Favorites Post #74
Originally posted September 20, 2014.
I remember the moment when it dawned on me that I may be witnessing an incredible Coal-fired Power Plant Conspiracy! I had just walked into the Control Room one morning in 1990 at the plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw the Shift Supervisor Jack Maloy and Merl Wright in a state of high concentration.
I always knew something was up when Jack Maloy was standing behind the large blue monitors near the Unit 1 Main Electric Board watching the big picture while the Control Room Operator Merl Wright was at the Main Control Panel turning knobs, tapping indicators to make sure they had the correct readings, twisting switches, holding them until red lights turned green…
Where had I seen this before? Something was telling me that everything wasn’t as it seemed. Sure… there was an emergency going on. There was no doubt about that. I knew that between Jack Maloy and Merl Wright, the current problem of the main boiler drum losing water was quickly going to be solved. I knew that Oklahoma City wasn’t going to experience any blackouts that day. This was a Cracker Jack (Maloy) team! But I couldn’t help thinking I had seen this somewhere before, and it was gnawing at my common sense.
Here is a picture of Jack Maloy’s team at the time:
I backed off in a corner to observe the situation while a crowd of operators began to grow to watch the master Shift Supervisor and his faithful Control Room Operator divert a disaster. Merl picked up the walkie talkie from the desk and called Larry Tapp ( Larry is the man in the light blue shirt in the front row in the middle. He’s the only one in the front row that is actually standing, while the rest are down on their knees while the picture is being taken).
Larry was on the boiler opening and closing valves. John Belusko, the Unit Supervisor was out there with him. I can’t tell you what magic they were performing, since I think that’s top secret. I figured that, because the operators seemed to be talking in code. Merl would key the microphone on the walkie talkie and say something like, “Larry, 45”. Larry would reply with something like “Quarter Turn”. “Position?”, “18 as far as I can tell”.
I translated the coded words to say: “….crawling under the path of the boom, whipped hold of a rope, secured one end to the bulwarks and then flinging the other like a lasso, caught it around the boom as it swept over his head, and at the next jerk, the spar was that way trapped and all was safe.” (Something I had read in Moby Dick, by Herman Melville).
Jack paced back and forth behind the counter with the monitors. Then he stopped and read the paper that was streaming out of the alarm printer as it continued humming as the paper piled up on the floor in front of him. Jack was a heavy smoker, and I could tell that right then he would rather be standing out on the T-G floor having a smoke at that moment. Before cigarettes were banned in the control room, Jack would have been pointing at that board with the cigarette.
When the water level began rising in the Boiler Drum, I could see the relieve on everyone’s face. I supposed it meant that a major catastrophe had been avoided due to the intricate knowledge that each operator possessed and their ability to quickly respond to any situation. This made the uneasy feeling I was having even worse. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this before. Just like Deja Vu.
It wasn’t till about a week later when my mom asked me if I knew someone at work named Jack Maloy. She had been talking to a friend of hers from Church named Louise and she mentioned that her husband worked at the Power Plant north of town. I replied by saying that I knew Jack Maloy well. He is a Shift Supervisor. She said that his wife Louise told her that Jack was a real nice person, but she wished that he would go to Church more. She hoped he would come around to that some day.
Then my mom mentioned something that brought back that feeling of uneasiness again. She said that the Maloys had moved to Oklahoma in 1979 from California. I thought that was odd that Jack had only arrived in Oklahoma in 1979, as he was a Shift Supervisor for as long as I could remember. Maybe even as far back as 1979 when I first worked at the plant as a summer help.
In that case, he would have been hired as a Shift Supervisor straight from California. — That seemed odd, since the majority of Shift Supervisors had worked their way up from Auxiliary Operator to Control Room Operator to Unit Supervisor, then finally to Shift Supervisor. Why would Jack be hired fresh from California? And how did Jack know so much about being a Shift Supervisor at our plant so quickly?
Then it dawned on me. You see…. It all went back to a lunch break about a year earlier when Charles Foster, an Electric Foreman and I were eating lunch in the Electric Shop office. When we didn’t know what to talk about, our favorite past time was to talk about movies and TV shows we had watched. We would describe the movie in detail to each other. On this particular day, Charles was doing the talking, and he was telling me about a movie that had to do with a Power Plant in California (yeah. California).
