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: July 12, 2014:
Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma didn’t have a clue the large can of worms he opened the day in 1988 when he told me to find out all I could about the company computer in Corporate Headquarters…. The one that ran all the important financial systems for the company. I remember going straight down to the Electric Shop office and sending a request for a username on the Honeywell Mainframe to the IT department, with Tom’s approval.
This story is a continuation of two previous stories…. Last week I wrote a post called: “Power Plant Customer Service Team Gone Wild“. This is the next shoe that dropped in that story…. Earlier this year I wrote a post called: “Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible“. Well, this is the second story in the list of “Impossible Things” Power Plant Electricians were able to accomplish when others said it couldn’t be done.
As a reminder… and in case you didn’t read last week’s post…. as a summary….. let me just say that I had printed out a form on every printer in the company as part of a “Quality Idea” our team was investigating. In doing so, I sent commands to the printers to change their quality settings, as well as the Font Size and a few other settings. When I ran the little known command that sent the document to every printer listed on the mainframe, I didn’t realize that this included all the billing, paycheck and work order printers that all had their special kinds of paper and setting for those particular jobs to run.
This was probably the biggest “Faux Pas” (pronounced “Foe Paw” — yeah…. French… which literally means: “False Step”) of my 18 years as an Electrician. Before I tell you about how the second shoe dropped… Let me explain that a few weeks before I had hit enter on the keyboard sending the disastrous command to the Mainframe, In June, 1993, I had found an interesting program on the Honeywell mainframe called “Magna 8”.
It had to do with creating reports from the main database. This was the entire database that ran the Electric Company Business! I thought this would be a great program to learn in order to create all kinds of reports for our plant that would help us understand where our efforts were being spent. I thought I might actually be able to tie our Maintenance Orders to the time the employees spent on them to their wages, and to the cost of the parts used…. Nothing like that existed at the time, and the little I was able to read from the Magna 8 User Manual on the mainframe, this seemed like just the ticket..
We had never heard of SAP, or other ERP systems at the time. — Oh… sorry… ERP stands for “Enterprise Resource Planning”. It does just that. It combines all the company’s business together in one application so that you can account for all the costs down to each machine, person, and part. If I could learn more about Magna 8, maybe I could start piecing these pieces together from the database. I was having one problem…. When I would page down in the user manual, it kept skipping the bottom half of every page….
I couldn’t figure out how to stop it from scrolling past the second half of each page. So, I called in a favor from the IT guys downtown and asked them if they could send me a printed copy of the Magna 8 User’s Manual. They said they would be glad to send me a copy. About a week later, I received the User Manual through company mail. It was about 4 inches thick.
There were different sections. One was called: “The Update Module”. Yeah…. That’s right…. It was used to enter data into the database…. I thought about that module for about 2 seconds and decided It would be best to stay away from that one. Then there was the “Reporting Module”.
That was the one I was looking for. — on a side note…. I know “for” is a preposition, and I know you aren’t supposed to end a sentence in a preposition, however, who doesn’t say, “That’s what I was looking for”? In these circumstances, I figure that I better approach it from a whole different angle…. like…. “That’s the section I really wanted.” — End side note.
A couple of weeks after I received the copy of the Magna 8 User Guide, I sent the infamous form to all the printers in the company, and that’s when I was sort of had all my “atta boys” taken away with that one “Uh Oh”. I was all prepared to watch my step while on the mainframe. About a week after the episode in Tom’s office when he told me not to send anything outside the plant without Ron Kilman’s permission, my foreman, Andy Tubbs came in the office and told me that in two days, I was supposed to go to some training in Oklahoma City.
“Oh. Training!” One of my favorite things! I always liked to learn new things. I asked Andy what the training was for (Oh geez… did I really say that? “For” at the end of the sentence again! — how about “I asked Andy what kind of training would I be taking” — yeah…. that’s what I said…). Andy replied, “Something called ‘Magna 8′”.
Oh No! I hadn’t asked for training! I had just asked for the user guide! Now I was scheduled to go to training in Oklahoma City and I knew that no one at the plant had “okay-ed” it. Now what was I supposed to do? I did the only thing I could think of at the time…. I asked Andy where I was supposed to go at Corporate Headquarters for the class.
Since I knew that this class hadn’t been approved by Tom Gibson or even our A Foreman Bill Bennett, I decided that I was going to go on my own dime…. that is, I wasn’t going to expense anything. I would pay for my own mileage and lunch, etc. Hopefully, no one would notice that I was gone that day. — Anyway, I could always fall back on the fact that my own Foreman Andy had told me to go….
So, when the day came, I drove to Oklahoma City and entered Corporate Headquarters dressed in my cleanest steel-toed work boots and my cleanest tee-shirt!
When I introduced myself to the instructor, Scott Overmeyer, I told him I was surprised that I had been scheduled for this class. He told me that since I had requested the User Guide that he figured that I should attend this course so that I would know how to use Magna 8 to create reports. — Well, that explained it.
The classroom was short on computers so we had to share one computer between two people. I sat in the back row on the right side if you are facing the instructor. A young lady sat next to me. Her name was something like Laura Burgert. We didn’t introduce ourselves right off the bat. We spent the morning learning about how our database was structured.
Our database was not what is referred to as a “relational database”. I’m not even sure if that term was being used at the time…. anyway, we had what is called a “Hierarchical Database”. The relationships are more like a family tree. If you needed to connect the data, you had to go up the tree to where you could go back down another branch… sort of like if you were into Genealogy and you were looking for your 3rd cousin twice removed. This was all new to me.
Anyway, this isn’t an important part of this story, so don’t strain your brain trying to figure it out.
When noon came around and we were just breaking for lunch, Laura Burgert said to me, “You’re Kevin Breazile! Oh my Gosh! You’re the guy that printed out that form on everyone’s printers!” I replied, “Yeah, that’s me. I sure was in trouble for that one.”
She replied that they had been trying to do something like that for a long time. Then she explained… “I work in the Communication Department and we create the Fast News Bulletins that are sent out to the printers….”
You see… this was what you had to do before e-mail was available…. When there was some news about the company that they wanted to disseminate to all the employees quickly, they would send out a Fast News bulletin to the printers and we would post it on the bulletin board in our area.
She continued to explain….. We have asked IT to give us a list of printers that we should send the Fast News Bulletins, because we know that our list is old and we are sending some to printers that messes up billing jobs and other things…. I said, “Yeah. I know all about those.”
She continued to explain some more…. IT told us there isn’t any way to tell which printers are good printers and which ones we shouldn’t be sending Fast News Bulletins. I replied, “Well…. I know which ones are good and which ones are not. I have all the forms that were sent to me. You can tell right away by the paper they are printed on, and if that’s not enough to give you a hint, just read the ‘colorful’ notes they wrote to me trying to convince me not to print on their printers anymore…”
Laura said it would be a great help if I could send those forms to her. I said I would do it as soon as I was back at the plant.
When I arrived at the plant the next morning, and Andy Tubbs told me that Tom Gibson was upset when he found that I had gone to Oklahoma City for training when Bill Bennett had mentioned it to him the day before. He had been all hot because he hadn’t approved any training and here I was going off on my own to Oklahoma City. I told Andy…. Well…. You did tell me to go….
Anyway, after that I gathered up the stack of around 500 forms and carried them up to the mail room where Denise Anson helped me put them in a small box to mail them to Laura Burgert.
A few weeks went by and Laura called me on the phone. She asked me how I had created the header on the forms. You see, I had created a header with the name of the company and part of the name was normally smaller and had one word over the top of another so….. well…… let me just show you…..
Notice the “GAS/AND” in the middle of the name of the company…. — This doesn’t look like anything to you today, because we now have laser printers and Publishers and all sorts of Word Art at our fingertips. But back then, printing this from a mainframe document took some work…. let me explain, just to give you an idea.
First, I had to space all the way out to where the word GAS starts, then I had to turn on the underline and decrease the font size to the size of the small letters and print out the word GAS then I had to turn off the underline and backspace the three characters, change the font back to the large size, then backspace all the way back to the beginning of the line, then print out the word Oklahoma and a space, then change the font back to small and print out the word AND then change the font back to the large size, and continue with the rest of the line. Yeah… I had to send backspace commands to the printer…. I was pretty proud of my header.
You can see by the Memo above that I had been using it for almost a year. The picture above isn’t even using the “Quality” setting on the printer which even made it look a lot sharper.
