction in life was when they left the plant.  In Oklahoma, when the Power Plant Men left the plant, they left with more of a feeling of pride over doing a good job.

Mark did offer us some advice on how we could better ourselves.  He did give us his honest opinion about some things that he thought we might do better.  They sounded more like they were coming from his Plant Manager training than from his experience at our plant.

As Mark never did work with the electricians, I was never able to work with him.  Others who did, found Mark to be very friendly.  I know that some also kept in touch with him long after he left to go back to England.  I missed the opportunity to befriend Mark.  I wish I had.

Mark Draper must have had a tremendous amount of character to be able to persuade those in England that he should take off an entire year to go work at a Power Plant in Oklahoma U.S.A.. Just think of the commitment he was making to leave his home for a year to go work alongside skilled labor in another country.

I didn’t know Mark personally like a lot of the other Power Plant Men did, but after I originally posted this post (yesterday), a Control Room Operator, Jim Cave who knew Mark better told these stories to me:

  • Mark told me that he wanted to live a normal American life while in the states. Bill Green had bought him a gift of an outdoor grill. The first opportunity that he had to use it he told me that he grilled the family some burgers and then they all went and sat in the car and ate them!
  •  He also went and bought some American jeans so he would blend in with the workers. He caught all kinds of grief from the guys when they noticed his jeans didn’t have any back pockets! His wife had to go back to the store and buy him some “guy” pants.
  •  He WAS a very nice and very smart guy. The cultural differences were interesting. He came into the control room one day asking me for “a pair of steps”. We had no idea that he wanted a ladder.

Mark did make sense when he said that what he saw at our plant he would not be able to reproduce in England.  The truth was that what Mark saw at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was something that few plants in the United States could reproduce.  I have been attempting to make this point each week for the past 3 years.

There was something very special at this Power Plant during the 20 years when I worked there.  Something you are not going to find just anywhere.  The plant housed a collection of some of the most fantastic minds and personalities on the planet.  They had somehow all come together to perform a team that not only produced the “Model of Cost Efficiency” as it said on our shirts, but had also created a group of extraordinary teamwork.

Whenever I sat in a meeting like the Monthly Safety Meeting, where the entire maintenance department was present, as I looked around the room, I honestly could see that for the most part we were more of a family than we were employees.  I was lucky to have been invited to be a part of this family.  Kudos to you all.

Power Plant Security Guard Finds Fame Amid Mass Murder

I stayed home one Wednesday morning because I was going to be a guinea pig at the Stillwater Medical Center that morning while some nurses were being certified to give PICC lines.  That is, when they insert a catheter in a vein in your arm and thread it all the way up to your heart.  In order to be certified, you had to actually perform this procedure 2 or 3 times on a live vict…. uh…. subject.  My wife Kelly had coaxed me into this position with promises of Chicken Cacciatore.

PICC Catheter

PICC Catheter

Anyway.  I was able to sleep in that morning.  So, I had just risen from bed a few minutes before 9:00am in time to say goodbye to my daughter Elizabeth, who was on her way to Kindergarten.  Kelly was taking her.  I didn’t have to be ready to go to the hospital until 10:00.

I watched from our front atrium as my wife drove down the gravel driveway to the dirt road and turn right out of sight.  As I walked back to our bedroom to take my shower, I heard and felt a rumble.  To me it sounded like a semi truck had just pulled into our driveway.  This was not too impossible, as our country neighbors would use our drive sometimes if a big truck needed to reach their barn.

I thought I would see what was going on, so I returned to the living room and looked out of the window.  There was no truck.  Then I thought that the rumble felt more like an earthquake than a truck.  I used to live on the main highway through Stillwater (Highway 53, also known as 6th street) before moving out to the country, and I knew the difference between an earthquake and a semi truck.

I returned to bedroom and continued on my way to the shower.  When I was finished, I walked into the bedroom and flipped on the TV.  I thought I would see if there was any news about the earthquake on the news.  Instead, for the next two hours I sat on the edge of the bed glued to the television as tears ran down my face.

At the time that I felt the earthquake, one of the Instrument and Controls Technicians at our Power Plant was talking to someone in our Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  There was the sound of a large explosion and the person on the other end said there had been an explosion and they had to go, and the phone went dead.  The Corporate Headquarters building is one block south of the Federal Murrah Building.

This was the morning of April 15, 1995.  Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the bombing.  I lived about 50 miles as the crow flies from the Federal Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.  At 9:02 a.m. the earthquake I had felt was from the Murrah Building Bombing at the time when 168 people were killed by the blast.

Murrah Building before the bombing in 1995

Murrah Building before the bombing in 1995

As I sat watching the events unfold a yellow 1977 Mercury Marquis was driving north on I-35 toward Kansas.  There was one anomaly about this car.  The license plate on the back was not properly attached.  As the car passed exit 186, the driver could see the Charles Machine Works off to the east manufacturing Ditch Witch trenchers in Perry, Oklahoma.

 

Ditch Witch Trencher

Ditch Witch Trencher

A Power Plant Security Guard at our plant, who as his second job (because working at a Power Plant would of course be the first and foremost job), was also a member of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol was on duty that day keeping the public safe.  As he watched the flow of traffic the crooked license plate on the yellow car caught his attention.  As was customary for officer Charlie Hanger, he proceeded to pull the car over.

Oklahoma State Trooper Charlie Hanger

Oklahoma State Trooper Charlie Hanger

The man that stepped out of the car was Timothy McVeigh, the person that left a truck bomb in a Ryder truck parked in front of the Murrah Building 90 minutes earlier:

Timothy McVeigh

Timothy McVeigh

After informing Officer Charlie that he had a weapon in the car, Charlie Hanger arrested him for carrying a concealed weapon.  The rest of that part of the story is history.

 

Timothy McVeigh's Getaway Car

Timothy McVeigh’s Getaway Car

At the Power Plant, some referred to the Security Guard Charlie Hanger as “Deputy Fife”.

Barney Fife played by Don Knotts in the Andy Griffith Show

Barney Fife played by Don Knotts in the Andy Griffith Show

It was said that he was the type of law enforcement officer that would arrest his own mother for jaywalking.  What are the odds that Charlie was in the right place at the right time and had decided to pull this one car over?

Charlie Hanger said that the main reason that he pulled over Timothy McVeigh that day was because of Divine Intervention.  God had placed him in the right place at the right time.  This is a common occurence for those who worked at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  God had placed them at the right place at the right time.

