Favorites Post #20
Originally posted June 6, 2014;
I’m sure the plant manager at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma thought that a little competition might just do our Safety Program a little good. The maintenance crews always knew what they were going to be doing first thing on Monday morning. They were going to attend a Safety Meeting with their team. All of the maintenance crews attended a team safety meeting every Monday morning to remind them to be safe during the week. This had been going on for at least 9 years at the power plant. Every Monday morning we all looked forward to the 30 minutes we would spend reminding ourselves to be safe that week.
It didn’t seem to matter if I was on the Summer Help yard crew, or a janitor, on the labor crew or an electrician. The Monday Morning safety meetings were all pretty much the same. Someone would read from a Safety pamphlet that each of the foreman would receive once each month. We would try to read one of the articles each week in order to stretch it out so that it lasted the entire month of Monday Morning Safety Meetings. This often meant that we would be listening to a completely irrelevant safety article that really didn’t apply to us. But that was all right because it still reminded us to think about safety everywhere we went.
Some of the articles were things that reminded us to be safe in the work place. Other articles reminded us to clean up the kitchen counter after you have finished cutting up the chicken in order to cook fried chicken for dinner. The chicken juices could lead to food poisoning if they sat there for a while and then some other food was placed on the same counter if it was still soaked in juices from the chicken. We justified to ourselves that it didn’t hurt to remind ourselves about things like this because if we went home and had food poisoning by not washing our chicken juices, then it could be as serious as a lost workday accident on the job.
When I joined the electric shop, I used to keep a stack of all the Safety Pamphlets. Who knew if they would ever come in handy. Years later when I left the Power Plant to pursue another career I left the stack behind in case some other safety zealot needed some motivating safety material. I tried to find a picture of the safety pamphlets that we used to read on Google, but I could only find Safety Pamphlets that were more colorful and had more eye-catching covers. The only aesthetic difference between our safety pamphlets from one month to the other consisted of using a different color font. So, one month, the pamphlet would be written in blue. The next month, green. Then red. Maybe purple some times. The December one would have a little drawing of holly at the top. That was about as exciting as they were.
Occasionally the foreman would get a different kind of safety pamphlet on a certain topic. Instead of changing the font color, this pamphlet would change the background color to one bright solid color. I could find a picture of one of these:
In the first paragraph I mentioned that the maintenance crews generally knew what they would be doing right off the bat on Monday morning when their work day began. Yep. They would spend 15 to 30 minutes staring off into space while their foreman, or the designated hypnotist would read a safety pamphlet in a monotone voice. I think it was permitted to fall asleep as long as you didn’t snore. Once you snored it was too hard to claim that your eyes were closed only so that you could better picture how to lift with your legs and not your back.
In order to add something dynamic to the Monday Morning Safety Meeting, it was decided that some friendly competition might help. So, here is what happened:
A Safety Committee was formed and their task was to collect safety slogans from the teams and once each month they would decide which slogan was the best and then it would become the “Safety Slogan of the Month”. Then for the next month this particular safety slogan would be posted on all the bulletin boards throughout the plant. At the end of the year, a winner was selected from the 12 winning Monthly Safety Slogans. Whichever team won the safety slogan of the year award would be honored with a free Pizza (or two) for lunch.
A noble attempt at trying to add a little spice (and tomato sauce) into the safety program.
At first our team didn’t give this much thought. I was one of the first people from the electric shop on the committee and since I was on the committee, I didn’t think it would be fair to submit a safety slogan myself, because I would have to be one of the people voting on it. One person from each area was on the Safety Committee. One person from each of the three A foremen’s teams in the Maintenance shop. One person from the Instrument and Controls team and one electrician. One person from the office area. One from the warehouse. There might have been one person from the Chemistry Lab, but since there were only three chemists, I’m not sure how long that lasted.
Anyway, sometime in March, 1992, when we were sitting in a Monday Morning Safety Meeting staring blankly at the only thing moving in the room besides the lips of the Safety Article Hypnotist, a black beetle scurrying across the floor, Andy Tubbs finally broke through our hypnotic state by making a suggestion. He said, “How about we start entering safety slogans for the Safety Slogan Contest and try to win the free pizza at the end of the year? Instead of just sitting here on Monday Mornings doing the same thing over and over, let’s spend our time brainstorming Safety Slogans!”
This of course was a brilliant idea. It meant that we would actually be blurting out all kinds of goofy safety slogans until we hit on a really good one to turn in for the month. We began immediately. I was the scribe capturing all the creativity that suddenly came popping up from no where. Andy was real quick to come up with some. Others took their time, but when they spoke they usually had a pretty clever safety slogan.
By the end of the first day we had about 10 new safety slogans to choose from. We picked the best one of the bunch and turned it in at the front office. I don’t remember the specific safety slogan we started out with, but I do remember some of them that the team invented. Here are a couple unique slogans that I have always remembered – not written by me….
“Lift with your legs, not with your back, or you may hear a Lumbar crack.”
“Wear skin protection in Oklahoma or you may get Melanoma.” (Ben Davis came up with that one).
I invite anyone at the plant that remembers more slogans to add them to the Comments below….
You can see that we tried to take a standard safety slogan like “Lift with Your Legs and Not your Back” and added a clever twist to it. I had taken out the stack of safety pamphlets from the cabinet and we reviewed them. Each of them had a safety slogan on the back. We weren’t going to use any that were already written, but it gave us ideas for new slogans.
We won the Monthly Safety Slogan that month. So, we figured we were on a roll. The next month we picked our next best one. By that time we must have come up with over 25 pretty good safety slogans, and we figured we would enter our best one each month. We were in for a little surprise.
After submitting a real humdinger of a Safety Slogan the second month (something like, “Wear your Eye Protection at work so you can See Your Family at Home” — well. I just made that up. I don’t remember the exact slogan 22 years later), the slogan that won that month was a much more bland slogan than our clever one. We felt slighted. So, we talked to Jimmy Moore (I believe) who was the electrician on the other team of Electricians in our shop that was on the Safety Committee selecting the safety slogans this year. He said that there were some people on the committee that thought it wasn’t good for the same team to win two times in a row. Others thought that any one team should only be able to win once a year.
As it turned out, we were able to win the monthly safety slogan only a few more times that year only because we were the only team that turned in a safety slogan during those months.
When it came time for picking the winning safety slogan for the year, Sue Schritter’s slogan from the warehouse won even though it was fairly lame compared to the clever ones we had been turning in. (Note the warehouse and the front office were all under the same manager…. so, when one of them won, they both really did). So, the front office (slash) warehouse were able to enjoy the free pizza.
After complaining about the process at the beginning of the next year, we were determined that we were going to do what it took to win every single month and that way they would have to give us the pizza at the end of the year. So, in 1993 that was our goal.