Anyway, on with the story…… The Fast News Bulletin’s header had a simple design. The “F” in Fast was created using a bunch of F’s. The A using a bunch of A’s. Like this:
Yeah… pretty embarass… um… I mean exciting huh? Laura was looking for a way to add some Quality to the Fast News Bulletin. I told her that I could create large block letters using the graphic commands on the printer I asked her what her printer ID was and I quickly created a Fast News Bulletin for her with a real header: Laura was excited and said that she may be getting back to me soon…. which she did a few weeks later. She asked if I could attend the first meeting of a new Task Force they had created to enhance the Fast News. I said I would be glad to attend, but I would first have to have permission from my Electric Supervisor before I could go.
She said she would take care of it…. and she did.
Ben Brandt, our Assistant Plant Manager wanted to know why I was being asked to show up to a Corporate Communication Task Force! — “Uh… I don’t know.” I replied. Knowing that everything I did outside the plant grounds was being questioned after my previous “misstep”.
So, one day I showed up at Corporate Headquarters again. Laura Burgert was there to greet me. She told me where to sit along a big long table in a meeting room. I was to sit about halfway down the table, while she sat on one end of the table.
When others came in, the IT person that was on the committee… I believe his name was Mike Russell sat on the far end from Laura. Laura opened the meeting by explaining the reason for the task force and when she finished she said, “For starters we were thinking that instead of using the ugly Fast News header we have been using, we would like to have a header like this…. And she passed a copy of the Fast News Bulletin I had printed out on her printer that day when she called me.
When Mike Russell saw it, he replied, “Our Printers can’t print a header like this.” Laura looked over at me, as if she wanted me to reply to Mike’s remark. So, I said, “This was printed out on the standard IBM network printer.”
Mike replied by saying, “No. Our printers can’t print like this. It’s impossible.” I repeated that this Fast News was printed out on Laura’s IBM printer from the mainframe just like the regular Fast News is printed out. I even told him that I could send him a copy of the header so that he could print it out and see for himself.
He said, “There’s no need to do that. Our printers can’t print this out.” — Though he held a bulletin in his hands that was printed out on our Standard IBM printer.
At the end of the meeting Laura thanked me for coming. She said, “See? This is what we have been dealing with. They probably weren’t going to be able to go anywhere with this.” I just nodded…. I thanked her for inviting me and I returned to the plant 75 miles north.
I guess it didn’t matter too much. A few months later and we were all being introduced to E-Mail, as I had been running telephone cable all over the plant so that we could set up a new NT Server network using Netware 4.0. Which used Novell’s GroupWise for e-mail. Fast News then just showed up in our Inbox.
It’s funny how things work out. What are the odds? I wreak havoc by sending a “rogue” form to printers that should be left alone, only to have those forms become useful to another department after I was “accidentally” enrolled in a training course where I happened to sit next to the one person in the company that could benefit from that printing blunder. Which then led her to look at ways to improve the Fast News Bulletin that she was responsible for creating….
Then the IT department refused to listen, but it didn’t matter anyway because new Technology quickly came along which began the process of weaning us off of the mainframe and onto a new state of the art network that later allowed us to use SAP a real ERP system that made the Magna 8 application that I went to learn in the first place obsolete.
I guess the Fast News Bulletin for the day is that Technology Moves Fast…. If you aren’t on for the ride, then you will be making statements like “That’s Impossible” and having a student in the 8th grade proving you wrong. It reminded me of what my dad always said when I was growing up… “Don’t ever say you can’t. — There’s always a way.”
Comments 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 can remember four occasions while working at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when I was told that something was impossible when I was already doing it. I mentioned two of those times in the posts “Toby O’Brien and doing the Impossible” and “Printing Impossible Fast News Post“. One day in May, 1992, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City to take some training. There was a new kind of network that I was going to be responsible to create at our plant. During the training, I learned a little about how to hook up the RS-232 connectors to the Dumb Terminals I was installing throughout the plant. During the training, I also learned a lot about what was impossible.
I mentioned installing all the dumb terminals in an earlier post “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“. I won’t go into the details about running the cables throughout the plant because I already covered that in the earlier post. What I would rather talk about is the narrow understanding at the time about the possibilities of networking instead of the impossibilities that I was learning by everyone that tried to teach me the laws of physics through common sense.
After I was done installing the terminals in the most obvious places, some people came and asked me if there was a way to install computer ports in some unlikely places. Some were sort of “out-of-the-way”. For instance, Phil Harden asked if I could install a network jack in the middle of the Bowl Mill area so that the Instrument and Controls team could wheel their portable Compaq computer out there and run diagnostics on the equipment while connected to the network.
I also installed a jack in the environmental controls shack out by Unit 1 smoke stack for Tony Mena. Of course, I installed one in the Precipitator Control Room since that’s where I worked a lot, and a computer hooked to the network came in handy more than once. I was always eager to run network cable and hookup computers. It was one of my favorite past times.
One time early in 1993, the A Foreman’s office was going to be renovated. It was going to take about a month or more for the construction, so all the foremen needed somewhere to stay when the office was going to be out of commission. Tom Gibson asked me one day how many computers and printers I could hook up in the conference room. I told him as many as he wanted. For one thing, it was only just down the hall from the Telephone room where the X.25 modems connected to the microwave transmitter on the top of Unit 1 Boiler.
Since this was going to be temporary, I didn’t want to mount a lot of network jacks all over the conference room… well, maybe a few…. The rest, I just strung down the wall from the ceiling. I think all together we had 8 computers and a printer installed in that room.
During this time, we had a new clerk come to the plant. This was a rare occasion because it was rare that anyone ever left the plant. Jana Allenbaugh (later Jana Green) was our new clerk. She arrived on the first day when I had setup all the computers and everyone was moving out of the foremen’s office upstairs for their temporary stay.
I was just hooking up the printer, so I sent a long drawn out warning letter to the printer so that when I hooked it up in the Telephone room, it would start printing it out. I had done this before with Charles Patton… only, I don’t think Charles ever read what printed out…. See the post “Dick Dale and the Power Plant Printer Romance“. This time I printed out a warning to Jana from the printer itself. it told her that as a new employee, she probably needed to know not to trust anyone who wears a yellow hard hat. They were not to be trusted. Because they treated printers with disrespect. Hardly noticing them, and only talking to them when their paper gets stuck. It went on from there, but that was about the gist of it.
Anyway. Up to this point, I haven’t pointed out the areas of impossibilities that I was performing against all advice from those who knew better.
You see in 1992, when I had attended the training course in Oklahoma City to teach me all about the finer aspects of hooking up RS-232 connectors, I was told that this technology had it’s limitations. The most important being the distance from the modem you can install a printer without having some sort of other switch to boost the signal.
I was installing network cable that at the time was called “Cat 1”. That was about the lowest grade wire you could use for data. Actually, it wasn’t even considered fit for data, just voice. Well. I was using it…. all the documentation said that when using Cat1, you had to be within 50 feet from the switch. Well, in a plant where the control room was a good 100 yards from the telephone room, by the time you went up and down through ceiling, conduits, cable trays and wall, by the time the cable made it to the control room, it was at least 500 feet.
When running cable out to the shack by the smokestack I was able to use Cat 2 cable. This allowed a network cable to be around 500 feet long. When I ran this cable, it turned out to be longer than 1500 feet long. At least three times longer than the possible amount to run a network cable using this type of cable…. yet, I ran it, and Tony used it.
I know that if someone had asked Russell downtown at the Corporate Headquarters IT department, he would have said that this was as impossible as printing out the Fast News article on an IBM printer that I had printed out downtown. The truth was that there was a little data integrity lost by running a cable farther than possible by the laws of physics, but the system could easily handle the bad packets by resending them. The user never noticed that the connection was a little slower. No one ever complained that they couldn’t connect to the network.
A year after I had taken the initial training in hooking up network equipment, we learned all about the Quality process and how to think outside the box. See, “Power Plant Men have a Chance to Show Their Quality“. Between my father telling me that there is no word “Can’t” and Bob Kennedy saying that “I have a tool for that”, I had come to the conclusion that just about anything that needs to be done can be done. We just have to figure out how.
After we had taken the classes to learn about the quality process, one day I went to Ron Kilman’s office and I gave him a piece of paper. On it was a story about Processionary Caterpillars. It was significant, I thought, because it demonstrates what happens when people refuse to thing “outside the box”. The story goes like this:
Processionary Caterpillars feed upon pine needles. They move through the trees in a long procession, one leading and the others following – each with his eyes half closed and his head snugly fitted against the rear extremity of his predecessor.
