Originally posted December 20, 2013. Added additional news about Richard at the bottom of the post:
I think it was while we were sitting in the lunch room eating lunch while I was still a janitor when the subject of harmonicas came up. Dick Dale must have asked me if I played a musical instrument, because that was my usual reply, “I play the harmonica… and the Jew’s Harp.” Just about everyone knows what a Harmonica looks like. I suppose most people in Oklahoma knows what a Jew’s Harp is. It’s that instrument you put in your mouth and you flip the little lever and it makes a vibrating twanging sound.
Dick Dale, worked in the warehouse, and we had been friends since my second year as a summer help. He told me that he always wanted to learn to play the harmonica. I told him I learned by just playing around on it. I never took lessons or used a harmonica book or anything.
When I was growing up, my dad knew how to play the harmonica, so we had one laying around the house all the time. So, one day when I was a kid, I picked it up and started playing with it. It took about five minutes before my older sister ran to my mom and complained about me making a racket. My mom told me to take it outside. So, I not only learned the harmonica by playing around with it, I was usually sitting alone in the woods while I was learning it. I have found that under these conditions, there is usually some basic part of the skill that is left out. So, I knew that my harmonica playing was never really up to snuff.
In the spring of 1983, I joined the labor crew, and I no longer ate lunch in the break room. I kept it in mind that Dick Dale wanted to learn to play the harmonica, so some time during the summer, I purchased a Hohner Marine Band Harmonica for him, and I began creating a song book with the songs that I knew how to play. I made up my own notation. The holes in the harmonica were numbered, so I wrote the numbers of the holes I would blow in, and put an arrow above the number pointing up or down to indicate whether I was blowing in the hole, or sucking the air through the hole.
During the summer I talked to Dick Dale a few times, and he was having trouble with his family. He was getting a divorce from his wife of fifteen years. He was pretty upset about that, because all along he thought he was happily married. This turned out not to be the case. In the process, Dick moved from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Ponca City. I was living in Stillwater at the time.
When winter came around, my friend Tim Flowers, who was a summer help for two summers at the plant, including the summer I was on the labor crew, came to visit me in Stillwater. I had bought a harmonica for him for Christmas, and I told him I wanted to go visit Dick Dale in Ponca City and take him his Harmonica for Christmas, along with the booklet I had handwritten (as we didn’t have computers back in those days….).
So, I called up Dick to make sure it would be all right if we dropped by for a little while. He was at home in his new house, and said he would be delighted if we came by. Dick knew Tim Flowers from the time he had been a summer help. While Tim and I were carpooling, Dick would be carpooling with Mike Gibbs, and sometimes on the way home, we would play car tag going down the highway.
One day after a Men’s Club dinner at the plant, while we were leaving, I was in the front of the line of cars heading for the main gate. In those days, there weren’t two separate gates (one for entering, and one for exiting). So, the one gate had to open almost all the way up before the person exiting could go through the gate.
When I pulled up to the gate, I pulled up on the entrance side, and Dick and Mike pulled up on the exit side. We had been racing with each other up to the main gate…. Dick was revving up the engine of his pickup truck which could easily outrun my little blue 1982 Honda Civic. I had to be more cunning to stay in front of Richard (yeah. I liked to call him Richard).
As the gate opened, I was on the side where I could go through the gate first. The way it worked was that as soon as I crossed the threshold of the gate, the gate would stop opening. then, as I went through it, I drove over to the exit side and ran over the closed loop of the gate, so that the gate closed again leaving Richard and Mike waiting behind the closed gate as we made our escape.
Of course, as soon as we were out on the main highway, it didn’t take long for Richard to make up the mile lead I had gained while he had to wait for the gate to close and re-open. So, the only way I could prevent him from passing me was by weaving over in the passing lane when he attempted to pass me, and then back again, when he returned to the right lane.
Eventually he was able to go around me, but from that day forward, whenever we were travelling home at the end of the day, and we were following each other, we would both meander back and forth across the highway on the way home…. when it was safe of course. Since we were out in the country, on a seldom traveled rode, that was usually not a problem. This came to an end when Richard moved to Ponca City.
When Tim Flowers and I arrived at Richard’s house in Ponca City that Christmas holiday, we surprised him when we handed him his very own harmonica with the booklet that I had written. He invited us inside and we sat for a while as I explained to him how the booklet worked. He said he appreciated it, and that he would work on learning how to play his harmonica so that we could play together.
We sat around and made terrible music together for a while. Then, because I didn’t want to impose on Richard too much, we left to go back to Stillwater. A couple of weeks later after the holiday, Richard said he had been practicing on the harmonica and he really appreciated the Christmas present.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but two and a half years later I was going to move to Ponca City after I was married, and my wife graduated from nursing school. That was when Dick Dale, Jim Heflin, Bud Schoonover and I began carpooling together (See the post: Carpooling with Bud Schoonover). At the time Dick said that he had hoped to get over the tragedy of his marriage by the end of the year. He had heard that it took a year to get over 5 years. Since he had been married for 15 years, he figured by the end of 3 years he should be feeling like he was over it.
The only other person at the plant that I can remember that ever heard me playing the harmonica was Arthur Hammond. He asked me one day in 1986 if I would bring my harmonica to work so that he could hear me play it. So, I did, and while we were driving down to the Arkansas River to check batteries, I played some “harmonica blues” for him. It was just stuff I was making up.
I had seen this movie called “Crossroads” with Ralph Macchio. In the movie Ralph’s character is trying to learn how to play the Blues guitar from an old and once famous blues musician. There are two things you learn as the movie unfolds. The first is that in order to really know how to play the blues, you had to have experienced a real “Blue” time in your life. So you had to play with the feeling that you had experienced. The second thing was that Ralph had to play his guitar against a contract guitar player chosen by the devil in order to save the old man’s soul.
So, what was I supposed to do? I had been blessed most of my life. I hadn’t really experienced any “real” blues. As Art was driving the pickup truck down to the river, I tried to dream up the bluest thoughts I could. I thought…. what if the world ran out of chocolate….. That would ruin everybody’s mood. I piped out a few sorrowful sounding notes on the harmonica to try and portray my disappointment living without chocolate….. that sounded kind of lame.
Then I thought, wasn’t I upset that one time when I was a summer help and I stayed over to help feed the foremen that were having a dinner in the break room and Pat Braden and I fed the foremen, and no one offered me any food, so I had to go hungry for a couple of hours before I could go home and eat some leftovers at home. I think I felt kind of blue that day….. so I cupped my hand over the harmonica, tilted my head to the side and tried to remember that painful time as I shook my hand up and down so that the harmonica would make the sad “whaaa whaa” sound.
I drummed up a few more sad thoughts, and I thought I was really floundering as my debut as a blues harmonica player, so I paused for a few minutes to try and make myself feel bad about doing such a poor job playing the harmonica hoping that it would help. Then Art said, “Hey. You are pretty good!” “What?” I thought, “Oh… That’s Art, trying to be polite.” “Thank you,” I said. Boy. How pitiful is that? Surely I should feel bad enough now to play some blues at least a little better….
Anyway, a mile or two later, I decided to give it up. I put the harmonica back in my pocket and told Art that was all I could do for now. Finally. We had some peace and quiet the rest of the way to the river. I remembered that my sister would always run screaming to my mom when I was younger and blew a few notes on the harmonica, and here Art patiently listened and even complimented my playing. Gee. What a true friend he was.
Later, Dick Dale remarried, and as far as I could tell, he was a much happier person a few years after that. I did what I could to help him. Though, I think at times I confused him a little. I will relay a story about that in a few weeks.