It was determined at the beginning of the year that all safety slogans would be judged without knowing who had turned them in. It was also determined that a team could turn in as many safety slogans as they wanted each month (probably because we had complained that our team was unfairly being singled out).
So, we made a concerted effort to turn in at least 15 safety slogans each month. That way, the odds of one of ours being picked would be very high, especially since our team was the only team that was really serious about wanting to win the free pizza at the end of the year.
Gary Wehunt from our team was on the committee selecting the slogans in 1993, so he would tell us about the conversations the committee was having each month when they would get together to select the slogan, and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy to win every single month.
During the year, it became a game of cat and mouse to try to win the safety slogan of the month every single month. We knew that a couple of people on the Safety Committee were doing everything they could to not pick one our our slogans. So, here is what we did… along with the best safety slogans we had, we threw in some really lame ones. I think we had some that were so bad they were nothing more than…. “Think Safety”. Our better safety slogans were more like: “Watch for Overhead Hazards! Avoid becoming Food for Buzzards” or “Wear your Safety Harness when working up high. One wrong step and you may die.” — I mean…. How could any other safety slogan compete with the likes of those?
The funny thing was that we thought that just in case the Safety Committee was trying to look for a safety slogan that our team didn’t write, they would intentionally pick a really bad one. Like “Think Safety”.
And it actually worked. Two months during 1993, the team actually chose a Safety Slogan that was really lame, just to try and pick the one that our team didn’t enter only to be surprised to find that it was from our team.
Through October our team had managed to win every Safety Slogan of the Month, and it looked like we were going to finally win the Safety Slogan of the Year and receive the free Pizza. I had written down every safety slogan our team had invented. We had over 425 safety slogans by that time. I had a folder in the filing cabinet with the entire list.
Then in November, the people who were on the Safety Committee who were intent on us not winning the yearly safety slogan was able to slip one by. They had submitted a safety slogan from their own team and had told a couple other people to vote for it. It didn’t take too many votes to win for the month since when we turned in 15 to 20 slogans the votes were spread out.
Most of the slogans that did receive a vote would only get one vote. So, any slogan that had two or more votes would usually win. So, all they had to do was throw together a safety slogan and tell someone else on the committee that was not happy about our team winning every month during the year, and they would win that month.
Louise Kalicki turned in a safety slogan in November. It was a simple safety slogan like “Be Safe for your family’s sake”. We had turned in a number of slogans that had said pretty much the same thing in the 400 or more slogans we had submitted, but that was the slogan that won during that month.
Well. That was all it took. When the winner of the Safety Slogan for the year was chosen, there was no way that everyone didn’t already know whose team the safety slogan was from because they had been posted on the bulletin boards throughout the year. So, you can guess what happened. After the electric shop had won 11 of the 12 safety slogans in 1993, The girls in the front office won the free pizza… again (just like they did every year).
So, what happened in 1994? Well…. That’s another story… isn’t it?
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Favorites Post #19
Originally Posted 11/14/2014
John Fry had a peculiar way of standing in front of the bathroom door in the electric shop after he had mopped the bathroom floor as he waited for the floor to dry. It was as if he was a sentry on duty in front of the Buckingham Palace in London because he would stand so still. I would amuse myself by picturing him dressed in the red Beefeater uniform standing at attention at the bathroom door at a coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
Only John wasn’t carrying a rifle, he was holding his broom handle. He would hold the handle of the broom so that it was parked just behind his right ear. His head would be slightly bent forward and the expression on his face was one of deep thought.
John didn’t speak much. I wondered if he had ever been a guard or a soldier. It would have had to been during the Vietnam War if he had, given his age. He was born in 1947.
I always admired John who was doing the job I used to do when I was a janitor at the plant when I had first become a full time employee after four years of working as a summer help. Like the tourists in London, I would do subtle things to try to distract John from his stalwart sentinel position without actually talking to him. I didn’t think it would be fair to actually use words, because John, being the polite person that he was would break out of his guardian stance to say “Hello” or answer a question if I had posed one.
One day while John was standing watch over the wet bathroom floor, I silently came up alongside him with my own broom and I put the handle behind my ear just like him and tried to stand with the same interesting posture John used. I stood there for a few minutes waiting to see if John would respond to me.
There was something peaceful about standing next to John meditating on the water evaporating from the tiles behind us. The wooden handle placed behind the ear, pressed up against the side of the head added a sort of stability.
He just continued standing watch. He may have had a slight smile, I’m not sure. When John smiled, it was usually very subtle. It was more in the eyes than on the mouth and since I was only looking out of the corner of my eye, I couldn’t really tell. I didn’t wait until the floor completely dried before I left. I still had to be an electrician, and I only had a few minutes to spare before I had to continue on my way.
The other interesting feature about John was that he didn’t turn his head. It was as if he was wearing an invisible neck brace. So, when he walked by, if you said “Hi John”, he might put up one hand as a slight wave, and mutter “Hi” back, but he wouldn’t turn his head toward you, unless he happened to be coming straight in your direction. He was generally looking at the floor a few feet in front of him when he walked. He would walk sort of hunched over as if he was looking for a small lost item on the ground.
I took this to mean that John had some sort of surgery on the vertebrae in his neck that fused them together so that they were immobile preventing him from looking this way or that. He was built like a boxer and looked the part, so I would imagine that in his earlier days, John was in a boxing ring exchanging blows with someone until he had to stop because of the injuries to his spine that could only be mended by fusing his neck into a permanent position of a Buckingham Palace Guard.
It was a pastime of mine to imagine what the Power Plant Men did before they ended up spending their days creating electricity for half the state of Oklahoma. That was until I had the opportunity to ask them and find out what they really did. As I mentioned, I pictured John Fry as a boxer before he became the bathroom Beefeater.
I pictured Johnny Keys as being someone who lived in the Arkansas Ozarks making Mountain Dew from a still up in the hills before he became a machinist.
You would understand that image better if you had seen him before they disallowed the wearing of beards on the plant ground. When Johnny had a beard he looked more like this:
I don’t even want to mention the number of Power Plant Men I pictured as used car salesmen before I knew them better. Ok. All right. I won’t tell you their names, but one of them has the initials: “Gene Day”.
There were a number of Power Plant Men that looked like they were Sergeants in the Army or Navy. Some that come to mind are
and Jim Arnold. Well, I thought of Jim as more of an Admiral:
Then there is the group of Mad Scientists. You know the type… They look so normal, but you can tell that in their spare time they are playing with chemicals, or coming up with new Physics equations in order to puzzle those fortunate enough to take a college Physics course….