Jean-Henri Fabre, the great French naturalist, after patiently experimenting with a group of the caterpillars, finally enticed them to the rim of a large flower pot. He succeeded in getting the first one connected up with the last one, thus forming a complete circle, which started moving around in a a procession, with neither a beginning nor end.
The naturalist expected that after a while they would catch on to the joke, get tired of their useless march and start off in some new direction. But not so….
Through sheer force of habit, the living, creeping circle kept moving around the rim of the pot – around and around, keeping the same relentless pace for seven days and seven nights – and would doubtless have continued longer had it not been for sheer exhaustion and ultimate starvation.
Incidentally, an ample supply of food was close at hand and plainly visible, but it was outside the range of the circle so they continued along the beaten path.
They were following instinct – habit – custom – tradition – precedent – past experience – standard practice – or whatever you may choose to call it, but they were following it blindly.
They mistook activity for accomplishment. They meant well – but went no place.
This post may seem like I am doing some bragging about my ability to think outside the box. My personality may be more apt to brag about my accomplishments than to recognize that everything I do and know is a gift from God. But in this case there is more to it than that. You see, even though my grandfather who was a sharecropper who worked his entire life farming land that didn’t belong to him, he was able to invent equipment to make his life easier. He could look at something in a catalog and build it…. I didn’t inherit this gene. I had to learn this way of thinking.
I used to get in arguments all the time at the power plant because I believed that I could do things that were equivalent to walking on water. It drove the engineers mad… Actually, they were mad all right, but just at me… .not in their minds…. Why was I so sure? I had been trained by the best.
If you have been reading my blog for the past two and a half years, you will know what I’m talking about…. I was trained by the best to think outside the box. To Power Plant Men, the Quality process was not a way to find out how to come up with quality ideas…. it was just a way to demonstrate what they already knew in a way where the Engineers and management could understand the benefit.
Here are some of the Power Plant Men that taught me the most about thinking outside the box:
Larry Riley, who taught me that you really can play music by the way you operate a backhoe.
Ken Conrad, who taught me that no matter how complicated a task, by breaking it down into simple steps, it is as simple as “Sweet Pea”.
Jim Heflin, who taught me that when all else fails, shake your head and say to yourself… “Well…. there it is…. let’s try that again a different way….”
Andy Tubbs who taught me that if you think you’re so smart that you don’t need to learn anymore, then it’s time you take out the blueprints and study it some more.
Floyd Coburn taught me that when it really looks hopeless, then prayer is always the best option.
Ed Shiever taught me that when you are extremely kind to your fellow man, when things begin to fail you, everyone will come to your aid.
Earl Frazier taught me that your memories will keep you loving those important to you long past the time when those people are lovable.
Kent Cowley taught me that you can still be a gentleman even when you are a boiler rat.
Mike Crisp taught me to look to the heavens in order to really understand the metal being shaped into a part by a lathe.
Bill Thomas taught me that loyalty to your fellow Power Plant Men comes from within your own heart, and not the actions of others.
Timothy Crain taught me that everything you do is for your family, no matter what situation they may find themselves.
Dale Mitchell taught me that personal integrity allows you to open your heart to even the most difficult people.
Juliene Alley taught me that one person can be everyone’s Mother when they are pure in heart.
Jerry Dale taught me that the more complicated the puzzle, the more humor will unravel it.
Bob Rowe taught me that simplicity makes more sense than trying to make things complicated.
I have listed a few (and only a few) of the Power Plant Men that as an accumulation, taught me to think outside the small box that I was in when I initially arrived at the Power Plant in 1979 when I first arrived as a Power Plant Summer Help until 2001 when I left to begin a new career as an IT professional (ouch… what a run-on sentence). This allowed me to think outside the box. I never would have made it to that position if it hadn’t been for the wonderful men and women who led me by the hand… sometimes kicking and screaming to the lid of the box so that I could peer outside and imagine other possibilities.
Comments from the previous post
Originally posted September 20, 2014.
I remember the moment when it dawned on me that I may be witnessing an incredible Coal-fired Power Plant Conspiracy! I had just walked into the Control Room one morning in 1990 at the plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw the Shift Supervisor Jack Maloy and Merl Wright in a state of high concentration.
I always knew something was up when Jack Maloy was standing behind the large blue monitors near the Unit 1 Main Electric Board watching the big picture while the Control Room Operator Merl Wright was at the Main Control Panel turning knobs, tapping indicators to make sure they had the correct readings, twisting switches, holding them until red lights turned green…
Where had I seen this before? Something was telling me that everything wasn’t as it seemed. Sure… there was an emergency going on. There was no doubt about that. I knew that between Jack Maloy and Merl Wright, the current problem of the main boiler drum losing water was quickly going to be solved. I knew that Oklahoma City wasn’t going to experience any blackouts that day. This was a Cracker Jack team! But I couldn’t help thinking I had seen this somewhere before, and it was gnawing at my common sense.
Here is a picture of Jack Maloy’s team at the time:
I backed off in a corner to observe the situation while a crowd of operators began to grow to watch the master Shift Supervisor and his faithful Control Room Operator divert a disaster. Merl picked up the walkie talkie from the desk and called Larry Tapp ( Larry is the man in the light blue shirt in the front row in the middle. He’s the only one in the front row that is actually standing, while the rest are down on their knees while the picture is being taken).
Larry was on the boiler opening and closing valves. John Belusko, the Unit Supervisor was out there with him. I can’t tell you what magic they were performing, since I think that’s top secret. I figured that, because the operators seemed to be talking in code. Merl would key the microphone on the walkie talkie and say something like, “Larry, 45”. Larry would reply with something like “Quarter Turn”. “Position?”, “18 as far as I can tell”.
I translated the coded words to say: “….crawling under the path of the boom, whipped hold of a rope, secured one end to the bulwarks and then flinging the other like a lasso, caught it around the boom as it swept over his head, and at the next jerk, the spar was that way trapped and all was safe.” (Something I had read in Moby Dick, by Herman Melville).
Jack paced back and forth behind the counter with the monitors. Then he stopped and read the paper that was streaming out of the alarm printer as it continued humming as the paper piled up on the floor in front of him. Jack was a heavy smoker, and I could tell that right then he would rather be standing out on the T-G floor having a smoke at that moment. Before cigarettes were banned in the control room, Jack would have been pointing at that board with the cigarette.
When the water level began rising in the Boiler Drum, I could see the relieve on everyone’s face. I supposed it meant that a major catastrophe had been avoided due to the intricate knowledge that each operator possessed and their ability to quickly respond to any situation. This made the uneasy feeling I was having even worse. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this before. Just like Deja Vu.
It wasn’t till about a week later when my mom asked me if I knew someone at work named Jack Maloy. She had been talking to a friend of hers from Church named Louise and she mentioned that her husband worked at the Power Plant north of town. I replied by saying that I knew Jack Maloy well. He is a Shift Supervisor. She said that his wife Louise told her that Jack was a real nice person, but she wished that he would go to Church more. She hoped he would come around to that some day.
Then my mom mentioned something that brought back that feeling of uneasiness again. She said that the Maloys had moved to Oklahoma in 1979 from California. I thought that was odd that Jack had only arrived in Oklahoma in 1979, as he was a Shift Supervisor for as long as I could remember. Maybe even as far back as 1979 when I first worked at the plant as a summer help.
In that case, he would have been hired as a Shift Supervisor straight from California. — That seemed odd, since the majority of Shift Supervisors had worked their way up from Auxiliary Operator to Control Room Operator to Unit Supervisor, then finally to Shift Supervisor. Why would Jack be hired fresh from California? And how did Jack know so much about being a Shift Supervisor at our plant so quickly?
Then it dawned on me. You see…. It all went back to a lunch break about a year earlier when Charles Foster, an Electric Foreman and I were eating lunch in the Electric Shop office. When we didn’t know what to talk about, our favorite past time was to talk about movies and TV shows we had watched. We would describe the movie in detail to each other. On this particular day, Charles was doing the talking, and he was telling me about a movie that had to do with a Power Plant in California (yeah. California).
As Charles described the story, he told me that there was this Shift Supervisor named Jack (yeah… like our Shift Supervisor… Jack Maloy), and he was such a good Shift Supervisor that he could tell that there was something wrong with the Boiler Feed Pumps just by the way the coffee in his coffee cup would vibrate. Yeah. He was that good.