Richard Dale died at the age of 64 on Christmas Day, 2008. He can now be heard in concert in Heaven playing the mouth organ. Since I don’t play the regular harp, I hope one day to stand alongside him playing the Jew’s Harp. Richard’s Mother Maurine Dale joined him in Heaven last month (November, 2015) at the age of 98.
Originally posted January 17, 2014. I added more to the story:
When I first moved to Ponca City in 1986 I carpooled each day to the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma with Dick Dale, Jim Heflin and Bud Schoonover (See the post: “Carpooling Adventures with Bud Schoonover“). Dick Dale had moved to Ponca City a couple of years earlier after his divorce. He didn’t want to continue living in Stillwater where he felt as if everyone knew about his tragic situation. We had been friends from the first day we met (which is often the case with Power Plant Men) when I was a summer help working out of the garage and he worked in the tool room and warehouse.
I wrote about Dick Dale this past Christmas, when I talked about his situation (See the post: “Harmonizing with Dick Dale on Power Plant Christmas Harmonicas“). I knew that even though it was a few years later, Richard was still feeling the impact from this emotional trauma. One day I found the opportunity to play a “Power Plant” joke on him that I thought might help lift his spirits.
I recently wrote another post about how I had installed dumb terminals around the plant so that regular workers would be able to access the mainframe computer downtown in Corporate Headquarters in order to see their work orders, or look up parts in the warehouse, etc. (See the post: “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“). In most places where I installed terminals, I also installed large IBM printers that printed using continuous feed paper.
For those of you who remember, at first most dot matrix printers would feed paper from a box underneath them. they had holes down both sides of the paper where the sprockets would rotate and paper would come rolling out the top of the printer.
Ok. Here is a quick one paragraph side story…
One day when my son was 5 years old, we had to wait a while in an airport. We were sitting in a row of seats at the gate waiting. My son kept popping up slowly, jerking as he rose, from behind the row of seats and would lay over the seat back and end up head down on the chair. After doing this a few times, my wife Kelly who was becoming slightly annoyed asked him what he was doing. He said, “I’m paper coming out of the printer”. Of course, this cracked us all up.
Anyway, back to the story. By the time I had to add the dumb terminals and printers to the Garage and Warehouse, I had already been playing around on the mainframe learning all sorts of ways to get into trouble. — Well, what else was I going to do during lunch while Charles Foster and I talked about movies and stuff? I had a personal user account on the mainframe that basically gave me “God Access”. They didn’t really have anything like “Network Security” back then. — This was 1988.
Back then, we also didn’t have anything called “Email” either. It wasn’t until 1989 that CompuServe first offered real Internet e-mail to its users. When we wanted to send something to someone in the company, we either printed it out and put in an intra-company envelope and sent it by “snail” mail, or we could find out what printer they used and get the ID for the printer and send it to them. It was a code like: P1234.
Well. I had been playing with this text editor on the Honeywell mainframe called FRED. This stood for FRiendly EDitor. For those of you who know UNIX, this was pretty much the same as the VI Editor found on UNIX mainframes. The commands were the same. Today, users of Microsoft Word would be horrified to find out what you had to go through to create a document back then.
I had been practicing using this editor, and found that by using the special escape codes for the printer, I could create documents that would come out looking pretty neat. So, I had created some templates that would make it look like I was printing a Memo from some mainframe program. That was about the time that I installed the printer in the garage.
So, I created a big long document that would print out on the garage printer as soon as I connected the printer to the network. It went on and on about how the printer wasn’t happy about being placed in such a dusty environment and how it refused to be cooperative until it was moved to a cleaner place. It would spit out a bunch of sheets of paper, printing protest after protest.
Then it ended up by saying that if it wasn’t moved right away, it was going to shut down in 10 minutes and it started counting down by 30 second intervals. Then at the last minute, it counted down by 15 seconds until it counted down the last 10 seconds by feeding a sheet of paper for each second while it was counting… then it paused at the last second. Finally, it printed out at the end a concession that since it was obviously not going to be moved to someplace cleaner, it might as well give up and be cooperative.
When I installed the printer in the office in the automotive garage, I knew it would take about 30 seconds to connect the first time, and by that time, I was outside making my way back to the electric shop. By the time I arrived back in the electric shop Charles Patten, the foreman in the garage was calling me on the gray phone. The gray phone is the plant PA system:
Of course, I knew why. I answered the phone and Charles told me that something was wrong with the printer. It kept shooting paper out of it and wouldn’t stop. He had even turned it off, but when he turned it back on, it still kept feeding paper out. I told him that sounded pretty strange to me and I would be right over to see what was going on. I took my time returning to the garage giving the printer time to throw it’s tantrum.
By the time I returned, the printer had stopped ranting about being installed in a dirty environment and had given up it’s protest. Charles said that it finally stopped. I walked over to the printer and took the pile of hundred or so pages that it had printed out, and tore them off the printer and walked out with them. I don’t even know if Charles had paid any attention to what the printer was saying.
I think I was the only person that knew that I had just “attempted” to play a joke on Charles. After all, as the paper was feeding out it was carefully collecting into a nice stack in front of the printer on the floor, and unless someone picked up the stack and looked at it, they wouldn’t know that anything was even printed on it. So, in this case, the joke may have been on me. But then again, Power Plant Men are like that. If they figure a joke is being played on them, then they figure out how to turn it around so that the joker is the one that has the joke played on them. Maybe that was the case here. Charles Patten was probably one of the most intelligent foremen at the plant, so it was possible.
Anyway, back to Dick Dale. I installed the printer in the warehouse and Dick Dale, Darlene Mitchell, Mike Gibbs and Bud Schoonover were happy to be connected to the Inventory program on the mainframe….. um… yeah. sure they were…… especially Bud.
Bud Schoonover was the person that when it was his turn to run the tool room would not give you something if it was the last one. So, if I needed a flashlight and it was the last one, and I asked Bud for a flashlight, he would say that he couldn’t give it to me. Why? You might ask. Well, he would explain that if he gave the last one away, he would have to order some more. Bud didn’t like ordering things on the computer. So, in order to keep from having to order anything he simply didn’t give away the last one of any item.
Anyway. I decided one Monday during my regular lunch time computer educational moments to send a letter over to the warehouse printer addressed to Dick Dale. It was from an anonymous woman. The letter sounded like it was from someone that really had a thing for Richard and remembered how they used to work together. It also mentioned other people, like Mike Gibbs and Pat Braden and about how they used to hang around each other.
Since this was a fictitious character, I could say anything I wanted, but I wanted to put it in a time period back when I was still a summer help. Well… It wasn’t long before Dick Dale called me on the gray phone (no. I won’t post another picture of the gray phone here. I think you get the idea). He asked me to come over to the warehouse.
When I arrived, Richard showed me the letter. He was excited about it. He was trying to figure out who it could be. He thought about the people that had moved from the plant to Corporate Headquarters and wondered if it was one of them. I thought for a little while, and I couldn’t come up with who it might be (obviously), since it was me.
The next day at lunch I sent another letter to his printer. I mentioned more about the “old days” working at the plant. On the way home Richard showed it to me. I could tell that he was really excited about this. I held back my smile, but inside it felt real good to see that Richard had finally come back to life. For the past couple of years, he had been so down. Now some woman was paying attention to him, and actually was telling him that she had always liked him.
Darlene Mitchell sent a letter to the printer ID I had sent in the letter to Richard, saying the following:
Dear Ghost Writer,
This has been the most exciting thing that’s happened in the warehouse in a long time. We await your messages. Dick is really trying hard to figure this out, and if you don’t give him a little hint, his little old brains are going to get fried.
He also requests that you send his messages to his printer only, that way I won’t be able to send my message back. He takes all the fun out of everything. P)24 is his number, and if you can’t get a response out of him, I’ll be glad to put my two cents in.