If you lived anywhere around Central Oklahoma that day, then you know as well as I, that there was a lot more that went on, than Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols setting off a truck bomb.  For those who watched the story unfold, we remember perfectly well that other unexploded bombs were found as the rescue effort began.  Everyone was pulled off of the site several times while bombs were diffused, and the Whitewater files pertaining to the investigation into Hilary Clinton (which just happened to be stored in the Murrah Building) were quickly removed from the scene never to be seen again.

Oklahomans would tell you that the Conspiracy theory that makes the least sense is that the truck bomb is what brought the Murrah building down.  Survivors that worked in the Murrah building had seen men doing things to the pillars in the parking garage below the building days before.

Aerial view of the Murrah Building after the bombing

Aerial view of the Murrah Building after the bombing

If the truck bomb had destroyed that much of one of the most reinforced building in Oklahoma City, then it was the biggest and strangest truck bomb in history.  It was interesting to watch how much effort was put into stopping investigations into the Murrah Building bombing.  Even going so far as having a company from the Main Stream Media buy out KFOR TV station and quickly shut down the Murrah Building Bombing investigation by Jayna Davis.

Anyway…  if you are interested in what I was watching during those first few hours, before the media rewrote the story, watch this documentary.  I encourage you to watch these all the way through:

Here is a video from KFOR News about the Ryder truck bombing:

Here is a video about Jayna Davis’s investigation and Timothy McVeigh’s connection with Al Qaeda:

Another video about the Murrah Building Bombing Conspiracy:

Just about everyone that lived around Oklahoma City at the time of the bombing was affected by the Oklahoma City Bombing.  Here are some of my stories:

When Kelly came home, she told me that she had heard what happened on the radio.  She called the hospital and some of the nurses had headed to Oklahoma City to help out with any medical needs.  The PICC Line certification had been cancelled because the nurses and other medical professionals were all going to go help out.  Kelly went to the hospital to fill in, because they were shorthanded.  I told her that I would pick up Elizabeth from Kindergarten at noon.

After I picked up Elizabeth, I took her to the police station.  We had been planning on going there that day, since I was taking the day off work and she said she would like to see the Police station just to see what it looked like.  So, I figured we would go down there and ask for a tour.

When we arrived at the Stillwater Police Station, the front door was locked.  I thought this was odd because it was the middle of the day.  I could see people inside, so I knocked on the door.  Someone came and opened the door and asked what we needed.  I told them that I was wondering if it was possible for my daughter to have a tour of the police station.  They were glad to show her all around.

Because of the way the person answered the door, I realized right away that they were in “lock down” mode because of the Murrah Building bombing.

My brother, who today is a U.S. Marine Colonel worked as the Executive Officer for the Marine Corps Recruiting office in the Murrah building in 1994.  I had visited his office a year earlier.  He left the previous June.  Greg’s replacement, who was a father of four children, just like my brother was killed that day.  The officer who first recruited my brother happened to be visiting that morning from Stillwater, was left blind.  My brother felt responsible for the officer’s death because he had encouraged him to take his place when he moved on.

Colonel Gregory T. Breazile

Colonel Gregory T. Breazile

One of the first two friends I had when I went to College was Kirby Davis.  He worked as a journalist in the Journal Record building across the way from the Murrah Building.  I met him one day by accident in September 1996 when I was working in Oklahoma City for the electric company.  He was walking down the street during lunch.  I had just visited the memorial fence at the Murrah Building site.  I was still choked up by my visit to the fence when I saw him walking from across the street.  I told my friend Mike Gibbs that I would see him later, I just saw an old friend of mine, and I wanted to go talk to him.

Memorial Fence at the site of the Murrah Building

Memorial Fence at the site of the Murrah Building

I was surprised when I asked Kirby how he was doing and he replied that he was devastated.  I asked him what had happened and he told me that the day the Murrah Building was bombed, his entire life had been ruined.  At that point, I decided that even though my lunch hour was just about over Kirby needed to talk.  So, we found a bench in a small park by his office and for the next hour he explained to me what had happened.

Even though the Journal Record building had been damaged in the bombing, that wasn’t what had destroyed Kirby.  It was what happened in the aftermath.  Here is the short story of what he said to me.

After the bombing occurred, rescue teams came from all over the country to help clear the debris.  Kirby’s wife went to work at the Convention Center where they were housing the rescue workers to help serving them.  While she was there serving the rescue workers, she became romantically involved with one of the workers.  The result of this was that she divorced Kirby and moved away.

I walked with Kirby back to his office at the Journal Record and said goodbye to him and returned to work.  I continue to pray for Kirby and his family.  I ask that those of you who read my blog and are so inclined, please say a prayer for him as well.

As I mentiioned, tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing.  I think we should all take a moment to reflect on how in times of trouble like this, when evil seems to be having its way and tragedy is all around, God sends men like the trooper and Power Plant Guard Charlie Hangar.

Power Plant 10-4 for 4-10s

Power Plant Men cherish few things more than Friday afternoon when they head out to the parking lot and the weekend officially begins.  Coolers full of ice, a quick trip to the convenience store for some beer and they are ready for the next two days.  That’s why when a suggestion was made that the Power Plant Men might have to start working on Saturdays as well, the idea was not well received.

The Maintenance Department at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had downsized from 13 crews to 4 teams.  We were struggling to figure out how to make that work.  We had four teams and only seven electricians.  Which meant that one team only had one electrician.  Diane Brien was the lucky “one”.  She was the only electrician on her team.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

We were spread out so far already, how could we possibly cover an extra day of the week?  Who (besides operators – who work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) would want to give up their Saturday to work straight time at the Power Plant.  I mean…. we all loved our jobs (for the most part), but this was asking a lot.

We had learned from the last two downsizings and the the Quality Process that when the company hired consultants, things were going to change.  We were convinced that consultants were hired to take the heat off of upper management.  They could just say, “Well…. This is what the Consultants told us would work best, so we’re cutting our staff in half.”

So, when consultants were hired for over $100,000 to figure out how we could work an “alternate work schedule”, we were suspicious.  Any of us could sit around and put two and two together to figure out a way to work alternate work schedules.  This led us to believe that this was another attempt to force us into something by saying, “The Consultants….. (not us)….”  Bringing to mind the phrase from Star Wars, Return of the Jedi; “Many Bothans Died for This Information.”

 

Caroline Blakiston as Mon Mothma in Return of the Jedi

Caroline Blakiston as Mon Mothma in Return of the Jedi

Picture this lady telling the Power Plant Men how they were going to work on Saturdays and they were going to like it.  The phrase “T’ain’t No Way!” comes to mind.  Here is how the meeting went….