Before I knew what this group actually did for a living before they arrived at the plant, I immediately thought…. Mad Scientist:
and lastly Merl Wright:
Then there was the group of people that looked like they were in a Hard Rock Band. They were easy to categorize since they all wore dark glasses…. Or maybe they did that because they worked in the welding shop…
There’s Larry Riley:
and Junior Meeks:
Ok. Maybe in their spare time, they also doubled as a biker gang. Or maybe there was a special sale on those glasses at Wal-Mart.
Then there was the more simple jobs… For instance, Danny Cain probably worked in a donut shop (which coincidentally… I did):
And also Coincidentally, Danny always liked Donuts.
Then there was the all around nice looking guys who would serve you in a restaurant or bag your groceries like Mike Gibbs:
or Brent Kautzman that reminded me of one of those guys that modeled fancy shirts in a J.C. Penny’s Catalog:
Ok…. I think you get my point…. Sort of like the songs I would hear whenever I was around these guys like I had discussed in the post “Power Plant Music To My Ears” I also categorized the Power Plant Men into various previous jobs… Larry Riley used to say that it was a good idea for me to not be idle because when I was, I would come up with the goofiest (my word, not his) things to do. I suppose he was right.
Anyway, I want to get back to John Fry. You see… my thought about John being an ex-boxer that could no longer box because of a neck injury gave me a sad feeling when I looked at John. I never really knew if he was married, though I didn’t think so. I knew he had a younger brother that lived in Stillwater, while John lived in Ponca City. Besides that, John’s life was a mystery to me.
So, today when I decided to write about John, I looked him up online to see what I could find. I found that he had died at the age of 58 years old on May 10, 2006 while working as a Warehouse Inventory Clerk. I couldn’t find an obituary. It seems that the Trout Funeral Home that handled his funeral either didn’t keep records that far back, or they just didn’t have anything to say about it.
I learned that the Sunset Baptist Church had a service for John but I couldn’t find anything about his funeral there either. Actually, I couldn’t even find the cemetery where he was buried. There is one John Fry in the IOOF cemetery in Ponca City, but I am not able to tell if that is him or not. It seems to me that John, whose brother had died 4 years earlier may have been alone.
I wish I knew more. Maybe someone at the plant can fill me in. Maybe I have the wrong John Fry and John is still around.
As a terrific Power Plant Man Janitor who held his post each day while the floor was drying, I want him to receive the honor that he deserves. I want him to know that there is a group of men that honored his service, loved him deeply and respected his life. If I had his picture, I would display it here. The only picture I have is the one I carry in my memory.
About two weeks after I wrote this post last year, John Fry’s daughter Amy ran across this post and left a comment. I have included that below:
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Favorites Post #17 (posted in no particular order)
originally post 8/23/2014
I suppose when you are a Plant Manager, the last person you want to see at your Power Plant doorstep is the OSHA Man! That’s exactly what happened on Thursday, March 10, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. He was not paying a social call. He was there to conduct an investigation. One in which I was heavily involved.
In my post from last week, “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting” I described a near death accident where a contract worker was engulfed in fly ash in a precipitator hopper. The accident was on all channels on the 5 o’clock news in Oklahoma City. The press was there when the Life Flight helicopter arrived at the hospital where they interviewed the flight crew. The OSHA office in the Federal building a few blocks from the Electric Company’s Corporate Headquarters had quickly assigned someone to the case. Armed with all the authority he needed, he began a full investigation of the accident.
The day before Gerald Young, (the OSHA Man) arrived, I had done some investigation myself into the accident. I was trying to figure out exactly what had happened. Why had someone who thought that he had emptied out a hopper so much so that he climbed inside, had suddenly become engulfed in ash? Where did this large volume of ash come from, and why did it decide to suddenly break loose and fill the hopper at the particular moment when James Vickers had decided to climb into the hopper?
Larry Kuennan, the lead engineer had asked me to show him the hopper from the inside of the Precipitator, so he could have an idea of what took place. I told him he needed to put on a fly ash suit and a full face respirator in order to go into the precipitator. After we were all suited up, I took him on a tour of the inside. A sight few people have had the chance to experience. I could write an entire post just about the experience…. Oh…. maybe I already have. See “Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator”
The hopper we needed to investigate was not at the edge, so, we had to squeeze our way around a few beams in order to see the hopper where the accident took place. When we arrived, I explained that when I had first inspected the precipitator, I had found that the ash had piled up five foot above the bottom of the plates because the feeder wasn’t feeding properly.
So, I had figured that when they were vacuuming out the hopper, the ash that was lodged between the plates (that were 9 inches apart) must have still been there when James climbed into the hopper. Something had caused the ash to give way all at once.
Larry and I climbed down between the hoppers where we could see the bottle racks underneath the plates. The bottles are 30 pound cast iron anchors in the shape of the old style milk bottles. They are used to keep the tension on the wires, which are the electrodes that are normally charged with up to 45,000 volts of electricity when the precipitator is online.
When we sat down to look at the four bottle racks, I noticed right away that one rack of bottles was about a foot and a half lower than the rest of the bottle racks. This didn’t make sense to me at first. I couldn’t think of any way that 176 wires and bottles would be lower than the rest of the wires in the hopper. It was a paradox that took a while to soak in.
When we left, Larry Kuennen made a statement I will never forget. He said, “Until now, I thought that Plant Electricians did nothing but twist wires together. I never thought they worked on things like this.” I replied, “We work on anything that has a wire connected to it. That includes almost everything in the plant.” He replied, “Well, I have a new appreciation for Plant Electricians.”
It wasn’t until I returned to the electric shop and heard Scott Hubbard’s recount of the accident (again). Scott and his crew was working on the roof of the precipitator when the accident happened. He said that when the accident happened he heard a loud bang. Sort of like an explosion.
I told him what I had found inside the precipitator. This could only mean one thing…. An electric insulator on the roof of the precipitator that held up the wires on that bottle rack had broken. When that happened, it fell the foot and half causing all the ash that had been lodged between the plates to be immediately jolted loose, engulfing James Vickers who had just climbed in the hopper below.
After lunch, Scott went up on the roof and opened the portal on the tension house that housed the insulator that held up that row of wires. Sure enough. The three foot by 3 inch diameter ceramic insulator had broken. Something that had never happened at the plant up to that point. A tremendous load must have been put on this insulator, or it must have been defective in order to just break. These insulators are designed to hold up to 10,000 pounds of weight. the weight of the bottles and wires altogether weighed about 6,000 pounds add another 1000 pounds for the beam attached to the insulators on the top of the plates. This meant that at least 3,000 pounds of ash was pressing down from the ash above in order for it to just pull apart.