I’m sure Dick would like to see you too. Maybe we can get him headed in your direction, if you tell me where that is.
So, long, see you in the funny papers.
<end of message>
On Thursday Richard called me and asked me to come over to the warehouse. He showed me the letter he had received that day. He said he was too excited. He just had to find out who it was that was sending him these letters. He said that since I knew everything there was to know about computers (a slight exaggeration), he asked me to see if I could find out where the letters were coming from.
I told him I would do what I could to see if I could track down who was sending the letters. On the way home that day, he asked me if I had any luck. I told him I was still looking into it. I told him I thought there might be a way to find a log somewhere that would tell me.
So, after lunch on Friday I walked over to the warehouse. When I entered, I signaled to Richard that I wanted to talk to him. — Remember. Richard and I had developed facial signals while carpooling with Bud Schoonover so that all we had to do was glance at each other and we instantly knew what each other was saying…
Richard and I stepped outside of the warehouse where we could be alone. He asked me if I had found the person sending him the letters. I told him I had (I knew I had to do this right or I would lose a good friend, so I said), “Yes. I have.”
I could see the look of excitement in his face. So I looked straight at him and I said, “I have been sending these letters to you.” He was stunned. He said, “What?” I said, “Richard. I have been sending them to you.”
I could see that he was very disappointed. After all. No two people could read each other’s expressions better than me and Richard. We practiced them every day. The corners of his mouth went down. The middle went up. Edges of the eyes went down. Eyes began to water. Yep. He was disappointed to say the least.
I told him I was sorry to get his hopes up. I put on the saddest look I could muster. Inside I wasn’t so sad. Actually I was pretty happy. I knew this was a tough moment for Richard, but he had spent an entire week flying high. For the first time in a long time, Richard had hope. A couple of hours of disappointment was well worth this past week.
I patted him on the back and he turned to walk back into the warehouse despondent. I went back to the electric shop.
As for my part, I continued sending Dick Dale printed messages from time to time. Just goofy messages like the following:
Sometimes when I type letters I find that the words I use are not always the typical type that I would use if I wrote a letter. The letters that I make when I write a letter aren’t the type of letters that I use when I type a letter. When I write a letter, the letters in the words are sometimes hard to distinguish, but the letters I type when i’m typing a letter are the type of letters that stand out clearly and uniformly. I can’t really say that when I type I’m right, or when I write I’m right, because I usually type a different type of letter than I write when I’m writing a letter. I typically use a different type of words when I’m typing than I use when I’m writing, so I really can’t say that writing is right when a typical typed letter is just as right as writing. That is just the type of person I am.
After a few more days, Darlene Mitchell and Dick Dale began sending me letters indicating that the warehouse workers had been taken hostage, and they had a list of hostage demands. I would write back to them. The hostage letters and my replies would make up an entire blog post just by themselves.
So, what followed this episode? Well. Within a few weeks Dick Dale had attended an event at the Presbyterian Church in Ponca City where he met a very nice woman, Jill Cowan. He began dating her, and within the year they were married on November 13, 1988.
I like to think that I had given him the kick in the pants that he needed at the time that he needed it. For that one week where he had hope, he believed that someone else really cared for him (which I really did, just not in the way he was thinking). If he could believe that, then maybe it could really be true, even if in this case it turned out to only be one of his best friends.
I know that Dick Dale lived happily ever after. As I mentioned earlier, I wrote a post about Dick Dale about a time when I gave a Christmas present to Dick Dale, Christmas 1983. Well. as it turned out, my friend Richard was presented to Saint Peter at the gates of Heaven 25 years later on Christmas Day, 2008, 20 happy years after his marriage to Jill. I don’t really miss him. He is always with me in my heart to this day.
Originally posted January 24, 2014:
Reorganizations naturally shuffle things around. People are generally resistant to change and don’t like to find that their routine has been changed without having their input on how to make things better. When the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma went through a downsizing and reorganization in the latter part of 1987, my job changed slightly. Personally, I was grateful for the changes.
Before the reorganization, I had inherited both the precipitators (the large boxes at a power plant that take the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler). This meant that every overhaul, I knew what I was doing. I was working on and in the precipitator. This was generally a dirty and thankless job.
After the reorganization, however, Terry Blevins was assigned to work on the Unit 2 precipitator, while I worked on Unit 1. I will go into this in more detail later, but for this post, I’ll just point out that this meant that when Unit 2 was on an overhaul (that means the unit is taken offline for one to three months in order to fix and repair things that can only be done while it is offline) I wasn’t automatically assigned to the precipitator. So, I could work on other things.
Before the reorganization, Sonny Kendrick had the title “Electric Specialist”. After the reorganization we no longer had a specialist. I’m not sure exactly why. I know that at Muskogee, they still had a specialist in the electric shop. — I will talk about him next year (the specialist at Muskogee). Anyway, I know that Sonny, at the time, was not too happy about his change in job title. I don’t blame him. I would be too.
One of the things that the Electric Specialist did during overhauls was test tripping relays. Now that we no longer had a specialist, that was left up to whomever…. The first electricians, besides Sonny, that were assigned to relay testing was Ben Davis and myself. I had started doing it on my own and after about a week, Ben Davis was assigned to help me out.
We were on a major overhaul on Unit 2 and it had been decided that we were not only going to test the regular super-high voltage breaker relays, we were also going to test all the 480 volt switchgear relays for Unit 2, as well as the intake and coalyard switchgears. I don’t remember if we made it to the river pump switchgear, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Once we started, there was no stopping us.
When I first was told to test the relays, Bill Bennett (our A foreman) told me to have Sonny tell me how to do them. So, I walked into the lab and told Sonny that Bill had told me to ask him to help me learn how to test the protective relays on the switchgear. Sonny, not looking too happy, grabbed a small stack of manuals, walked out into the main switchgear with me, and said, “Here is the relay test set. Here are the manuals that tell you how to hook up the test set and test them.” He turned and walked away…. I was sort of hoping for a more intimate lesson…
I knew the reason Sonny was so upset. Later I learned why he would be as upset as he was to not be able to test the protective relays. It was because when you test, clean and adjust protective relays you have an immediate rush of satisfaction that you have just done something very important. Let me just say quickly (because in another post I will expound upon this), a protective relay is what keeps motors from blowing up. It is what prevents blackouts from happening across the nation. Without properly calibrated protective relays, a power company is just asking for a disaster (or… well….. their insurance company is, because they are the ones that usually end up paying for the damage — which I will also talk about in a later post).
I thought the relay test set that Sonny showed me was the neatest thing I had seen so far in the electric shop. There were two boxes that hooked together with an umbilical cord. They had dials, switches, connectors, meters and a digital readout down to the millisecond. That is, you can read the time to trip a relay down to the one thousandth of a second.
I only wish that I had a bigger picture of this relay test set so that you could admire it as much as I did. Even today it gives me goosebumps! Ok. I can imagine those relay technicians that read this blog are looking at this and thinking…. “What kind of piece of junk is this?” Hey (as Mark Fielder used to say), this was my “baby” (only he was referring to the precipitator).
So, back to the story at hand…
Even though I was having a heck of a fun time trying to figure out how to perform these relay tests by reading these manuals about the different kinds of relays, I was glad when Ben Davis was assigned to work with me. I don’t know if he had worked on relays before, but he seemed to know just what to do to hook up the test set and make things easier.
The best suggestion that Ben had right off the bat was that we should be listening to the radio while we were working. This might have been a preventative measure after the first couple of days to prevent the same situation from occurring that happened to Ed Shiever when he and I were trapped inside a confined space for a couple of weeks (See the post: “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“). Either way, it was a great idea.