We were called to the main break room, which doubled as the main conference room, and tripled as the Men’s Club Gathering Sanctuary.  The consultants were introduced to a room of silent, glaring, suspicious Power Plant Men types.  We were told that they had been working on alternate work schedules that we might possibly want to consider.  No matter what, they were not going to force anything on us.  We were told that we would only go on an alternate work schedule if we voted and the majority were okay with it.

Power Plant Men chins began to jut out in defiance.  The rattle of someone’s dentures came from the back of the room.  A nearly unanimous vote of “No” was already decided by about 90% of the people going by the the body language of the men in the room.

 

I'm sure you know the look

I’m sure you know the look (image found on Google)

The consultants continued by saying that they had three alternatives that they would like to run by us.  The first one was to provide coverage 7 days of the week.  I think everyone in the room knew that there were only 7 days in a week, and this meant that they wanted the four maintenance crews to work every day of the week.  Including Sundays, since we figured that Sunday must be included in the 7 days, since we couldn’t think of 7 days without including Sundays.

Currently, Sundays were double time.  If Sunday became a regular work day, then the only double time would be during the night.  You can see the reason why management wanted to increase our regular coverage to the weekend.  It would eliminate a large amount of overtime.  This isn’t a bad idea when you are trying to figure out how to save money.

The consultants (I’m probably going to begin a lot of paragraphs with the words… The consultants… for obvious reasons) said that the benefit of working on Sundays was that every 4 weeks we would get 6 days off of work in a row!  What?  How does that work?  They showed us how it worked, but the majority was not in favor of working Sundays.

I personally thought that if we had to work on Sundays, then I was probably going to be looking for a new job somewhere else.  I knew operators did this, but this was something that they had accepted up front when they became operators.  Operators are a special breed of workers that dedicate their lives to the plant.  Maintenance crews, though they are equally loyal, are not willing to give up a regular work habit.  Even though I worked Sundays when an emergency came up without question, this day was normally reserved for going to Church and spending the day at home with my family.  So, this was never going to be a long term option for me.

The options to work on Sundays meant that there was only one day each week (Thursday) when all four of the teams would be working on the same day.  That would be the day when we would have plant-wide meetings, like the Monthly (or had it moved to Quarterly) Safety meetings.

There were two options that included Sundays.  Neither of them were acceptable to the Power Plant Men.  The third option was to cover Saturday.  The consultants showed us how we could cover Saturday as a normal work day and every four weeks we could have 5 days off in a row.  How is it, you ask, can you cover one extra day and you have more days off?

The Consultant’s answer:  Work 4-10s (four tens).  That is, work four ten hour days each week.  When you work ten hour days for four days, you still work the same 40 hours each week, only you have to show up at the plant for four days instead of 5.  This means, you have one extra day each week where you don’t even have to go to work.

Think about this… We normally arrived at the plant at 8:00 and left at 4:30 (8 hour day with a 30 minute lunch).  We were being asked to come in at 7:00 and leave at 5:30.  Two extra hours each day and you only have to work 4 days.  The company will not only be covering a Saturday now, but they would be covering 10 hours each day instead of just 8.  The dentures rattled again in the back of the room, only this time it was Bill Green’s (our plant manager)…. he was salivating at the prospect of covering an extra 20 hours each week (2 extra hours each week day and 10 hours on Saturday) by just shuffling around the work schedule.  That’s 50% more coverage!

Think about this some more…..  I only had to do laundry for four days of coal and fly ash soaked clothes instead of five.  I only had to drive the 30 miles to the plant and the 30 miles back, four times each week instead of five.  That reduces my gas by 20%.  It also gives me an extra hour each week when I don’t have to drive to and from work…  this comes out to 48 extra hours free each year (after subtracting vacation) for just not having to drive to work five times each week.  More than an extra week’s worth of vacation. saved in driving time alone.  I’ll tell you some more benefits after I show you how this worked….

The consultants explained the 4 – 10s covering a Saturday with four crews like this…..  We worked on a four week cycle.  Each week, each team was on a different week in the cycle.  We all worked on Wednesday and Thursday.  The rest of the days, there were less than 4 teams working… it worked like this….

Week Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday
1 X X X X
2 X X X X
3 X X X X
4 X X X X

If you are working on week 3 (Monday thru Thursday), after Thursday you don’t go back to work until next Wednesday!  Five days off in a row without using any vacation!

Crazy huh?  The only catch was that you had to work on a Saturday once every four weeks.  But think about this…. (I seem to enjoy saying that in this post…. “think about this…”)  I think it’s because the first thought is that this is dumb.  Why would I want to work two extra hours each day?  Why would I want to give up one of my Saturdays?  Ok… while you’re thinking about that, I’ll move on to the next paragraph…

 I suppose you realized by now that there are 13 Saturdays that each person would work in a 52 week year when you work a Saturday once every four weeks.  Thinking about it that way isn’t so bad.  Especially since the Power Plant Men had at least four weeks vacation (160 hours) by this time since the majority of the Power plant Men had been there for at least 10 years.  Those with 20 years had 5 weeks vacation (200 hours).  My fellow electrician Charles Foster said that to me as we were going back to work…. “I can just take vacation every time we have to work on Saturday.”  — We’ll see….

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

With 10 hour days, that meant that if you have 4 weeks vacation, then you have 16 days off.  You could take your Saturday off for vacation for the entire year, giving you 6 days off in a row every 4 weeks using only 10 hours of vacation, and you can avoid having to work any Saturdays (if that’s really what you want).

The Power Plant Men decided to give it a try to see how we liked it for a few months.  The majority of us had mixed feelings about this new work schedule.  The other thought in our mind was, “We paid over $100,000 for someone to come up with this?  Maybe we’re in the wrong line of work.”

One problem with this plan is that we had to have an alternate carpooling schedule.  Scott Hubbard and Fred Turner and I were not all on the same teams.  So, we had to figure out when we were working on the same days and try to remember who drove the last time we had that particular configuration of carpoolers in order to figure out whose turn it was to drive.  We figured something out that seemed to work… there were just a few times when the neighbors would hear… “No, it’s my turn!  No!  It’s mine!  Remember last Friday?  But that was you and Scott!  No!  I have it right here in my notes!  Fred drove, we talked about Deer Stands and types of feeders. I nodded my head a lot.”

A Deer and a raccoon fighting over who gets first dibs on the deer feeder. My money is on the raccoon.

A Deer and a raccoon fighting over who gets first dibs on the deer feeder. My money is on the raccoon.