There was only one person that the OSHA man Jerry wanted to speak to when he arrived at the plant (other than to arrange things). That was me. I was the acting foreman in charge of the operations in, on and below the precipitator when the accident happened. I was also just a regular hourly employee, not so “beholden” to the company that I would participate in any kind of “cover-up”.
The first thing OSHA Jerry wanted to see was the inside of the precipitator. So, I procured a respirator for him, and we climbed up to the landing where one enters the precipitator through side doors. The first thing he did when he arrived at the door was take out a measuring tape to measure the height of the door.
I hadn’t thought about it until that moment, but a new set of OSHA regulations had a new set of Confined Space regulations 1910.146 that dealt specifically with confined spaces. It had gone into effect on April 15, 1993. Here we were almost a year later. I had always treated the precipitator as a confined space, so I had always checked the air quality before I entered it.
So, I asked OSHA Jerry why he measured the size of the door. He said, he was checking if the entrance was “restricted” or “limited”. This was the requirement of a Confined space as stated in OSHA regulation 1910.146. I asked him how small does an entrance have to be to be restricted? He said, “Well. That’s not clearly defined. We could enter the precipitator by bending over and stepping in.
That was the first time I thought that maybe the precipitator itself may not really fit into the strict definition of a confined space. The hoppers do for sure, but does the precipitator? Hmm…. I wondered…. I still do come to think of it. The hoppers were definitely confined spaces by definition… “any space with converging walls, such as a hopper…..”
Oh. I forgot to describe OSHA Jerry. He reminded me a little of the guy who was a sidekick in Cheers named Paul Willson:
Actually, he looked so much like him that I thought of him right away.
When we were done inspecting the precipitator, we returned to the front office where we went to Tom Gibson’s (our Electric Supervisor) office. He closed the door and locked it. And he began to interview me by explaining that anything that was said in this room would be held in confidence. He explained that I could speak freely and that the Electric Company could do nothing to me for telling him the truth.
I thought… Ok…. um…. I have always been known for speaking my mind (maybe a little too much), so he wasn’t going to hear anything that I wouldn’t personally tell the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman to his face. Just ask Ron. I’m sure he would agree that I was pretty open about anything that popped into my mind.
He asked me if I had been trained about the OSHA Confined Space regulations. I responded by saying that we had a class on it one day where we went over our new confined space requirements. That consisted of reading the company policy. I knew that I needed to have a hole watch, and I needed to check the air before I went into a confined space.
We checked to make sure there was 20.9% oxygen, that there was less than 10 parts per million Carbon Monoxide, less than 5 parts per million H2S (Hydrogen Sulfide) and that there was less than 5% explosive vapors. OSHA Jack wrote everything down.
Actually, while I was talking, Jerry asked me to pause often because he was writing everything I said word-for-word on a yellow notepad what I was saying.
While we were talking, I asked him a few questions also. I asked Jack how he decided to work for OSHA. Where he had come from (Kansas. Wichita, I think). How long he had been working for OSHA. Did he enjoy his job….. At times, I could get him to digress and tell me a story about his life.
As we continued with our interview over this grave accident that almost resulted in the loss of someone’s life, I was busy making a new friend. By the time he had asked me everything he needed to know, I knew all about how he had grown up in Kansas, and how he had gone from job-to-job until he had ended up in front of me… interviewing me.
When we had finished the interview, he explained to me that this was an official document that contained all the answers to the questions he had asked me. He said that this would be private and that the Electric Company would not be able to ever see what I said unless I wanted them to see it. I asked him if I could show it to them. He said he would give me a copy of it, and I could do whatever I wanted with it. He asked me to sign it. I did.
I took Jerry to the copy machine in the front office where he made copies for me. When he handed them to me, I shook his hand. I told him I enjoyed talking to him. I also told him that I wished him well. I showed him to the elevator, and he left the plant. I made a copy of the papers that I had signed and went directly to the plant manager Ron Kilman’s office and gave him a copy of the document I had signed.
Ron asked me how it went. I told him that it went fine. Here is everything we talked about. I had nothing to hide. It did amaze me that OSHA Jack thought I might want to “spill the beans” about something as if we were treated like peons where the King had total rule. — I guess he didn’t know that Eldon Waugh had retired in 1987.
From there, I went to Bill Bennett’s office. Bill Bennett was our A Foreman. His office was across the hall from Tom Gibson’s office where I had been interviewed for the previous 3 hours. — Yeah. 3 hours. OSHA Jerry didn’t know Shorthand.
Bill asked me how the interview went. I said it went fine. He said that Ron and Ben Brandt had been worried about me because the interview had lasted so long. Bill said he told them, “Don’t worry about Kevin. He probably has this guy wrapped around his little finger. He’s probably using his ‘psychology’ on him”
I always loved Bill with all my heart. He knew me too well. I told Bill that I knew OSHA Jerry’s life story by the time we were done. Bill smiled…. just like this:
I smiled back at Bill. I returned to the Electric Shop to continue with Unit 1 Overhaul. After all. That was my “real” job. I put on my fly ash suit, my full face respirator, and my rubber boots and returned to the innards of the precipitator to continue where I had left off. I had a lot to think about as I scanned the Precipitator plates and wires in the dark with my flashlight safely strapped around my neck.
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Favorites Post #16 (posted in no particular order)
This post was originally posted on February 4, 2012. I have added some detail and pictures:
Coal-fired power plants are built out in the country away from any major town. I used to think this was because they didn’t want to pour ash and fumes on the nearby civilians, but now I think it has more to do with the kind of people that work at the plant. They like wide open spaces.
They like driving through the countryside every morning on the way to work, and again in the afternoon on the way home. In the morning, it gives them time to wake up and face the day ahead, as they can see the plant 20 miles away looming closer and closer as the dawn approaches.
It gives them time to wind down in the evening so that by the time they arrive at their homes, the troubles of the day are long behind them and they can spend time with their families, their horses, and cows, and tractors, and their neighbors. But enough about Walt Oswalt for now.
Some brave power plant workers reside in the nearest towns 20 miles in either direction. This is where I was in 1986 when I moved to Ponca City, Oklahoma. I had a few good friends in Ponca City that worked at the plant, and so we decided it would be best for us to carpool to work each day. There were four of us and we would alternate drivers each day. We would meet early in the morning in the parking lot of a grocery store and all pile into one of the cars and make our 20 mile trek to the plant. Besides myself, there was Jim Heflin, Dick Dale and Bud Schoonover.
For those of you who don’t know these three, let’s just say that they were on the hefty side. At that time I was slightly on the pre-hefty stage of my life. I owned a little 1982 Honda Civic that would normally get 40 miles to the gallon on the highway.
With all four of us in the car, I couldn’t get past 32 miles to the gallon, as my car would spit and sputter all the way to work like the “little engine that could” trying to make it over the mountain.