You wouldn’t think that inside a switchgear 20 miles from the nearest town with a radio station, that we would have any reception on a little transistor radio, but we were able to manage. It seemed that we had to be a little creative at times with the antenna in certain locations, but, like I said. We managed.
My perception of Ben Davis up to this point was that he was a “Good-ol’ boy”. That is, a country music type Oklahoman that had grown up in Shidler, Oklahoma where the major attraction in the town was the High School. To my surprise, I quickly found out that he was a connoisseur of Rock and Roll.
It wasn’t until I was in college before I realized that the easy listening station I had been listening to on our family radio at home while I was growing up was playing rock and roll songs using an orchestra with violins and clarinets instead of electric guitars. I learned from my dorm mates all about groups like Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles (yeah… can you believe it? I mean. I knew “Hey Jude”, “Let it Be” and a few others, but most of the Beatles I thought were instrumentals normally played on violins with a man waving a wand) and many others. When I found out about “Rock and Roll”, I had to go out and buy dozens of 8-track tapes, as fast as I could find them.
So, here was Ben Davis. Even better than the “Good Ol’ Boy” that I already thought he was. And he loved classical rock and roll. I can only say that the next month and a half while we tested relays all over the plant, were one of the best times I have ever spent in my life! He knew all the 60’s and 70’s rock and roll bands.
As each song would come on the radio, we would guess (well, I was guessing most of the time…. most of the time Ben already knew), what the name of the song was and the name of the band. So, not only were we doing one of the most satisfying jobs at a power plant, but I was also have a lot of fun with Ben listening to the radio! Who would have thought it? No wonder Sonny was upset he wasn’t testing relays this overhaul.
I could go on about all the different bands and their backgrounds that I learned from Ben during that overhaul, but (unlike me), you probably already know all that stuff. It never ceases to amaze me how many holes I have in my education until one is staring at me in the face.
This reminds me of a side story, and I apologize if I have told this before…. I don’t think I have….
After the Reorganization, and after I moved to Stillwater from Ponca City, Scott Hubbard (and Toby O’Brien) and I began carpooling. One morning as we were listening to NPR, Scott Hubbard mentioned something about a “cur”. I asked him, “What’s a cur?” Well, he had the exact same reaction when 11 years earlier I had asked my friends in college at Oklahoma University, Tim Flowers and Kirby Davis, “What’s an orgasm?” — See how little holes in your education can make a big impact?
Just so you don’t get caught in the same predicament… A “Cur” is a mongrel dog. Scott Hubbard couldn’t believe that someone that read the dictionary for fun wouldn’t know what a “cur” was. What the heck? I didn’t grow up in Oklahoma! — end of side story… which really isn’t a side story, since it was about a Power Plant Man — Scott Hubbard. He probably knew what a “cur” was before he could walk. — I know I haven’t told that story before! I would have remembered that.
I’m not going to go on about all the fun that I had with Ben Davis testing protective relays. I enjoy my memories, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear all about how much I looked up to this Power Plant Hero. The only thing I will add is that the time I spent with Ben during that overhaul has been etched into my memory as one of the most enjoyable times of my life. So, I’ll go onto the next step in our Protective Relay story….
A few years later, in 1993, Sonny Kendrick and Ben Davis and I were sent to “Advanced Protective Relay Maintenance” training in Dallas, Texas. I remember this time so well, I remember the address where we were went. It was at 4271 Bronze Way, Dallas, Texas. It was hosted by the same company that made that wonderful test set I pictured above. The AVO Multi-Amp Corporation.
I brought my wife Kelly and my three year old daughter Elizabeth with me. They stayed at the hotel during the day and played in the swimming pool, while I went to class.
The classes lasted four days, Monday through Thursday. That was where I learned that even though I thought our relay test set was the coolest piece of equipment in the electric shop, it turned out to be archaic by “Protective Relay Maintenance” standards. Not that it didn’t do the job…. So, in order to train us properly, they let us use our own old test set during the training so that we could see how to properly test really advanced relays such as Distant Relays, Syncro-verifier relays, Negative Sequence Relays,directional distance relays and Pilot Wire relays. — These are relays that are found in a large substation that trips high voltage lines that run long distances across the country. — I can tell you’re jealous. — Well.. I imagine it anyway. Knowing what I know now.
So, why drag you all the way to Dallas for this story? There’s a reason.
time for a second side story:
You see. Tim Flowers, whom I mentioned above, knew not too long after he met me that I have the knack of running into people that I know (or should have known in this case), would love this story. You see, I met Tim and Kirby at Oklahoma University and they drove with me to Columbia Missouri in 1979 (along with my brother Greg) when I went to register for classes at Missouri University when I decided to go back to school in my home town.
When we arrived in the town, we were hungry after driving for 8 hours straight from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Columbia, Missouri… so we stopped at Godfather’s Pizza. As we walked in, there was a girl and a guy standing at the counter ordering a pizza. The pretty girl (Pamela Ramsey) with long red hair turned and saw me. She immediately came toward me saying “Kevin Breazile!!!! You owe Me!!! Slightly shocked and pleased, I said, “What for?” She reminded me that I never gave her the pictures that were taken during the Senior Prom. You see. I had taken her to the Senior Prom.
Later I explained that this happens to me a lot. I meet people that I know in the oddest places (even though this wasn’t so odd, since I had grown up in Columbia). It was just that this was the first person we had seen since we entered town. From that point on, Tim (who later worked as a summer help at the power plant) expected that everywhere we went we would run into someone I knew….
End of the second side story. I’m sorry that this is making the post a little longer than usual. I know you have to get back to work….
So, back to the relay training course in 1993 that Ben Davis, Sonny Kendrick and I were taking in Dallas…. On Wednesday night during the training there was a dinner held in a small banquet room in the hotel. Well… of course I had to take my wife and my daughter. So here we were sitting around this table at dinner with the rest of the class of about 10 other non-Sooner Plant employees….
I decided to talk to the guy next to me. He said something back and my wife Kelly asked him, “Where in New Jersey are you from?” She had picked up on a New Jersey accent. He said, Well.. I work in the east for a company called Ebasco, but I’m really from the Midwest. (oh. That was my territory). So I asked a follow-up question. “Where in the Midwest are you from?” He said, “From Missouri.” — Oh. I thought. This is interesting. So was I.
I asked a follow-up question. “Where in Missouri are you from?” He answered…. “Columbia, Missouri.” (What? Where I had grown up?)…. So, I asked a second follow-up Question…. “What High School did you go to?” With a curious look the man answered….. “Rockbridge High School…” (Man!!! the same one as me!!!)…. The third follow-up question….. “What year did you graduate?” Now, looking really suspicious… he said, “1978”. Trying to contain my excitement… I replied….. “Oh… so, you graduated from Rockbridge High School the same year I did….”
What are the odds? There were 254 students in our graduating class. This guy who currently lived somewhere in the east is sitting next to me at a dinner of about 10 people attending Advanced Protective Relay Training in Dallas, Texas where neither of us are from, and we both graduated from the same school back in Columbia, Missouri 15 years earlier! His name is Randy Loesing. He was working for a company called Ebasco at the time. He said, “I thought I recognized you! I just wasn’t sure.” I didn’t recognize him at all until I went back home and looked in my yearbook.
It turned out that he kept in touch with two of my oldest friends from the second grade, Mark Schlemper and Brent Stewart. So we talked about them. What an incredible coincidence. Like I may have mentioned before. It happens to me all the time. It turns out that an old friend of mine from the 3rd grade in Columbia, Missouri that I used to go to his house when we were stamp collectors and had a stamp collecting club, lives 5 miles south of me today in Round Rock Texas (He’s in Pflugerville).