Charles went on to tell me about how at one part of the movie the water level was dropping in a tank and it was imperative that they raise the water level or some big disaster was going to happen. — Now you see where I’m going with this? Yeah. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? At that time, the incident in the Control Room hadn’t happened yet with Jack Maloy.
The movie sounded interesting so, when I had the opportunity, we rented the VHS tape from the video store and I watched it. Sure enough. This is what I saw….
Here is Jack Maloy and Merl Wright from the team picture above:
Very similar don’t you think? Two Shift Supervisors named Jack from California with the exact same hairstyle. Two Control Room Operators that look like Wilford Brimley. Coincidence?
Even Wilford Brimley’s hairline is the same as Merl Wright’s hairline!
For those of you who don’t know yet. The name of the movie is: The China Syndrome. It is about a nuclear Power Plant that has a near meltdown:
Need more? Ok. — hey this is fun….. So…. This movie came out in 1979. The same year that Jack Maloy shows up in Oklahoma from California. Obviously an experienced Power Plant Shift Supervisor. Merl Wright went to work 10 months earlier in 1978 at an older power plant just down the road (The old Osage plant), and then shortly after, was transferred to the same plant with Jack Maloy, only to end up working for Jack.
Need more? The China Syndrome Movie came out on March 16, 1979. Jack Maloy began working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma February 26, 1979, just two and a half weeks earlier.
I mentioned this coincidence to Charles Foster one day, but as far as I know, I never mentioned it again to anyone else… Maybe Scott Hubbard, since he was my best friend as well…
So, here are my thoughts about this….
What if Jack Maloy was the Shift Supervisor being portrayed in the movie “The China Syndrome”? He needed to move out of California just before the movie came out just in case someone found out his true identity. Being a Shift Supervisor at a Nuclear Power Plant, he would surely be in high demand at any Electric Company. Our particular Power Plant was in an out-of-the-way location. Sort of like a “witness protection program”.
I don’t know Merl’s earlier background, so I can still think that he moved to Oklahoma from California and began working for the Electric Company on April 24, 1978 just two weeks before I moved to Oklahoma from Columbia, Missouri. Since I don’t know any better, I can continue thinking this. It makes it more fun that way. — Of course, Merl, who may on occasion read this blog, may correct me in the comment section below…
So, what was it that I was experiencing that morning when I walked in the control room? I mean… What was I “really” experiencing? If, suppose, Jack and Merl really are the two that were in the control room when the “China Syndrome” almost occurred? Was it just an innocent crisis where the water level somehow decided to drop to a dangerously low level all by itself because of a faulty valve that was supposed to be closed, but was really open?
Was Jack and Merl trying to relive the excitement they had felt years earlier when they worked in a nuclear plant and they almost melted a hole all the way from there to China? Was this what experienced bored Power Plant Heroes do during downtime? I suppose it’s possible. It could have been a drill drummed up to test the acuity of the operators. To keep them on their toes. All “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion” just like on the Pequod in Moby Dick.
Something to think about.
Today Merl still lives in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Jack Maloy has moved to Cape Carol, Florida with his wife Louise. I suppose now that he has more time on his hand, hopefully he has given up smoking and is now making his wife happy by attending Church regularly. We can only hope he is at peace, on the opposite side of the United States from California so he doesn’t accidentally run into his old cohorts.
We are all glad that on his way to Florida from California that Jack decided to stop for 25 or so years in Oklahoma to Supervise the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the middle of the countryside…. As Charles Champlin from the Los Angeles Times said of the movie “The China Syndrome” — “Stunning and Skillfully Executed!” — Yeah. That describes Merl and Jack. Either way… Conspiracy or not. These two men are my heroes!
I wish Merl and Jack the best rest of their lives!
Comments from the original post: (one of my most commented posts)
Does anyone know where the phrase, “Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back” came from? I’m sure there is a story behind that one. Maybe even a lot of different origins. I can distinctly remember a day in the Power Plant when a Power Plant Man stepped on a crack and broke his own back.
I remember looking out of the seventh floor window of my friends dorm room when I was a freshman in college watching students returning from classes about 6 months before the Power Plant Man broke his back. I was watching closely to see if any of them were purposely missing the cracks as they walked down the sidewalk toward the entrance. Out of about 20 people two of them purposely stepped over every crack in the sidewalk.
In the post “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One” I told the story about four of us were carrying a very long extension ladder through the maintenance shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma one summer morning in 1979 when Tom Dean stepped on a crack (well, it was a cracked piece of plywood that had been placed over a floor drain because the floor grate was missing), and when as he stepped on it, he lost his balance enough to twist himself around. By the time he stopped twirling, he was in immense pain as he had destroyed any chance for comfort for the next 6 months.
So, I could understand the dangers of stepping on cracks even when they appear to be insignificant. What that has to do with my mom I’m not sure. However, one day when my sister was walking with my mom on the campus of Oklahoma State University, my sister may have stepped on a crack at that time, as well as my mom, which sent her plummeting the five feet to the ground resulting in a broken hip.
This makes me wonder that since the times have changed, it may be time to change the saying to something else. Maybe something like “Smoke some crack, break your parent’s piggy bank” would be more appropriate for these times. Oh well, I’ve never been much of a poet.
Anyway, back to the subject of back pain.
The number one favorite topic during Safety Meetings at the Power Plant was Back Safety. We were told (and rightly so) that accidents where the back is injured cost the company and the employee more than any other injury. Once you really hurt your back, you can expect to have back pain the rest of your life. It only takes one time. — Times may have changed since 1979, so that now you can have some excellent back surgeries to help correct your back injuries. Even with these, you will never be completely free from back pain.
In the Power Plant Post, “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe” I told a story about how our team came up with hundreds of safety slogans in an attempt to win the coveted Power Plant Safety Award Pizza at the end of the year. A Pizza that continued to allude us for 2 and a half years. During our meetings to invent the most catchy safety slogans, Andy Tubbs (or was it Ben Davis) came up with a slogan that said, “Lift with your legs, not your back. Or you may hear a lumbar crack”. — See. I wish I could come up with doozies like that! This takes the idea of a crack and a back and turns it around, if you think about it. Now instead of a crack hurting your back, its about a strain on your back creating a crack. — I know… probably just a coincidence….
One morning Sonny Kendrick, our electric specialist at the time, while sitting in the electric lab during break, let out a whopper of a sneeze. When he did, he suddenly knew what it felt like to experience tremendous back pain. One sneeze and he was out of commission for many weeks.
One day, when Charles Foster, my very close friend, and electric foreman, were talking about back pain, I realized that a good portion of Power Plant Men suffered with back pain. — At the risk of sounding like Randy Dailey teaching our Safety Class, I’m going to repeat myself, “You only have to hurt your back one time to have a lifetime of back pain.”
The company would focus a lot of their safety training around the importance of proper lifting techniques in order to prevent back accidents (not to be confused with backing accidents which is when you back out of a parking space — which is also a common accident — though usually less severe — unless you happen to be a Ford Truck). We would learn how to lift with our legs and not with our back.
You see, it wasn’t just that one sneeze that caused Sonny’s plunge into Back Pain Hell, and it wasn’t just stepping on the cracked plywood floor drain cover that broke Tom’s back (I know “Broke Back” is a misnomer since the back isn’t exactly broke). The problem is more systemic than that. This is just the final result of maybe years of neglecting your back through various unsafe activities.
The two important points I remember from watching the safety videos during our monthly safety meetings was that when you slouch while sitting, you put a needless strain on your lower back. So, by sitting with good posture, you help prevent a future of pain. The second point I remember is that you need to keep your stomach muscles strong. Strong stomach muscles take the weight off of your back when you’re just doing your regular job.
The big problem that finally causes the disc in your lumbar region of your spine to break after neglecting it through these other means is to lift a heavy object by bending over to pick it up instead of lifting the load with your legs. So, the phrase that we always heard was “Lift with your Legs. Not your Back”. You do this by bending your knees instead of just your hips.
Ok. I know you are all thinking the same thing I am thinking (right? Yeah. You are). Bending both your knees and hips saves your back. Isn’t there another word for when you bend your knees and hips at the same time? — Yeah. Yet, I don’t remember hearing it during any of our Safety Videos. — Oh. It was implied, they just never came out and said it…. What they really mean to say is, “Squat”. Yeah. “Squat”. When you bend your knees and hips, isn’t that “Squatting?”
Times have changed…. I mean….. Doesn’t everyone today have a “Squatty Potty”?
Don’t we all have “I ‘heart’ 2 Squat” tee-shirts?