The first Saturday Charles Foster and I showed up to work, we noticed a great benefit right away.  Our team was the only team working in the Maintenance Shop.  That meant that we had all the trucks to ourselves!  No fighting over truck keys!  We didn’t have to wait in line at the tool room.  No waiting around for Clearances on the equipment.  We had full reign over the shop.  We also had Sue Schritter go to Ponca City to pick up parts shortly before lunch so that she could bring back Pizza for us! (ok.  yes.  we were bribed with Pizza) Courtesy of our foreman, Alan Kramer:

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

We really enjoyed working on Saturday.  It turned out to be the best day to work.  No management stalk… um… walking around watching us from around corners….  No meetings…  Just working away without interruption.  We would complete a lot of work on Saturdays.

Another benefit that I don’t think was expected was a big reduction in Sick Leave.  I no longer had to take off time to go to the doctor or the dentist.  I now had days off during the week, so I would just schedule doctor appointments when I was not working.

Holidays were handled two ways.  You still only had 8 hours off for a holiday instead of 10, so you had to work around that.  When there was a holiday, you could either work four 8 hour days (instead of 10) that week and take off the holiday just as you normally would, or you could take off 8 hours just on the holiday, and either use 2 hours of vacation or come into work for 2 hours (2 hours vacation made the most sense).

When it was all said and done, the Power Plant Men stayed on 4-10s working every fourth Saturday at our plant.  Other plants were able to decide on their own work schedules.  I know one of the other plants decided they didn’t want to change.  They still liked driving to work five days each week instead of four.  They liked cleaning five days worth of dirty clothes each week instead of four.  They liked having two days off each week instead of an average of three days.  Maybe they didn’t know what they liked.

This brings to mind a book that I read once after reading another book recommended by Toby O’Brien.  Toby gave me a book once called “One Minute Manager”.

 

One Minutes Manager. How not to micro-manage

One Minutes Manager. a book about How not to micro-manage

One of the authors wrote another book called, “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson, M.D.  I encourage everyone to read this:

 

A book about resistance to change

A book about resistance to change

Reading books like these are a lot cheaper than hiring a consultant for boo-coos just to make changes.  You just have “Power Plant Reading Time” during the morning meeting and read a chapter from this little book.

 

Power Plant Quest for the Internet

The electric company in Oklahoma decided late 1995 that it was about time that the employees in the company learn about the Internet.  The company recognized that the vast amount of information on the Internet was very useful and encouraged everyone to start using it.  A request form was available to request access to various features the Internet provided and with your Foreman’s approval, all you had to do was take a short course in Internet Etiquette and you were in (well almost).  The problem with this effort was that no one bothered to teach Plant Management about the Internet, so the “Quest for the Internet” was about to begin.

As the leading computer geek at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma I had been accessing the Internet for years.  I had used CompuServe and Telnet to log into the Internet before Internet Browsers and World  Wide Web (WWW) were available.

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

I thought it was a great idea for everyone to use the Internet, so when Alan Kramer gave us the form it didn’t take long before I filled it out.  Sounds pretty simple….. but unfortunately, after a short misstep on my part, a six month battle was about to begin.

Alan Kramer

My Foreman Alan Kramer

The form was simple enough, you just needed to check the boxes for which part of the Internet you needed to access, and after your foreman signed it, you mailed it to Corporate Headquarters, where you would be scheduled to attend a two hour course on how to properly use the Internet in a business setting.  The form was written in a curious way that sort of indicated to me that not a lot of thought had been put into it.  It was either that, or the person that created the form didn’t understand the Internet very well.  Here’s why:

The different parts of the Internet that you could check that you wanted to access were these:  WWW,  e-mail, Telnet, NewsGroups, FTP.  The World Wide Web (WWW) had yet to become popular.  The number of Web sites on the Internet was still less than 250,000.  Compare that to today where there is almost 1 billion websites.

Well, e-mail…. you know what that is.  Telnet was the usual way I had accessed the Internet for years.  I would log in through the Oklahoma State University computer using Telnet, and from there I had access to almost all of the University computers in the country as well as a lot of the Government computers.  You could actually print out pages and pages of all the computers on the Internet at the time using a simple seek command.

For those of you who don’t know… Before MySpace and Facebook, NewsGroups were used to communicate to people who had similar interests.  They were sort of small blog sites.

On a side note:

I was a member of a number of work related NewsGroups.  One NewsGroup that I was active in was for Precipitators.  There were about 50 people from all over the world in this group and we all were obsessed with working on precipitators.  As it turned out, two of us lived in Stillwater Oklahoma.  The other guy worked for a company called Nomadics that made bomb sniffing detectors called Fido.  They had a tiny precipitator that collected the particles.  We were on the opposite sides of the spectrum.  We had a 70 foot tall, 200 foot wide and 100 foot long precipitator, where his precipitator was tiny.  I thought a few times about applying for a job with them since they were only 4 miles from my house, but, since I wasn’t an engineer I didn’t think I had a chance of being hired.  Besides, what is better than working at a Power plant?

The Nomatics office in Stillwater

The Nomatics office in Stillwater

End of Side Note.

FTP, the last item on the list stands for File Transport Protocol.  This is how you downloaded or uploaded files after you have used Telnet to connect to a site.

I’m sorry I’m boring you with all this, but I’m explaining them for a reason.  You see… I’m getting to the part where I made my “misstep”.  Maybe it was meant to happen this way, because in the end, everything worked out better than it probably would have if I had just been a little more patient…. Here’s what I did…

After checking each of the boxes, next to WWW, Telnet, NewsGroup, e-mail and FTP, I went to the foremen’s office to have Alan Kramer sign the form so that I could mail it off to Corporate Headquarters.  When I arrived, Alan was gone.  He had left early that day for some reason, so I walked into Jasper Christensen’s office, our Supervisor of Maintenance and asked him to sign it.  Big mistake.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

I wrote a post recently about Jasper’s lack of computer knowledge and how I had goaded him for making a dumb computer decision, (see the post “Power Plant Trouble With Angels“).  When I handed him the form, he glanced at it, and I could see the blank look on his face indicating that he didn’t understand the different terms such as Telnet, FTP and e-mail or WWW.  He might have thought he knew what NewsGroups were, but most likely that would have been incorrect.

So, instead of signing the paper, he said, he would review it and get back to me.  Well…. that was unexpected.  The company was encouraging us to use the Internet, so I figured it was pretty much a slam dunk.  From past experience I knew that Jasper was reluctant to approve anything that he didn’t fully understand, which makes some things difficult.

