Tag Archives: Alimak

The Power Plant Smokestack Third Rail is the Lifesaver

It was quite a site at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to see a 400 pound man climbing up the ladder to the 250 foot level (halfway) up the smokestack only to climb halfway down again on the track the elevator used to go up and down the smokestack. I was on labor crew then and I remember thinking, I’m sure glad that’s not me.

A small tour of people from Oklahoma City had come to the plant and one of the engineers was showing them around. I think Allen Gould may remember who it was. I’m not saying it was Allen, I’m just thinking that he was around at that time.

Power Plant Engineer Allen Gould

Power Plant Engineer Allen Gould

I think that day the wind was blowing rather hard and when the elevator was descending (going down) the stack, the power cable somehow blew over into the path of the elevator and it was caught under the roller which brought the elevator to an abrupt halt. Unfortunately. in this instance, trying to free fall the elevator manually to bring it down wouldn’t work since when the brakes were released, the elevator wouldn’t move because it was really stuck right where it was.

A person that worked for the Alimak elevator company was called in from Wichita Kansas 100 miles to the north of the Power plant, which meant that it took almost 2 hours for the person to arrive at the plant. When he did, he turned out to be the largest elevator repairman I had ever seen. He had to climb up 250 feet up a ladder to the landing, then back down again about 100 feet to the elevator to rescue the people from the elevator.

I first found out about it when someone pointed out the large figure of a man about halfway up to the first landing on the smokestack ladder. He had stopped for a rest and was leaning back on his lanyard that was attached to the ladder. When we arrived in the maintenance shop, Marlin McDaniel explained the situation to us. I think it took well over three hours for this man to take each person out of the hatch in the top of the elevator, then climb with them up the elevator track to the landing, and then take them down the ladder 250 feet to the ground. I think one of them was a lady, and two were men.

The stack elevator is a small box with a capacity to carry 3 people or a weight of 900 pounds. It is crowded enough with only two people in it, but three is always a crowd (as the saying goes, “Two’s company, Three’s a crowd”). That phrase definitely is true with the stack elevator.

 

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

At the time, I didn’t realize that one day I would be an electrician that took care of the smoke stack elevators. Actually, I never gave it a thought about what sort of equipment electricians repaired or maintained. It turned out that electricians worked on anything that had electric power going to it. That’s pretty much anything mechanical.

Electricians would work on the motors while the mechanics would work on the pumps, fans and valves attached to the end of the motors. When it came to the stack elevators, it was generally left up to the electricians to do the majority of the work. We inspected the elevators each month, and when they broke down, we were called to repair them.

When the boiler elevators broke down, it seemed as if I was the person of choice to ask to climb the boiler to the roof to fix it. The elevator controls were located on the top of the boiler, so I would usually end up climbing the stairs to the top cleaning door contacts on the way up. It happens that the boilers are 250 feet tall. So, the middle landing on the stack elevator is about the same height as the boiler as you can see in the picture above.

Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, would always add when he was telling me to go fix the elevator…. “You like climbing all those stairs anyway.” What could I say? “Sure Bill! I’ll go see what I can do.”

I think in the back of my mind I knew the day was coming when I was going to have to climb the stack elevator ladder to rescue someone. I had already climbed it a few times to fix some conduit that had come loose that ran up the smokestack next to the ladder, so I knew what it was like to go straight up a 500 foot ladder to the top of the smokestack. Luckily when my turn came around for a rescue, I only had to go halfway up. There were 4 people stuck on the smokestack.

Unlike the large elevator repairman from Wichita, I didn’t have to climb down the elevator track to reach the elevator. It had malfunctioned right at the 250 foot level when the group was ready to come back down from their semi-lofty visit of one of the Power Plant Smokestacks. My only task was to climb up, fix the elevator and bring the group safely to the ground.

I grabbed some tools from my tool bucket that I thought would be useful. A couple of different size screwdrivers (one large one and one small), my multimeter, fuse pullers, and three wrenches, (7/16, 1/2 and 9/16 inch). I put them in a bag that looked like a feed bag for a horse. It had a rope with a hook on it.

A tool Bag, only ours had a hook on the top of the handle

A tool Bag, only ours had a hook on the top of the handle

I figured I didn’t want to take anything I didn’t need, so I didn’t put all 40 pounds of tools from my tool bucket into the bag. Just those things I thought I might need. I had my handy dandy little crescent wrench in my pocket and my baby screwdriver in my pocket protector on my tee shirt.

4 inch crescent wrench

4 inch crescent wrench

I took a safety belt off of the coat rack by the door in the electric shop and put it on. I figured I could hook the tool bag to one of the rings while I was climbing the ladder up the smokestack. With only the safety belt and the fairly lightweight tool bag, I headed out to the Unit 2 smokestack. Oh yeah. I was carrying one other nifty device as well.

when I arrived, Doug Link was standing at the bottom with some other people. Doug explained that George Bohn and some other engineers from the City (meaning Oklahoma City) were trying to come down, but the elevator wasn’t working. Luckily they had carried a two-way radio with them when they went up (which was a regular safety precaution since smoke signals would largely go unnoticed coming from a smokestack).

I understand from watching movies that when you climb onto the tracks in a subway in New York City or some other large town with a subway, that you are supposed to avoid the “Third Rail”. After Doug Link had explained to me the problem, the first thing I did was to grab the third rail on the ladder that ran up the smoke stack.

Doug Link

Doug Link

You see. Running right up the middle of the ladder is an extra rail. This is what keeps you alive while you climb a very high ladder. Think about it. If you were to try to climb a ladder 250 or 500 feet straight up, what’s going to happen to you? Your arms and legs are going to start getting wobbly. You are going to become short of breath, and your head is going to start to swim some either from hyperventilating or the lack of oxygen… I haven’t figured out which yet.

Anyway, at some point, something is going to stop working. Your fingers are going to miss their grip on the next rung or your work boot is going to slip off of the rung and you will fall. If there is nothing to stop you, then you are going all the way to the ground.

That is why the third rail is added to the ladder. It is there so that you can tie your safety belt to it. It keeps you from falling when you slip, and it also allows you to take a rest when you need it without the worry that if some part of your body momentarily malfunctions, you won’t fall to your death.

A ladder with a safety belt rail

A ladder with a safety belt rail

Here is an example of a ladder with a device similar to the one we had on our stack ladders. I took the nifty device I had brought with me and hooked it into the third rail of the ladder and clipped the tool bag to the other metal loop on my safety belt (this was before we had safety harnesses). Then I began my trek to the landing.

As I ascended (went up) the ladder I told myself that this was no higher than climbing the stairs on the boiler to go to the elevator penthouse to fix the boiler elevators. I do that all the time. This should not be so hard. Just as I would help myself climb the stairs, I could use my hands to pull myself up the ladder distributing the work between my arms and legs as needed so that when one set was becoming too tired, I would have the other set do more of the work (arms and legs I mean).

I told myself it would probably be best if I didn’t stop until I arrived at the 250 foot landing, because I thought that if I did stop for a rest, my legs would get all wobbly. As long as I kept climbing, they didn’t have time for that nonsense. So, I huffed and puffed, and kept focusing on each rung of the ladder as I climbed.

When I reached the 250 foot landing, I swung my tool bag over onto the grating and unclipped my belt from the third rail and sat down with my feet still dangling off the edge of the grating where the ladder came through and rested for a few moments.

George Bohn and the other castaways were around the other side of the stack. They had not realized I had arrived yet. After I caught my breath, I climbed up to the top of the elevator and opened the control panel to see why the elevator was not working. I switched it to manual, and tried to operate it from the top of the elevator, but it didn’t budge.

I used my multimeter to check the circuits and quickly found that one of the fuses had blown out. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a spare fuse with me, and there wasn’t one in the control box, so there wasn’t much I could do to fix the elevator controls at this point.

I hollered for George and he came around the walkway to the elevator. I explained to him that the fuse to the controls was blown and that I could either climb all the way back down the ladder to the ground to get one, or, I could manually “drop” the elevator down with them in it to the ground. The lady with them didn’t care much for that idea.

I explained that I regularly drop test the elevator and I would be able to let the brake loose long enough for the elevator to go down a couple of feet at a time. After doing that about 125 times, we would be safely on the ground. That seemed to satisfy them, so they entered the elevator and closed the door, while I remained on the top of the elevator.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

I took my large screwdriver out of the tool bag and pried it between the motor and a latch on the brake. This way, I just had to pull out on the screwdriver to release the brake on the elevator until it began to free-fall toward the ground. I turned my head to look up at the elevator track so I could make sure I didn’t let the elevator drop too far. If I did, then my heroic attempt to rescue my elevator hostages would quickly turn from an “atta-boy” into an “Uh-Oh!”

You see, if I let the elevator drop more than 3 feet (or so), then the safeties on the elevator (known as “dogs”) would set. This would bring the elevator to an abrupt halt. It was designed to stop a falling elevator by instantly locking the elevator to the tracks.

If the dogs were to be set on the stack elevator, the only way to release them is to take the cover off of a gear box and start manually cranking the elevator up about 3 feet until the dogs reset. This was a slow process that usually took about 30 minutes, and if I didn’t go up far enough to actually reset the dogs, as soon as we continued going back down, the dogs would set again and I would have to repeat the process.

So, like the tortoise, I decided that slow and steady wins the race. I was not going to drop the elevator more than a foot and a half each time. We would take our time going down.

The first time I released the brakes and the elevator began to free-fall, I heard the lady below me in the elevator let out a loud gasp. I know the guys were gasping as well, they just had to be more quiet about it. I know I was gasping each time on the top of the elevator and I had done this probably 20 times before when we did the elevator drop tests (See the post “After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests“).

After about 10 minutes the elevator was safely back on the ground and so were the engineers. Doug Link came up to me and said with an excited voice, “It took you only 4 minutes and 23 seconds to climb up the ladder! That’s incredible! I timed you!” I said, “That’s about right. One second per foot.”

I went back to the shop and found three fuses for the one that had blown on the elevator. I climbed back on the elevator and opened the control box and replaced the bad one. Then I placed the other two in the control box. I figured this way, if this fuse were to blow again, then at least the electrician could just replace it, and not have to manually ride the elevator to the ground again.

I tested the elevator by riding it up and down the stack a few times and everything worked just fine. I figured that this must have just happened because George Bohn was trying to show off to some cute engineer. That’s just George’s luck. To find out more adventures with George, you can read this post: “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer“.

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After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests

Originally posted March 22, 2013:

I have found that elevators have a way of equalizing personal differences when there are just two of you alone in an elevator. It is one of the few places in a Power Plant where no one is watching or listening (usually) to what is said between two parties. Once the doors open, it is difficult to convince others what has happened because there is only one other witness. Depending on your position, this can be either a good thing or a bad thing.