To learn more, you can watch this video:
This doesn’t just work with the Squatty Potty to help you drop your loads, it also works when lifting heavy loads. So, remember the next time you are going to bend over to pick something up…. Squat instead.
Other lifting tips include keeping the load close to your body and not holding your breath but tightening your stomach muscles, and don’t lift something too bulky by yourself. Don’t twist your body when picking something up, face the load directly. A weightlifter once told me that when you lift, feel the weight on the heel of your feet, not on the balls of your feet.
Randy Dailey, the Safety Guru of our Power Plant, and an expert machinist invented a pen that you could put in your pocket protector in your shirt pocket that would alert you by beeping if you leaned over too far. It was an ingenious device to remind you to lift with your legs instead of your back.
In one of the safety videos we watched about back safety, there was a short stalky scientist that explained the dynamics of lifting and how easy it was to put a tremendous strain on your back by leaning over and picking something up. He said that “People choose the more simple way to pick something up. Not the easiest way.”
Doesn’t that sound like the same thing? Isn’t the simplest way the easiest way? Well. You would think so, but it isn’t always the case. This Doctor of Back-ology went on to explain his statement. He explained that the simplest way to pick up an object on the floor is to bend at the hip. It is one movement. Bend at the hip. — However…. The easiest way to pick up the object is to bend both your knees and your hips to pick up the object. Since you keep your back straight and you lift with your leg muscles that are the most powerful muscles in your body. He avoided using the word, “Squat”, but that’s what he meant.
In order to reduce back injuries at the plant, the company made back belts available at the plant.
Note that this picture not only shows a Power Plant Man wearing a Back Support Belt, but he also is wearing the right kind of Tee-Shirt. It has a vest pocket where you can put a Pocket Protector for your little screwdriver and your Back Alert Pen created by Randy Dailey.
The use of back belts was new around the late 1980’s. Even though we had them available through the tool room when we wanted them, few people wore them. The warehouse team wore them a lot. I suppose that is because they were lifting and moving things all day long.
In the warehouse Bob Ringwall, Darlene Mitchell and Dick Dale used to have back belts on when I would visit the warehouse to pick up a part, or to visit my friends. I don’t remember if Bud Schoonover would wear a back belt. How’s this for a slogan…. “Be a Safety Black Belt…. When Lifting, wear your Back Belt.” I know. I should stop when I’m ahead, only I’m so far behind now I may never catch up.
There was a question about whether wearing a back belt was really a good idea. It was thought that people might tend to substitute using their stomach muscles while lifting with the back belt, resulting in weaker stomach muscles. So we were cautioned not to go around wearing back belts all day long. Only when we were going to be doing a job where we had to do a lot of lifting. I suppose now, after years of research, there is a lot more data to tell us one way or the other. I haven’t heard what the latest injury jury has said on this subject.
Even though I titled this post “…Plain Ol’ Power Plant Back Pain”, there is nothing plain about back pain. I just thought it sounded like a catchy title.
I was lucky enough that during the 20 years I spent working at the Power Plant, I never really hurt my back. To this day, I have been able to avoid living with perpetual pain in my back. — I have been accused of causing pain in other people’s necks. Also, I don’t think the many times that people told me I was a pain in their back side, they were referring to the Lumbar region. I think they meant an area just below the tailbone. I hope that by bringing to their attention the benefits of the Squatty Potty that I have been able to relieve (or prevent) a little of that lower lumbar pain.
Now when someone says, “You don’t know Squat”, you can correct them!
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The trouble I had with my 1982 Honda Civic began when I thought I could use water instead of antifreeze in my radiator. I had never been much of a car person, but I figured I knew the basics. Especially after working in the Power Plant garage for three summers as a summer help on the yard crew. I thought the collective knowledge of Power Plant Men like Larry Riley, Doug House, Preston Jenkins and Jim Heflin had rubbed off on me… at least a little.
One very cold morning on the way to work at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, just north of the toll road spur from Stillwater to Tulsa, the temperature gauge in my car pegged out in the wrong direction indicating my engine was too hot. I pulled into the gas station/convenience store parking lot and parked my car. Another Power Plant Man was just coming out of the store, so I hitched a ride with him to work. It turned out that the freeze plug in engine block had blown out. My car had overheated and because of the location of the plug, the engine had to be slightly dismantled in order to replace it. — Or at least that was what the mechanic at the auto repair place said.
After that incident, I had developed a minor oil leak, which a year or so later caused my timing belt to fail because the oil had been leaking on it. Scott Hubbard and I were on the way to work, and when I was in the middle of the intersection at Bill’s Corner, my car just died. I coasted off the side of the road, and we bummed a ride to work with another Power Plant Man on their way to the plant. The way the 1982 Honda Civic was built, if your timing belt broke, it bent your piston rods, which caused the need to rebuild the engine.
The winter after my engine had been rebuilt, when it was my turn to drive Scott Hubbard and Fred Turner to work on a cold morning, on the way to work, my car would begin to sputter then finally die. After sitting on the roadside for a couple of minutes, it would start up again and we could go a few more miles, until it would do the same thing again. This would only happen when it was real cold outside.
I took my car to the mechanics that had rebuilt my engine, and by that time of the day, it was warm, and the car ran just fine. They couldn’t tell me what was causing it. I did this several times, and Scott and Fred were beginning to wonder if it was such a good idea carpooling with me and my unreliable Honda Civic. Especially on cold mornings. I had tried several times to get it fixed, and the mechanics finally told me to stop bothering them. They couldn’t fix my problem.
Then one morning at work during the winter of 1992-93, when I must have been looking a little despondent while walking to the tool room to see Bud Schoonover to get some supplies, Mike Crisp, one of the plant machinists asked me what was wrong. I told him about how my car was dying when I drove it to work. Then Mike described my problem to me. He asked, “Does it die only when it’s real cold outside?” “Yeah,” I replied. “Then after a couple of minutes it will start back up just fine?” “Yeah! That’s exactly it!” Mike said, “Oh. I can fix that with a busted screwdriver.”
I wasn’t sure if I had heard that correctly, so I repeated, “busted screwdriver?” “Yeah,” he said. Then he reached into his tool box drawer behind his lathe and pulled out an old broken screwdriver and said, “I have one right here. Where is your car?”
Mike and I went to the parking lot and opened the hood of the car. He took the top cover off of the carburetor. Then taking the short screwdriver he poked it into a hole… Not the carburetor hole, but one off to the side. He said it was a valve that was supposed to open when the engine was running in order to bring warm air from around the engine into the carburetor to keep it from “vapor locking”… or some such thing. By putting the screwdriver in the valve to hold it open all the time, I wouldn’t have any more problems with the car.
After that, the car worked great! I was happy. Fred Turner was happy. Scott Hubbard was happy….. Well. Scott Hubbard is always happy.
At this point in my career as a plant electrician, I was beyond being surprised by the vast collective knowledge of Power Plant Men. Though they live most of their lives confined within the plant ground of a single Power Plant for the most part, from that experience and the total experience of their fellow Power Plant Heroes, they have a vast knowledge of the entire world.
I had heard something like that when watching the BBC version of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple once. In one episode, the Inspector Craddock was explaining to someone how Miss Marple could solve crimes. He said, “She knows the world only through the prism of that village and it’s daily life. And by knowing the village so thoroughly, she knows the world.” I immediately connected that phrase to the Power Plant Men I had the pleasure of working with for 20 years.
As a side note. This isn’t my favorite Miss Marple. My favorite by far is played by Margaret Rutherford:
You can immediately see my attraction to Margaret Rutherford. Who could resist such a strong women with such intense eyes and jutting jaw? — Anyway, you can see how that phrase applied to Power Plant Men as well. End of side note.
After Mike Crisp had fixed my car, when I would walk by him in the machine shop, he would sometimes stop and talk to me about things. One day he asked me if I had done anything interesting over the weekend, and I told him that I had been out in my yard looking at the stars through my telescope. That was about the most interesting thing that had happened that weekend.
Mike, to my surprise, instantly became interested in this subject. This surprised me, especially after he pointed out that he had never thought about getting a telescope or looking at the stars. I supposed I was surprised because he showed more than just a passing interest. He wanted to know more about my telescope, which was a cheap 4 1/2 inch reflecting telescope I had bought at Wal-Mart or some such place.
He asked me why I liked looking at the stars. I told him about looking at the moon and the planets, and seeing the rings around Saturn. My favorite pastime was looking at Nebulae (That’s plural for “Nebula” in case you were wondering).