During the “We’ve Got the Power” Program (See the Post:  “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got the Power’ Program“) I tried to elicit an approval from Jasper about a simple example of Thermodynamics that I thought was cut and dry, especially since Jasper was the Engineering Supervisor at the time.  Even though I had a sound argument about how heat dissipates in the Air Preheater, he would never say that he would agree.  Only that he understood what I was saying.  So, when Jasper said that he would “get back to me on this” I knew what that meant.  He was going to try to find out what these different things were.

Two weeks later, Alan Kramer told me that Jasper had decided not to approve my request for Internet access.  Somewhat peeved, I went into Jasper’s office and asked him why he wouldn’t approve my request.  He responded with, “Give me reasons in writing why you need each of these items on this form.”  — Oh.  I figured that out right away.  He had tried to find out what these things meant, but (without the Internet), it was hard to find the answers.  So, he was asking me to tell him what these were.

So, I went back to the Electric Shop office and I wrote a full page paper outlining what each item was (WWW, Telnet, NewsGroups, FTP and e-mail).  I also explained why I was requesting access to each of these.  For Telnet and FTP, one of the reasons I used was that I would Telnet into the OSHA computer and download MSDS’s (Material Safety Data Sheets) for chemicals we had at our plant.  The operators had asked me a number of times if I could give them a copy of an MSDS for chemicals.  It is a requirement to keep an MSDS for every chemical on the plant site, and I could easily download them from the OSHA.gov computer.

When I gave my explanation to Jasper, he said he would study it and get back to me later.  Two weeks later, Jasper called me to his office and said that during a staff meeting they had discussed my request for Internet access and they had decided that I didn’t need access to the Internet to do my job.  They had also decided that the only thing on the list that anyone at the plant needed was e-mail and only Jim Arnold (The Supervisor of Operations) and Summer Goebel (The head engineer) needed e-mail.  No one else at the plant needed anything else.  — You can see why I used phrases like “Another Brilliant Idea” when describing some of Jasper’s Management decisions.  Only two people at the plant needed e-mail… .  Sounds funny today, huh?

A few months later, in March 1996, I was sent to Oklahoma City to learn how to install the SAP client on desktop computers.  The way I was chosen was  that someone downtown called each of the Power Plants and other offices and asked the receptionist who the computer geek was at the plant.  Denise Anson, our receptionist gave them my name.  We were supposed to change our entire financial, inventory, maintenance, and billing system over to SAP at the end of the year from our mainframe computer system.  SAP is called an ERP system or Enterprise Resource Planning system.  It combines almost all the computer activities in a company into one package where everything is accessible in one application.

SAP Logo

SAP Logo

I will go into the implementation of SAP in more detail in later posts, but for now, I was just learning about installing the client application on the computers at our plant.  There were a number of steps to the installation, and a lot of times it would fail.  So, they gave us some troubleshooting tips and asked us to share any tips we came up with while we were doing this task.

When I returned to the plant, I went about installing SAP on each of the computers.  I think we had 22 computers all together.  Anyway, during this time, I was thinking that after 3 months, I would resubmit my request for the Internet, since after all, now everyone had e-mail since we had installed a computer network at the plant with Novell’s Netware.  It was obvious that we were progressing into the computer age with or without the plant staff.

So, I filled out another request form, and even before asking I wrote up another page of reasons why I could use each of the items on the form.  One new reason was that the Thomas Register was now online.  This was a large set of books that had information about every supplier and vendor in the United States (and beyond).  It was used to find phone number, addresses and other fun stuff about vendors.  A set of books could cost $5,000.00 each and you had to buy them every couple of years to keep them current.

Thomas Register books -- This ia Flickr Photo from Dan Paluska: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sixmilliondollardan/3535595281

Thomas Register books — This ia Flickr Photo from Dan Paluska: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sixmilliondollardan/3535595281

I didn’t even need to waste my time writing out my reasons.  When I gave the form to Alan, he signed it immediately and handed it back to me.  I thanked him and mailed it off.  A couple of weeks later I received a note through intra-company mail that I was signed up for an Internet class in Oklahoma City.  Since I had been in trouble before with going to classes in Oklahoma City, I made sure I didn’t charge any driving time expenses to go to the class.

The lady who was teaching the class knew who I was, because she had worked with me before on computer issues at the plant.  It was a simple course on computer etiquette, how the Internet worked and things we should and should not do on the Internet.  At the end of the course, we were told that someone would come by our desk and install the Internet on our computers.  — Well, our plant was 75 miles away and I knew that it was rare to have someone from the Computer Department come out to our plant, so I didn’t expect anything soon.

It was now the summer of 1996.  I was driving down to the river pumps to clean motor filters with Charles Foster when Denise Anson called me on my radio and said that a guy from the SAP team was calling me.  I asked her to patch the call to my Walkie Talkie, and she did.

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

It was the guy from Corporate Headquarters leading the effort to install all the client applications on the computers.  He said they were going to have another meeting because everyone was having so much trouble with the installation.  I told him that I had already successfully installed the client on all of the computers at the plant except for one, and that was because it was an old junky one that needed to be re-imaged.

The guy was surprised that we were already finished and said that our site was the first site in the company to complete the installation.  Then he said, “If there is ANYTHING I can do for you, just let me know!”  I glanced over at Charles who was driving the truck and could hear our conversation over the radio, and smiled.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster smiling back

I said,  “There’s one thing.  You see.  Our plant is out here in the middle of no where.  I have completed the Internet training course, but we are so far away that no one ever comes around that would install the Internet on my computer, so if you could send me the files, I’ll install it myself.”  He replied, “Sure Thing Buddy!  I’ll share a folder where you can go pick up the files.”

After installing the files, I realized that it was just an Internet Explorer browser.  We were using Windows 3.2 at this time.  After opening the browser and playing around with it for a while, I realized that there wasn’t any control around my username.  That is, anyone could come into our office and log on our computer and use the browser.  Then we found out that you didn’t even have to log on first.  The Internet was wide open.  There were no real controls around the use of the Internet.  The only control was just the lack of a browser on the computer!

Internet Explorer 1.0

Internet Explorer 1.0 (Google image)

So, here is what I did next.  I went to every computer at the plant (except the staff’s computers) and installed the Internet Explorer browser on them.  At each computer, I gave the Power Plant Men the same course I had taken downtown.  I told them what they should do and what they shouldn’t.  I showed them how the browser worked, and how to setup shortcuts, and other things.  Before long every Power Plant Man and Woman at the plant was cruising the Internet except the staff…. After all… they had decided that all they needed was e-mail and only for Summer Goebel and Jim Arnold.