Russell Somers lives in the same direction and just about the same number of miles as when we were kids. Not only that, but he worked at Dell while I was working at Dell (though I didn’t know it at the time). He has an older daughter and a younger son, just like me only younger. The same is true for another 3rd grade friend that I graduated from Rockbridge Highschool and the University of Missouri with, Caryn Lile (now Caryn Iber) who lives in Wisconsin. She has a daughter and a son the same age as my kids. She was living in Tulsa when I was living in Stillwater, Oklahoma. — Like I said… happens to me all the time.
Tim Flowers realized this odd phenomenon in college. I had told him earlier that my father told me that if I was every stranded somewhere that I could look up the local Veterinarian and tell him that I was the son of Dr. James Edward Breazile, and they would help me. So, when we were hiking in the mountains in Colorado and we met a man walking along a trail in the middle of nowhere above Estes Park near the Great Divide, when I told him who I was, he gave us a curious look…. then divulged his most intimate secrets of his life and where he had stashed his most values possessions, Tim told me later. “I really thought he was going to know who you were when he gave us that funny look.” I replied. “I think he did..”
I again apologize for the length of this post. It is rare that I ramble on this long. I can thank Ramblin’ Ann for the ability to Ramble so well. I can thank Ben Davis for recognizing a rambling situation and replacing it with a rock and roll learning opportunity. As I said earlier. One of the most enjoyable times I have spent in my entire life is the time I spent with Ben Davis testing Protective Relays! Bless you Ben and I pray for you, your wife, your son and your daughter on the way to work each morning.
Today when I hear any of the hundreds of rock and roll songs come on the radio that we listened to that month and a half, I can see us testing the relays, looking off into space saying, “Rolling Stones?” “No. Steve Miller Band?” Really? I thought Browneyed Girl was sung by the Rolling Stone! It turned out that the version that we listened to was from the creator of the song, Van Morrison. Who would have thought that he would sound so much like Mick Jagger. I can see Ben saying… I see what you mean… it kind of sounds like Mick Jagger.
As an add on to this story…
I now work at General Motors in Austin Texas. My best friend in High School was a guy named Jesse Cheng (I have mentioned him in other posts, especially in reference to the phrase “Jesse! Come get your Chili!). He was two years older than me, and throughout the years we would lose track of each other and then reconnect. He went to Yale to become an Engineer, then to the University of Missouri to become a Medical Doctor, then to Harvard to earn a Masters in Public Health and Epidemiology.
It turns out that we both now work at General Motors where he works in Arlington Texas as a Medical Director and I work in IT in Austin. We can IM (Instant Message) each other whenever we want, and we talk now at least once every week.
Originally posted April 25, 2014:
Later in life, thinking back to when I was young, I sometimes wonder at how my first real friend, Mark Schlemper remained my friend throughout my childhood. I remember as a boy, there were times when I wasn’t the friendliest friend. Sometimes I was downright selfish. Mark, on the other hand, was always considerate. Not in an Eddie Haskell way, but in a sincere way. I learned a lot about being a kinder person from Mark, and I’m forever grateful.
I think if Mark had not been my friend during my childhood, then this story would have a very different ending.
Last Friday (April 18, 2014), I posted a story called “Vertan or Sand and Making Enemies of a Power Plant Man“. At the end of that post I explained that I had become the enemy of a team leader during the “We’ve Got The Power” program. I explained this program in the post: “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“. With all that said, here is the story:
I was a plant electrician at a coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we took part in the “We’ve Got The Power” program. At the time, I was in charge of maintaining the Unit 1 precipitator. The precipitator is what takes the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler, so that you don’t normally see smoke coming out of a Power Plant Smokestack.
My bucket buddy in the Electric Shop, Diana Brien was on a team that tried an experiment on the Unit 1 precipitator by injecting sand into the intake duct in the hope that it would increase the performance. I didn’t put much faith in the experiment, because it was based on something that had happened almost a year earlier when sand was burned in the boiler in order to burn off the oil that had been soaked into the sand.
I hadn’t seen any sand build up in front of the precipitator during the next overhaul, and didn’t believe that any of it had been able to make it’s way through the economizer and the air preheaters to the precipitator.
When Ron Kilman asked me about it, I said that I didn’t think it would do any good, but also, it wouldn’t do any harm either, so I told Ron that I couldn’t see any reason not to do the experiment. Who knows. Maybe something unexpected would happen. — Something did, but not quite in the way anyone would have expected.
On the day of the experiment, sand was blown into the intake duct of the precipitator. When the experiment was taking place, Diana Brien sat at the precipitator computer behind the Unit 1 Alarm Panel in the Control Room. She was printing out readings every so many minutes as the experiment progressed.
At times, I walked by and checked on her to see how it was going. One time when I was standing there watching the readings on the computer, all of the sudden the Opacity shot up. Opacity is used to measure how much smoke is going out of the smoke stack. Something definitely happened to cause a large puff of smoke.
I switched screens to look at the power on each of the control cabinets. After a few seconds I found that cabinet 1A10 had zero Volts on the secondary side of the transformer. It should have been somewhere above 40 Kilovolts. The cabinet hadn’t tripped, but it wasn’t charging up the plates. Cabinet 1A10 was in the very back row of the precipitator, and when the power shuts off on the cabinet it readily lets go of the ash that had built up on it when the rappers on the roof strike the plates.
When I saw the puff occur, I knew where to go look, because this happened whenever one of the back cabinets was turned off. I told Dee that it looked like a fuse had blown on the cabinet. The ash was going to continue billowing out of the precipitator for a couple of hours if I didn’t go do something about it. So, I told Dee that I was going to go to the Precipitator Control Room and replace the fuse.
I passed through the electric shop to grab my tool bucket and headed out to the precipitator. When I arrived, I found the cabinet just as it had indicated on the computer. The fuse had obviously failed. Interesting timing. Coincidence? I thought it was. The fuses controlling the back cabinets were usually the ones that blew because we ran them at a much higher voltage than the rest of the cabinets (at the time).
I quickly replaced the fuse (after attaching grounding cables to the leads, and using a pair of high voltage gloves). Then I powered the cabinet back on.
I returned to the Control Room and told Dee that I replaced the fuse on cabinet 1A10. The opacity had returned to normal. I watched a few more minutes to make sure everything had stabilized, and then I left.
When Ron Kilman was evaluating the results of the experiment, he could plainly see that something strange had happened. Smoke had been pouring out of the smoke stack in the middle of the experiment. So, he asked me what I thought about it.
First of all, as a disclaimer, our team had our own experiments we had been conducting on the precipitator in hopes of coming up with money savings ideas. So, when I told Ron what had happened with the fuse blowing, I wondered if he would trust me to tell the truth, since I had my own skin in the game.
I explained in detail to Ron how the fuse had blown and that I was standing next to Dee watching the computer when the smoke started blowing out of the stack. I could tell that a fuse had blown by looking at the readings, so I went out and replaced the fuse. I told him that fuses do blow periodically in the back of the precipitator, but I couldn’t explain why it happened to fail at that particular time. After I gave him my explanation, he seemed satisfied that I was telling the truth.
I think a token amount of points were awarded to the team because something obviously had happened during the experiment, though it wasn’t clear that sand had anything to do with it. On the other hand, our team was awarded a large amount of points for increasing the precipitator performance using a different method that I may bring up in a later post. To the team that burned the sand, this looked a lot like foul play.
The leader of the team was the Shift Supervisor Jim Padgett. He became very upset when he found out that I had gone to the precipitator control room during the experiment and worked on the equipment. Our team had been awarded a lot of points that was enough to purchase the dining room table set that I have in my dining room today:
It became known throughout the control room and the electric shop that Jim Padgett viewed me as his enemy. The other electricians would jokingly refer to Jim as my “friend”, knowing that Jim had basically declared “war” on me. Any time someone in the shop would have something to say about Jim, they would say, “Kevin’s friend” Jim Padgett….”