Actually, my telescope was the next step above the picture above, as it had a counter weight and the pedestal mount was designed where you could set your latitude so that as the stars moved in the sky, you could swing your telescope around with the object you were watching. The pedestal shown above doesn’t do that. I had one like that as a boy, and as you followed the star, you had to adjust it up or down as you moved it west…. see…. that’s not interesting right? — But Mike Crisp thought it was.
A couple of weeks later when I was passing by the machine shop again, Mike called me over to his lathe. A piece of metal was taking shape as the lathe spun around and metal shavings were flying off in one direction and being deflected by a metal guard.
Mike picked up a magazine from the top of his toolbox and showed it to me. It was a catalog for telescopes. He wanted to ask my advice about whether to get an 8 inch telescope or go all out and buy a 10 inch one. The cost was considerably higher for the 10 inch telescope and he was wondering if it would be that much better.
Mike had been to an observatory since I had first talked to him about astronomy. Now he was going to purchase his own telescope. — I had had (yeah… there must be a better way to say that besides “had had”…. how about this)…. I had been through this discussion with myself in the past. I wanted a bigger telescope so that I could see more detail than I could get with my 4 1/2 inch reflecting telescope. I knew the cost of those really nice ones. I used to go to the observatory at the University of Missouri in Columbia when I was growing up and even had thought about becoming an astronomer as a career.
I felt confident when I told Mike that an 8 inch reflecting telescope was big enough for him. Considering where he lived, (outside Ponca City, Oklahoma), the altitude (900 feet above sea level), he wasn’t going to gain enough with a 10 inch telescope to justify the extra cost. — Especially on a machinist’s salary. — I didn’t tell him that last part. You see…. I felt a little responsible for his sudden interest in astronomy, and I didn’t want his wife and children to go hungry so that Mike could get a better picture of the Horsehead Nebula.
Later Mike told me that he had ordered the 8 inch telescope and that he had poured a concrete pillar in his backyard to mount the telescope aligning it just right and at the right angle so that the mount would be able to be permanent. I continued to be amazed by not only his sudden interest in Astronomy, but by how he jumped into it so completely. I could see his excitement when he talked to me about it. — As I said above, I had hoped that the extra expense wasn’t putting a stress on his financial situation.
Not knowing Mike Crisp’s background, I never knew if he was an eccentric millionaire that had just decided to take up residence as a power plant machinist to experience more of life, or if he was just the type of person that when passionate about something would pour all his thought and effort into his passion. Either way, Mike Crisp was happy and seemed to enjoy what he was doing. I kept looking for signs of new stress on his face, but never saw it. — others at the plant might know different, but not me.
When the 1994 Rift came along (which I will discuss in a later post), Mike Crisp was one of the casualties. He was laid off on July 29, 2014 as were a lot of other great Power Plant Men. It wasn’t too long after Mike had made astronomy his hobby, and so I was worried that this extra financial burden may make his transition to a new life a little harder.
On the other hand. I have found that in times of extra stress, going out in the backyard and looking up at the sky and realizing the vastness of the universe helps put things in perspective. So, it might have turned out that Mike’s new hobby of looking to the stars for answers may have been just what he needed at that time.
I have not spoken to Mike since he was laid off in 1994 and I don’t know what ever became of him. I only know that the little time I spent with him talking in the machine shop for those few years have meant enough to me that I keep Mike and his family in my prayers to this day. I hope he found what he was looking for when he mounted that telescope to his concrete pedestal and turned his telescope to the heavens. I know I had found a good friend that day when I walked to the parking lot with Mike wondering how a broken screwdriver was going to fix my 1982 Honda Civic after the car mechanics in Stillwater, Oklahoma had given up on me. — Mike Crisp… Another one of my Power Plant Heroes.
Since originally posting this last year, David Evans a Power Plant Control Room Operator contacted me and told me that Mike would like to send me some pictures.
Later, Mike Crisp called me. He sent me beautiful photographs of the heavens that he took with his telescope. He assured me that he is still fascinated with the heavens. I will post some of the pictures he sent me below when I have the opportunity.
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OSHA defines a confined space as a place with restricted access, or a place like a hopper with converging walls where you can get stuck. When the supervisors at the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma were asked to identify the confined spaces their workers had to work in, there were a few spaces that ended up on the list that made some wonder if they had just picked up a case of lice…. In other words, they began to scratch their heads.
Earlier I wrote a story about when a person was engulfed in ash in a Precipitator hopper and almost died, (See the post “Tragedy Occurs During a Power Plant Safety Meeting“). This led to an investigation by OSHA a man from OSHA (See the post “OSHA Man Cometh“). Then we were fined and were given a list of tasks that we had to perform by August 1, 1994 (See the post “Power Plant Men Being Summoned by the Department of Labor“). One of those tasks was to create a Confined Space Rescue Team.
The first task for the Rescue team was to put signs on all the confined spaces with a warning that this was a confined space and that you weren’t supposed to go in there unless you have a Confined Spaces Entry Permit.
After that, the Confined Space Rescue Team was was tasked with developing rescue plans for each confined space.
One of the confined spaces on the list that was supplied by the supervisors at the plant was the Battery Room in the Main Switchgear. This was added to the list by Tom Gibson who was the Electric Supervisor for the plant. According to OSHA’s definition of a confined space, a room like the Battery Room, which you entered by walking through a regular door, didn’t meet the definition of a Confined Space even when trying to stretch the definition in imaginary directions.
Tom Gibson explained that he wanted to add the Battery Rooms to the list because he thought that a dangerous condition could arise in the battery room if the ventilation fans failed and there was a build up of toxic gases from the batteries and someone walked in there and passed out. They would need to be rescued just as if they were in a confined space.
So, the Battery Room went on the list…. but the Confined Space Rescue Team decided that we weren’t going to create a rescue plan with much detail. We decided that we would just need to open the door and turn on the vent fan. Later, we were able to remove the battery room from the list.
It is interesting how some people come up with their justification for bending the definition of something like a confined space in order that the room would be considered a more hazardous place than normal. There were other ways to make this point besides trying to fit the big rectangular door into the size of a manhole cover.
When we put together the Confined Space Rescue Team, we had the Safety Task Force send out a intra-company letter to each person asking them if they would like to join the Confined Space Rescue Team. We wanted to get a good cross-section of people from different skill sets. I thought we did pretty good.
I can’t remember every one of the original members, but those that I can remember are:
Alan Hetherington, Jimmie Moore, Mike Vogle, Randy Dailey, Ray Eberle, Thomas Leach, Paul Mullon, George Clouse, myself and um…. I can’t remember the last one. Maybe one of you can remind me.
Once we had the list, the first thing we had to do was to be properly trained as a Confined Space Rescue Team. A company in Dallas, Texas was hired to come to our plant to train us to become Confined Space Rescuteers (I just made that word up… Sort of like Mouseketeers).
While we were taking the training, the trainers kept calling the lead trainer “Dad”, so we began to wonder if this was a family affair. The leader of the training team was much older than the others, and he did treat the young trainers like a father. At one point when one of the trainers was trying to get the lead trainer’s attention, he kept saying, “Dad! Dad!” just like a little kid would try to ask their dad if they could go outside now and play. The rest of us just kept looking at each other like…. yeah… he’s their dad.
It turned out that “Dad” was really just his initials. His name is David A. David, so they just called him Dad. I thought that was pretty neat and fitting since he did treat them all like he was their dad. When I later moved to Texas, I found that David David is a rather popular name down here. It seems like people named David David own a number of car dealerships in the Dallas area.
We were given special rescue harnesses to wear that was a lot like a regular safety harness, except the place where you clip on to the rope is down at your waist instead of up by your chest. This put the point where you are suspended at the center of your weight (if you are built like your average rescuer… I mean, you don’t have a shape like Santa Claus…. which, if you did, you were probably more likely to be a rescuee instead of a rescuer).
With the focal point in the center of your body, you could easily swing upside down, lay flat or sit straight up. It was pretty neat. You have probably seen someone wearing one of these before…. Tom Cruise demonstrated this technique in the first Mission Impossible movie:
We learned a lot of lessons in the Confined Space Rescue Team Training that I have never forgotten. One important statistic was that somewhere around 70 percent of people that die in confined spaces are ‘would be’ rescuers.
If you stop and think about this number for a moment, it is rather shocking (if true). This meant that more people died trying to rescue someone from a confined space than actual original victims.