Jim Arnold in all of his awesomeness

Jim Arnold in all of his awesomeness

A few weeks after I had taught all the Power Plant Men at the plant how to use the Internet, Jasper Christensen’s voice came over the radio…. “Kevin!  I want to see you in my office right away!”.  Okay.  The gig was up.  I recognized that tone of voice from Jasper.  The showdown was about to begin.  I was about to be chewed out for making the Internet available to everyone.  Maybe even fired.  I didn’t know how upset he was going to be when he found out.

As I walked from the Electric Shop to the far corner of the Maintenance Shop to Jasper’s office, I articulated in my mind what I would say.  I had decided that the best defense was to explain that all I did was install the Internet browser on the computers.  I didn’t have access to actually grant anyone access to the Internet.  If everyone has access to the Internet, it isn’t because I gave them access.  — This was true.

I took a deep breath just before entering Jasper’s office.  I went in his office with the most straight face I could muster.  “Here it comes,” I thought….  the six month battle for the Internet is coming to a head.  Jasper said, “I want to ask you a question about the Internet.”  Trying not to choke on my words and looking as if I was interested by cocking my head a little, I replied, “Yeah?  What is it?”  I was conscious of my thumb hanging in my right front pocket.

Then Jasper picked up a magazine sitting on his desk and said,  “There is this article in this engineering magazine, and it has this website that you can visit.  How would I go to that site?”  — Oh my Gosh!!!!  I wanted to laugh out loud with joy!  I wasn’t about to be chewed out at all.  He just wanted the computer geek to show him how to use the Internet browser that had been recently installed on his computer!

Jasper obviously hadn’t taken the Internet course, otherwise he would know where the address bar is at the top……  So, I said, “Let me show you.”  I walked over to his computer and walked him through each step of the process.  When we were done, he turned to look at me and smiled.  He said, “Thank you.”  I said, “Anytime.  Just let me know if you have any other questions.”  I turned and walked out of the office.

As I walked back to the Electric Shop Office, I met Charles Foster who wanted to know how it went, as he had heard Jasper call me on the radio.  I told him that the battle for the Internet was now over.  Jasper has now become a “user”.  Life was good.

Power Plant Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day came a week early for the men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma in the year 2000.  Instead of the scheduled May 14th Mother’s Day, the Power Plant Men gathered in the First Baptist Church in Pawnee Oklahoma to say goodbye to their Power Plant Mother Saturday, May 6, 2000.  That was the day that Juliene Alley, our Power Plant Mother was laid to rest.

You might think that a woman welder spending her time at a Power Plant welding boiler tubes in the dark insides of the boiler during overhaul, or crammed up inside a bowl mill where the air you breathe can be as hot as 160 degrees Fahrenheit would fit the image of a broad shouldered tough woman that you wouldn’t want to meet in an Alley at night.   This in no way describes Juliene.  If I had a picture of Juliene, you would see a woman of small stature with a slightly worn countenance and a humble but confident expression with a slight smile that had been etched permanently  into her face from years of being content with whatever lot in life she had been dealt.

I am not able to say what her life was like before she arrived at the Power Plant in 1985 one week before her 34th birthday.  I know she had one son named Joseph Alley and she had been married to a man named Red.  For me, her life began when I first met her at the tool room waiting to get a tool from Bud Schoonover.  She was being treated with extra care by her welding crew.  They were very protective of her at first.  My first impression was that she was kind and soft spoken.

I didn’t work around Juliene for quite a while.   I don’t even remember if she had worked her way through the Labor Crew as we were required when I hired on at the plant.  I worked with Juliene only after the last downsizing when we were on the same cross-functional team in 1994.  By that time, the welders referred to Juliene as their “Mom”.

I never heard an unkind word come from Juliene.  It may have happened immediately following a Power Plant Joke had been played on her, but since it never would have occurred to me to play a joke on her, I only ever heard kind words from Juliene.  I’m sure her son  Joe could tell us more about that.  Juliene spent a lot of time working with Ed Shiever.  They were about the same height and it seemed to me that the two of them were paired often to work the same jobs.

Ed Shiever 15 years later

Ed Shiever

The title “Mom” wasn’t given to her as a ceremonial title just because of her gender.  When I watched Juliene with the welders, I could see and hear that she treated each one of the welders as if she was really and truly their Mother.  I have heard her scold them, put them in their places, and even calm them down when they needed to be put in “time out”.

Juliene did not die unexpectedly.  She died from a failing liver that lasted over many months.  It seems to me that her son Joe married his sweetheart Shauna a little earlier than intended so that it was in time for his Mother to attend the wedding in September 1999, eight months before she passed away.  The last time I talked with Juliene was when someone at the plant had called her in the hospital in Oklahoma City from the tool room telephone.  When I walked in the tool room to get a part, someone asked me if I wanted to speak with Juliene.

When I talked to her, I could tell that she was trying to be pleasant in spite of the knowledge that she only had about a week or two left.  I told her I would be praying for her.  She asked me if I knew where she could find a new liver.  I think I said something like, “I don’t have a spare one myself, but these machinists here are pretty good, maybe we can have one of them whip one up real quick.”

I have mentioned one of Juliene’s sons, Joe.  I have also mentioned Ed Shiever, who was a Power Plant Son to Juliene.  Here are some of Juliene’s other Power Plant children:

Noe Flores

Noe Flores

George Clouse

George Clouse

Robert Sharp

Robert Sharp

Mickey Postman

Mickey (Pup) Postman

Robert (T-Bone) Grover

Robert (T-Bone) Grover

Rod Meeks

Rod (Junior) Meeks

Robert Lewis

Robert Lewis

Kerry Lewallen

Kerry Lewallen

Chuck Morland

Chuck Morland

Dave McClure

Dave McClure

Earl Frazier

Earl Frazier

Bill Gibson

Bill (Gib) Gibson

With Ed Shiever, that makes over a dozen Power Plant Sons.  I’m sure there are others.  (If any others would like to be added, let me know, and if I have your pictures, I’ll post them here).

I attended Juliene’s funeral ceremony at the First Baptist Church in Pawnee on May 6, 2000.  The church was crowded that day with Power Plant Men.  Some had come from other Power Plants in the state to say goodbye to the Power Plant Mom we had all come to love.  Her Power Plant Sons stood up front and said their departing words to Juliene and to share their memories.