When I first became aware that Jim was upset with me, I understood why. If I had been in his shoes I would probably feel the same way. It’s a rotten feeling when you believe that someone has cheated you out of something important. So, I decided up front that I was going to become Jim’s best friend. This is where I think my memory of Mark Schlemper with his patience for me as a boy helped me with this decision.
I had determined that any time Jim asked me to do something I wouldn’t hesitate to help him. It took about a year before Jim could look at me without grimacing. Finally, one day, he asked me if I would go look at something for him to see if we needed a clearance, or if it was something that could be fixed right away. It was something minor, but I knew that this was an indicator that the ice was finally beginning to melt. I was able to fix the problem on the spot, and returned to let him know.
Once we were on semi-speaking terms again, I took an opportunity one day to ask Jim if he would like to join our Computer Club. I had started a Computer Club in the Electric Shop. Anyone could join it for a one time fee of $5.00 that was used to buy shareware and disk cases. For a while I also published a newsletter letting the members of the club know what games and such we had that could be checked out.
Once Jim Padgett joined the Computer Club, it was much easier to have a regular conversation outside of the normal daily business. I had put the thought in my mind when I decided that Jim was going to become my best friend that nothing would make me happier than to be able to do something for Jim. That way, no matter what I was doing at the time, if Jim asked me to do something for him, I would drop whatever I was doing and do my best to help.
I could go on and on explaining how gradually over time, not only was Jim my friend, but Jim acted more and more as if I was his friend as well. Let me just say that the entire process took almost exactly ten years. I can remember the exact moment when Jim indicated to me that I had become his friend.
Here is what happened:
The phone next to my bed rang at 2:15 in the morning on Thursday February 17, 2000. I instantly knew what it meant when the phone rang in the middle of the night. It meant that someone at the plant was calling because there was a problem. Who else would be up on in the middle of the night? The night shift of course.
When I answered the phone, Jim Padgett said, “I hate to wake you up buddy.” I replied, “No. That’s okay. What’s up?” Jim explained that the dumper was down and a train was about halfway through dumping the coal and everything was dead in the water. I said, “Ok. I’ll be right out.”
I turned to Kelly and told her that I had to go fix the dumper. She already knew of course. I pulled on a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and on the way out the door, I slipped on my work boots and laced them up. Then I drove the 30 miles out to the plant.
It was just before 3:00 am when I arrived. I grabbed my hardhat from the electric shop and took the elevator up to the Control Room. Jim apologized again and told me that how the dumper acted when it shutdown. I went back down the elevator to the electric shop where I grabbed the key to the pickup truck and my tool bucket and left the electric shop into the cool night air.
Power Plants at night take on magical properties. It’s hard to explain. Lights shining from the 25 story boilers, noises from steam pipes. Hums from motors and transformers. Night Hawks screeching.
When I arrived at the coalyard, I went straight into the Dumper Switchgear where the relays that controlled the dumper were mounted. Having worked on the dumper for the past 17 years, I could troubleshoot the circuits in my sleep. — Actually, I may have done just that. It didn’t take long, and I had replaced a contact on a relay that had broken and had the Coalyard Operator test the dumper long enough to know it was going to work.
When I returned back to Control Room Jim was sitting in the Shift Supervisor’s office. I walked in and showed him the small relay contact that had caused the failure. Jim, looked at me and said something that I thought only a friend would say so casually. I won’t use his exact words, though I remember not only the exact words, I remember his exact expression. He indicated to me that he had passed some gas, and he was apologizing about it. I replied, “Well. That happens.” (No. Not the other thing that happens). I told him I was going to go home. It was about 3:40 by that time.
Jim wished me a good night, and smiling with gratitude, thanked me again for coming out. As I was going back to the parking lot, and on the way home driving through the dark, tired from being woken up in the middle of the night, I had a great feeling of peace. That brief conversation with Jim just before I left was so pleasant in an odd way that I knew we had become friends. This was such a long way from where we had been 10 years earlier when Jim had literally wanted to kill me (well, not that he actually would…).
When I arrived home, I peeled my clothes off in the utility room to keep from tracking coal all over the house. I set the small broken relay contact on the kitchen table as a token to my wife, so she could see why I was called out when she wakes up in the morning. I climbed back into bed around 4:15 to sleep for another two hours.
That morning when I arrived at the plant, the first thing I learned was that about the time that my alarm had woken me up that morning, Jim Padgett had left his shift and driven to his home in Ponca City. When he walked in the door to his house, he collapsed and died instantly of a heart attack. That would have been about 3 hours after the moment that we had said goodbye.
I grieved for Jim’s wife Jane, who had worked for a while at the plant before marrying Jim, but I didn’t grieve for Jim. Something told me, and maybe it was Jim, that he was at peace. In the moment that I heard about Jim’s death, I burned the conversation we had just had that morning into my mind so that I would never forget it.
To this day whenever I know that someone is upset with me for something that I have done to them personally (which still happens occasionally), I am determined that they will become one of my best friends. I will do anything for that person if they ask (unless, of course it is to “not be their friend”). I have my childhood friend Mark Schlemper to thank for the attitude that helped me decide to reach out to Jim Padgett. Without that experience while growing up, Jim and I would never have become friends.
I would like to leave you with a song that reminds me of Jim whenever I hear it. It is called “Bright Eyes” from the movie “Watership Down”. Art Garfunkel sings it:
Note: If you are not able to watch the video above, try clicking this link: Bright Eyes, Art Garfunkel
Comments from the original post:
Originally posted May 9, 2014:
There were times when I was working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I wondered if there was anything that we couldn’t do. Surrounded by True Power Plant Men I found that when we were facing a seemingly impossible task, a Power Plant Man would come up with an extremely creative solution to the problem. One such example was during the “We’ve Got The Power” program. I talked about this program in an early post called “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” so I won’t go into detail here about the program itself. I will just say that we broke out into teams to find creative ways to operate more efficiently, and to cut costs.
I was a team leader of our team, and looking back I must have had two criteria in mind when I picked the team members that would be on my team. The first would have been that they were True Power Plant Men (and woman) with a higher than average intelligence. The second criteria would have been that they were friends of mine. I say this, because everyone on my team fit the bill.
During out team meetings, Terry Blevins would often say some bombastic statement that the average person may be inclined to dismiss immediately as being absurd. I say that because I remember more than once thinking that what Terry had just said wouldn’t amount to much. As it turned out, our biggest money saving ideas were those truly bombastic statements that Terry was making. One such idea had to do with the heaters on the precipitators that kept the hoppers and the insulators on the roof too hot to collect moisture.
The Precipitator is a very large box that takes the ash out of the exhaust before it goes out of the smoke stack (how many times have I made that statement in the last two years?). Anyway, the exhaust from the boiler after the coal has been turned to ash in the fireball in the boiler contains a large amount of moisture. The last thing you want to happen is for the temperature of the flue gas to fall below the dew point. When that happens, moisture collects on the structure in a form of… well… of Acid Rain. Basically eating away the precipitator and the duct work from the inside.
Somewhere along the line, it had been determined that the dewpoint of the flue gas was not higher than 250 degrees. So, as long as the structure was at least 250 degrees, no moisture would be collected. Four heaters were mounted on each of the 84 hoppers (on each of the two precipitators) and heaters were mounted on the roof around each of the insulators that held up the wire racks on both ends.
When Terry walked into the office to attend one of our first “We’ve Got The Power” team meetings, he said, I think we could save a lot of money if we did something about the heaters on the precipitator. — He may remember being greeted with blank stares (at least from me). Um. Ok. Heaters on the precipitator. I knew they were everywhere, but I never gave them much thought.