The reason this happens is because when someone in a confined space is found to have passed out, people tend to rush in there to pull them out, not realizing that the reason the person passed out was because there was some sort of toxic gas or a lack of oxygen in the confined space that caused the first victim to pass out.
I remember a tragedy when I was going to college at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri around the year 1980. I think it was at the Rolla campus where agriculture researchers had a large pit sort of like a deep empty swimming pool where they were doing some kind of experiment.
One of the people working on the project passed out in the bottom of the pit. Three other people in the area rushed down there to help the person. When they climbed down the ladder to help, each of them passed out, and all four of them ended up dead. There was some sort of poison gas that settled down in the pit that was fatal.
We knew then that it was important that we become properly trained as confined space rescuers. We have a culture in the United States to want to help someone in trouble. In some circumstances, a person could even be held liable if they don’t come to someone’s aid in an emergency. It is called a “Duty To Rescue”.
The problem with rushing into a confined space to rescue someone is that you may actually be putting more lives at risk if you are not properly trained. The first tool we used when we arrived at a confined space was an Air Monitor.
We checked the quality of the air in a confined space for 4 different conditions. First, there had to be enough Oxygen (20.9% hopefully). Not too much Carbon Monoxide, No Hydrogen Sulfide (smells like rotten eggs, only if you smell it briefly and then the smell goes away, it could be because it deadens the receptors in your nostrils making you think you’re safe when you’re not — that’s why you need to use a monitor instead of just your nose). Lastly, we check for an explosive atmosphere. In order to make sure we aren’t crawling into some place that is ready to explode.
The first skill we learned was to tie knots. We actually spent a lot of time learning about knot tying. We had to be able to tie them while wearing rescue gloves. Those are leather gloves that keep you from burning your hand when you are feeding a rope through your hands.
Some of the Rescue knots we learned how to tie were the Figure 8, the Figure 8 on a Bite, and a Figure 8 Follow Through. We also learned to tie a Prusik Knot that could be used to climb right up another rope like you were going up steps.
We learned to tie a Water Knot if we needed to extend the lengths of straps. Other knots were the Girth Hitch, the Double Fisherman’s knot, butterfly knot, and the right way to tie a square knot to make sure that you don’t end up with a granny knot and have your knot slip right off the end of the rope.
During the Confined Space course, we had to be able to tie these knots not only wearing our gloves, but we had to tie them behind our backs in the dark. After all, it was explained to us, that when you are rescuing people from a confined space crawling on your stomach wearing an SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus), you will not be able to see the knots you have to tie in order to pull someone safely out of the hole.
The trainers would inspect our knots and they had to be perfect, or he would take them apart and we would have to do them again. You couldn’t have one rope crossing over another where it shouldn’t be, even if the knot was correct. The knot had to be picture perfect.”
“Dad” and the training company had a big black trailer that had a big metal maze where they could fill it with smoke. Then, they would put a safety manequin in the trailer somewhere and we would have to go in there wearing our safety equipment and rescue the dummy in the smoky dark maze during a hot summer day when it was about 100 degrees outside.
The most important thing we learned during that class was that even though our instinct is to go in and be a hero and rescue someone in trouble, we have to realize that the majority of the time when a person goes in a confined space to rescue someone they are retrieving a dead body.
The importance of this lesson is that it’s not worth risking the lives of the Confined Space Rescue Team when the person being rescued is most likely dead already. We needed to remember the statistic that 70% of people that die in confined spaces are would be rescuers.
As long as we kept that in mind, when the time came for us to dive right in and pull someone out, we would take the time to do it right and do it safely. What good is trying to rescue someone only to have our fellow rescuers die alongside the original victim?
It seemed like it was getting dark already when Scott Hubbard and I were driving home from the plant in Scott’s pickup on January 16, 1991. We were listening to NPR on the radio, as we did most days. Just as we were entering Stillwater on Hwy 177, NPR suddenly stopped their regular broadcast to announce that there were reports of bombs dropping in Baghdad.
Up to this point, we had all hoped that Saddam Hussein, seeing the massive buildup of the U.S. and other countries at his border would pull his forces out of Kuwait and go home. At 5 pm Central Standard Time (2 am Baghdad time), the week long air assault on Saddam Hussein’s troops began. Scott dropped me off at the church where he had picked me up 9 1/2 hours earlier and I drove straight home. Glued to the radio for any new update.
When I arrived home, my wife Kelly met me by the door to tell me the news. By the expression on my face, she could tell I had already heard. I was not able to speak. I just gave her a hug and broke out in tears. As much as we knew that this was necessary, and even though we had watched the buildup over the previous three months, I was not prepared for the actual assault to begin.
For the next five hours we watched as Peter Arnett and his camera man reporting from their hotel room in the middle of Baghdad showed actual footage of anti-aircraft fire continuously firing into the night sky. We could see our bombs hitting carefully determined targets. The battle was taking place right in our living room.
My brother Gregory T. Breazile was (and still is) a U.S. Marine officer in Saudi Arabia preparing for the ground assault. We had been able to talk to him a few days earlier when AT&T setup a bank of phones in the desert so that the soldiers could phone home. – On a side note… my mom was not too happy when she received a very large bill from AT&T for the phone calls to her house. She called AT&T and complained. I think they gave her a refund.
I went to sleep that night after the sun had come up in Baghdad, and even though the bombings were continuing, the initial impact of what was happening had finally been processed in my brain.
The next day at work the radios around the Power Plant were all tuned to stations that were keeping everyone updated on the progress of the Gulf War (Desert Storm, they were calling it). I had a job for the next week or so organizing the old Brown and Root electrical parts warehouse. This was a long tedious job that consisted of going through boxes of all sorts of electric parts and organizing them into meaningful piles of good junk.
I drove one of the pickups over to the warehouse and positioned it so that the passenger side door was lined up with the door to the warehouse. Then I turned the volume on the radio all the way up so that I could hear it in the warehouse. It was an AM radio that didn’t have receptions inside the warehouse. I didn’t want to miss any new information about what was going on in Iraq. Since the radio in the truck didn’t have reception when it was in the warehouse, I would carry (or drag) the boxes toward the front of the warehouse so that I could be close enough to hear the radio.
After one week of constant bombing and after the U.S. along with our allies which consisted mostly of Britain, France and Saudi Arabia along with another 30 countries around the globe had flown over 100,000 bombing missions and dropped over 88,000 tons of bombs on Iraq’s army, the U.S. was finally ready for the ground assault.
Soon after the ground assault began, it became apparent that Iraq’s troops were no match for the U.S.. Their Soviet tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft found it difficult to inflict a dent on the side of one of our tanks. It was apparent that the United States had won the arms race and the demise of the Soviet Union was right around the corner (exactly 11 months later on December 26, 1991). All they could do was blindly send some SCUD missiles toward us hoping to hit a target…. any target. The most casualties that occurred on the allies was when a SCUD missile hit a barrack in the middle of the desert killing 28 soldiers.
My brother Greg was attached to the first Marine Division and was part of the group that attacked the Iraqi Republican Guard at the Kuwait Airport. He later described the battle something like this…. “Rockets were being fired in both directions. Bombs exploding all over the place. The entire scene seemed like chaos. Even though it looked like it was a fierce battle, it was as if we were being protected somehow. Throughout the entire siege, we didn’t experience so much as one broken fingernail as we cleared the enemy from the airport.”
The ground assault lasted exactly 100 hours. In that time Kuwait was liberated, and the Republican Guard was decimated.
The Power Plant Men and Women did what they could to show their support for our troops. A great many of the Power Plant Men had served in the Vietnam War and they were proud patriots. There might have been a few that felt like we had no business there in the first place, but those that I remember weren’t the real Power Plant Men.
The critics of the first Gulf War said that freeing Kuwait from their Iraqi invaders was all about oil. That was pretty evident when Saddam Hussein set over 700 oil wells on fire as his troops were being driven out of Kuwait. Kuwait’s main product is oil. That’s hardly debatable.
The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma knew the importance of energy to our country, and a fight over oil is just about as serious as it gets. Those people who criticize our protection of the oil fields in Kuwait by saying that this was just a fight over oil lack the same perspective as Power Plant Men. A steady flow of energy in our lives is essential to our way of life.
A response to that may be that maybe (… “may be that maybe”…. interesting way of saying that… I’m sure my English Teacher would have had something to say about that one) our way of life needs to be changed. I would agree with that, but I would argue that it needs to be changed for the better. Let me try to explain what Power Plant Men across our country know each morning when they awaken.