I have said in one of my early Power Plant Posts that each time a True Power Plant Man or Woman left the Power Plant that the character of the Power Plant would change.  The gift that Juliene Alley gave to the maintenance shop for many years was one of calm and civility.  I watched the welders over the years, and some of them began their Power Plant career with a less than “savory” attitude about life.  Over the years, I think the affect of having Juliene constantly in their lives tamed the welding shop to mold them into the respectable, caring, fine Power Plant Men that they became.  When Juliene left us that day at the Church, she left her character behind in her Power Plant Sons.

In memory of their Power Plant Mother, no character was lost from the Power Plant the day Juliene departed to tend to other pastures.  Eight months to the day of Juliene’s death on January 3, 2001, Joseph Edward Alley, her son, joined the ranks of Power Plant Men as he came to work at the Power Plant.  The joy of having the actual son of Juliene working in the plant was a reflection of how much we all loved his Mother.

Joe Alley with Juliene's new grandchild

Joe Alley with Juliene’s new grandchild

As you can see, Juliene’s family continues to grow.  Tomorrow we will be celebrating Mother’s Day.  Today, on Saturday, I remember back to Saturday May 6, 2000.  The day we celebrated our Power Plant Mother’s Day a week early.

Destruction of a Power Plant God

Sometimes we unknowingly end up worshiping things we never intend.  It isn’t until those things are destroyed before we realize what has happened.  We have a natural tendency to worship something.  It’s built into our DNA to worship God just as sure as the God Particle converts energy into matter and subsequently atoms into earth and water.  I’m not sure when my obsession began, but I definitely know the day when it was destroyed.  August 5, 1996.

The day of realization began as a normal day, as Scott Hubbard and I were driving to the plant.  It seemed like an extra dark morning considering it was the middle of the summer.  Perhaps it was because by this time we were working four tens, which meant we arrived at the plant before 7:00 am so we left Stillwater, Oklahoma at 6:15 to drive to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

When we topped the overpass to the turnpike at 6:32 we thought we could see something strange at the Power Plant off in the distance.  The sun was going to rise in the next few minutes (at 6:42), yet, the sky seemed darker than usual.  It must have been a cloudy morning.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset (only we were arriving before sunrise)

We thought we could see red and blue flashing lights coming from one end of the plant.  It was only momentary, because once over the overpass, we were too low to see that section of the plant.  We weren’t really sure what we had seen.  It became even more confusing as we approached the entrance to the plant.

There seemed to be a little more activity happening at the front gate than usual.  there was a guard or an operator standing out there.  He waved us through the gate.  about 300 yards past the main gate, we had a clear view of the plant grounds laying before us as we made our way to the parking lot.  It was here that the significance of the flashing lights suddenly caused us to gasp. We were stunned into silence.

The area around the Unit 1 main power transformer was flashing with the red and blue lights of several fire trucks.  They seemed to be pulling away just about that time.  Some of the siding on the Turbine-Generator room was missing, some was blackened from smoke as it had poured out of the windows along the turbine room floor.  The real shock to me came as we approached the parking lot and I looked up through where a window used to be and I could see the sky.  I could see the sky where the T-G roof should have been.

We were directed to go into the maintenance garage to avoid the fire trucks who that were backing away.  We met with our team and Alan Kramer told us that there had been an explosion during the night when an overspeed test was being performed on the Unit 1 Boiler Feed Pump Turbine (BFPT).  The number one question we all wanted answered was quickly given to us…. No one was hurt in the explosion.

Alan mentioned that in our recent fire fighter training, we had learned that a large percentage of companies that have a major fire (such as ours) goes out of business within the next year.  That was not going to happen to us even though the damage was extensive.  Our job was to put everything back to the way it was before the fire.

Here is the story as it happened, as much as I know:

The explosion occurred when an operator (I’ll let one of the operators remind me who it was) was running an overspeed test on the BFPT.  Suddenly he heard a loud pop and then the turbine winding up out of control.  He took off running and was around the corner of a concrete pillar when the turbine exploded.  The turning gear shot out like a top and flew across the mezzanine floor, hit the corner of the north stairway, and still spinning like a top, tore up the stairway as it made the turn halfway down and ended up in middle of the the T-G basement where it finally came to rest.  This turning gear weighs somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand pounds (I’m guessing).

Turning Gear

Turning Gear

At this point steam was shooting out of the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine.  The oil pumps that keep the bearings lubricated were spraying oil into the steam which burst into flames.  The flames shot up to the concrete floor 40 feet above.  The fire was so hot that it melted the metal structure holding up the floor and the rebar in the concrete.  The Turbine Room Floor literally melted away as the oil fire shot the flames up toward the roof another 80 feet above the turbine room floor  melting the roof as if it was butter.  The asbestos siding on the T-G floor was falling off because the bolts that held them to the brackets literally melted away.

The same reservoir that feeds the oil to the the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine bearings also fed the Main Turbine Generator.  This is the same generator that makes the electricity that causes the light bulb to glow in your house when you turn it on.  The Main Turbine Generator tripped when the explosion occurred, as it should.  As it slowed down to a stop, the oil for the bearings was all gone.  It had been creating the large fire ball that was melting down the T-G floor.

Normally, when the Turbine-Generator comes to a stop, it is put on a turning gear while the shaft cools down otherwise the shaft will become warped under it’s own weight.  The Turning gear slowing rotates the turbine for a day or so while it cools.  Without bearing oil, the turning gear would not be able to turn the turbine generator.  The bearings require a layer of oil to function properly.

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

Charles Patton, one of the Maintenance foremen was called out, and he took cans of STP Oil Treatment and for hours poured them onto the bearings and manually rotated the 50 ton turbine generator (Ray, help me out with the actual weights).  Through the heroic efforts of Charles and others that were there to help, the Turbine Generator was spared from even more damage.

Charles Patton

Charles Patton

By the time we arrived that morning, the fire was out, things were cooling down.  Unit 2 was still running, and it was our job to keep it going.

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

As I walked out onto the T-G floor everything went into slow motion.  I don’t know if that has ever happened to you before.  There have been a few times in my life when I was in a near death situation where my surroundings all seem to switch into a slow motion mode.  I think it happens because your brain kicks into high gear in order to process what is happening and to put as much effort forward as possible to avoid danger.

The first time I think that happened to me was when I was with some friends climbing around on some cliffs by the Missouri River.  One boy was falling back after the ledge he was on gave way and was going to fall most likely to his death when everything switched into slow motion even before I realized what was wrong.  I was able to make quick decisions that allowed me to push him back onto the ledge and grab onto a branch that luckily kept me from the same fate.