Bud was very tall and in the front seat of my little Honda Civic, his knees would almost touch his chin and his feet were cramped and his head had to bend down a little. It was comical to watch us all pour out of my car in the parking lot. it was almost magical how we could all fit in there.
Bud Schoonover and Dick Dale worked in the tool room and the warehouse, and Jim worked on a mechanical maintenance crew. I was an electrician and called the electric shop my home at this time. I had worked with all three of these men from my early days as a summer help and we knew each other very well. Jim Heflin reminded me of an old hound dog that the kids like to climb all over and he just sits there and enjoys it.
He rarely had a cross word to say. I could go on about Jim, but this is a story more about Bud Schoonover than it is Jim. I will save him for another day.
I have since acquired a picture of Jim Heflin:
Dick Dale was a jolly kind of person in general, but he had more wits about him than his other companions, and that tended to make him a little more agitated at some things, which he would work out verbally on the way home from work on most days.
Once before I started carpooling with this group of friends, Bud was driving home after work one day, and Dick was talking about his day. Every once in a while Bud would say “…and what about Jim.” After they had passed the Otoe-Missouri tribe and were close to the Marland turnoff, just after Bud had said, “…and what about Jim” for the fifth time, Dick stopped talking and said, “Why do you keep asking about Jim Heflin? What does he have to do with this?”
Bud answered, “Well. Jim did ride to work with us this morning didn’t he?” Sure enough. They had left Jim behind. So, they turned around and headed back to the plant. 15 minutes later, they arrived back at the plant, and there was Jim just waiting by the roadside with his lunch box like a good faithful hound dog, just as sure that they were going to come back and pick him up as he could be.
Bud Schoonover (or Scoot-On-Over Bud as I used to call him from time-to-time when we were climbin’ in the car), was a tall large man. I want to say that I saw him angry only one time, and it was kind of scary seeing this huge guy chasing after someone like a large troll with a big grin on his face and tongue hanging out flailing his lunch box like a giant mace.
Bud was really a mild mannered person most of the time, and though he might complain from time to time each day, you felt like he was someone that made an art out of remaining calm when faced with an angry mob lined up at the tool room gate demanding tools and parts. He wouldn’t move any faster if there was just one person or an entire crowd.
I could go on about Bud, and I probably will later, but today I am focusing on the act of carpooling with Bud Schoonover. Each morning Bud would watch the weather on TV before heading out of the house, and he just couldn’t wait for someone to ask him what the weather was going to be like, because he knew in his heart that he was providing a service to his fellow man by making sure that he never missed the weather report in the morning. So I would always oblige him. I would wait until we were on the road on our way out of Ponca City, and then I would ask, (insert Okie accent here) “Hey Bud. What’s the weather goin’ ta be like today?” Bud would squint his eyes (mainly because Bud seemed to naturally squint a lot. Sort of like Clint Eastwood) and he would look off into the distance and say a long drawn out “Well…..” Then he would go into the weather report.
To Describe what Bud’s face looked like you will have to use a little imagination… First, by starting with Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son…
Then you need to make her a white person. Then you need to make her a man. Then you need to add about 150 lbs. And you would have Bud Schoonover. Actually, Bud would make the very same expression that Aunt Esther is making in this picture. I couldn’t watch Sanford and Son without thinking about Bud Schoonover. I think Aunt Esther probably took lessons from Bud about how to move your jaw back and forth at some point in her life.
I remember one morning when we were driving to work and Bud was telling us that it was going to start clearing up around noon, and Dick Dale and I were sitting in the front seats looking out the window at the cloudless sky and the morning sun shining brightly across the meadow, and I said, “…going to clear up around noon?”, and he replied, “Yep, around noon”. I answered, “Well, that’s good, it’ll be about time.”
There was another time where Bud’s weather report one morning said that if we didn’t get rain soon the wheat farmers were sure to lose all their crops. When Dick Dale and I looked around, the wheat fields were all just as green and growing like there was no tomorrow. — There was a drought, but it was in the southern part of the state and didn’t effect us.
Because of this daily report, Dick Dale and I developed a way of speaking to each other without saying words. We would look at each other and move our eyebrows up and down and make small gestures with our mouths, and we both knew exactly what each other was saying.
My favorite Bud Schoonover carpooling story has to do with one morning when Bud was driving us to work and we were heading down the highway when we topped a small hill and were getting ready to head down into a valley just inside the Ponca Indian tribe. Bud slowed down the car and stopped right there in the middle of the highway.
We looked around trying to figure out what happened. Bud acted as if everything was just normal, and so the three of us, Jim, Dick and I were spinning our heads around trying to figure out what Bud was doing stopping the car in the middle of the highway with cars beginning to pile up behind us. Ideas flashed through my mind of some Indian curse that had possessed Bud, and I half expected Bud to start attacking us like a zombie.
So, I couldn’t stand it any longer and I had to ask, “Bud? Why did you stop here?” He said, “School bus.” Dick then chimed in with the next logical question and said, “School bus?” Bud came back with “Yeah, the school bus down there”. Sure enough. Down in the valley about 1/2 mile in front of us was a school bus heading toward us that had stopped to pick up some children along the highway and it had its red flashers on and its stop sign out.
So, Dick Dale said something to me with his left eyebrow, and I replied by raising the right side of my lip while tensing it up some.
Finally the bus resumed its journey toward us, and Bud began moving again, much to the delight of the long line of cars behind us. The bus went forward about 300 feet and stopped at another driveway to pick up some more children. We were only about 1/4 of a mile away from the bus at this point, so Bud stopped his car again and waited for the children to board the bus. I think I could see Bud squinting to get a better count of how many children were climbing into the bus. It occurred to me later that maybe when Bud squinted his eyes he magnified his sight so that ‘objects appear closer than they really were’.
Anyway, that was the first and only time in my life that I had waited twice for a school bus going in the opposite direction. It could only happen while carpooling with Bud Schoonover.
I now have a picture of Bud:
Since I first posted this story about Bud Schoonover he has passed away. You can read about that in this post: Dynamic Power Plant Trio – And Then There Was One.
Favorites Post #15 (posted in no particular order)
Originally Posted July 26, 2013:
I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was… well…. surreal.
This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.
As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.
At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.
Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.
David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.
During those times I knew that something was taking place in the “superheat” section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).
So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.
This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.
Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:
Or even a normal rat like this:
No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:
Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….
Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.
If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.
You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool. The nearest thing I had to a badge was the pocket protector in the vest pocket on my t-shirt.
So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.
Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.
There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where John Brien was staring back at him.
There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.
We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as I fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.
By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.
I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.
I took out my multi-meter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connector where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.
I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”
That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.
I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.
There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.
I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.
Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.