As Charles described the story, he told me that there was this Shift Supervisor named Jack (yeah… like our Shift Supervisor… Jack Maloy), and he was such a good Shift Supervisor that he could tell that there was something wrong with the Boiler Feed Pumps just by the way the coffee in his coffee cup would vibrate. Yeah. He was that good.
Charles went on to tell me about how at one part of the movie the water level was dropping in a tank and it was imperative that they raise the water level or some big disaster was going to happen. — Now you see where I’m going with this? Yeah. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? At that time, the incident in the Control Room hadn’t happened yet with Jack Maloy.
The movie sounded interesting so, when I had the opportunity, we rented the VHS tape from the video store and I watched it. Sure enough. This is what I saw….
Here is Jack Maloy and Merl Wright from the team picture above:
Very similar don’t you think? Two Shift Supervisors named Jack from California with the exact same hairstyle. Two Control Room Operators that look like Wilford Brimley. Coincidence?
Even Wilford Brimley’s hairline is the same as Merl Wright’s hairline!
For those of you who don’t know yet. The name of the movie is: The China Syndrome. It is about a nuclear Power Plant that has a near meltdown:
Need more? Ok. — hey this is fun….. So…. This movie came out in 1979. The same year that Jack Maloy shows up in Oklahoma from California. Obviously an experienced Power Plant Shift Supervisor. Merl Wright went to work 10 months earlier in 1978 at an older power plant just down the road (The old Osage plant), and then shortly after, was transferred to the same plant with Jack Maloy, only to end up working for Jack.
Need more? The China Syndrome Movie came out on March 16, 1979. Jack Maloy began working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma February 26, 1979, just two and a half weeks earlier.
I mentioned this coincidence to Charles Foster one day, but as far as I know, I never mentioned it again to anyone else… Maybe Scott Hubbard, since he was my best friend as well…
So, here are my thoughts about this….
What if Jack Maloy was the Shift Supervisor being portrayed in the movie “The China Syndrome”? He needed to move out of California just before the movie came out just in case someone found out his true identity. Being a Shift Supervisor at a Nuclear Power Plant, he would surely be in high demand at any Electric Company. Our particular Power Plant was in an out-of-the-way location. Sort of like a “witness protection program”.
I don’t know Merl’s earlier background, so I can still think that he moved to Oklahoma from California and began working for the Electric Company on April 24, 1978 just two weeks before I moved to Oklahoma from Columbia, Missouri. Since I don’t know any better, I can continue thinking this. It makes it more fun that way. — Of course, Merl, who may on occasion read this blog, may correct me in the comment section below…
So, what was it that I was experiencing that morning when I walked in the control room? I mean… What was I “really” experiencing? If, suppose, Jack and Merl really are the two that were in the control room when the “China Syndrome” almost occurred? Was it just an innocent crisis where the water level somehow decided to drop to a dangerously low level all by itself because of a faulty valve that was supposed to be closed, but was really open?
Was Jack and Merl trying to relive the excitement they had felt years earlier when they worked in a nuclear plant and they almost melted a hole all the way from there to China? Was this what experienced bored Power Plant Heroes do during downtime? I suppose it’s possible. It could have been a drill drummed up to test the acuity of the operators. To keep them on their toes. All “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion” just like on the Pequod in Moby Dick.
Something to think about.
Today Merl still lives in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Jack Maloy has moved to Cape Carol, Florida with his wife Louise. I suppose now that he has more time on his hand, hopefully he has given up smoking and is now making his wife happy by attending Church regularly. We can only hope he is at peace, on the opposite side of the United States from California so he doesn’t accidentally run into his old cohorts.
We are all glad that on his way to Florida from California that Jack decided to stop for 25 or so years in Oklahoma to Supervise the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the middle of the countryside…. As Charles Champlin from the Los Angeles Times said of the movie “The China Syndrome” — “Stunning and Skillfully Executed!” — Yeah. That describes Merl and Jack. Either way… Conspiracy or not. These two men are my heroes!
I wish Merl and Jack the best rest of their lives!