When I walked onto the T-G floor and saw the devastation, I think my mind was trying to take everything in all at once.  The Turbine Generator was covered in soot and debris.  I flashed back to the days when I was a janitor and used to keep the turbines waxed so that they would shine.  It was at this moment that I realized I actually worshiped the Turbine Generators in a way similar to the way the religious cult worshiped the alpha-omega doomsday bomb in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”.

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

The near destruction of the Turbine Generator made me realize the importance I had placed on it.  I felt as if I had almost lost my close friend like the boy climbing on the cliff.  I used to stand on the sides of the Turbines when I was a janitor with my dust mop and after spraying furniture polish on the mop, I would caress the turbines as if I was running my fingers through someone’s hair.

Like this only with a mop handle

Like this only with a mop handle

We began the clean up by taking fire hoses and washing down the siding on the Unit 2 side to try to bring some normalcy back to a surreal situation.  The soot didn’t just wash off.  Not long after we had dragged out the fire hoses and were blasting away at the siding, Alan Kramer asked Charles Foster and I to look at the air duct to the Instrument room on the north side of the Turbine room.  The room was getting too hot and the air conditioner seemed to have frozen.

We climbed into the air duct on the roof of the instrument room and replaced the filters that were packed with soot stopping the air flow for the Air Conditioner.  This seemed like one task in 100,000 that would need to be done to put this puzzle back together again.  All the electric cables that ran through the Unit 1 Mezzanine had melted away, everything had been utterly destroyed.

The thought was too overwhelming.  I felt like Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” when she said, “I can’t think about that right now.  If I do, I’ll go crazy.  I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind

Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind

With everything on the T-G floor covered in soot, everyone was quickly black from head to toe.  Are clothes were now black.  We looked like Johnny Cash impersonators

Johnny Cash Man in Black

Johnny Cash Man in Black

literally with Al Jolsen Black Face as the soot was pitch black.

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face (Google Image)

We had just climbed out of the air duct and were making our way to the electric shop when Glenn Rowland approached me and said, “You Lucky Dog!”  I thought he must be making a comment about my appearance seeing how I was covered in soot.  Then he explained.  “For the next 10 weeks you have to report to Oklahoma City to work on an SAP project.  You’re a lucky dog because you are going to miss all the fun of cleaning up this mess.”

Did I ever mention that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world?  Well.  I am.  I had just come to grips with my false God, and now I had been rescued from two and a half months of working in soot and grime to go work in an air conditioned office building in Oklahoma City.

Here is a post about how lucky I am:  Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck.

Now for the hard part of the story to write about:

So, why did the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine fail the overspeed test?  What happened to cause the explosion?

The first attempt to place the blame where it didn’t belong was to blame Sonny Kendrick who had worked on the controls during the last outage.   The same person that would accuse me of purposely causing any little opacity problem on the precipitator even when I was on vacation, was now blaming Sonny Kendrick for the multi-million dollar destruction of the Turbine Room Floor.

Sonny Kendrick must have looked like an easy target.  A soft-spoken man that works alone most of the time.  No one really understands some of the things he works on.  Maybe they thought he wouldn’t be able to explain the changes he had made to the controls in enough detail in order to blame him for the explosion.  I use the word “target” because someone else had to be “blamed” for the explosion instead of the person responsible.  The person they picked as the “fall guy” was Sonny Kendrick:

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny Kendrick

You see… someone was directly responsible for the explosion.  Someone who continuously used “Risk Management” as an excuse to cut corners.  I wonder if everything was completely on the unconscious level, or did this person ever realize the impact of his decisions.  You see, I haven’t completely decided.

There appears to have been a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the explosion that took three months to recover.  The first clue was to try to blame Sonny Kendrick without any proof.  I don’t know if Sonny was eventually cleared as the fall guy because he was able to clearly show how all of his wiring changes had no impact on an overspeed test, or someone who knew about the actual cause threatened to come out with the truth if they continued to pursue Sonny as the fall guy.  You see… there was more to this equipment failure than met the eye.

The turbine exploded because the coupling to the pump shattered.  That’s the part that connects the steam turbine to the boiler feed pump.  When the coupling broke the turbine, no longer having any resistance, began to rotate at a rate much faster than it was ever designed to rotate until it flew apart.

A large coupling

A large coupling

It was known at the end of the last outage that the coupling was damaged.  It would have delayed bringing the unit online another 2 or 3 days in order change out the coupling.  In the name of “Risk Management” it was decided to “risk it” until the next outage.  The decision was made without using any type of risk assessment tool… obviously.

I know about the conversations that took place because one of the people involved confided in me.  The person that told me the details of the conversations said that even under oath he would never tell anyone else the truth.  This is the second clue that made me think that a concerted effort was made to cover up the knowledge that it was known that a faulty coupling was operating on the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine and it had been decided to leave it in place.  You see… everyone who was on the team that found the damage knew about it.

The third clue this was a “conspiracy to cover up the truth” was that when an investigation was performed to look into the cause of the explosion, the person responsible for keeping the bad coupling in place played a major role in the investigation.  Like the Fox guarding the Hen House.

Because the truth about the coupling never came to light, the insurance company ended up paying the entire bill for the outage.  It was ruled as “equipment failure”.  Our plant manager Bill Green remarked one day that we actually came out ahead when the insurance company paid for the outage, because they paid our lost revenue without taking all the operating costs into account.

I know sometimes that things just happen and sometimes bad things happen.  Sometimes when everything is done correctly, something still goes wrong.  I know that.  That is why when this explosion first happened it made me step back and think twice about the dangers lurking around a Power Plant.  A tremendously large amount of energy is being converted from coal into electricity.  Somewhere, some time, something is going to go wrong and someone is going to be hurt or killed.

That is also why when this explosion happened, it never occurred to me to place the blame on anyone.  To me it was just one of those things that happens every now and then.  My bubble of innocence was burst the day I heard about the decision to keep a defective coupling in place on such an important piece of equipment.

On one hand I was angry that someone would make a decision that could have ended with the death of an operator, on the other hand, I was relieved to know that accidents like this don’t just happen.  It was only when someone decided to cut corners that this explosion occurred.  It gave me a little of my faith back in the system.  When things are done right, we can work safely without the fear that something is likely to explode in our face.

All right, so I never really worshiped the Turbine Generator.  I just exaggerated that part a bit.  But let me ask this question… Who in this story did?  Who was it that was willing to sacrifice the life of an operator to keep from delaying the “go-live”?  Who thought that having the Generator produce electricity two or three days sooner than it should have been was more important?  That is the person that really needs to re-evaluate their priorities and take another look at which God they worship.

The question is never, “Is there a God?”  The real question is “Which God do you worship?”