Comment from previous post:
Favorites Post #14 (posted in no particular order)
Originally posted August 16, 2014.
I knew that we had our work cut out for us when Unit 1 was taken offline for a major overhaul on February 19, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I had learned to expect the unexpected. I just never suspected this to happen. As acting foreman, I had a crew that consisted of a few of our own electricians, as well as a number of contract workers. I was also coordinating efforts between Brown & Root contractors that were going to be doing some major work inside the Precipitator (that takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler) during the 12 weeks we were going to be offline and a Vacuum Truck Company that was going to vacuum ash out of the hoppers where the ash is collected and blown through pipes to the coal yard to be trucked away to make concrete.
When I inspected the precipitator during the first week, I had found numerous hoppers that had filled up with ash. One hopper in particular was so full that the ash had built up between the plates over 5 feet above the top of the hopper. Because of this, I had to coordinate with Brown and Root contractors which hoppers to begin building scaffolding, and those hoppers the vacuum truck needed to vacuum out first.
I had learned to deal with full hoppers the first time I entered the precipitator back when I was on the Labor Crew in 1983. Since that day, I had understood the potential dangers lying in wait. Especially with hoppers full of ash. See the Post “Angel of Death Passes By the Precipitator Door“.
The crew I was directly managing was on the Precipitator roof working on vibrators, insulators, transformers and rappers. I worked inside the precipitator aligning plates, and removing broken wires and cleaning insulators. The vacuum truck company vacuumed out the full hoppers by attaching a vacuum hose from a large vacuum truck to clean out pipes at the bottom of the hoppers. The Brown and Root crew climbed into the hoppers through an access door near the bottom of the hopper and constructed scaffolding in order to work at the top of the hoppers immediately below the plates.
This operation had been going on for 3 days and had seemed to be going smoothly. The Brown and Root crews and the vacuum truck crews were working shifts 24 hours a day. I would come in the morning and see the progress that had been made during the night. We kept a sheet taped to a beam in the hopper area that the vacuum truck would update when they had finished a hopper, and the Brown and Root crew indicated where they had finished building their scaffold.
On Thursday March 3, 1994, just after lunch, instead of making my way out to the precipitator to continue my work, I went up to the office area to meet in the conference room with the Safety Task Force. I was the leader of the task force, and we were meeting with upper management to work out some issues that I outlined in last week’s post. See “Taking Power Plant Safety To Task“. As you may have noticed, the last two weekly posts are a continuation of a long story.
Our meeting began shortly after 12:30 and we were discussing ways in which the Safety Task Force could work in a more cooperative way with the Maintenance Supervisor, Ken Scott. I felt that we were making good progress. We seemed to have come up with a few solutions, and we were just working out the details.
At 1:10 pm, the Electric A Foreman knocked on the door and opened it. He explained that there had been an accident at the precipitator in one of the hoppers and he thought that I might have been in the hopper at the time. He was checking to see if I was in the meeting. Once he was assured that I was all right, he left (presumably to tell the rest of my crew that I was not involved in the accident).
At this point, my head started to spin. What could have happened? None of my crew would have been in the hoppers. Maybe someone fell off of a scaffold and hurt themselves. I know I had locked out all of the electricity to the precipitator and grounded the circuits that have up to 45,000 volts of electricity when charged up, so, I’m pretty sure no one would have been electrocuted. Bill’s voice seemed real shaky when he entered the room, and when he saw me he was very relieved.
When working in a Power Plant, the Power Plant Men and Women become like a real family. Everyone cares about each other. Bill Bennett in some ways was like a father to me. In other ways, he was like an older brother. The nearest picture I have of Bill is a picture of Bill Cosby, as they looked similar:
I don’t know how long I was staring off into space counting my crew and thinking about what each of them would be doing. I was sure they were all on the roof. I knew that if a Brown & Root hand had been hurt that their own Safety Coordinator would be taking care of their injury. The thought of someone being hurt in a hopper sent flashbacks of the day I nearly dived off into the hopper full of ash ten and a half years earlier.
After about 5 minutes, Bill Bennett came back to the conference room, where we were still trying to focus on the task at hand. I don’t remember if we were doing any more good or not since I wasn’t paying any attention. Bill said that he needed for me to leave the meeting because they needed me out at the precipitator. Someone had been engulfed in fly ash!
Then I realized that the first time Bill had come to the room to check on me, he had mentioned that. I think I had blocked that from my mind. He had said that someone had been engulfed in ash, and they couldn’t tell if it was me or someone else. That was why he was so shaken up. Bill had thought that I may have died, or at least been seriously injured. The pain he was feeling before he saw me sitting in the room, alive and well, flooded my thoughts.
I quickly stood up and left the room. Bill and I quickly made our way to the precipitator. He said that Life Flight was on the way. One of the vacuum truck workers had climbed into the hopper to get the last bits of ash out of the hopper when a large amount of ash had broken loose above him and immediately engulfed him in the hopper.
When that happened there was a large boom and a cloud of ash came pouring out from the side of the precipitator. Scott Hubbard, who would have been my twin brother if I had been able to pick my own twin brother (though I never had a real twin brother)… heard the boom on the roof and when he looked down and saw the cloud of ash, immediately thought that I may have been hurt. I suppose he had called Bill Bennett on the radio and told him.
As we arrived at the precipitator, a young man was being carried out on a stretcher. A Life Flight from Oklahoma City was on it’s way, and landed just a few minutes later. I looked at the man all covered with ash. I could see how someone may have mistaken him for me. He was dressed like I was. A white t-shirt and jeans. He was unconscious.
Without going into detail as to the cause of the accident, as that will be in a later post, let me tell you about the heroic Power Plant Men and their actions before I had arrived on the scene…
James Vickers, a 26 year old vacuum truck worker, had climbed in the hopper carrying a shovel. He had a hole watch standing out the door keeping an eye on him. They had sucked out the hopper from the outside pipes and had banged on the walls in order to knock down any ash build up on the sides until they figured they had cleaned out the hopper.
James had opened the door to the hopper, and maybe because he saw some buildup on the hopper walls, he decided to climb in the hopper in order to knock it down with the shovel. While he was doing this, a large amount of ash that had bridged up in the plates above was knocked free all at once and immediately filled up the hopper probably more than half full.
James was crammed down into the throat of the hopper, which at the bottom is only about 8 inches in diameter with a plate across the middle about 2 feet above the throat of the hopper. He was immediately knocked unconscious by the impact.
The person assigned to be the hole watch was standing at the door to the hopper and when the ash fell down, he was knocked back about 6 or 7 feet when the ash came pouring out of the door. Panicking, He ran to the edge of the walkway yelling for help. Luckily, he was not also knocked unconscious, or this would pretty much have been the end of the story.