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Favorites Post #29
Originally posted April 26, 2013:
Less than 6 months after Arthur Hammond was hired as an electrician, OD McGaha (pronounced Muh Gay Hay), his foreman, wanted to fire him. Not because he wasn’t a good electrician. Not because he had done something wrong. Not even because he smelled bad, or used bad language. OD (pronounced “Oh Dee”) wanted to fire him because he argued too much.
Art and I started the same day in the electric shop. I remember very well when I first walked in the door the morning that I became an electrician. I talked about that day in an earlier post New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop. That was the first day I met Arthur Francis Hammond Jr. Oh yes. I remember his full name. Everyone just called him Art. I always called him Arthur.
I had the habit of calling people by their full name…. Sometimes I would even embellish their name some. For instance. I used to call Scott Hubbard “Scotland”. Not because he looked Scottish, but because Scott seemed too short of a name for such a great guy. It would be like calling Jesus “Geez”.
Anyway. Arthur had this one trait that became obvious for anyone that had spent more than 5 minutes with him. He liked to argue. He may have thought of it more of playing the devil’s advocate. So, often when you made a statement about anything, Arthur would say something like, “Nah. That couldn’t be true. Nope. What about this?….”
Well. OD McGaha (OD’s first name was OD. The O and the D didn’t stand for anything other than O and D… OD) didn’t like being told he was wrong by anyone, especially by one of his direct reports. He soon went to Bill Bennett to see about having Arthur fired. Of course, Arthur never really did anything to be fired over, he was just pushing OD’s buttons and OD was falling for it.
So, in less than 6 months after Arthur and I joined the electric shop, Bill Bennett decided it would be best if Arthur Hammond moved to our team to help keep the peace in the shop. I’m not sure, but I think Ben Davis was traded from Howard Chumbley’s crew while Diana Lucas (later Brien) moved from our team over to Howard’s, making the circle complete…. except that now Ben, who was as content as all get out to stay on Howard’s crew (who wouldn’t be?), was stuck on OD’s crew… which is another story in itself that I will not be writing about in a later post (well, I may mention an after effect in passing).
Once Arthur was on my team, we worked together often. One reason was that I was perfectly content arguing with Art Hammond (See… I can call him Art, especially in the same sentence as “arguing”, since Arthur made an art out of arguing). I wish I had a picture of this tall man with tired eyes, yet a happy disposition (once you overlooked the tendency to argue). I do have this picture though:
Arthur and I were able to happily work together because he liked to argue and I liked to argue back. You see, I had grown up with an Italian mom. Few people like to argue like Italian mothers, especially mine.
I remember one Thanksgiving sitting with my brother on the couch in the house of my mom’s cousin Larry listening to our Italian relatives arguing in the dining room. We were keeping count on our fingers of how many people were talking at the same time. All of them sounded like they were arguing. Usually it took more than the fingers on one hand.
After a while, we realized that there were several conversations (well…. arguments really) going on at the same time. Yet, there was one person that was in the middle of all the arguments at the same time….. yep….. my mother. She would be taking part in at least three arguments simultaneously. My children grew up thinking that I hated my mother because we were always arguing. It wasn’t until they were older that they realized that we were just trying to decide where to go eat for dinner.
Anyway. When Arthur and I would be working together, all I had to do was say something… anything…. and the argument would start. At least that would be how it would appear to an unsuspecting person walking by listening to us. I knew that what it really meant was nothing more important than my mom and I trying to figure out where we should go out for dinner.
An argument with Arthur would go something like this. Here is one particular one I remember…. I was explaining that what someone had said wasn’t really what they meant. They were just saying that to get a reaction, because they really wanted to see how someone else would react (come to think of it… we were probably talking about Bill Rivers, See the post Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant from last week).
Arthur then proceeded to tell me that lying was never right…. ever. It was never all right to lie. If someone says something, it should be what they mean. I pointed out that people may tell a “white lie”. One that isn’t intended to deceive someone as much as it is to hide something for another purpose. Arthur said that he disagreed. That even a white lie is always wrong….
So, I asked him if he ever told his kids that Santa Claus brought them Christmas presents on Christmas Day, or that the Tooth Fairy put a coin under their pillow at night. He had to admit that he did. He did have to ponder whether it was right or not. So I told him that I thought it was all right to tell his children this. It didn’t necessarily mean that he was doing something wrong.
I could see that this had really puzzled him, because this was a steadfast dogma of Arthur’s. One thing that really bugged him was when someone lied to him. I have another post that I will write in a few weeks that will give a definite situation where someone was lying to Arthur. It really bugged the heck out of him.
So, I explained to Arthur that even though he told his children that Santa Claus had given them presents, that in some way, maybe Santa Claus really did. Maybe Santa Claus represented the spirit of Christmas, and it was the Spirit of Christmas that prompted Arthur to go out and buy the presents for his children in order to surprise and delight them on Christmas morning. That seemed to satisfy him…..
So, we immediately found something else to argue about, and you know what? The days would fly by when I was working with Arthur. We would go out to wire up a Boiler Water Circulating Pump, using regular rubber tape (as this was before we started using the synthetic stuff), and four hours would go by like nothing. Three small arguments and we would be done.
To get an idea of how big this pump is…. you can easily stand (and dance… um…. if you were inclined to… er…) on the junction box on the lower left corner of this motor.
I actually had a great time working with Arthur Hammond. I was heartbroken the day he told me in 1988 that he had decided to take the money being offered for anyone that wanted to leave before a downsizing was going to occur. He explained the reasons to me. I just wanted to grab him and shake him and tell him “No!” I wanted him to realize that he was making a mistake….. but I didn’t.
You see, Arthur had been a construction electrician before joining the electric shop. He had traveled from one job to another. He hadn’t stayed in one place for more than a couple of years. He was already working on 3 1/2 years in the shop…. He wasn’t used to that. He said that he just didn’t like settling down in one job. He had to keep moving.
I know what he really wanted to do. He wanted to go into business for himself. He wanted to start a cleaning business. He had made a business case for it and was trying to get the funding from a fund for American Indian Entrepreneurs. He just needed the down payment. This looked like the opportunity to do this. He wanted to buy a big steam cleaning truck.
So, I think Arthur’s last day was sometime early June, 1988. I always hate to see my friends walking out the door, not knowing if I will ever see them again. That was the way I felt when Arthur left.
The only shining event that came out of Arthur leaving was that it left an opening in the electric shop that was filled by Scott Hubbard from the Testing team. Scott and I would spend the rest of my years working together along with Charles Foster until the day I left the plant in 2001.
I did see Arthur three months later. He called me at work one day and asked me if I would help him out. His going away package that the company gave him to opt out had run out and he needed some cash. He had 50 shares of company stock left and was wondering if I would buy them from him. He knew that I bought and sold stock and thought I might be interested.
I was glad to help him out, so we arranged to meet at the house he was renting in Stillwater (I was living in Ponca City at the time), on a Saturday. He went to the Morrison, Oklahoma bank and had the bank president sign the stock certificates, and when I arrived, at his home, I handed him a check for $1600.00 and he gave me the stock certificate for 50 shares ($32 per share).
The price of the stock has gone up and down through the years…. I could have made a profit on them I suppose. I have kept them to this day. They split once so then I had 100 shares. Every 3 months I receive a dividend check in the mail for $36.00 from those 100 shares….. I hang onto those shares. Maybe it is because every three months, I am reminded of the day I bought them.
When I arrived at Arthur’s house out in the country, just down the road from where I eventually bought my own home up on the hill, Arthur handed me the certificates and said, “that’s it…. That’s the last of the package I received…. It sure didn’t last long.” I shook his hand, gave him a hug and said goodbye. That was the last time I ever heard from Arthur.
I think today he is living in Tulsa. I am not certain. He would be in his mid 60’s now. I only hope that all is well with him and his family. I hope that he finally found a place to settle down. Some place where he could wake up each day….. go to work, or walk down the street and talk to a friend who enjoys a good argument. I know that if he could do that, then he would be content. Nothing was more enjoyable to Arthur than being able to take part in a good argument.
Favorites Post #15 (posted in no particular order)
Originally Posted July 26, 2013:
I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was… well…. surreal.
This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.
As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.
At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.
Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.
David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.
During those times I knew that something was taking place in the “superheat” section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).
So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.
This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.
Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:
Or even a normal rat like this:
No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:
Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….
Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.
If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.
You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool. The nearest thing I had to a badge was the pocket protector in the vest pocket on my t-shirt.
So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.
Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.
There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where John Brien was staring back at him.
There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.
We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as I fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.
By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.
I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.
I took out my multi-meter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connector where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.
I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”
That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.
I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.
There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.
I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.
Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.
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Favorites Post #13 (posted in no particular order)
Originally posted May 17, 2014:
Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.
One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.
The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.
Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.
Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.
I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.
When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.
I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.
Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.
When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.
When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.
Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.
I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait. See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“).
With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.
While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.
Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.
By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.
The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.
The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.
So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.
As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”
So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.
Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….
George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.
Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.
The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.
This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.
You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).
Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.
Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.
This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….
Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.
I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….
In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.
In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically all “mechanical”.
Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.
Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.
I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.
It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.
He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?
The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.
When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.
That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…
I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.
Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.
Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.
Comments from the Original post
Favorites Post # 7 (posted in no particular order)
Originally Posted March 2, 2012:
The first day I showed up at the Power plant to report to work as a new employee, it took me a little while to find the parking lot where I was supposed to park. There were construction people all over the place, large equipment being moved, and I had somehow turned my directions around 90 degrees when I came through the construction gate.
I started heading up to the coal yard before I told myself that the little green shack I had past back by the main plant was probably where I needed to go (I never recovered from my perception of which way was north. I always felt like west was north, so I constantly had to stop and tell myself that the coal yard was north).
So, having arrived in the parking lot about five minutes late, I was just in time to meet Steve Higginbotham the only other summer help during the summer of 1979. Well, there was one other guy, but he quickly joined a Brown and Root construction crew because he was a welder and they were getting paid a lot more than the $3.89 per hour the summer helps were blessed to receive.
So Higginbotham and I walked together into the main office that morning. He was about 35 years old with red hair, freckles and sort of reminded you of Margaret Thatcher only shorter with a more prominent forehead and wider chin and he had a Georgia accent.
He had worked as a Pinkerton guard at the plant before advancing to summer help. He explained it to me like this: “If I get my foot in the door by being a summer help, they will be more likely to hire me as a permanent employee.” (somehow, I began to think that this probably wasn’t the best strategy for Steve to take. I thought perhaps a surprise attack would be more effective, where they don’t know you at all when they hire you).
The company hired summer helps because there was a tax write-off for hiring college kids during the summer to give them a real life experience (I guess). Steve explained to me later that he really wasn’t going to college, but told them that he was going to go back to school to finish a degree so that they would hire him, but he really wasn’t going to do that.
He drove an old Ford Ranchero (which is what inspired the El Camino). It was all beat up, and had the manual gear shift on the steering column, to give you an idea of how old it was. Below is a picture of one in good condition. His car however had dents, rust, and an assortment of trash in the back, and it squeaked when it hit a pothole as the car bounced on the springs.
I didn’t own a car and had just borrowed my family’s car to drive to the plant that day, so when Steve asked me if I would like to ride with him to work each day I jumped at the opportunity. I told him where I lived and he said that he would be by to pick me up in the morning.
I am the kind of person that likes to arrive at work at least 10 or 15 minutes early, so I was getting a little anxious the next morning when Steve didn’t show up. Finally, when I was about ready to ask my parents if I could borrow the car again, his beat up old car came puttering down the street… It turned out that Steve was the kind of person that likes to show up at least 5 minutes late each day…. Something I was going to have to get used to that summer. This is an important point in the story because those 5 minutes on one particular morning made all the difference in my outlook on what it meant to be working at a “Power” plant.
First, let me tell you a little more about Steve Higginbotham, just so you can appreciate his unusual character the way that I did. As an 18 year old summer help, not having had my encounter with Ramblin’ Ann until later, where I learned the fine art of rambling (see the post: “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was amazed by the way Steve Higginbotham could talk and chew gum or sunflower seeds at the same time — all the time — non-stop. His open mouth would move in a circular motion while chewing and talking.
From the time he picked me up in the morning to the 25 mile ride to the plant, and until I arrived home in the afternoon, Steve Higginbotham was talking about something to someone and chewing either sunflower seeds or gum the entire time. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had been learning something, but I can’t think of one thing that he told me that was useful all summer. I think I paid him $15.00 each week for the privilege. Gas at the time was around 89 cents a gallon. Which after taxes came out to be half of a day’s wages.
Twice each week we would sweep the entire maintenance shop from one end to the other. I would start going down one half, Usually the north side that has all the machine shop equipment, and Steve would start down the south side where the welders were. Invariably, he would catch an unsuspecting welder off his guard and start talking to him, and before you knew it, I had finished my side of the shop and was starting back the other way up the other side, where I would meet up with Steve and a half-dazed welder somewhere around the Welder’s lunch table, which was about 50 feet from the spot where Steve had started (I would say the shop is about 75 yards long) I didn’t mind, because I liked working and it felt good to look around at the clean floor and see that I had done something noticeable.
I had worked in a Hilton Inn restaurant as the night janitor when I was in High School, and the kitchen was almost as long as the maintenance shop. I would spend six hours each night sweeping and mopping the kitchen, and vacuuming the restaurant and bar. So, I always enjoyed sweeping the floor.
Mondays and Fridays were days where we would go to the soon-to-be park and pick up trash. The rest of the time I was able to work with the maintenance crews. For more information about picking up trash at the park, read the post: “Mud, Maggots and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball“.
All the company employees at the power plant were fitted for a special set of earplugs that were made out of a Silly Putty looking material because there was going to be a “Boiler Blowdown” on Unit 1 (which was just finishing construction). I suppose that most people (except the old timers) at the plant today have not experienced a boiler blowdown like the one that is done on a new power plant, since a new base unit hasn’t been built in a long time.
We were told that when you hear the 2 minute warning make sure you put your earplugs in, because it is going to be real loud. We were reminded the day before to have our earplugs handy the following morning because that was when the blowdowns were going to start.
A boiler blowdown is when they run a big steam pipe right off of the high pressure section of the boiler and point it out off the side of the boiler and after they have built up the pressure as high as they can go without blowing the place apart, they flop open the valve and the steam is released quickly blowing out any unwanted material from the steam tubes, such as welding rods, tin cans, shoes, lunch boxes, a lost construction foreman, or anything else that was accidentally left in the steam pipes when they were assembled.
I remember someone saying that they had a come-along go flying out of one once during a blowdown. The first blowdown was the loudest, and then after that they were slightly less forceful each time.
The next morning on the way to the plant, I could see steam shooting out of the boiler from about 10 miles away. As we pulled into the parking lot, the steam was shooting out about 100 yards from the big pipe on the side of the boiler creating a very loud rumbling sound that made your body shake all over. This is exactly how I remember what happened next…..
I climbed out of the car and looked up at the large plume of steam shooting out of the boiler and I said to Steve, “Well, that’s pretty loud, but it’s not THAT loud!” Just at the exact moment that I finished that sentence, the ground started to shake, and my lunch box and hardhat went flying as my hands went to my head to cover my ears!
I fell to the ground and rolled sideways to see that the plume of steam that had been blowing out of the boiler had grown into a huge white roaring dragon about 500 yards long as it reached directly over my head to the point where the condenser discharges water back into the lake behind me! The sound was so loud my whole body was shaking from the force, as we were directly in line with the steam pipe. It continued for about a minute or less and then abruptly shutdown back to the much smaller quieter plume of steam that had been there before.
I stood up, but my legs were all wobbly. I picked up my hard hat and lunch box and wobbled my way into the maintenance shop. My ears were ringing and I remember that I couldn’t hear very good and I was pretty upset about my possible loss of hearing.
Then I wondered to myself why I hadn’t heard the two minute warning, and in my muted state I looked around at the mechanics standing around and my eyes settled on one person who was chewing on sunflower seeds or gum, and was talking to someone, though I couldn’t hear his voice — and I knew why! I couldn’t hear the 2 minute warning because we were 5 minutes late getting to work! We were always 5 minutes late!
This bummed me out the rest of the day. As the day went by my hearing was returning, and by the time we were heading home, I could hear Higginbotham talking very clearly all the way to the house. Maybe this would have been a good time for the earplugs.
That night as I lay in bed, I could hear the boiler blowdown continuing 25 miles away every half hour or so. I thought about how much power it took to create that much force. It gave me a great respect for the power harnessed in the power plant and how it takes all that power and turns the majority of it into electricity to serve the state of Oklahoma.