I think Terry could tell right away that I hadn’t taken his idea seriously. I don’t know. Maybe he was bothered by the sound of my eyeballs rolling around in circles as if someone has conked me on the head. So, he explained his idea further. He pointed out that the roof heaters on just one of the precipitators used about 211 kilowatt-hours and the hopper heaters used about 345 kilowatt-hours. Together it is more than half a Megawatt of power. — This definitely caught our attention. That meant that between both of the Precipitators (since we had two boilers at our plant), we could possibly save over a Megawatt of electricity every hour we could shut down the heaters.
After discussing all the aspects of the idea, we decided that in order for the idea to have any merit, we had to know if the dew point really was around 250 degrees, or was it possibly a lot lower. 250 degrees seemed high to begin with since the boiling point of water is 212 degrees. If lower, then we could have a workable idea. Originally, I wanted to tackle the task of finding the dew point. So, I went about it in a Science Experiment sort of way.
I figured that if we were able to lower the temperature of the flue gas to a known temperature below the dewpoint, and by knowing the volume of the gas, and the amount of liquid we could condense out of it, we could determine (possibly) the dew point. So, I brought my Graham Condenser to work, and Scott Hubbard and I went up to the 250 foot landing on the smoke stack with the intent of sucking a known amount of exhaust from the smoke stack while the unit was at full load.
We would run it through the condenser while running cool water through it to lower the temperature.
I could measure the output of the vacuum pump by filling up an inverted Erlemeyer flask with water and then letting the flue gas displace the water. — I always loved doing experiments like this in the 9th grade science glass with Mr. Godfrey our Physical Science Teacher (Donna Westhoff, who may sometimes read this blog was in my class and sat right behind me).
Ok. Side Story, since I mentioned Donna Westhoff from the 9th grade 1974-75 school year.
I knew that Donna’s father was a fire fighter, because one day during a special outing when we were with a group of bicycling Junior High School students and a teacher, we stopped at Donna Westhoff’s house to get a drink of water. On the walls in her house were different types of fire fighting treasures. Donna explained that her father was a fire fighter… That was the Spring of 1975 in Columbia, Missouri
Fast forward 16 years later (1991) at the Power Plant in the middle of nowhere in North Central Oklahoma. Just about a year after the story I’m telling now…. I left the logic room and went to catch the elevator to the Control room. When the doors opened, Tony Mena was in there with a bunch of college age students giving them a tour of the plant. I entered the elevator and turned around to face the door as it closed.
As I was standing there, I suddenly became aware that the person standing next to me was staring right at me. So, I turned to see who it was. Standing next to me was someone that looked very familiar wearing a big grin as if she knew who I was. I recognized her, and while my mind was going through filing cabinets of memories trying to index this particular person, I asked her, “Don’t I know you?” She shook her head and said, “I’m Donna Westhoff!”
As the elevator door opened and we stepped out, Donna and I began talking about what we were both doing there. She was surprised to find that I had become an electrician at a power plant instead of some kind of scientist in a lab somewhere. Donna was going to school in Stillwater where one of the best Fire Fighting Schools in the country is found. Following in her father’s footsteps, I thought. After a while I could tell that Tony was getting a little perturbed that the wisdom he was imparting about the fire protection system on the Turbine Generator wasn’t being absorbed by Donna, so I cut our conversation short. It turned out that a very good friend of hers lived just two houses from where we lived, and her friend’s mother was my landlord. Peggy Pickens.
Ok. End of the side story, and another example of how I occasionally run into friends from my childhood in the most unexpected places (see the post: “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“).
So. Scott Hubbard and I tried using the Graham Condenser and the Erlenmeyer Flask, but we quickly found out that this wasn’t big enough, to capture a large enough quantity. So, we increased the size of the condenser by winding a garden hose around inside of a water bucket and filling it with ice. Then we captured all the water that condensed in the hose.
When it finally came down to it. Even though it was fun trying to do this experiment halfway up the 500 foot smoke stack, I never was able to figure out how to calculate the dew point given the data I had collected.
That’s when we decided to look at dew point sensors in the parts catalogs. If we could stick a probe down into the precipitator and measure the dew point directly in the flue gas, that would be best. After looking at a few in the catalog, Terry Blevins said he thought he could make one. So, he went to work.
The next day he came in with an inch and a half conduit with hoses hanging out the back and a homemade sensor on the other end. I won’t go into detail how the sensor was built because some day Terry may want to patent this thing because, as it turned out, it was so sensitive that it could detect my breathe from about a foot away. If I breathed out of my mouth toward the sensor, it would detect the moisture in my breath. This was perfect!
We went to work on the roof of the precipitator sticking the probe down into different sections of the precipitator. It not only measured the moisture, it also had thermocouples on it that we used to accurately measure the temperature of the sensor as we varied the temperature by blowing cold air through the conduit using the same ice bucket and hose from before.
I could go into a lot of detail about how we performed our experiments, but it would only excite me and bore you. So, let me just say that we came up with two very important results. First of all, at full load when the humidity outside was at 100% the dew point was around 150 degrees! A full 100 degrees below what the plant had originally assumed. This was very important, because a lot of energy was spent trying to keep the flue gas above 250 degrees, and just by lowering it down to 210 degrees, still a safe amount above the dew point, that extra energy could be used to create electricity.
The second thing that we discovered was that the middle sections of the precipitator was a lot cooler inside than the outer fields. We realized that this was caused by the air preheater coils that rotated between the flue gas and the Primary Air intake duct. This took the last amount of heat possible from the exhaust and transferred it to the air going into the boiler so that it was already hot when it was used to burn the coal. Because of the way the air preheater coils rotated, the part of the duct toward the middle of the precipitator was a lot cooler than the air on the outside.
Lower temperatures in the precipitator increased the performance, so we decided that if we could mix the air around as it was going into the precipitator so that the outer edges were cooler, then it would increase the overall performance. One suggestion was to put a mobile home in the duct work because in Oklahoma it was a known fact that mobile homes attracted tornadoes and it would probably cause a tornadic reaction that would mix up the flue gases. — We just couldn’t figure out how to convince management to put a mobile home in the duct between the economizer and the precipitator.
Thanks to Terry’s handy dandy Dew Point Sensor, we were able to prove that the hopper and roof heaters could be lowered to where we set the thermostat at 180 degrees. At that setting the heaters that used to always run at 250 degrees would remain off anytime the ambient temperature was above 45 degrees. In Oklahoma, that is most of the year. This turned out to save over $350,000 per year in energy savings at a cost of about 1.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Not to mention the unknown savings from being able to lower the flue gas temperature by 40 degrees.
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
Originally posted May 30, 2014:
Unlike the story I told a few weeks ago about Jim Padgett, this is not a story about being called to work in the middle of the night by a true Power Plant Man (See post: “Making A Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes“) or even like the story that explained the “Power Plant Black Time and the Six Hour Rule“. No. This is a quick story about a sobering slap in the face I encountered when walking into the electric shop one morning at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
I think this must have been when I was on someone’s short list for a “Power Plant Joke”, or maybe I just hadn’t been paying attention a month earlier when Bill Bennett may have informed me that this morning was coming. Either way, I was totally taken off guard when I entered the shop that morning with Scott Hubbard, my Carpooling buddy.
The first indication that something was up was that there were three contract hands standing there dressed in their worn clothing indicating that they had been hired to do some kind of “manual” activity. Yep. Worn jeans with holes. Shirts slightly ripped. One guy missing the sleeves on his shirt. I think one of them had accidentally taken a shower before he showed up. He may have mixed up his Mondays and Saturdays and woke up grumpy on Saturday and took a shower on Monday.