From the alarm clock that rings in the morning that wakes the Power Plant Man, to the light in the bathroom where they take their shower with hot water, energy is being supplied to their house either through electricity or some sort of natural gas or oil. The act of eating breakfast, whether it is eating a bowl of cereal with milk that has been cooled in the refrigerator or frying some eggs, all this takes energy.
All the Power Plant Men had to drive to the Power Plant located out in the country 20 miles from the nearest towns (except for Red Rock or Marland where few people lived). It would be hard to produce the electricity at the plant if the Power Plant Men and Women didn’t have gasoline to drive their cars to work each and every day. Even if they had an electric car, they would have to charge it with electricity that comes from a power plant that is either powered from coal or natural gas for the most part.
Sure we have a dream of a world where all cars are electric all charged with electricity that is generated without fossil fuels. That is a noble dream and the struggle to reach that point some day is one worth having, but today it doesn’t exist. We can’t transition to that world overnight. In the meantime, the free flow of oil is and should be one of our greatest priorities.
Power Plant Men live with this priority every day. The free flow of electricity to our nation is just as vital. Look at the disasters that happen when a region of the United States suddenly goes dark. Each Power Plant Man and Woman plays their part in ensuring that never happens.
Each Electric Company employee has a picture in the back of their mind of someone laying on an operating table and as the surgeon is in the middle of the operation, the lights suddenly go out. Or an elevator full of people travelling up around the 20th floor of a building when all of the sudden it stops and they are trapped in the dark. What then? No Power Plant Man wants that to happen.
So, how do you thank someone who has freely risked their life serving our country? Someone who is willing to die for our country? How can you? Who am I that others should be willing to die for me? All I can think of doing is to pray “God Bless Them”.
Some Power Plant veterans may have wished they could have been there fighting with their brothers in arms in the Gulf War. The truth is, those men were needed right where they were. The best way to thank our troops during the Gulf War was by showing that we supported what they were doing and by continuing to perform our daily tasks of keeping the lights on at home by producing a steady flow of electricity. Day in and day out without fail.
The reason we take electricity for granted is because the Power Plant Men and Women in this country have been performing their job nearly flawlessly. it is almost like the words my brother used to describe the battle at the Kuwaiti Airport, “it was as if we were being protected somehow”. There are so many things that can go wrong that could bring down the electric grid in the United States, it is amazing that we are able to depend on electricity being there when we turn on the TV.
So, how do you thank the Power Plant Men and Women that work each day to bring us that reliable source of energy? How can we? Certainly the service they provide is far more than the salary and benefits provided by the Electric Company. We can show our appreciation by letting them know that we support them.
When you see an Electric Company truck driving down the road, smile at them and wave. When you run across a Power Plant Man eating lunch at Braum’s, buy him a cup of coffee.
Power Plant Men generally spend the majority of their waking hours in isolation at a Power Plant where they don’t directly see the benefit of their labor. All they experience is their paycheck every couple of weeks and their benefits. They don’t often willingly leave their job to go work somewhere else. They spend their entire working life laboring to produce electricity for others.
If there is a Power Plant Man in your neighborhood, maybe you could give them some small Christmas present this holiday to show your appreciation for the service they have been providing you and your family this year.
If there is a soldier living nearby, do the same. Find any opportunity to show them you appreciate their service to our country. A Braum’s Gift Card perhaps!
I don’t know if they called them “Black Ops” in 1994, but when the control room operator David Evans answered the phone that day in October, I don’t think he ever expected to have the person on the other end of the line tell him that a military special forces unit was going to stage a mock raid on the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma some time that night. I’m sure Jack Maloy, the shift supervisor, was equally surprised when David told him about the phone call. I heard later that Jack was pretty upset to find out that a military force was going to be attacking our plant in the middle of the night without his permission!
The first we heard about the call was when Jasper Christensen called a meeting of the entire maintenance department on the spur of the moment in the main break room. He told us about the phone call. He said we didn’t have any more information than that. Though the maintenance department shouldn’t be working that night, Jasper said that just in case we were called out for something, we should know that a group of commandos were going to be performing some sort of mock raid on our plant. If we encountered any soldiers sneaking around the plant in the middle of the night in full military gear, not to be alarmed. Just go on doing what you’re doing and don’t bother them.
Now that it is 21 years later (well, almost) the truth can finally come out…. Isn’t that how it goes? When we are sworn to secrecy, isn’t it 21 years before we can finally speak out? (That’s what Shadow Warriors always told me). I don’t remember us taking an oath or anything, but that’s the way it is with Power Plant Men. They just assume that if the military is staging a mock raid on our plant, it is a matter of national security. It seemed as if our plant sort of matched the layout of a power plant somewhere in Central America where the real raid was going to take place.
The main difference between our Power Plant and the one in Honduras, or wherever it was, is that our plant had recently gone through a downsizing. So, our operators at night now had to perform the duties that had before been done by the labor crew. They had to do coal cleanup throughout the conveyor system.
This meant that if one of our auxiliary operators happened to run across someone dressed in the outfit above, they would have naturally handed him either a water hose or a shovel and pointed to the nearest conveyor and said something like, “I’ll start on this end, and you can start over there.” After all. He would already be wearing his respirator.
That day on the way home, Scott Hubbard and I discussed the significance of such a raid on our Power Plant. A year and a half earlier, Janet Reno had really messed up the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Texas when it burned down and burned everyone to death including women and children. So, it would be good to go into a situation like this more prepared.
I had often thought about the steps that could covertly be taken to single-handed destroy the power plant without using any kind of explosives. Those who understood how all the systems worked together could do it if they really wanted to. Of course, that was just how I might occupy my mind when I was doing a repetitive job, like sweeping out the main switchgear. What better place for those thoughts to drift into your mind.
Actually, now that I think about it, instead of sending in the Special Forces, just send in a few Plant Operators, Electricians and Instrument and Controls guys and they could totally destroy the plant in a matter of hours if that was their intent. The same thing could be said about putting a few incompetent people in upper management even if it isn’t their intent, only it takes longer than a couple of hours to destroy the plant in that case.
The next morning when we arrived at the plant, our foreman Alan Kramer told us the stories about the raid that happened the night before. This is what I can remember about it (if any Power Plant Men want to correct me, or add some more stories, please do in the comments below).
First he said that it appeared as if the commandos had landed in some kind of stealth helicopter out on the north side of the intake because later when the power plant men had investigated the site they could see where two wheels on the helicopter had left an impression in the mud. Dan Landes had been keeping a lookout from the top of the Unit 1 boiler, and he thought for a moment that he saw the flash of a red light…. which… thinking about it now, could have been one of those laser sites taking aim at him and mock assassinating him by shooting him in the eye from about 1/2 mile. You know how good American Snipers can be (my plug for the new movie). Good thing he was wearing his auto-tinting safety glasses.
We also heard that one of the operators, Maybe Charles Peavler (Charles is standing next to Dan wearing the pink shirt and carrying something in his lower lip) had stepped out of the office elevator on the ground floor only to come face-to-face with a soldier. When the soldier was seen by the operator, he just turned around and walked out of the door… he evidently was considered a casualty if he was seen by anyone. Either that, or he had to go do coal cleanup the rest of the night.
I think it was Jeff Meyers (front row, left in the picture above) who told us later that the Special Ops forces had left a present for the operators on the Turbine-Generator Room floor. Tracked across the clean shiny red T-G floor were muddy boot prints leading from the Unit 1 boiler entrance to the door to the control room. The tracks ended at the control room door.
The tracks were extra muddy as if someone had intentionally wanted us to see that someone had walked right up to the control room door. The tracks did not lead away from the door. They just ended right there.
So, we did have proof that the commandos had actually visited our plant that night, only because one of the operators had come face-to-face with one in the main lobby. If that hadn’t happened, then they would have come and gone and we would have been none-the-wiser… other than wondering about the strange muddy footprints and the impression left in the mud by the stealth helicopter.
I suppose it was easy for the Power Plant operators to ignore the commandos since for the most part, they never saw them coming or going. The Power Plant Men were happy to play their part in the mock raid. Of all that has been asked of these Power Plant Men over the years, this was one of the more “unique” events. How many Power Plant Men across the country can say that they took part in a Special Ops Commando Raid on their Power Plant?
All I can say is that the commandos sure picked a great bunch of Power Plant Men and Women to attack. We were all honored (even those of us who were at home in bed asleep at the time) to be able to help out the military any way we could.