Men came running. Especially a couple of Power Plant Men working in the area. I wish I could remember who they were. When I try to think of the most heroic Power Plant Men I knew at the plant at the time, the list is about a long as my arm, so it is hard to narrow it down.
The Power Plant Men began to frantically dig the ash out of the hopper to uncover James Vickers. When they reached his head, they immediately cleared his face to where they could perform Mouth-to-Mouth resuscitation. They began breathing for James as soon as they could, and continued mouth-to-mouth as they dug out more of the ash.
As they dug the ash out, they were using their hardhats for shovels. When they tried to move James, they found that he had been crammed down into the bottom of the hopper to where he was trapped in the throat of the hopper. Heroically they continued without hesitation to breath for James, while simultaneously working to free him from the hopper. The shovel had been wedged into the bottom of the hopper with him.
Almost immediately after the accident happened, the control room became aware that someone had been engulfed in a hopper, they called Life Flight in Oklahoma City. A helicopter was immediately dispatched. By the time James was safely removed from the hopper, placed on a stretcher and carried out to the adjacent field, the Life Flight Helicopter was landing to take him to the Baptist Medical Center. I would say the helicopter was on the ground a total of about 3 or so minutes before it was took off again.
Bill and I inspected the hopper where the accident had taken place. On the ground below under the grating was a pile of ash, just like I had experienced years before when I almost bailed off into the hopper to look for my flashlight. I was suddenly filled with a tremendous amount of sorrow.
I was sorry for James Vickers, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. I was sorry for Bill Bennett who thought for a while that I had died in that hopper. I remembered hanging by one finger in a hopper only two rows down from this one, ten years ago with my life hanging by a thread, and I just wanted to cry.
So, I gave Bill a big hug as if I was hugging my own father and just started to cry. The whole thing was just so sad.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….
On the roof of the Baptist Medical Center, a Triage unit had been setup waiting for the helicopter to arrive with James. Hazardous Waste protective suits were being worn by the people that were going to begin treating James. They had heard that he had been engulfed in hazardous chemicals which consisted of: Silica, Aluminum Oxide, Hexavalent Chromium, arsenic and other unsavory and hard to pronounce chemicals. The Life Flight People on the helicopter had to be scrubbed down by the Hazmat team as soon as they exited the helicopter to clean off the hazardous Fly Ash. The news reporters were all standing by reporting the incident.
Yes. The same fly ash that I went swimming in every day during the overhaul. The same fly ash that I tracked through the Utility Room floor when I came home at night. The same fly ash used to create highways all across the country. It’s true it has some carcinogenic material in it. I’m sure I have my share of Silica in my lungs today, since it doesn’t ever really clear out of there.
Besides the psychological trauma of a near-death experience, Jame Vickers was fairly unharmed considering what he went through. He came out of the ordeal with an eye infection. Randy Dailey pointed out that this was because the Safety Coordinator from Brown & Root had opened his eyes to check if he was alive when he was laying on the stretcher, and had let ash get in his eyes. Otherwise, he most likely wouldn’t have developed an eye infection.
When I arrived at home that evening I explained to my wife what had happened. She had heard something on the news about it, but hadn’t realized they were talking about our plant since the person was in Oklahoma City when the reporters were talking about it.
All I can say is… Some Safety Meetings in the past have been pretty boring, but nothing made me want to improve my Safety Attitude like the Safety Meeting we had that afternoon. I’m glad that I had to experience that only once in my career as a Plant Electrician.
Comments from the original post
Favorites Post #13 (posted in no particular order)
Originally posted May 17, 2014:
Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.
One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.
The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.
Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.
Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.
I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.
When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.
I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.
Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.
When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.
When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.
Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.
I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait. See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“).
With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.
While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.
Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.
By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.
The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.
The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.
So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.
As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”
So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.
Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….
George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.
Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.
The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.
This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.
You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).
Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.
Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.
This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….
Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.
I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….
In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.
In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically all “mechanical”.
Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.
Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.
I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.
It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.
He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?
The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.
When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.
That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…
I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.
Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.
Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.
Comments from the Original post
Favorites Post #11 (posted in no particular order)
Originally posted June 13, 2015
One thing I learned while working with Power Plant Men is always expect to be surprised. I just didn’t quite expect one September morning in 1996 to have a Power Plant Engineer sit down next to me and tell me about the day when he decided to brutally murder his wife. The eight Power Plant men sitting in a circle with their backs to each other working on computers all turned their chairs around and listened intently as Mark Romano, a Power Plant Engineer poured out his soul.
I had first met Mark Romano five years earlier at the Muskogee Power Plant when I went there for three days to be trained on how to troubleshoot the telephone system we used at the Power Plants. It was called a ROLM system. I gathered that Mark had coordinated the training and was sitting through the class as well. The name of the course was “Moves and Changes”. What a great name for a course on how to work on a telephone system.
Mark was a clean cut engineer from the power plant in Mustang Oklahoma. He had just been hired by the Electric Company and was the type of person that you immediately liked because he seemed to have a confident stature and smile. The look in Mark’s eyes was a little wild as if he was mischievous, which also made him an instant candidate to become a perfectly True Power Plant Man. I didn’t know at the time that Mark had been in the Marine Corps.
The day that Mark decided to reveal his deep dark secret he was the coordinator of the SAP project the 8 Power Plant Men were working on at Corporate Headquarters. To learn more about that project see the post: “Do Power Plant Men and Corporate Headquarters Mix?”
It was clear when Mark entered our over-sized cubicle that day that it was specifically because he had something on his mind that he wanted to share. Even though he began telling his story directly to me, after the rest of the Power Plant Men had turned their chairs and were sitting there in silence with their jaws dropped and their mouths open in astonishment, Mark stood in the middle of a circle sharing his story with all of us.
The story began ten years earlier when Mark was a U.S. Marine. He was on an extended mission in Central America on some covert missions. I figured it had something to do with Oliver North and El Salvador, but Mark didn’t go into that much detail about the actual mission. He just mentioned that he had been out of pocket for some time while he was away on this particular tour of duty.
While sitting on the military plane flying home to Tinker Air Force Base in Midwest City, a suburb of Oklahoma City, he was anxious to finally see his wife again. He hadn’t seen her for a long time and was looking forward to coming back home. The anticipation of returning home grew the closer he came to his destination. The plane landed in the evening when it was dark.
As Mark disembarked from the aircraft families of Marines poured out onto the landing field to greet their Heroes who had put their lives on the line and their families on hold while protecting and serving their country. Wives and children were hugging the Marine soldiers as Mark walked through the crowd looking around frantically for his wife. He was searching for his wife who was not there.