None of the contract hands had thought about shaving for the past week or so. So, they definitely looked out of place in the shop usually occupied by professional Power Plant Electricians, who liked to keep themselves clean and generally followed good hygiene practices.
My first thought was, “Hmm…. Looks like there is some dirty job someone has to do in the shop today. I wonder what it is.” I walked into the electric shop to wait until 8:00 to come around. Bill Bennett was leaning against one of the desks talking to Charles Foster. I asked Bill, “What’s up with the Contractors?”
Bill replied, “They are here to help you.” “What am I going to be doing?” I asked curiously. “You know. Pulling wire from the Vital Service Panel to the Telephone Room in the main office.” “Oh. That.” I replied trying to remember if I could recall ever being told that I was supposed to be inheriting this particular job.
The last time I had felt like this was when I was in High School and our American History teacher told us that the semester class projects were due tomorrow and he continued to explain that we would be presenting the projects in alphabetical order. “Which means that Kevin Breazile. You will be going first.”
Side Story Time:
Class Project? Oh No! I had forgotten all about it! I was supposed to write a paper about the Roadway system in the United States, including how we were preparing to go to the Metric System.” (Like that ever happened… This was in 1976).
So, after school I went straight home and told my mom that I needed to go to the Public Library to prepare for a class project that needed to be done tomorrow. At the library I quickly grabbed a bunch of facts out of encyclopedias. I made up a few statistics about how many miles of roads there were in the United States.
Then once I was back at home, I thought about the roads in the U.S. Well, there were dirt roads, gravel roads, asphalt roads, and roads made of concrete. So. I filled a jar with dirt. One with some rocks I found out in the street. I found a piece of asphalt that had worked itself loose at the intersection by my house. I also found a chunk of concrete under our deck in the backyard where we had busted up our patio once to pour a new one…. These were my props for my presentation.
I remembered that on the way from Kansas City To Columbia Missouri along Highway 70, there was a sign that said, 100 Miles or 160 Kilometers to Columbia. There was also one just outside Saint Louis going to Columbia that said the same thing. So, I added that to my presentation. This met the requirement of how the roadways were moving to the metric system.
When the presentation began, I began handing the jars to someone in the front row to pass around the class….. Yeah. A jar of dirt. A jar of rocks, and a piece of asphalt and the chunk of concrete. I remember our teacher, Mr. Wright grabbed the chunk of Concrete when I gave it to the guy in the front row and looking it over, then pointing to a spot on it and saying, “I can see the skid marks here where I almost hit you!”
Anyway. I ended the presentation by taking the chunk of concrete after it had been passed around the class and holding it up and saying that if we continued to create roads at the same pace that we have over the last 60 years, by the year 2076 the world will look like this…. And I held up the chunk of concrete. — Of course.. I had totally made that statistic up out of thin air. — I got an A+ for that project which was worth 1/3 of our grade for the semester.
End of side story.
So, here I was again, fourteen years later, and I was being told that I had a crew of guys standing out in the shop waiting for directions on how to pull cable from the Logic room just below the control room, across the T-G building and into the middle of the Office building on the top floor. Even though the Office was on the 3rd floor, it was equivalent to the 6th floor of an office building.
From experience, I knew that the cable would have to be pulled from the logic room down to the cable spreading room below the main Switchgear, through two manholes, then up through conduit to the office area above the break room kitchen and over to the Telephone room.
I had done nothing to prepare for this. I hadn’t looked through the blueprints to find the best route. I hadn’t even seen the large spool of wire on the pallet in the Main Switchgear waiting to be used. I hadn’t even prepared myself by looking confident like I knew what I was doing….
Bill walked out the door leaving me in the office with Charles. I wasn’t sure if Charles could tell that I was completely blind-sided by this job or not. But he did give me a quick “leg up”. He said, “Seems to me that there is already power going from the VSP (for Vital Services Panel) to the Telephone room.”
Well. I already knew that I was really lucky. Especially when I asked Saint Anthony to help me find a solution to a problem. So, I quickly glanced over in the corner where Saint Anthony liked to lean against the wall while he waited for me to come to my senses and have some faith. In my mind I could see Anthony shrug like, “sounds like you might give it a try.”
So, I walked… no… I strolled out into the shop like I belonged there….. — Oh… yeah. I did. But at that particular moment I didn’t feel like it, so I thought maybe if I walked like I felt like I did, it would help me feel that way.
I asked Scott Hubbard if he could help me check to see if we had power in the Telephone Room from the Vital Services Panel. He said he would be glad to help (this was Scott’s usual response. — A True Power Plant Man Response).
I asked him to go the Telephone room while I went to the Vital Service Panel for Unit 1 in the Logic Room. Scott took his handy Dandy Voltage Checking Tool and headed off toward the Office area.
I headed for the Logic Room with a pair of Fuse Pullers:
The Vital Service Panel is mounted on the wall next to the UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply). I opened it and read the labels inside of the cover. After scanning the list of locations that were fed from this panel I found one that could have been the one circuit I was looking for.
It was cryptically labelled in pencil “Telephone Room”. Hmmm…. I wonder if this is it… My mind had quick as a snap decrypted this entry and came up with “Telephone room”. — That sure sounds like this would provide power to the Telephone room. Let’s just hope that it is labelled correctly.
I waited until Scott called me on the gray phone to tell me that he was in place by the Telephone room. He had checked all of the receptacles (plug ins) in the room, and they all had power on them.
I told him that I would remove the fuse to the circuit that looked like it provided power to the telephone room, so in about 15 seconds, he could check to see if any of the receptacles was dead. So, we did just that. I removed the fuse….. — My first thought was…. Good. I didn’t trip the unit. I would have known that right away. — You never know… pulling a fuse out of a panel labelled “Vital Services Panel” kind of leaves you to believe that the stuff in this panel is really really important.
I went back to the gray phone and waited for Scott to get back on the phone. About 15 more seconds and Scott returned. He told me that the power had turned off on one of the receptacles on the wall. I told him I was going to put the fuse back in and head up to the telephone room so that he could show me where it was.
Literally 20 minutes after I had been jolted awake by the revelation that I was supposed to lead a crew of contractors on a wire pull that I had not prepared for, I had found out that the wire was already there. No wire pull was necessary.
Scott showed me where the receptacle was, and we walked back to the electric shop. Bill Bennett was standing in the shop wondering where I had disappeared to (oops. ended the sentence with a preposition. I should know better than that. I should have said, “….where I went.”). I was still wondering in the back of my head if I had just completely forgot that Bill had ever told me about this, or maybe he had forgotten to mention it in the first place, or he had not told me on purpose just to see how I would react to the sudden revelation that I had a semi-difficult job with no time to prepare for it.
I waited for Bill to follow me into the electric shop office. Which he did. Standing there with as straight of a face as I could muster, I looked at Bill as he asked me when I was going to start pulling the wire. The Contractors are just standing around doing nothing.
I said, “The job is already done. The wire has already been pulled.” “What do you mean? It’s still in the switchgear on the pallet.” Bill responded. I shrugged and said, “We don’t need to pull wire from the Vital Services Panel. There is already a circuit from that panel to the telephone room.” I looked over at Charles and smiled. Charles smiled back. Bill said something like, “Oh… Then I wonder what we are going to do with these contractors. We have them for three days.” Then he left the office.
I thought that somehow Charles knew something about my being “setup for some kind of failure” and had this up his sleeve all along so that it would backfire. — Just my luck. With three of my best friends standing there, how could I fail…. Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and Saint Anthony.
We had the contractors sweep out switchgears for the next 3 days.
Comment from the original Post
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 in particular hopper 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 hoppers that were available for the Brown and Root contractors 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
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 all over 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 instantly 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 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 row 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 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. This meant that about 4,000 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, 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 how in 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.