Soon after I became an electrician I was introduced to “Elevator Maintenance”. The Power Plant has 7 elevators. One that goes to the main office area. One that goes to the Control Room. Two for the boilers. Two for the Smoke Stacks and one that takes you to the top of the Fly Ash Hoppers in the coal yard.

The office and boiler elevators were made by Montgomery. These each had to be inspected regularly to keep them running safely. If not, then the plant ran the risk of having people stuck in the elevators for a period of time, which is never a good situation.

There were times when people were stuck in the plant elevators. I may devote an entire post to that subject at some time. Today I’m more interested in the people that inspect the elevators and the effects that elevator inspections had on them.

I didn’t think about it for a long time, but one day when I was walking by a person that I worked with at Dell, Jeremy Tupa, stopped and said, “I still get chills thinking about what you used to do at the Power Plant.” I didn’t know what he was referring to until he reminded me. He said, “When you had to drop test the elevators.” It took me a while, but I finally remembered when I had told Jeremy about drop testing the stack elevator.

Our team at Dell had gone to Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio for the day. Jeremy and I were sitting next to each other on a ride called “The Scream”. It would raise you up and then you would free-fall down and then it would quickly jerk you back up again and drop you again. That’s when I told him this wasn’t scary to me, because it was just like drop testing a stack elevator.

Scream at Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio

Scream at Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio

Oh yeah. I guess to some people that must seem kind of scary. To the people that actually perform that activity, they do things to their mind to convince themselves that everything is safe. Well. Besides that, when following all the safety precautions, it really is a safe activity (see. I’m still doing it).

When drop testing an elevator, you load the elevator with more weight than what the elevator is designed to carry. Usually by bringing a few pallets of sandblasting sand by forklift to the elevator and then piling them in the elevator until you have reached the desired weight for a drop test.

A clean Elevator Shaft

A clean Elevator Shaft. The plant elevator shaft was always full of coal dust and just dirt.

Once the elevator is weighed down, you climb on top of the elevator and manually operate the elevator using the inspection controls until you have raised it up a couple of floors. Then someone up in the penthouse releases the brake so that the elevator free falls.

Once the elevator obtains a certain speed, a tripping device located in the penthouse rolls over and locks, that causes a locking device on the elevator to engage, which sets the “dogs”. The dogs are clamps that dig into the railing that the elevator uses as sort of a track to go up and down without shaking back and forth.

Once the tripping mechanism in the penthouse is operated. it cuts the power to the elevator. Once the dogs are set, there is a loud bang and the elevator isn’t going anywhere. It comes to an instant stop.

Performing a drop test in an elevator shaft seems rather routine, and it is more trouble resetting everything and filing the track smooth again where the dogs dug in creating a notch, than it is to actually perform the drop test.

The Smoke Stack elevators are a lot more fun.

The smoke stack elevators are these Swedish made three man elevators made by a company named Alimak. They operate like a roller coaster does when it is cranking its way up the first hill. The weight limit for these elevators is much lower obviously, since they only hold 3 people.

I could usually load a few large anchors and maybe an Engineer or two in the stack elevator and run it up 50 feet or so and perform the drop test. In order to perform a drop test on a stack elevator (notice how I use the word “perform” as if this was a work of art…. well… in a way it was), you had to disengage a governor first. The governor would prevent a free-falling stack elevator from just flying to the bottom by engaging a secondary brake when the governor sensed that the elevator was moving too fast.

After installing the special governator (like Arnold Schwarzenegger) to keep the governor from engaging, using a large screwdriver or small prybar (meaning that the large screwdriver also functions as a small prybar), the brake is released allowing the elevator to free fall to the ground or well, until the elevator sensed it was moving way too fast and locked up.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

Did I mention that these activities are performed while standing on top of the stack elevator? Yeah. Right out in the open. The entire elevator inspection was done standing on top of the elevator. That was how you inspected the railing and tight checked all the bolts all the way up and down the 500 foot stack elevator rail.

A large Allen Wrench with a permanent cheater bar was used to tight check the rail bolts.

Large Allen Wrench

Large Allen Wrench without a cheater bar

One time before I was an electrician, when Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien) was pulling down on an allen bolt with the cheater bar, Jerry Day, who was with her, pressed the button to lower the elevator down to the next bolt and left Diana hanging in mid-air 100’s of feet above the ground!

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

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

Needless to say, the experience of hanging onto a large Allen wrench stuck in a bolt 100’s of feet up a smoke stack, left Diana a little scarred (no I spelled that right). Diana is a tough Power Plant Woman of the highest degree and I used to perform the elevator inspections with her. She would go up the smoke stack on the top of the elevator, but I generally did the tight check on the bolts and let her run the buttons.

My Bucket Buddy Diana Brien

This is all just a teaser to the real story behind this post…

In the fall of 1984 Ben Davis and I went to Muskogee on a major overhaul. While I was there, part of the time I lived in a trailer with a guy from Horseshoe Lake named Steve Trammell. To this day, (and Steve does read these posts) we have always referred to each other as “roomie”.

While at Muskogee Ben and I worked out of the electric shop located next to the main switchgear for Unit 6. The Muskogee electricians we worked around were, John Manning, the B Foreman, Jay Harris, Richard Moravek, David Stewart and Tiny.

Tiny would be the one standing in the back

Tiny would be the one standing in the back

All of the electricians Ben and I worked with were great Power Plant Men, and I will write a post later about our experience there. For now, I am just going to focus on one person. David Stewart. Why? Because he inspected the stack elevators at Muskogee, like I did at Sooner Plant.

I don’t know exactly how the conversation was started because I walked into it in the middle when I entered the Electric foreman’s office to eat my lunch. David was semi-arguing with the rest of the he-men in the room. The argument centered around this: David Stewart was convinced that if you were in an elevator and everything failed and it was falling to the ground, if you jumped up as hard as you could at the last moment, you would be all right.

I will pause here while you re-read the last sentence………..

While you are thinking this thought over, watch the following Pink Panther video from 1968 called, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Pink on YouTube. Especially from 4 minutes and 15 seconds to 30 seconds into the film:

At first I thought that this was an ingenious joke that David was playing on everyone in the office because everyone was falling for it (I had actually used this technique before in my own jokes.  This is the joke where you act like you’re really stupid while everyone tries to convince you of something obvious, only to end by grinning with a look like: “Gotcha”). They were all trying to explain to David why it was impossible to jump up in a falling elevator at the last moment and you would be all right. The more I listened, the more I came to realize that David was convinced that this was so.

I took David aside and tried to explain to him that according to the law of gravity and acceleration that you would be falling too fast to be able to jump high enough to make any difference to your falling fate. I presented him with the formula for acceleration and showed him that if you even fell from about 50 feet, you would be crushed.

final velocity = Square root of the initial velocity squared plus 2 times acceleration times distance. With Gravity having an acceleration of 9.81 meters per second and 50 feet being just over 15 meters…

I showed him that his final velocity would be about 17 meters per second, which is equivalent to about 38 miles an hour straight into the ground. From only a 50 foot fall. It didn’t phase him. He was so certain it would work. — I understood. This was his way of coping with doing a drop test on the stack elevator. His mind had convinced him that all he had to do was jump up in the case that the elevator safeties failed.

Fast Forward 5 months. It was in April of 1985 when a man from the Swedish Elevator company would come around and do our yearly stack elevator inspection. During this inspection he told me that we needed to remove the top gear rail from the railing.

The reason was that on a stack in Minnesota, when all the safeties had failed on an elevator, it didn’t stop going up. It went all the way to the top and off the top of the railing and fell to it’s doom. By removing the top gear section, the elevator wouldn’t be able to go high enough to go over the top of the railing.

Anyway, while we were inspecting the elevator I asked him if he would be going to the Muskogee power plant after ours, and he said he would. He knew David Stewart and would most likely be working with him on the Muskogee Stack Elevators.

So, I told him the story that David really believed that he had convinced himself that he could jump up in a falling elevator at the last moment and he would survive. So I convinced the elevator inspector to tell everyone about how they need to remove the top gear section, but that it doesn’t really matter, because it is a proven fact that all you have to do is jump up in the elevator at the last moment and you will be all right.

Fast Forward another year. It was now April 1986…. The elevator inspector and I were up on the stack elevators tight checking all the bolts when I remembered about David. So I asked him, “Hey, did you ever do anything with David and jumping up in the elevator?”

He responded with, “Yeah I did! And until the moment that I had said anything I thought you were playing a joke on me, but here is what happened…. We were all sitting in the electric shop office eating lunch and I told them just like you said. When I got to the part where you could just jump up in the elevator and you would be all right, David jumped out of his chair and yelled ‘See!!! I told you!!!’ It was only then that I believed your story. Everyone in the room broke out in a roar of laughter.” — As much as I love David Stewart, I was glad that the joke was performed with perfect precision.

Now for the clincher…. — Oh. You thought that was it? So, let me explain to you one thing about drop testing the stack elevator… The elevator doesn’t go up and down like regular elevators with cables and rails and rollers. It uses one gear on a central rail that has notches to fit the gear.

The stack elevator had a rail with notches like this only it was a lot stronger

The stack elevator had a rail with notches like this only it was a lot stronger

The gear is heavy duty as well as the rail. You can count on it not breaking. The gear was on a shaft that was tied to the braking mechanism, the governor and the motor through a gearbox. The ultimate clincher is this… The gear… The only thing holding the entire elevator up and the only thing tied to any kind of a brake had one pin in it that kept it from rotating on the shaft. One pin. In mechanical terms, this is called a Key:

A hardened steel Key used to keep a gear or coupling from rotating on a motor shaft

A hardened steel Key used to keep a gear or coupling from rotating on a motor shaft

Everything else on the stack elevator can fail and the elevator will not fall, but if this pin were to fail…. the elevator would free fall to the ground. Thinking back, I must have explained this to Jeremy Tupa, my coworker at Dell back in 2004 when we worked together. It made such an impact on him that I would drop test an elevator that was completely held up by only this one pin. This is the weakest link in the chain.

I know that every now and then I wake up either from a claustrophobic fit because Curtis Love just shut my air off (see the Post: Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love) or while I’m taking a flying leap off of the stack elevator. If only I could have the confidence that David had. If only I could believe that jumping up at the last moment would save me.

Actually, I can picture jumping up and a hand reaching down to grab me and pulling me up… only it pulls me on up to heaven. That’s when I’ll know the truth. David was right. Just jump up as hard as you can. Jump and know that you will be safe. God will catch you.

Comment from the original post:

  1. Monty Hansen June 27, 2014

    I got stuck in the plant elevator once, I was playing – jumping up and down in it, and enjoying it bounce – until it came to a crunching halt between floors – about 8 stories up. And of course I had to do this stunt on THANKSGIVING day when there were no electricians at the plant to save me! The plant was an hour drive from town. The supervisor had to call out an electrician. he said the overspeed brakes had tripped AND the slack cable switch. How embarrassing! I never move in an elevator now.

    Another time my supervisor got stuck in the plant elevator at about 5 in the morning, I was the senior guy on shift and upgradable to foreman, so I upgraded while he was stuck, but since it was so close to time for electricians to start coming on shift, there was no use calling one out. I had a Time off request for 3 hours of floating holiday waiting for him when he came out! It was winter and cold and he was up about level 8 also. Fortunately he had a big heavy coat and was dressed for the occasion.

 

The Power Plant Smokestack Third Rail is the Lifesaver

Originally posted November 29, 2014:

It was quite a site at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to see a 400 pound man climbing up the ladder to the 250 foot level (halfway) of the smokestack only to climb halfway down again on the track the elevator used to go up and down the smokestack. I was on labor crew then and I remember thinking, I’m sure glad that’s not me.

A small tour of people from Oklahoma City had come to the plant and one of the engineers was showing them around. I think Allen Gould may remember who it was. I’m not saying it was Allen, I’m just thinking that he was around at that time.

Power Plant Engineer Allen Gould

Power Plant Engineer Allen Gould

I think that day the wind was blowing rather hard and when the elevator was descending (going down) the stack, the power cable somehow blew over into the path of the elevator and it was caught under the roller which brought the elevator to an abrupt halt. Unfortunately. in this instance, trying to free fall the elevator manually to bring it down wouldn’t work since when the brakes were released, the elevator wouldn’t move because it was really stuck right where it was.

A person that worked for the Alimak elevator company was called in from Wichita Kansas 100 miles to the north of the Power plant, which meant that it took almost 2 hours for the person to arrive at the plant. When he did, he turned out to be the largest elevator repairman I had ever seen. He had to climb up 250 feet up a ladder to the landing, then back down again about 100 feet to the elevator to rescue the people from the elevator.

I first found out about it when someone pointed out the large figure of a man about halfway up to the first landing on the smokestack ladder. He had stopped for a rest and was leaning back on his lanyard that was attached to the ladder. When we arrived in the maintenance shop, Marlin McDaniel explained the situation to us. I think it took well over three hours for this man to take each person out of the hatch in the top of the elevator, then climb with them up the elevator track to the landing, and then take them down the ladder 250 feet to the ground. I think one of them was a lady, and two were men.

The stack elevator is a small box with a capacity to carry 3 people or a weight of 900 pounds. It is crowded enough with only two people in it, but three is always a crowd (as the saying goes, “Two’s company, Three’s a crowd”). That phrase definitely is true with the stack elevator.

 

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

At the time, I didn’t realize that one day I would be an electrician that took care of the smoke stack elevators. Actually, I never gave it a thought about what sort of equipment electricians repaired or maintained. It turned out that electricians worked on anything that had electric power going to it. That’s pretty much anything mechanical.

Electricians would work on the motors while the mechanics would work on the pumps, fans and valves attached to the end of the motors. When it came to the stack elevators, it was generally left up to the electricians to do the majority of the work. We inspected the elevators each month, and when they broke down, we were called to repair them.

When the boiler elevators broke down, it seemed as if I was the person of choice to ask to climb the boiler to the roof to fix it. The elevator controls were located on the top of the boiler, so I would usually end up climbing the stairs to the top cleaning door contacts on the way up. It happens that the boilers are 250 feet tall. So, the middle landing on the stack elevator is about the same height as the boiler as you can see in the picture above.

Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, would always add when he was telling me to go fix the elevator…. “You like climbing all those stairs anyway.” What could I say? “Sure Bill! I’ll go see what I can do.”

I think in the back of my mind I knew the day was coming when I was going to have to climb the stack elevator ladder to rescue someone. I had already climbed it a few times to fix some conduit that had come loose that ran up the smokestack next to the ladder, so I knew what it was like to go straight up a 500 foot ladder to the top of the smokestack. Luckily when my turn came around for a rescue, I only had to go halfway up. There were 4 people stuck on the smokestack.

Unlike the large elevator repairman from Wichita, I didn’t have to climb down the elevator track to reach the elevator. It had malfunctioned right at the 250 foot level when the group was ready to come back down from their semi-lofty visit of one of the Power Plant Smokestacks. My only task was to climb up, fix the elevator and bring the group safely to the ground.

I grabbed some tools from my tool bucket that I thought would be useful. A couple of different size screwdrivers (one large one and one small), my multimeter, fuse pullers, and three wrenches, (7/16, 1/2 and 9/16 inch). I put them in a bag that looked like a feed bag for a horse. It had a rope with a hook on it.

A tool Bag, only ours had a hook on the top of the handle

A tool Bag, only ours had a hook on the top of the handle

I figured I didn’t want to take anything I didn’t need, so I didn’t put all 40 pounds of tools from my tool bucket into the bag. Just those things I thought I might need. I had my handy dandy little crescent wrench in my pocket and my baby screwdriver in my pocket protector on my tee shirt.

4 inch crescent wrench

4 inch crescent wrench

I took a safety belt off of the coat rack by the door in the electric shop and put it on. I figured I could hook the tool bag to one of the rings while I was climbing the ladder up the smokestack. With only the safety belt and the fairly lightweight tool bag, I headed out to the Unit 2 smokestack. Oh yeah. I was carrying one other nifty device as well.

when I arrived, Doug Link was standing at the bottom with some other people. Doug explained that George Bohn and some other engineers from the City (meaning Oklahoma City) were trying to come down, but the elevator wasn’t working. Luckily they had carried a two-way radio with them when they went up (which was a regular safety precaution since smoke signals would largely go unnoticed coming from a smokestack).

I understand from watching movies that when you climb onto the tracks in a subway in New York City or some other large town with a subway, that you are supposed to avoid the “Third Rail”. After Doug Link had explained to me the problem, the first thing I did was to grab the third rail on the ladder that ran up the smoke stack.

Doug Link

Doug Link

You see. Running right up the middle of the ladder is an extra rail. This is what keeps you alive while you climb a very high ladder. Think about it. If you were to try to climb a ladder 250 or 500 feet straight up, what’s going to happen to you? Your arms and legs are going to start getting wobbly. You are going to become short of breath, and your head is going to start to swim some either from hyperventilating or the lack of oxygen… I haven’t figured out which yet.

Anyway, at some point, something is going to stop working. Your fingers are going to miss their grip on the next rung or your work boot is going to slip off of the rung and you will fall. If there is nothing to stop you, then you are going all the way to the ground.

That is why the third rail is added to the ladder. It is there so that you can tie your safety belt to it. It keeps you from falling when you slip, and it also allows you to take a rest when you need it without the worry that if some part of your body momentarily malfunctions, you won’t fall to your death.

A ladder with a safety belt rail

A ladder with a safety belt rail

Here is an example of a ladder with a device similar to the one we had on our stack ladders. I took the nifty device I had brought with me and hooked it into the third rail of the ladder and clipped the tool bag to the other metal loop on my safety belt (this was before we had safety harnesses). Then I began my trek to the landing.

As I ascended (went up) the ladder I told myself that this was no higher than climbing the stairs on the boiler to go to the elevator penthouse to fix the boiler elevators. I do that all the time. This should not be so hard. Just as I would help myself climb the stairs, I could use my hands to pull myself up the ladder distributing the work between my arms and legs as needed so that when one set was becoming too tired, I would have the other set do more of the work (arms and legs I mean).

I told myself it would probably be best if I didn’t stop until I arrived at the 250 foot landing, because I thought that if I did stop for a rest, my legs would get all wobbly. As long as I kept climbing, they didn’t have time for that nonsense. So, I huffed and puffed, and kept focusing on each rung of the ladder as I climbed.

When I reached the 250 foot landing, I swung my tool bag over onto the grating and unclipped my belt from the third rail and sat down with my feet still dangling off the edge of the grating where the ladder came through and rested for a few moments.

George Bohn and the other castaways were around the other side of the stack. They had not realized I had arrived yet. After I caught my breath, I climbed up to the top of the elevator and opened the control panel to see why the elevator was not working. I switched it to manual, and tried to operate it from the top of the elevator, but it didn’t budge.

I used my multimeter to check the circuits and quickly found that one of the fuses had blown out. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a spare fuse with me, and there wasn’t one in the control box, so there wasn’t much I could do to fix the elevator controls at this point.

I hollered for George and he came around the walkway to the elevator. I explained to him that the fuse to the controls was blown and that I could either climb all the way back down the ladder to the ground to get one, or, I could manually “drop” the elevator down with them in it to the ground. The lady with them didn’t care much for that idea.

I explained that I regularly drop test the elevator and I would be able to let the brake loose long enough for the elevator to go down a couple of feet at a time. After doing that about 125 times, we would be safely on the ground. That seemed to satisfy them, so they entered the elevator and closed the door, while I remained on the top of the elevator.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

I took my large screwdriver out of the tool bag and pried it between the motor and a latch on the brake. This way, I just had to pull out on the screwdriver to release the brake on the elevator until it began to free-fall toward the ground. I turned my head to look up at the elevator track so I could make sure I didn’t let the elevator drop too far. If I did, then my heroic attempt to rescue my elevator hostages would quickly turn from an “atta-boy” into an “Uh-Oh!”

You see, if I let the elevator drop more than 3 feet (or so), then the safeties on the elevator (known as “dogs”) would set. This would bring the elevator to an abrupt halt. It was designed to stop a falling elevator by instantly locking the elevator to the tracks.

If the dogs were to be set on the stack elevator, the only way to release them is to take the cover off of a gear box and start manually cranking the elevator up about 3 feet until the dogs reset. This was a slow process that usually took about 30 minutes, and if I didn’t go up far enough to actually reset the dogs, as soon as we continued going back down, the dogs would set again and I would have to repeat the process.

So, like the tortoise, I decided that slow and steady wins the race. I was not going to drop the elevator more than a foot and a half each time. We would take our time going down.

The first time I released the brakes and the elevator began to free-fall, I heard the lady below me in the elevator let out a loud gasp. I know the guys were gasping as well, they just had to be more quiet about it. I know I was gasping each time on the top of the elevator and I had done this probably 20 times before when we did the elevator drop tests (See the post “After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests“).

After about 10 minutes the elevator was safely back on the ground and so were the engineers. Doug Link came up to me and said with an excited voice, “It took you only 4 minutes and 23 seconds to climb up the ladder! That’s incredible! I timed you!” I said, “That’s about right. One second per foot.”

I went back to the shop and found three fuses for the one that had blown on the elevator. I climbed back on the elevator and opened the control box and replaced the bad one. Then I placed the other two in the control box. I figured this way, if this fuse were to blow again, then at least the electrician could just replace it, and not have to manually ride the elevator to the ground again.

I tested the elevator by riding it up and down the stack a few times and everything worked just fine. I figured that this must have just happened because George Bohn was trying to show off to some cute engineer. That’s just George’s luck. To find out more adventures with George, you can read this post: “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer“.

The Power Plant Smokestack Third Rail is the Lifesaver

Originally posted November 29, 2014:

It was quite a site at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to see a 400 pound man climbing up the ladder to the 250 foot level (halfway) of the smokestack only to climb halfway down again on the track the elevator used to go up and down the smokestack. I was on labor crew then and I remember thinking, I’m sure glad that’s not me.

A small tour of people from Oklahoma City had come to the plant and one of the engineers was showing them around. I think Allen Gould may remember who it was. I’m not saying it was Allen, I’m just thinking that he was around at that time.

Power Plant Engineer Allen Gould

Power Plant Engineer Allen Gould

I think that day the wind was blowing rather hard and when the elevator was descending (going down) the stack, the power cable somehow blew over into the path of the elevator and it was caught under the roller which brought the elevator to an abrupt halt. Unfortunately. in this instance, trying to free fall the elevator manually to bring it down wouldn’t work since when the brakes were released, the elevator would move because it was really stuck right where it was.

A person that worked for the Alimak elevator company was called in from Wichita Kansas 100 miles to the north of the Power plant, which meant that it took almost 2 hours for the person to arrive at the plant. When he did, he turned out to be the largest elevator repairman I had ever seen. He had to climb up 250 feet up a ladder to the landing, then back down again about 100 feet to the elevator to rescue the people from the elevator.

I first found out about it when someone pointed out the large figure of a man about halfway up to the first landing on the smokestack ladder. He had stopped for a rest and was leaning back on his lanyard that was attached to the ladder. When we arrived in the maintenance shop, Marlin McDaniel explained the situation to us. I think it took well over three hours for this man to take each person out of the hatch in the top of the elevator, then climb with them up the elevator track to the landing, and then take them down the ladder 250 feet to the ground. I think one of them was a lady, and two were men.

The stack elevator is a small box with a capacity to carry 3 people or a weight of 900 pounds. It is crowded enough with only two people in it, but three is always a crowd (as the saying goes, “Two’s company, Three’s a crowd”). That phrase definitely is true with the stack elevator.

 

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

At the time, I didn’t realize that one day I would be an electrician that took care of the smoke stack elevators. Actually, I never gave it a thought about what sort of equipment electricians repaired or maintained. It turned out that electricians worked on anything that had electric power going to it. That’s pretty much anything mechanical.

Electricians would work on the motors while the mechanics would work on the pumps, fans and valves attached to the end of the motors. When it came to the stack elevators, it was generally left up to the electricians to do the majority of the work. We inspected the elevators each month, and when they broke down, we were called to repair them.

When the boiler elevators broke down, it seemed as if I was the person of choice to ask to climb the boiler to the roof to fix it. The elevator controls were located on the top of the boiler, so I would usually end up climbing the stairs to the top cleaning door contacts on the way up. It happens that the boilers are 250 feet tall. So, the middle landing on the stack elevator is about the same height as the boiler as you can see in the picture above.

Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, would always add when he was telling me to go fix the elevator…. “You like climbing all those stairs anyway.” What could I say? “Sure Bill! I’ll go see what I can do.”

I think in the back of my mind I knew the day was coming when I was going to have to climb the stack elevator ladder to rescue someone. I had already climbed it a few times to fix some conduit that had come loose that ran up the smokestack next to the ladder, so I knew what it was like to go straight up a 500 foot ladder to the top of the smokestack. Luckily when my turn came around for a rescue, I only had to go halfway up. There were 4 people stuck on the smokestack.

Unlike the large elevator repairman from Wichita, I didn’t have to climb down the elevator track to reach the elevator. It had malfunctioned right at the 250 foot level when the group was ready to come back down from their semi-lofty visit of one of the Power Plant Smokestacks. My only task was to climb up, fix the elevator and bring the group safely to the ground.

I grabbed some tools from my tool bucket that I thought would be useful. A couple of different size screwdrivers (one large one and one small), my multimeter, fuse pullers, and three wrenches, (7/16, 1/2 and 9/16 inch). I put them in a bag that looked like a feed bag for a horse. It had a rope with a hook on it.

A tool Bag, only ours had a hook on the top of the handle

A tool Bag, only ours had a hook on the top of the handle

I figured I didn’t want to take anything I didn’t need, so I didn’t put all 40 pounds of tools from my tool bucket into the bag. Just those things I thought I might need. I had my handy dandy little crescent wrench in my pocket and my baby screwdriver in my pocket protector on my tee shirt.

4 inch crescent wrench

4 inch crescent wrench

I took a safety belt off of the coat rack by the door in the electric shop and put it on. I figured I could hook the tool bag to one of the rings while I was climbing the ladder up the smokestack. With only the safety belt and the fairly lightweight tool bag, I headed out to the Unit 2 smokestack. Oh yeah. I was carrying one other nifty device as well.

when I arrived, Doug Link was standing at the bottom with some other people. Doug explained that George Bohn and some other engineers from the City (meaning Oklahoma City) were trying to come down, but the elevator wasn’t working. Luckily they had carried a two-way radio with them when they went up (which was a regular safety precaution since smoke signals would largely go unnoticed coming from a smokestack).

I understand from watching movies that when you climb onto the tracks in a subway in New York City or some other large town with a subway, that you are supposed to avoid the “Third Rail”. After Doug Link had explained to me the problem, the first thing I did was to grab the third rail on the ladder that ran up the smoke stack.

Doug Link

Doug Link

You see. Running right up the middle of the ladder is an extra rail. This is what keeps you alive while you climb a very high ladder. Think about it. If you were to try to climb a ladder 250 or 500 feet straight up, what’s going to happen to you? Your arms and legs are going to start getting wobbly. You are going to become short of breath, and your head is going to start to swim some either from hyperventilating or the lack of oxygen… I haven’t figured out which yet.

Anyway, at some point, something is going to stop working. Your fingers are going to miss their grip on the next rung or your work boot is going to slip off of the rung and you will fall. If there is nothing to stop you, then you are going all the way to the ground.

That is why the third rail is added to the ladder. It is there so that you can tie your safety belt to it. It keeps you from falling when you slip, and it also allows you to take a rest when you need it without the worry that if some part of your body momentarily malfunctions, you won’t fall to your death.

A ladder with a safety belt rail

A ladder with a safety belt rail

Here is an example of a ladder with a device similar to the one we had on our stack ladders. I took the nifty device I had brought with me and hooked it into the third rail of the ladder and clipped the tool bag to the other metal loop on my safety belt (this was before we had safety harnesses). Then I began my trek to the landing.

As I ascended (went up) the ladder I told myself that this was no higher than climbing the stairs on the boiler to go to the elevator penthouse to fix the boiler elevators. I do that all the time. This should not be so hard. Just as I would help myself climb the stairs, I could use my hands to pull myself up the ladder distributing the work between my arms and legs as needed so that when one set was becoming too tired, I would have the other set do more of the work (arms and legs I mean).

I told myself it would probably be best if I didn’t stop until I arrived at the 250 foot landing, because I thought that if I did stop for a rest, my legs would get all wobbly. As long as I kept climbing, they didn’t have time for that nonsense. So, I huffed and puffed, and kept focusing on each rung of the ladder as I climbed.

When I reached the 250 foot landing, I swung my tool bag over onto the grating and unclipped my belt from the third rail and sat down with my feet still dangling off the edge of the grating where the ladder came through and rested for a few moments.

George Bohn and the other castaways were around the other side of the stack. They had not realized I had arrived yet. After I caught my breath, I climbed up to the top of the elevator and opened the control panel to see why the elevator was not working. I switched it to manual, and tried to operate it from the top of the elevator, but it didn’t budge.

I used my multimeter to check the circuits and quickly found that one of the fuses had blown out. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a spare fuse with me, and there wasn’t one in the control box, so there wasn’t much I could do to fix the elevator controls at this point.

I hollered for George and he came around the walkway to the elevator. I explained to him that the fuse to the controls was blown and that I could either climb all the way back down the ladder to the ground to get one, or, I could manually “drop” the elevator down with them in it to the ground. The lady with them didn’t care much for that idea.

I explained that I regularly drop test the elevator and I would be able to let the brake loose long enough for the elevator to go down a couple of feet at a time. After doing that about 125 times, we would be safely on the ground. That seemed to satisfy them, so they entered the elevator and closed the door, while I remained on the top of the elevator.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

I took my large screwdriver out of the tool bag and pried it between the motor and a latch on the brake. This way, I just had to pull out on the screwdriver to release the brake on the elevator until it began to free-fall toward the ground. I turned my head to look up at the elevator track so I could make sure I didn’t let the elevator drop too far. If I did, then my heroic attempt to rescue my elevator hostages would quickly turn from an “atta-boy” into an “Uh-Oh!”

You see, if I let the elevator drop more than 3 feet (or so), then the safeties on the elevator (known as “dogs”) would set. This would bring the elevator to an abrupt halt. It was designed to stop a falling elevator by instantly locking the elevator to the tracks.

If the dogs were to be set on the stack elevator, the only way to release them is to take the cover off of a gear box and start manually cranking the elevator up about 3 feet until the dogs reset. This was a slow process that usually took about 30 minutes, and if I didn’t go up far enough to actually reset the dogs, as soon as we continued going back down, the dogs would set again and I would have to repeat the process.

So, like the tortoise, I decided that slow and steady wins the race. I was not going to drop the elevator more than a foot and a half each time. We would take our time going down.

The first time I released the brakes and the elevator began to free-fall, I heard the lady below me in the elevator let out a loud gasp. I know the guys were gasping as well, they just had to be more quiet about it. I know I was gasping each time on the top of the elevator and I had done this probably 20 times before when we did the elevator drop tests (See the post “After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests“).

After about 10 minutes the elevator was safely back on the ground and so were the engineers. Doug Link came up to me and said with an excited voice, “It took you only 4 minutes and 23 seconds to climb up the ladder! That’s incredible! I timed you!” I said, “That’s about right. One second per foot.”

I went back to the shop and found three fuses for the one that had blown on the elevator. I climbed back on the elevator and opened the control box and replaced the bad one. Then I placed the other two in the control box. I figured this way, if this fuse were to blow again, then at least the electrician could just replace it, and not have to manually ride the elevator to the ground again.

I tested the elevator by riding it up and down the stack a few times and everything worked just fine. I figured that this must have just happened because George Bohn was trying to show off to some cute engineer. That’s just George’s luck. To find out more adventures with George, you can read this post: “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer“.

After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests

Originally posted March 22, 2013:

I have found that elevators have a way of equalizing personal differences when there are just two of you alone in an elevator. It is one of the few places in a Power Plant where no one is watching or listening (usually) to what is said between two parties. Once the doors open, it is difficult to convince others what has happened because there is only one other witness. Depending on your position, this can be either a good thing or a bad thing.

Soon after I became an electrician I was introduced to “Elevator Maintenance”. The Power Plant has 7 elevators. One that goes to the main office area. One that goes to the Control Room. Two for the boilers. Two for the Smoke Stacks and one that takes you to the top of the Fly Ash Hoppers in the coal yard.

The office and boiler elevators were made by Montgomery. These each had to be inspected regularly to keep them running safely. If not, then the plant ran the risk of having people stuck in the elevators for a period of time, which is never a good situation.

There were times when people were stuck in the plant elevators. I may devote an entire post to that subject at some time. Today I’m more interested in the people that inspect the elevators and the effects that elevator inspections had on them.

I didn’t think about it for a long time, but one day when I was walking by a person that I worked with at Dell, Jeremy Tupa, stopped and said, “I still get chills thinking about what you used to do at the Power Plant.” I didn’t know what he was referring to until he reminded me. He said, “When you had to drop test the elevators.” It took me a while, but I finally remembered when I had told Jeremy about drop testing the stack elevator.

Our team at Dell had gone to Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio for the day. Jeremy and I were sitting next to each other on a ride called “The Scream”. It would raise you up and then you would free-fall down and then it would quickly jerk you back up again and drop you again. That’s when I told him this wasn’t scary to me, because it was just like drop testing a stack elevator.

Scream at Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio

Scream at Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio

Oh yeah. I guess to some people that must seem kind of scary. To the people that actually perform that activity, they do things to their mind to convince themselves that everything is safe. Well. Besides that, when following all the safety precautions, it really is a safe activity (see. I’m still doing it).

When drop testing an elevator, you load the elevator with more weight than what the elevator is designed to carry. Usually by bringing a few pallets of sandblasting sand by forklift to the elevator and then piling them in the elevator until you have reached the desired weight for a drop test.

A clean Elevator Shaft

A clean Elevator Shaft. The plant elevator shaft was always full of coal dust and just dirt.

Once the elevator is weighed down, you climb on top of the elevator and manually operate the elevator using the inspection controls until you have raised it up a couple of floors. Then someone up in the penthouse releases the brake so that the elevator free falls.

Once the elevator obtains a certain speed, a tripping device located in the penthouse rolls over and locks, that causes a locking device on the elevator to engage, which sets the “dogs”. The dogs are clamps that dig into the railing that the elevator uses as sort of a track to go up and down without shaking back and forth.

Once the tripping mechanism in the penthouse is operated. it cuts the power to the elevator. Once the dogs are set, there is a loud bang and the elevator isn’t going anywhere. It comes to an instant stop.

Performing a drop test in an elevator shaft seems rather routine, and it is more trouble resetting everything and filing the track smooth again where the dogs dug in creating a notch, than it is to actually perform the drop test.

The Smoke Stack elevators are a lot more fun.

The smoke stack elevators are these Swedish made three man elevators made by a company named Alimak. They operate like a roller coaster does when it is cranking its way up the first hill. The weight limit for these elevators is much lower obviously, since they only hold 3 people.

I could usually load a few large anchors and maybe an Engineer or two in the stack elevator and run it up 50 feet or so and perform the drop test. In order to perform a drop test on a stack elevator (notice how I use the word “perform” as if this was a work of art…. well… in a way it was), you had to disengage a governor first. The governor would prevent a free-falling stack elevator from just flying to the bottom by engaging a secondary brake when the governor sensed that the elevator was moving too fast.

After installing the special governator (like Arnold Schwarzenegger) to keep the governor from engaging, using a large screwdriver or small prybar (meaning that the large screwdriver also functions as a small prybar), the brake is released allowing the elevator to free fall to the ground or well, until the elevator sensed it was moving way too fast and locked up.

A typical Stack Elevator.  Not the same brand as ours.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

Did I mention that these activities are performed while standing on top of the stack elevator? Yeah. Right out in the open. The entire elevator inspection was done standing on top of the elevator. That was how you inspected the railing and tight checked all the bolts all the way up and down the 500 foot stack elevator rail.

A large Allen Wrench with a permanent cheater bar was used to tight check the rail bolts.

Large Allen Wrench

Large Allen Wrench without a cheater bar

One time before I was an electrician, when Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien) was pulling down on an allen bolt with the cheater bar, Jerry Day, who was with her, pressed the button to lower the elevator down to the next bolt and left Diana hanging in mid-air 100’s of feet above the ground!

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

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

Needless to say, the experience of hanging onto a large Allen wrench stuck in a bolt 100’s of feet up a smoke stack, left Diana a little scarred. Diana is a tough Power Plant Woman of the highest degree and I used to perform the elevator inspections with her. She would go up the smoke stack on the top of the elevator, but I generally did the tight check on the bolts and let her run the buttons.

This is all just a teaser to the real story behind this post…

In the fall of 1984 Ben Davis and I went to Muskogee on a major overhaul. While I was there, part of the time I lived in a trailer with a guy from Horseshoe Lake named Steve Trammell. To this day, (and Steve does read these posts) we have always referred to each other as “roomie”.

While at Muskogee Ben and I worked out of the electric shop located next to the main switchgear for Unit 6. The Muskogee electricians we worked around were, John Manning, the B Foreman, Jay Harris, Richard Moravek, David Stewart and Tiny.

Tiny would be the one standing in the back

Tiny would be the one standing in the back

All of the electricians Ben and I worked with were great Power Plant Men, and I will write a post later about our experience there. For now, I am just going to focus on one person. David Stewart. Why? Because he inspected the stack elevators at Muskogee, like I did at Sooner Plant.

I don’t know exactly how the conversation was started because I walked into it in the middle when I entered the Electric foreman’s office to eat my lunch. David was semi-arguing with the rest of the he-men in the room. The argument centered around this: David Stewart was convinced that if you were in an elevator and everything failed and it was falling to the ground, if you jumped up as hard as you could at the last moment, you would be all right.

I will pause here while you re-read the last sentence………..

While you are thinking this thought over, watch the following Pink Panther video from 1968 called, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Pink on YouTube. Especially from 4 minutes and 15 seconds to 30 seconds into the film:

At first I thought that this was an ingenious joke that David was playing on everyone in the office because everyone was falling for it (I had actually used this technique before in my own jokes). They were all trying to explain to David why it was impossible to jump up in a falling elevator at the last moment and you would be all right. The more I listened, the more I came to realize that David was convinced that this was so.

I took David aside and tried to explain to him that according to the law of gravity and acceleration that you would be falling too fast to be able to jump high enough to make any difference to your falling fate. I presented him with the formula for acceleration and showed him that if you even fell from about 50 feet, you would be crushed.

final velocity = Square root of the initial velocity squared plus 2 times acceleration times distance. With Gravity having an acceleration of 9.81 meters per second and 50 feet being just over 15 meters…

I showed him that his final velocity would be about 17 meters per second, which is equivalent to about 38 miles an hour straight into the ground. From only a 50 foot fall. It didn’t phase him. He was so certain it would work. — I understood. This was his way of coping with doing a drop test on the stack elevator. His mind had convinced him that all he had to do was jump up in the case that the elevator safeties failed.

Fast Forward 5 months. It was in April of 1985 when a man from the Swedish Elevator company would come around and do our yearly stack elevator inspection. During this inspection he told me that we needed to remove the top gear rail from the railing.

The reason was that on a stack in Minnesota, when all the safeties had failed on an elevator, it didn’t stop going up. It went all the way to the top and off the top of the railing and fell to it’s doom. By removing the top gear section, the elevator wouldn’t be able to go high enough to go over the top of the railing.

Anyway, while we were inspecting the elevator I asked him if he would be going to the Muskogee power plant after ours, and he said he would. He knew David Stewart and would most likely be working with him on the Muskogee Stack Elevators.

So, I told him the story that David really believed that he had convinced himself that he could jump up in a falling elevator at the last moment and he would survive. So I convinced the elevator inspector to tell everyone about how they need to remove the top gear section, but that it doesn’t really matter, because it is a proven fact that all you have to do is jump up in the elevator at the last moment and you will be all right.

Fast Forward another year. It was now April 1986…. The elevator inspector and I were up on the stack elevators tight checking all the bolts when I remembered about David. So I asked him, “Hey, did you ever do anything with David and jumping up in the elevator?”

He responded with, “Yeah I did! And until the moment that I had said anything I thought you were playing a joke on me, but here is what happened…. We were all sitting in the electric shop office eating lunch and I told them just like you said. When I got to the part where you could just jump up in the elevator and you would be all right, David jumped out of his chair and yelled ‘See!!! I told you!!!’ It was only then that I believed your story. Everyone in the room broke out in a roar of laughter.” — As much as I love David Stewart, I was glad that the joke was performed with perfect precision.

Now for the clincher…. — Oh. You thought that was it? So, let me explain to you one thing about drop testing the stack elevator… The elevator doesn’t go up and down like regular elevators with cables and rails and rollers. It uses one gear on a central rail that has notches to fit the gear.

The stack elevator had a rail with notches like this only it was a lot stronger

The stack elevator had a rail with notches like this only it was a lot stronger

The gear is heavy duty as well as the rail. You can count on it not breaking. The gear was on a shaft that was tied to the braking mechanism, the governor and the motor through a gearbox. The ultimate clincher is this… The gear… The only thing holding the entire elevator up and the only thing tied to any kind of a brake had one pin in it that kept it from rotating on the shaft. One pin. In mechanical terms, this is called a Key:

A hardened steel Key used to keep a gear or coupling from rotating on a motor shaft

A hardened steel Key used to keep a gear or coupling from rotating on a motor shaft

Everything else on the stack elevator can fail and the elevator will not fall, but if this pin were to fail…. the elevator would free fall to the ground. Thinking back, I must have explained this to Jeremy Tupa, my coworker at Dell back in 2004 when we worked together. It made such an impact on him that I would drop test an elevator that was completely held up by only this one pin. This is the weakest link in the chain.

I know that every now and then I wake up either from a claustrophobic fit because Curtis Love just shut my air off (see the Post: Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love) or while I’m taking a flying leap off of the stack elevator. If only I could have the confidence that David had. If only I could believe that jumping up at the last moment would save me.

Actually, I can picture jumping up and a hand reaching down to grab me and pulling me up… only it pulls me on up to heaven. That’s when I’ll know the truth. David was right. Just jump up as hard as you can. Jump and know that you will be safe. God will catch you.

Comment from the original post:

  1. Monty Hansen June 27, 2014

    I got stuck in the plant elevator once, I was playing – jumping up and down in it, and enjoying it bounce – until it came to a crunching halt between floors – about 8 stories up. And of course I had to do this stunt on THANKSGIVING day when there were no electricians at the plant to save me! The plant was an hour drive from town. The supervisor had to call out an electricain. he said the overspeed brakes had tripped AND the slack cable switch. How embarrassing! I never move in an elevator now.

    Another time my supervisor got stuck in the plant elevator at about 5 in the morning, I was the senior guy on shift and upgradable to foreman, so I upgraded while he was stuck, but since it was so close to time for electricians to start coming on shift, there was no use calling one out. I had a Time off request for 3 hours of floating holiday waiting for him when he came out! It was winter and cold and he was up about level 8 also. Fortunately he had a big heavy coat and was dressed for the occasion.

 

The Power Plant Smokestack Third Rail is the Lifesaver

It was quite a site at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to see a 400 pound man climbing up the ladder to the 250 foot level (halfway) of the smokestack only to climb halfway down again on the track the elevator used to go up and down the smokestack.  I was on labor crew then and I remember thinking, I’m sure glad that’s not me.

A small tour of people from Oklahoma City had come to the plant and one of the engineers was showing them around.  I think Allen Gould may remember who it was.  I’m not saying it was Allen, I’m just thinking that he was around at that time.

Power Plant Engineer Allen Gould

Power Plant Engineer Allen Gould

I think that day the wind was blowing rather hard and when the elevator was descending (going down) the stack, the power cable somehow blew over into the path of the elevator and it was caught under the roller which brought the elevator to an abrupt halt.  Unfortunately.  in this instance, trying to free fall the elevator manually to bring it down wouldn’t work since when the brakes were released, the elevator would move because it was really stuck right where it was.

A person that worked for the Alimak elevator company was called in from Wichita Kansas 100 miles to the north of the Power plant, which meant that it took almost 2 hours for the person to arrive at the plant.  When he did, he turned out to be the largest elevator repairman I had ever seen.  He had to climb up 250 feet up a ladder to the landing, then back down again about 100 feet to the elevator to rescue the people from the elevator.

I first found out about it when someone pointed out the large figure of a man about halfway up to the first landing on the smokestack ladder.  He had stopped for a rest and was leaning back on his lanyard that was attached to the ladder.  When we arrived in the maintenance shop, Marlin McDaniel explained the situation to us.  I think it took well over three hours for this man to take each person out of the hatch in the top of the elevator, then climb with them up the elevator track to the landing, and then take them down the ladder 250 feet to the ground.  I think one of them was a lady, and two were men.

The stack elevator is a small box with a capacity to carry 3 people or a weight of 900 pounds. It is crowded enough with only two people in it, but three is always a crowd (as the saying goes, “Two’s company, Three’s a crowd”).  That phrase definitely is true with the stack elevator.

 

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

These are the 500 foot smoke stacks

At the time, I didn’t realize that one day I would be an electrician that took care of the smoke stack elevators.  Actually, I never gave it a thought about what sort of equipment electricians repaired or maintained.  It turned out that electricians worked on anything that had electric power going to it.  That’s pretty much anything mechanical.

Electricians would work on the motors while the mechanics would work on the pumps, fans and valves attached to the end of the motors.  When it came to the stack elevators, it was generally left up to the electricians to do the majority of the work.  We inspected the elevators each month, and when they broke down, we were called to repair them.

When the boiler elevators broke down, it seemed as if I was the person of choice to ask to climb the boiler to the roof to fix it.  The elevator controls were located on the top of the boiler, so I would usually end up climbing the stairs to the top cleaning door contacts on the way up.  It happens that the boilers are 250 feet tall.  So, the middle landing on the stack elevator is about the same height as the boiler as you can see in the picture above.

Bill Bennett, our A Foreman, would always add when he was telling me to go fix the elevator…. “You like climbing all those stairs anyway.”  What could I say?  “Sure Bill!  I’ll go see what I can do.”

I think in the back of my mind I knew the day was coming when I was going to have to climb the stack elevator ladder to rescue someone.  I had already climbed it a few times to fix some conduit that had come loose that ran up the smokestack next to the ladder, so I knew what it was like to go straight up a 500 foot ladder to the top of the smokestack.  Luckily when my turn came around for a rescue, I only had to go halfway up.  There were 4 people stuck on the smokestack.

Unlike the large elevator repairman from Wichita, I didn’t have to climb down the elevator track to reach the elevator.  It had malfunctioned right at the 250 foot level when the group was ready to come back down from their semi-lofty visit of one of the Power Plant Smokestacks.  My only task was to climb up, fix the elevator and bring the group safely to the ground.

I grabbed some tools from my tool bucket that I thought would be useful.  A couple of different size screwdrivers (one large one and one small), my multimeter, fuse pullers, and three wrenches, (7/16, 1/2 and 9/16 inch).  I put them in a bag that looked like a feed bag for a horse.  It had a rope with a hook on it.

A tool Bag, only ours had a hook on the top of the handle

A tool Bag, only ours had a hook on the top of the handle

I figured I didn’t want to take anything I didn’t need, so I didn’t put all 40 pounds of tools from my tool bucket into the bag.  Just those things I thought I might need.  I had my handy dandy little crescent wrench in my pocket and my baby screwdriver in my pocket protector on my tee shirt.

4 inch crescent wrench

4 inch crescent wrench

I took a safety belt off of the coat rack by the door in the electric shop and put it on.  I figured I could hook the tool bag to one of the rings while I was climbing the ladder up the smokestack.  With only the safety belt and the fairly lightweight tool bag, I headed out to the Unit 2 smokestack.  Oh yeah.  I was carrying one other nifty device as well.

when I arrived, Doug Link was standing at the bottom with some other people.  Doug explained that George Bohn and some other engineers from the City (meaning Oklahoma City) were trying to come down, but the elevator wasn’t working.  Luckily they had carried a two-way radio with them when they went up (which was a regular safety precaution since smoke signals would largely go unnoticed coming from a smokestack).

I understand from watching movies that when you climb onto the tracks in a subway in New York City or some other large town with a subway, that you are supposed to avoid the “Third Rail”.  After Doug Link had explained to me the problem, the first thing I did was to grab the third rail on the ladder that ran up the smoke stack.

Doug Link

Doug Link

You see.  Running right up the middle of the ladder is an extra rail.  This is what keeps you alive while you climb a very high ladder.  Think about it.  If you were to try to climb a ladder 250 or 500 feet straight up, what’s going to happen to you?  Your arms and legs are going to start getting wobbly.  You are going to become short of breath, and your head is going to start to swim some either from hyperventilating or the lack of oxygen… I haven’t figured out which yet.

Anyway, at some point, something is going to stop working.  Your fingers are going to miss their grip on the next rung or your work boot is going to slip off of the rung and you will fall.  If there is nothing to stop you, then you are going all the way to the ground.

That is why the third rail is added to the ladder.  It is there so that you can tie your safety belt to it.  It keeps you from falling when you slip, and it also allows you to take a rest when you need it without the worry that if some part of your body momentarily malfunctions, you won’t fall to your death.

A ladder with a safety belt rail

A ladder with a safety belt rail

Here is an example of a ladder with a device similar to the one we had on our stack ladders.  I took the nifty device I had brought with me and hooked it into the third rail of the ladder and clipped the tool bag to the other metal loop on my safety belt (this was before we had safety harnesses).  Then I began my trek to the landing.

As I ascended (went up) the ladder I told myself that this was no higher than climbing the stairs on the boiler to go to the elevator penthouse to fix the boiler elevators.  I do that all the time.  This should not be so hard.  Just as I would help myself climb the stairs, I could use my hands to pull myself up the ladder distributing the work between my arms and legs as needed so that when one set was becoming too tired, I would have the other set do more of the work (arms and legs I mean).

I told myself it would probably be best if I didn’t stop until I arrived at the 250 foot landing, because I thought that if I did stop for a rest, my legs would get all wobbly.  As long as I kept climbing, they didn’t have time for that nonsense.  So, I huffed and puffed, and kept focusing on each rung of the ladder as I climbed.

When I reached the 250 foot landing, I sung my tool bag over onto the grating and unclipped my belt from the third rail and sat down with my feet still dangling off the edge of the grating where the ladder came through and rested for a few moments.

George Bohn and the other castaways were around the other side of the stack.  They had not realized I had arrived yet.  After I caught my breath, I climbed up to the top of the elevator and opened the control panel to see why the elevator was not working.  I switched it to manual, and tried to operate it from the top of the elevator, but it didn’t budge.

I used my multimeter to check the circuits and quickly found that one of the fuses had blown out.  Unfortunately, I didn’t bring a spare fuse with me, and there wasn’t one in the control box, so there wasn’t much I could do to fix the elevator controls at this point.

I hollered for George and he came around the walkway to the elevator.  I explained to him that the fuse to the controls was blown and that I could either climb all the way back down the ladder to the ground to get one, or, I could manually “drop” the elevator down with them in it to the ground.  The lady with them didn’t care much for that idea.

I explained that I regularly drop test the elevator and I would be able to let the brake loose long enough for the elevator to go down a couple of feet at a time.  After doing that about 125 times, we would be safely on the ground.  That seemed to satisfy them, so they entered the elevator and closed the door, while I remained on the top of the elevator.

A typical Stack Elevator.  Not the same brand as ours.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

I took my large screwdriver out of the tool bag and pried it between the motor and a latch on the brake.  This way, I just had to pull out on the screwdriver to release the brake on the elevator until it began to free-fall toward the ground.  I turned my head to look up at the elevator track so I could make sure I didn’t let the elevator drop too far.  If I did, then my heroic attempt to rescue my elevator hostages would quickly turn from an “atta-boy” into an “Uh-Oh!”

You see, if I let the elevator drop more than 3 feet (or so), then the safeties on the elevator (known as “dogs”) would set.  This would bring the elevator to an abrupt halt.  It was designed to stop a falling elevator by instantly locking the elevator to the tracks.

If the dogs were to be set on the stack elevator, the only way to release them is to take the cover off of a gear box and start manually cranking the elevator up about 3 feet until the dogs reset.  This was a slow process that usually took about 30 minutes, and if I didn’t go up far enough to actually reset the dogs, as soon as we continued going back down, the dogs would set again and I would have to repeat the process.

So, like the tortoise, I decided that slow and steady wins the race.  I was not going to drop the elevator more than a foot and a half each time.  We would take our time going down.

The first time I released the brakes and the elevator began to free-fall, I heard the lady below me in the elevator let out a loud gasp.  I know the guys were gasping as well, they just had to be more quiet about it.  I know I was gasping each time on the top of the elevator and I had done this probably 20 times before when we did the elevator drop tests  (See the post “After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests“).

After about 10 minutes the elevator was safely back on the ground and so were the engineers.  Doug Link came up to me and said with an excited voice, “It took you only 4 minutes and 23 seconds to climb up the ladder!  That’s incredible!  I timed you!”  I said,  “That’s about right.  One second per foot.”

I went back to the shop and found three fuses for the one that had blown on the elevator.  I climbed back on the elevator and opened the control box and replaced the bad one.  Then I placed the other two in the control box.  I figured this way, if this fuse were to blow again, then at least the electrician could just replace it, and not have to manually ride the elevator to the ground again.

I tested the elevator by riding it up and down the stack a few times and everything worked just fine.  I figured that this must have just happened because George Bohn was trying to show off to some cute engineer.  That’s just George’s luck.  To find out more adventures with George, you can read this post:  “Bohn’s Boner and the Power Plant Precipitator Computer“.

After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests — Repost

Originally posted March 22, 2013:

I have found that elevators have a way of equalizing personal differences when there are just two of you alone in an elevator. It is one of the few places in a Power Plant where no one is watching or listening (usually) to what is said between two parties. Once the doors open, it is difficult to convince others what has happened because there is only one other witness. Depending on your position, this can be either a good thing or a bad thing.

Soon after I became an electrician I was introduced to “Elevator Maintenance”. The Power Plant has 7 elevators. One that goes to the main office area. One that goes to the Control Room. Two for the boilers. Two for the Smoke Stacks and one that takes you to the top of the Fly Ash Hoppers in the coal yard.

The office and boiler elevators were made by Montgomery. These each had to be inspected regularly to keep them running safely. If not, then the plant ran the risk of having people stuck in the elevators for a period of time, which is never a good situation.

There were times when people were stuck in the plant elevators. I may devote an entire post to that subject at some time. Today I’m more interested in the people that inspect the elevators and the effects that elevator inspections had on them.

I didn’t think about it for a long time, but one day when I was walking by a person that I worked with at Dell, Jeremy Tupa, stopped and said, “I still get chills thinking about what you used to do at the Power Plant.” I didn’t know what he was referring to until he reminded me. He said, “When you had to drop test the elevators.”  It took me a while, but I finally remembered when I had told Jeremy about drop testing the stack elevator.

Our team at Dell had gone to Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio for the day.  Jeremy and I were sitting next to each other on a ride called “The Scream”.  It would raise you up and then you would free-fall down and then it would quickly jerk you back up again and drop you again.  That’s when I told him this wasn’t scary to me, because it was just like drop testing a stack elevator.

Scream at Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio

Scream at Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio

Oh yeah. I guess to some people that must seem kind of scary. To the people that actually perform that activity, they do things to their mind to convince themselves that everything is safe. Well. Besides that, when following all the safety precautions, it really is a safe activity (see. I’m still doing it).

When drop testing an elevator, you load the elevator with more weight than what the elevator is designed to carry. Usually by bringing a few pallets of sandblasting sand by forklift to the elevator and then piling them in the elevator until you have reached the desired weight for a drop test.

A clean Elevator Shaft

A clean Elevator Shaft. The plant elevator shaft was always full of coal dust and just dirt.

Once the elevator is weighed down, you climb on top of the elevator and manually operate the elevator using the inspection controls until you have raised it up a couple of floors. Then someone up in the penthouse releases the brake so that the elevator free falls.

Once the elevator obtains a certain speed, a tripping device located in the penthouse rolls over and locks, that causes a locking device on the elevator to engage, which sets the “dogs”. The dogs are clamps that dig into the railing that the elevator uses as sort of a track to go up and down without shaking back and forth.

Once the tripping mechanism in the penthouse is operated. it cuts the power to the elevator. Once the dogs are set, there is a loud bang and the elevator isn’t going anywhere. It comes to an instant stop.

Performing a drop test in an elevator shaft seems rather routine, and it is more trouble resetting everything and filing the track smooth again where the dogs dug in creating a notch, than it is to actually perform the drop test.

The Smoke Stack elevators are a lot more fun.

The smoke stack elevators are these Swedish made three man elevators made by a company named Alimak. They operate like a roller coaster does when it is cranking its way up the first hill. The weight limit for these elevators is much lower obviously, since they only hold 3 people.

I could usually load a few large anchors and maybe an Engineer or two in the stack elevator and run it up 50 feet or so and perform the drop test. In order to perform a drop test on a stack elevator (notice how I use the word “perform” as if this was a work of art…. well… in a way it was), you had to disengage a governor first. The governor would prevent a free-falling stack elevator from just flying to the bottom by engaging a secondary brake when the governor sensed that the elevator was moving too fast.

After installing the special governator (like Arnold Schwarzenegger) to keep the governor from engaging, using a large screwdriver or small prybar (meaning that the large screwdriver also functions as a small prybar), the brake is released allowing the elevator to free fall to the ground or well, until the elevator sensed it was moving way too fast and locked up.

A typical Stack Elevator.  Not the same brand as ours.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

Did I mention that these activities are performed while standing on top of the stack elevator? Yeah. Right out in the open. The entire elevator inspection was done standing on top of the elevator. That was how you inspected the railing and tight checked all the bolts all the way up and down the 500 foot stack elevator rail.

A large Allen Wrench with a permanent cheater bar was used to tight check the rail bolts.

Large Allen Wrench

Large Allen Wrench without a cheater bar

One time before I was an electrician, when Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien) was pulling down on an allen bolt with the cheater bar, Jerry Day, who was with her, pressed the button to lower the elevator down to the next bolt and left Diana hanging in mid-air 100’s of feet above the ground!

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

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

Needless to say, the experience of hanging onto a large Allen wrench stuck in a bolt 100’s of feet up a smoke stack, left Diana a little scarred. Diana is a tough Power Plant Woman of the highest degree and I used to perform the elevator inspections with her. She would go up the smoke stack on the top of the elevator, but I generally did the tight check on the bolts and let her run the buttons.

This is all just a teaser to the real story behind this post…

In the fall of 1984 Ben Davis and I went to Muskogee on a major overhaul. While I was there, part of the time I lived in a trailer with a guy from Horseshoe Lake named Steve Trammell. To this day, (and Steve does read these posts) we have always referred to each other as “roomie”.

While at Muskogee Ben and I worked out of the electric shop located next to the main switchgear for Unit 6. The Muskogee electricians we worked around were, John Manning, the B Foreman, Jay Harris, Richard Moravek, David Stewart and Tiny.

Tiny would be the one standing in the back

Tiny would be the one standing in the back

All of the electricians Ben and I worked with were great Power Plant Men, and I will write a post later about our experience there. For now, I am just going to focus on one person. David Stewart. Why? Because he inspected the stack elevators at Muskogee, like I did at Sooner Plant.

I don’t know exactly how the conversation was started because I walked into it in the middle when I entered the Electric foreman’s office to eat my lunch. David was semi-arguing with the rest of the he-men in the room. The argument centered around this: David Stewart was convinced that if you were in an elevator and everything failed and it was falling to the ground, if you jumped up as hard as you could at the last moment, you would be all right.

I will pause here while you re-read the last sentence………..

While you are thinking this thought over, watch the following Pink Panther video from 1968 called, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Pink on YouTube. Especially from 4 minutes and 15 seconds to 30 seconds into the film:

At first I thought that this was an ingenious joke that David was playing on everyone in the office because everyone was falling for it (I had actually used this technique before in my own jokes). They were all trying to explain to David why it was impossible to jump up in a falling elevator at the last moment and you would be all right. The more I listened, the more I came to realize that David was convinced that this was so.

I took David aside and tried to explain to him that according to the law of gravity and acceleration that you would be falling too fast to be able to jump high enough to make any difference to your falling fate. I presented him with the formula for acceleration and showed him that if you even fell from about 50 feet, you would be crushed.

final velocity = Square root of the initial velocity squared plus 2 times acceleration times distance. With Gravity having an acceleration of 9.81 meters per second and 50 feet being just over 15 meters…

I showed him that his final velocity would be about 17 meters per second, which is equivalent to about 38 miles an hour straight into the ground. From only a 50 foot fall. It didn’t phase him. He was so certain it would work. — I understood. This was his way of coping with doing a drop test on the stack elevator. His mind had convinced him that all he had to do was jump up in the case that the elevator safeties failed.

Fast Forward 5 months. It was in April of 1985 when a man from the Swedish Elevator company would come around and do our yearly stack elevator inspection. During this inspection he told me that we needed to remove the top gear rail from the railing.

The reason was that on a stack in Minnesota, when all the safeties had failed on an elevator, it didn’t stop going up. It went all the way to the top and off the top of the railing and fell to it’s doom. By removing the top gear section, the elevator wouldn’t be able to go high enough to go over the top of the railing.

Anyway, while we were inspecting the elevator I asked him if he would be going to the Muskogee power plant after ours, and he said he would. He knew David Stewart and would most likely be working with him on the Muskogee Stack Elevators.

So, I told him the story that David really believed that he had convinced himself that he could jump up in a falling elevator at the last moment and he would survive. So I convinced the elevator inspector to tell everyone about how they need to remove the top gear section, but that it doesn’t really matter, because it is a proven fact that all you have to do is jump up in the elevator at the last moment and you will be all right.

Fast Forward another year. It was now April 1986…. The elevator inspector and I were up on the stack elevators tight checking all the bolts when I remembered about David. So I asked him, “Hey, did you ever do anything with David and jumping up in the elevator?”

He responded with, “Yeah I did! And until the moment that I had said anything I thought you were playing a joke on me, but here is what happened…. We were all sitting in the electric shop office eating lunch and I told them just like you said. When I got to the part where you could just jump up in the elevator and you would be all right, David jumped out of his chair and yelled ‘See!!! I told you!!!’ It was only then that I believed your story. Everyone in the room broke out in a roar of laughter.” — As much as I love David Stewart, I was glad that the joke was performed with perfect precision.

Now for the clincher…. — Oh. You thought that was it? So, let me explain to you one thing about drop testing the stack elevator… The elevator doesn’t go up and down like regular elevators with cables and rails and rollers. It uses one gear on a central rail that has notches to fit the gear.

The stack elevator had a rail with notches like this only it was a lot stronger

The stack elevator had a rail with notches like this only it was a lot stronger

The gear is heavy duty as well as the rail. You can count on it not breaking. The gear was on a shaft that was tied to the braking mechanism, the governor and the motor through a gearbox. The ultimate clincher is this… The gear… The only thing holding the entire elevator up and the only thing tied to any kind of a brake had one pin in it that kept it from rotating on the shaft. One pin. In mechanical terms, this is called a Key:

A hardened steel Key used to keep a gear or coupling from rotating on a motor shaft

A hardened steel Key used to keep a gear or coupling from rotating on a motor shaft

Everything else on the stack elevator can fail and the elevator will not fall, but if this pin were to fail…. the elevator would free fall to the ground. Thinking back, I must have explained this to Jeremy Tupa, my coworker at Dell back in 2004 when we worked together. It made such an impact on him that I would drop test an elevator that was completely held up by only this one pin. This is the weakest link in the chain.

I know that every now and then I wake up either from a claustrophobic fit because Curtis Love just shut my air off (see the Post: Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love) or while I’m taking a flying leap off of the stack elevator. If only I could have the confidence that David had. If only I could believe that jumping up at the last moment would save me.

Actually, I can picture jumping up and a hand reaching down to grab me and pulling me up… only it pulls me on up to heaven. That’s when I’ll know the truth. David was right. Just jump up as hard as you can. Jump and know that you will be safe. God will catch you.

After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests

I have found that elevators have a way of equalizing personal differences when there are just two of you alone in an elevator.  It is one of the few places in a Power Plant where no one is watching or listening (usually) to what is said between two parties.  Once the doors open, it is difficult to convince others what has happened because there is only one other witness.  Depending on your position, this can be either a good thing or a bad thing.

Soon after I became an electrician I was introduced to “Elevator Maintenance”.  The Power Plant has 7 elevators.  One that goes to the main office area.  One that goes to the Control Room.  Two for the boilers.  Two for the Smoke Stacks and one that takes you to the top of the Fly Ash Hoppers in the coal yard.

The office and boiler elevators were made by Montgomery.  These each had to be inspected regularly to keep them running safely.  If not, then the plant ran the risk of having people stuck in the elevators for a period of time, which is never a good situation.

There were times when people were stuck in the plant elevators.  I may devote an entire post to that subject at some time.  Today I’m more interested in the people that inspect the elevators and the effects that elevator inspections had on them.

I didn’t think about it for a long time, but one day when I was walking by a person that I worked with at Dell, Jeremy Tupa, stopped and said, “I still get chills thinking about what you used to do at the Power Plant.”  I didn’t know what he was referring to until he reminded me.  He said, “When you had to drop test the elevators.”

Oh yeah.  I guess to some people that must seem kind of scary.  To the people that actually perform that activity, they do things to their mind to convince themselves that everything is safe.  Well.  Besides that, when following all the safety precautions, it really is a safe activity (see.  I’m still doing it).

When drop testing an elevator, you load the elevator with more weight than what the elevator is designed to carry.  Usually by bringing a few pallets of sandblasting sand by forklift to the elevator and then piling them in the elevator until you have reached the desired weight for a drop test.

A clean Elevator Shaft

A clean Elevator Shaft.  The plant elevator shaft was always full of coal dust and just dirt.

Once the elevator is weighed down, you climb on top of the elevator and manually operate the elevator using the inspection controls until you have raised it up a couple of floors.  Then someone up in the penthouse releases the brake so that the elevator free falls.

Once the elevator obtains a certain speed, a tripping device located in the penthouse rolls over and locks, that causes a locking device on the elevator to engage, which sets the “dogs”.  The dogs are clamps that dig into the railing that the elevator uses as sort of a track to go up and down without shaking back and forth.

Once the tripping mechanism in the penthouse is operated.  it cuts the power to the elevator.  Once the dogs are set, there is a loud bang and the elevator isn’t going anywhere.  It comes to an instant stop.

Performing a drop test in an elevator shaft seems rather routine, and it is more trouble resetting everything and filing the track smooth again where the dogs dug in creating a notch, than it is to actually perform the drop test.

The Smoke Stack elevators are a lot more fun.

The smoke stack elevators are these Swedish made three man elevators made by a company named Alimak.  They operate like a roller coaster does when it is cranking its way up the first hill.  The weight limit for these elevators is much lower obviously, since they only hold 3 people.

I could usually load a few large anchors and maybe an Engineer or two in the stack elevator and run it up 50 feet or so and perform the drop test.  In order to perform a drop test on a stack elevator (notice how I use the word “perform” as if this was a work of art…. well… in a way it was), you had to disengage a governor first.  The governor would prevent a free-falling stack elevator from just flying to the bottom by engaging a secondary brake when the governor sensed that the elevator was moving too fast.

After installing the special governator (like Arnold Schwarzenegger) to keep the governor from engaging, using a large screwdriver or small prybar (meaning that the large screwdriver also functions as a small prybar), the brake is released allowing the elevator to free fall to the ground or well, until the elevator sensed it was moving way too fast and locked up.

A typical Stack Elevator.  Not the same brand as ours.

A typical Stack Elevator. Not the same brand as ours.

Did I mention that these activities are performed while standing on top of the stack elevator?  Yeah.  Right out in the open.  The entire elevator inspection was done standing on top of the elevator.  That was how you inspected the railing and tight checked all the bolts all the way up and down the 500 foot stack elevator rail.

A large Allen Wrench with a permanent cheater bar was used to tight check the rail bolts.

Large Allen Wrench

Large Allen Wrench without a cheater bar

One time before I was an electrician, when Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien) was pulling down on an allen bolt with the cheater bar, Jerry Day, who was with her, pressed the button to lower the elevator down to the next bolt and left Diana hanging in mid-air 100’s of feet above the ground!

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

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

Needless to say, the experience of hanging onto a large Allen wrench stuck in a bolt 100’s of feet up a smoke stack, left Diana a little scarred.  Diana is a tough Power Plant Woman of the highest degree and I used to perform the elevator inspections with her.  She would go up the smoke stack on the top of the elevator, but I generally did the tight check on the bolts and let her run the buttons.

This is all just a teaser to the real story behind this post…

In the fall of 1984 Ben Davis and I went to Muskogee on a major overhaul.   While I was there, part of the time I lived in a trailer with a guy from Horseshoe Lake named Steve Trammell.  To this day, (and Steve does read these posts) we have always referred to each other as “roomie”.

While at Muskogee Ben and I worked out of the electric shop located next to the main switchgear for Unit 6.  The Muskogee electricians we worked around were, John Manning, the B Foreman, Jay Harris, Richard Moravek, David Stewart and Tiny.

Tiny would be the one standing in the back

Tiny would be the one standing in the back

All of the electricians Ben and I worked with were great Power Plant Men, and I will write a post later about our experience there.  For now, I am just going to focus on one person.  David Stewart.  Why?  Because he inspected the stack elevators at Muskogee, like I did at Sooner Plant.

I don’t know exactly how the conversation was started because I walked into it in the middle when I entered the Electric foreman’s office to eat my lunch.  David was semi-arguing with the rest of the he-men in the room.  The argument centered around this:  David Stewart was convinced that if you were in an elevator and everything failed and it was falling to the ground, if you jumped up as hard as you could at the last moment, you would be all right.

I will pause here while you re-read the last sentence………..

While you are thinking this thought over, watch the following Pink Panther video from 1968 called, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Pink on YouTube.  Especially from 4 minutes and 15 seconds  to 36 seconds into the film:

At first I thought that this was an ingenious joke that David was playing on everyone in the office because everyone was falling for it (I had actually used this technique before in my own jokes).  They were all trying to explain to David why it was impossible to jump up in a falling elevator at the last moment and you would be all right.  The more I listened, the more I came to realize that David was convinced that this was so.

I took David aside and tried to explain to him that according to the law of gravity and acceleration that you would be falling too fast to be able to jump high enough to make any difference to your falling fate.  I presented him with the formula for acceleration and showed him that if you even fell from about 50 feet, you would be crushed.

final velocity = Square root of the initial velocity squared plus 2 times acceleration times distance.  With Gravity having an acceleration of 9.81 meters per second and 50 feet being just over 15 meters…

I showed him that his final velocity would be about 17 meters per second, which is equivalent to about 38 miles an hour straight into the ground.  From only a 50 foot fall.  It didn’t phase him.  He was so certain it would work.  — I understood.  This was his way of coping with doing a drop test on the stack elevator.  His mind had convinced him that all he had to do was jump up in the case that the elevator safeties failed.

Fast Forward 5 months.  It was in April of 1985 when a man from the Swedish Elevator company would come around and do our yearly stack elevator inspection.  During this inspection he told me that we needed to remove the top gear rail from the railing.

The reason was that on a stack in Minnesota,  when all the safeties had failed on an elevator, it didn’t stop going up.  It went all the way to the top and off the top of the railing and fell to it’s doom.  By removing the top gear section, the elevator wouldn’t be able to go high enough to go over the top of the railing.

Anyway, while we were inspecting the elevator I asked him if he would be going to the Muskogee power plant after ours, and he said he would.   He knew David Stewart and would most likely be working with him on the Muskogee Stack Elevators.

So, I told him the story that David really believed that he had convinced himself that he could jump up in a falling elevator at the last moment and he would survive.  So I convinced the elevator inspector to tell everyone about how they need to remove the top gear section, but that it doesn’t really matter, because it is a proven fact that all you  have to do is jump up in the elevator at the last moment and you will be all right.

Fast Forward another year.  It was now April 1986….  The elevator inspector and I were up on the stack elevators tight checking all the bolts when I remembered about David.  So I asked him, “Hey, did you ever do anything with David and jumping up in the elevator?”

He responded with, “Yeah I did!  And until the moment that I had said anything I thought you were playing a joke on me, but here is what happened….  We were all sitting in the electric shop office eating lunch and I told them just like you said.  When I got to the part where you could  just jump up in the elevator and you would be all right, David jumped out of his chair and yelled ‘See!!!  I told you!!!’  It was only then that I believed your story.  Everyone in the room broke out in a roar of laughter.”  — As much as I love David Stewart, I was glad that the joke was performed with perfect precision.

Now for the clincher….  — Oh.  You thought that was it?  So, let me explain to you one thing about drop testing the stack elevator…  The elevator doesn’t go up and down like regular elevators with cables and rails and rollers.  It uses one gear on a central rail that has notches to fit the gear.

The stack elevator had a rail with notches like this only it was a lot stronger

The stack elevator had a rail with notches like this only it was a lot stronger

The gear is heavy duty as well as the rail.  You can count on it not breaking.  The gear was on a shaft that was tied to the braking mechanism, the governor and the motor through a gearbox.   The ultimate clincher is this…  The gear… The only thing holding the entire elevator up and the only thing tied to any kind of a brake had one pin in it that kept it from rotating on the shaft.  One pin.  In mechanical terms, this is called a Key:

A hardened steel Key used to keep a gear or coupling from rotating on a motor shaft

A hardened steel Key used to keep a gear or coupling from rotating on a motor shaft

Everything else on the stack elevator can fail and the elevator will not fall, but if this pin were to fail…. the elevator would free fall to the ground.  Thinking back, I must have explained this to Jeremy Tupa, my coworker at Dell back in 2004 when we worked together.  It made such an impact on him that I would drop test an elevator that was completely held up by only this one pin.  This is the weakest link in the chain.

I know that every now and then I wake up either from a claustrophobic fit because Curtis Love just shut my air off (see the Post:  Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love) or while I’m taking a flying leap off of the stack elevator.  If only I could have the confidence that David had.  If only I could believe that jumping up at the last moment would save me.

Actually, I can picture jumping up and a hand reaching down to grab me and pulling me up… only it pulls me on up to heaven.  That’s when I’ll know the truth.  David was right.  Just jump up as hard as you can.  Jump and know that you will be safe.  God will catch you.