I don’t remember the details of the story at this point, but I believe that Mark took a cab or a friend drove him to his home in Oklahoma City. When he arrived home he met his wife at the door that told him that she had basically left him. She had found someone else and Mark was no longer welcome in his own home.
I think at this point Mark went to temporarily stay at another soldier’s home while he worked out what exactly he was going to do with his life. He didn’t really come back to a job waiting for him. He had always been a Marine. Mark had served his country in a covert war in a distant country that didn’t exactly measure up to Mark’s idea of “defending America from the Halls of Montezuma to the Shore of Tripoli” even though the “Halls of Montezuma” may not have been too far away from where Mark had been deployed.
Out of a job, a wife that had waited until he was on the front doorstep of his house to tell him that she had left him, and no where to go, Mark began to spiral down quickly. The first stage of grief is denial. Mark could not believe this was happening. After serving his country, he comes home and finds that his wife has kicked him out of his own home. “How can something like this be happening? Just fall asleep on this couch and maybe when I wake up, it will all turn out to be a big mistake.”
The second stage of grief is Anger. This is a necessary stage in order to go through the process of grieving. Sometimes we can process our anger quickly and move onto the next stage of grief toward healing. Other times, Anger can become overwhelming. Feuds can begin. Wars between nations. Husbands can murder wives. An all consuming hatred can take hold which leads only to death.
This was where Mark’s grief had left him as he sat on the couch at his friends house. He had nothing left in the world. Nothing but Anger. Sitting there staring at the wall of the apartment while his friend was at work, a plan began to take hold in Mark’s mind. The plan centered around one thing… Revenge. Complete and total annihilation. Murder and Suicide.
As if on auto-pilot Mark waited until the opportune time when his friend was gone. Then he gathered his equipment, put on his khaki’s and put his assault rifle in his car. He had planned his route. He was driving to the neighborhood just down the street from his house, where he was going to park the car. Then he was going to proceed through the neighbor’s backyard and attack from the back door. He was going to kill his wife and then himself. He was on the last mission of his life.
With all of his equipment ready, his car parked, ready to begin his assault, he stepped out of the car and onto the curb, ready to make his way across the backyard, suddenly he heard the quick burst of a siren from a police car and over a police car speaker a police man yelled, “Stop Right There!” Instantly because of his experience in the Marines, Mark ducked down behind a transformer box that was right next to him.
The Police were waiting for him! How could this have happened? He hadn’t told anyone about his plan. Maybe his friend had figured it out. However the Police had figured out his plan, they were there now 50 feet away in a police car. Mark decided that he would just have to go down right here. This was it. No one was going to take him alive.
A Policeman jumped out of the car, gun drawn… Mark prepared to leap up and begin shooting… In the next few seconds… Mark was laying behind the transformer dead. Pierced directly through the heart.
Just as Mark stood up to shoot the policemen, the officer ran around the car away from Mark. He ran up into a yard on the other side of the car where he confronted someone who had just come out of the house he was robbing. Mark quickly ducked back down behind the transformer.
The officer had not been confronting him at all. He was arresting someone who had been robbing a house. He hadn’t even seen Mark!
Mark sat crouched behind the transformer and the sudden realization that he had just come face-to-face with God became clear. Suddenly all the anger that had built up disappeared. God had stopped him in his tracks and instantly pierced his heart with Love.
Mark laid there as if dead for some time while the arresting officer drove away with his prisoner. When Mark finally stood up, he was no longer the Mark that had been alive the past 25 years. This was a new Mark. Some would use the phrase… Born Again.
In that one instance when Mark ducked back down behind the transformer, he relived the moment that Saul experienced on the road to Damascus. In a flash he had come face-to-face with Jesus Christ. The new Mark put his gear back in his car and drove back to the apartment and began to live his new life as if it was day one.
Sometimes it is when there is nothing left that you find everything.
Mark finished telling the Power Plant Men his story by saying that now he lives each day as if it is precious. He has been saved for some purpose. He lives with God in his heart. I think we were all turning blue because we had forgotten to breathe for the last five minutes of Mark’s life story. We finally all breathed a sigh of relief and felt the love that Mark had for each of us as he looked around the cube.
So, what did Mark do after he returned to the apartment back in 1986, ten years before he told us this story? He decided to enroll in college at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater Oklahoma, where I lived. He obtained a Mechanical Engineering degree and went to work in 1991 for the Electric Company at the plant in Mustang.
I wondered if he ever thought about the fact that he went to work for the same company that owned the transformer that Mark ducked down behind the day he fought his battle against God and Won.
A company engineer had decided one day years earlier while helping to plan a neighborhood that they needed to place a transformer right at this spot. We make decisions each day that have consequences that we never know. He never thought… “Yeah. Place the transformer right there. This will be needed some day by someone who needs to have a one-on-one with God who will convince him to be an Engineer for the very same company.
Mark has kept in touch with me through the years. He sent me an e-mail around 2004 when I was working at Dell telling me that he had decided to obtain his pilot’s license. He felt as if he should pilot an airplane. He was even thinking about leaving the electric company to become a full time pilot.
A few years later, he became an FAA Licensed Private Pilot. He sent me an e-mail that day letting me know. Mark is now listed in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airmen Certification Database and was recognized by the FAA on September 18, 2013 as a pilot that sets a positive example in the Aviation Business Gazette.
When Mark was telling us of his life and death experience, I was having flashbacks of a similar experience that had happened to me when I was in High School. I bring this up only to mention that when I had come to the point where I had lost everything in my life, even my own sanity, I came face-to-face with a friend who pulled me out of it in an instant. Only, it wasn’t Jesus Christ, as it was in Mark’s case. It was a friend of his. Saint Anthony.
Saint Anthony picked me up that one day when I was at the end of my rope, and since that time, I have felt the same joy in life that Mark experiences. I believe that “coincidence” is a word we use to explain things that seem too unlikely to happen on purpose. Some of us think that nothing is a coincidence. Everything that happens has a purpose.
Some may say it was a coincidence that the exact moment that Mark stepped out of the car and a policeman yelled “Stop Right There!” to someone else…. Yeah. I’m sure that happens all the time…
I didn’t wake up today knowing that I was going to write this story about Mark. Before last week’s post about my friend Bud Schoonover, who died the previous week, I had told two stories about our experience in Corporate Headquarters where Mark Romano had been our project manager. So, I thought, “Is there anything else about our time there that I could write about, and the story that Mark had told us had come to mind.
It was only at the end of the story that I thought about how Saint Anthony the “Finder of Lost Items” found me in the woods that winter day. Saint Anthony’s feast day is today… June 13.
I thought it was fitting that Mark Romano became a pilot. I think it has to do with his desire to be close to God. To be soaring like an eagle close to the “heavens”. Here is Mark’s LinkedIn photo: