Tag Archives: electricity

Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting

Originally posted August 16, 2014.

I knew that we had our work cut out for us when Unit 1 was taken offline for a major overhaul on February 19, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. I had learned to expect the unexpected. I just never suspected this to happen. As acting foreman, I had a crew that consisted of a few of our own electricians, as well as a number of contract workers. I was also coordinating efforts between Brown & Root contractors that were going to be doing some major work inside the Precipitator (that takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler) during the 12 weeks we were going to be offline and a Vacuum Truck Company that was going to vacuum ash out of the hoppers where the ash is collected and blown through pipes to the coal yard to be trucked away to make concrete.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long. You can see the hoppers at the bottom

When I inspected the precipitator during the first week, I had found numerous hoppers that had filled up with ash. One in particular hopper was so full that the ash had built up between the plates over 5 feet above the top of the hopper. Because of this, I had to coordinate with hoppers that were available for the Brown and Root contractors to begin building scaffolding, and those hoppers the vacuum truck needed to vacuum out first.

I had learned to deal with full hoppers the first time I entered the precipitator back when I was on the Labor Crew in 1983. Since that day, I had understood the potential dangers lying in wait. Especially with hoppers full of ash. See the Post “Angel of Death Passes By the Precipitator Door“.

The crew I was directly managing was on the Precipitator roof working on vibrators, insulators, transformers and rappers. I worked inside the precipitator aligning plates, and removing broken wires and cleaning insulators. The vacuum truck company vacuumed out the full hoppers by attaching a vacuum hose from a large vacuum truck to clean out pipes at the bottom of the hoppers. The Brown and Root crew climbed into the hoppers through an access door near the bottom of the hopper and constructed scaffolding in order to work at the top of the hoppers immediately below the plates.

Vacuum Truck

Vacuum Truck

This operation had been going on for 3 days and had seemed to be going smoothly. The Brown and Root crews and the vacuum truck crews were working shifts 24 hours a day. I would come in the morning and see the progress that had been made during the night. We kept a sheet taped to a beam in the hopper area that the vacuum truck would update when they had finished a hopper, and the Brown and Root crew indicated where they had finished building their scaffold.

On Thursday March 3, 1994, just after lunch, instead of making my way out to the precipitator to continue my work, I went up to the office area to meet in the conference room with the Safety Task Force. I was the leader of the task force, and we were meeting with upper management to work out some issues that I outlined in last week’s post. See “Taking Power Plant Safety To Task“. As you may have noticed, the last two weekly posts are a continuation of a long story.

Our meeting began shortly after 12:30 and we were discussing ways in which the Safety Task Force could work in a more cooperative way with the Maintenance Supervisor, Ken Scott. I felt that we were making good progress. We seemed to have come up with a few solutions, and we were just working out the details.

At 1:10 pm, the Electric A Foreman knocked on the door and opened it. He explained that there had been an accident at the precipitator in one of the hoppers and he thought that I might have been in the hopper at the time. He was checking to see if I was in the meeting. Once he was assured that I was all right, he left (presumably to tell the rest of my crew that I was not involved in the accident).

At this point, my head started to spin. What could have happened? None of my crew would have been in the hoppers. Maybe someone fell off of a scaffold and hurt themselves. I know I had locked out all of the electricity to the precipitator and grounded the circuits that have up to 45,000 volts of electricity when charged up, so, I’m pretty sure no one would have been electrocuted. Bill’s voice seemed real shaky when he entered the room, and when he saw me he was very relieved.

When working in a Power Plant, the Power Plant Men and Women become like a real family. Everyone cares about each other. Bill Bennett in some ways was like a father to me. In other ways, he was like an older brother. The nearest picture I have of Bill is a picture of Bill Cosby, as they looked similar:

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett just after he has called me a “Scamp”

I don’t know how long I was staring off into space counting my crew and thinking about what each of them would be doing. I was sure they were all on the roof. I knew that if a Brown & Root hand had been hurt that their own Safety Coordinator would be taking care of their injury. The thought of someone being hurt in a hopper sent flashbacks of the day I nearly dived off into the hopper full of ash ten and a half years earlier.

After about 5 minutes, Bill Bennett came back to the conference room, where we were still trying to focus on the task at hand. I don’t remember if we were doing any more good or not since I wasn’t paying any attention. Bill said that he needed for me to leave the meeting because they needed me out at the precipitator. Someone had been engulfed in fly ash!

Then I realized that the first time Bill had come to the room to check on me, he had mentioned that. I think I had blocked that from my mind. He had said that someone had been engulfed in ash, and they couldn’t tell if it was me or someone else. That was why he was so shaken up. Bill had thought that I may have died, or at least been seriously injured. The pain he was feeling before he saw me sitting in the room, alive and well, flooded my thoughts.

I quickly stood up and left the room. Bill and I quickly made our way to the precipitator. He said that Life Flight was on the way. One of the vacuum truck workers had climbed into the hopper to get the last bits of ash out of the hopper when a large amount of ash had broken loose above him and immediately engulfed him in the hopper.

When that happened there was a large boom and a cloud of ash came pouring out from the side of the precipitator. Scott Hubbard, who would have been my twin brother if I had been able to pick my own twin brother (though I never had a real twin brother)… heard the boom on the roof and when he looked down and saw the cloud of ash, immediately thought that I may have been hurt. I suppose he had called Bill Bennett on the radio and told him.

As we arrived at the precipitator, a young man was being carried out on a stretcher. A Life Flight from Oklahoma City was on it’s way, and landed just a few minutes later. I looked at the man all covered with ash. I could see how someone may have mistaken him for me. He was dressed like I was. A white t-shirt and jeans. He was unconscious.

Without going into detail as to the cause of the accident, as that will be in a later post, let me tell you about the heroic Power Plant Men and their actions before I had arrived on the scene…

James Vickers, a 26 year old vacuum truck worker, had climbed in the hopper carrying a shovel. He had a hole watch standing out the door keeping an eye on him. They had sucked out the hopper from the outside pipes and had banged on the walls in order to knock down any ash build up on the sides until they figured they had cleaned out the hopper.

James had opened the door to the hopper, and maybe because he saw some buildup on the hopper walls, he decided to climb in the hopper in order to knock it down with the shovel. While he was doing this, a large amount of ash that had bridged up in the plates above was knocked free all at once and immediately filled up the hopper probably more than half full.

James was crammed down into the throat of the hopper, which at the bottom is only about 8 inches in diameter with a plate across the middle about 2 feet above the throat of the hopper. He was immediately knocked unconscious by the impact.

The person assigned to be the hole watch was standing at the door to the hopper and when the ash fell down, he was knocked back about 6 or 7 feet when the ash came pouring out of the door. Panicking, He ran to the edge of the walkway yelling for help. Luckily, he was not also knocked unconscious, or this would pretty much have been the end of the story.

Men came running. Especially a couple of Power Plant Men working in the area. I wish I could remember who they were. When I try to think of the most heroic Power Plant Men I knew at the plant at the time, the list is about a long as my arm, so it is hard to narrow it down.

The Power Plant Men began to frantically dig the ash out of the hopper to uncover James Vickers. When they reached his head, they immediately cleared his face to where they could perform Mouth-to-Mouth resuscitation. They began breathing for James as soon as they could, and continued mouth-to-mouth as they dug out more of the ash.

As they dug the ash out, they were using their hardhats for shovels. When they tried to move James, they found that he had been crammed down into the bottom of the hopper to where he was trapped in the throat of the hopper. Heroically they continued without hesitation to breath for James, while simultaneously working to free him from the hopper. The shovel had been wedged into the bottom of the hopper with him.

Almost immediately after the accident happened, the control room became aware that someone had been engulfed in a hopper, they called Life Flight in Oklahoma City. A helicopter was immediately dispatched. By the time James was safely removed from the hopper, placed on a stretcher and carried out to the adjacent field, the Life Flight Helicopter was landing to take him to the Baptist Medical Center. I would say the helicopter was on the ground a total of about 3 or so minutes before it was took off again.

Bill and I inspected the hopper where the accident had taken place. On the ground below under the grating was a pile of ash, just like I had experienced years before when I almost bailed off into the hopper to look for my flashlight. I was suddenly filled with a tremendous amount of sorrow.

I was sorry for James Vickers, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. I was sorry for Bill Bennett who thought for a while that I had died in that hopper. I remembered hanging by one finger in a hopper only two rows down from this one, ten years ago with my life hanging by a thread, and I just wanted to cry.

So, I gave Bill a big hug as if I was hugging my own father and just started to cry. The whole thing was just so sad.

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….

On the roof of the Baptist Medical Center, a Triage unit had been setup waiting for the helicopter to arrive with James. Hazardous Waste protective suits were being worn by the people that were going to begin treating James. They had heard that he had been engulfed in hazardous chemicals which consisted of: Silica, Aluminum Oxide, Hexavalent Chromium, arsenic and other unsavory and hard to pronounce chemicals. The Life Flight People on the helicopter had to be scrubbed down by the Hazmat team as soon as they exited the helicopter to clean off the hazardous Fly Ash. The news reporters were all standing by reporting the incident.

Yes. The same fly ash that I went swimming in every day during the overhaul. The same fly ash that I tracked through the Utility Room floor when I came home at night. The same fly ash used to create highways all across the country. It’s true it has some carcinogenic material in it. I’m sure I have my share of Silica in my lungs today, since it doesn’t ever really clear out of there.

Besides the psychological trauma of a near-death experience, Jame Vickers was fairly unharmed considering what he went through. He came out of the ordeal with an eye infection. Randy Dailey pointed out that this was because the Safety Coordinator from Brown & Root had opened his eyes to check if he was alive when he was laying on the stretcher, and had let ash get in his eyes. Otherwise, he most likely wouldn’t have developed an eye infection.

When I arrived at home that evening I explained to my wife what had happened. She had heard something on the news about it, but hadn’t realized they were talking about our plant since the person was in Oklahoma City when the reporters were talking about it.

All I can say is… Some Safety Meetings in the past have been pretty boring, but nothing made me want to improve my Safety Attitude like the Safety Meeting we had that afternoon. I’m glad that I had to experience that only once in my career as a Plant Electrician.

 

Comments from the original post

    1. Dan Antion August 16, 2014

      Too close.

       

    1. Ron Kilman August 16, 2014

      I remember when this happened. I know some prayers went up for James.

      They had to “decontaminate” the helicopter too. It was always amusing for me to see a hazmat worker strain at a “gnat” removing every molecule of fly ash, then take his respirator and suit off and light up his “camel” cigarette!

       

    1. Garfield Hug August 16, 2014

      Thankfully glad you made it to safety *blessings*

    1. Donna Westhoff Collins August 16, 2014

      Hope you don’t mind I posted on my Innovative Safety Solutions facebook page along with a link back to the blog. Good article!

    1. Anna Waldherr August 17, 2014

      What a harrowing account! Clearly, those of us not in the industry have no idea of its dangers.

    1. T. Foster August 19, 2014

      I remember hearing about that on the news that day. Also that Dad told us how strange it seemed that they were wearing the haz mat suits to deal with flyash.

    1. createthinklive September 14, 2014

      Work at the power plant sounds sexy: vibrators, insulators and rappers

Advertisements

The OSHA Man Cometh

I suppose when you are a Plant Manager, the last person you want to see at your Power Plant doorstep is the OSHA Man!  That’s exactly what happened on Thursday, March 10, 1994 at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  He was not paying a social call.  He was there to conduct an investigation.  One in which I was heavily involved.

In my post from last week, “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting” I described a near death accident where a contract worker was engulfed in fly ash in a precipitator hopper.  The accident was all over the 5 o’clock news in Oklahoma City.  The press was there when the Life Flight helicopter arrived at the hospital where they interviewed the flight crew.  The OSHA office in the Federal building a few blocks from the Electric Company’s Corporate Headquarters had quickly assigned someone to the case.  Armed with all the authority he needed, he began a full investigation of the accident.

The day before Gerald Young, (the OSHA Man) arrived, I had done some investigation myself into the accident.  I was trying to figure out exactly what had happened.  Why had someone who thought that he had emptied out a hopper so much so that he climbed inside, had suddenly become instantly engulfed in ash?  Where did this large volume of ash come from, and why did it decide to suddenly break loose and fill the hopper at the particular moment when James Vickers had decided to climb into the hopper?

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

Our Precipitator was longer than this one, but you can see the hoppers on the bottom

Larry Kuennan, the lead engineer had asked me to show him the hopper from the inside of the Precipitator, so he could have an idea of what took place.  I told him he needed to put on a fly ash suit and a full face respirator in order to go into the precipitator.  After we were all suited up, I took him on a tour of the inside.  A sight few people have had the chance to experience.  I could write an entire post just about the experience…. Oh…. maybe I already have.  See “Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

This isn't me, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

This isn’t me or Larry, this is just some other fortunate soul I found on Google Images

The hopper we needed to investigate was not at the edge, so, we had to squeeze our way around a few beams in order to see the hopper where the accident took place.  When we arrived, I explained that when I had first inspected the precipitator, I had found that the ash had piled up five foot above the bottom of the plates because the feeder wasn’t feeding properly.  So, I had figured that when they were vacuuming out the hopper, the ash that was lodged between the plates (that were 9 inches apart) must have still been there when James climbed into the hopper.  Something had caused the ash to give way all at once.

Larry and I climbed down between the hoppers where we could see the bottle racks underneath the plates.  The bottles are 30 pound anchors in the shape of the old style milk bottles.  They are used to keep the tension on the wires, which are the electrodes that are normally charged with up to 45,000 volts of electricity when the precipitator is online.

When we sat down to look at the four bottle racks, I noticed right away that one row of bottles was about a foot and a half lower than the rest of the bottle racks.  This didn’t make sense to me at first.  I couldn’t think of any way that 176 wires and bottles would be lower than the rest of the wires in the hopper.  It was a paradox that took a while to soak in.

When we left, Larry Kuennen made a statement I will never forget.  He said, “Until now, I thought that Plant Electricians did nothing but twist wires together.  I never thought they worked on things like this.”  I replied, “We work on anything that has a wire connected to it.  That includes almost everything in the plant.”  He replied, “Well, I have a new appreciation for Plant Electricians.”

It wasn’t until I returned to the electric shop and heard Scott Hubbard’s recount of the accident (again).  Scott and his crew was working on the roof of the precipitator when the accident happened.  He said that when the accident happened he heard a loud bang.  Sort of like an explosion.  I told him what I had found inside the precipitator.   This could only mean one thing….  An electric insulator on the roof of the precipitator that held up the wires on that bottle rack had broken.  When that happened, it fell the foot and half causing all the ash that had been lodged between the plates to be jolted loose, engulfing James Vickers who had just climbed in the hopper below.

After lunch, Scott went up on the roof and opened the portal on the tension house that housed the insulator that held up that row of wires.  Sure enough. The three foot by 3 inch diameter ceramic insulator had broken.  Something that had never happened at the plant up to that point.   A tremendous load must have been put on this insulator, or it must have been defective in order to just break.  These insulators are designed to hold up to 10,000 pounds of weight.  the weight of the bottles and wires altogether weighed about 6,000 pounds.  This meant that about 4,000 pounds of ash was pressing down from the ash above in order for it to just pull apart.

An insulator like this only 3 foot long

An electric insulator like this only 3 foot long

There was only one person that the OSHA man Jerry wanted to speak to when he arrived at the plant (other than to arrange things).  That was me.  I was the acting foreman in charge of the operations in, on and below the precipitator when the accident happened.  I was also just a regular hourly employee, not so “beholden” to the company that I would participate in any kind of “cover-up”.

The first thing OSHA Jerry wanted to see was the inside of the precipitator.  So, I procured a respirator for him, and we climbed up to the landing where one enters the precipitator through side doors.  The first thing he did when he arrived at the door was take out a measuring tape to measure the height of the door.

I hadn’t thought about it until that moment, but a new set of OSHA regulations had  a new set of Confined Space regulations 1910.146 that dealt specifically with confined spaces.  It had gone into effect on April 15, 1993.  Here we were almost a year later.  I had always treated the precipitator as a  confined space, so I had always checked the air quality before I entered it.

So, I asked OSHA Jerry why he measured the size of the door.  He said, he was checking if the entrance was “restricted” or “limited”.  This was the requirement of a Confined space as stated in OSHA regulation 1910.146.  I asked him how small does an entrance have to be to be restricted?  He said, “Well.  That’s not clearly defined.  We could enter the precipitator by bending over and stepping in.

That was the first time I thought that maybe the precipitator itself may not really fit into the strict definition of a confined space.  The hoppers do for sure, but does the precipitator?  Hmm….  I wondered…. I still do come to think of it.  The hoppers were definitely confined spaces by definition… “any space with converging walls, such as a hopper…..”

Oh.  I forgot to describe OSHA Jerry.  He reminded me a little of the guy who was a sidekick in Cheers named Paul Willson:

Paul Willson in Cheers

Paul Willson in Cheers

Actually, he looked so much like him that I thought of him right away.

When we were done inspecting the precipitator, we returned to the front office where we went to Tom Gibson’s (our Electric Supervisor) office.  He closed the door and locked it.  And he began to interview me by explaining that anything that was said in this room would be held in confidence.  He explained that I could speak freely and that the Electric Company could do nothing to me for telling him the truth.

I thought… Ok…. um….  I have always been known for speaking my mind, so he wasn’t going to hear anything that I wouldn’t personally tell the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman to his face.  Just ask Ron.  I’m sure he would agree that I was pretty open about anything that popped into my mind.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman – Who wouldn’t want to be honest to a nice guy like this?

He asked me if I had been trained how in the OSHA Confined Space regulations.  I responded by saying that we had a class on it one day where we went over our new confined space requirements.  That consisted of reading the company policy.  I knew that I needed to have a hole watch, and I needed to check the air before I went into a confined space.

Confined Space Air Monitor

Confined Space Air Monitor

We checked to make sure there was 20.9% oxygen, that there was less than 10 parts per million Carbon Monoxide, less than 5 parts per million H2S (Hydrogen Sulfide) and that there was less than 5% explosive vapors.  OSHA Jack wrote everything down.

Actually, while I was talking, Jerry asked me to pause often because he was writing everything I said word-for-word on a yellow notepad what I was saying.

While we were talking, I asked him a few questions also.  I asked Jack how he decided to work for OSHA.  Where he had come from (Kansas.  Wichita, I think).  How long he had been working for OSHA.  Did he enjoy his job…..  At times, I could get him to digress and tell me a story about his life.

As we continued with our interview over this grave accident that almost resulted in the loss of someone’s life, I was busy making a new friend.  By the time he had asked me everything he needed to know, I knew all about how he had grown up in Kansas, and how he had gone from job-to-job until he had ended up in front of me… interviewing me.

When we had finished the interview, he explained to me that this was an official document that contained all the answers to the questions he had asked me.  He said that this would be private and that the Electric Company would not be able to ever see what I said unless I wanted them to see it.  I asked him if I could show it to them.  He said he would give me a copy of it, and I could do whatever I wanted with it.  He asked me to sign it.  I did.

Page 1 of the statement I signed

Page 1 of the statement I signed

I took Jerry to the copy machine in the front office where he made copies for me.  When he handed them to me, I shook his hand.  I told him I enjoyed talking to him.  I also told him that I wished him well.  I showed him to the elevator, and he left the plant.  I made a copy of the papers that I had signed and went directly to the plant manager Ron Kilman’s office and gave him a copy of the document I had signed.

Ron asked me how it went.  I told him that it went fine.  Here is everything we talked about.  I had nothing to hide.  It did amaze me that OSHA Jack thought I might want to “spill the beans” about something as if we were treated like peons where the King had total rule. — I guess he didn’t know that Eldon Waugh had retired in 1987.

From there, I went to Bill Bennett’s office.  Bill Bennett was our A Foreman.  His office was across the hall from Tom Gibson’s office where I had been interviewed for the previous 3 hours. —  Yeah.  3 hours.  OSHA Jerry didn’t know Shorthand.

Bill asked me how the interview went.  I said it went fine.  He said that Ron and Ben Brandt had been worried about me because the interview had lasted so long.  Bill said he told them, “Don’t worry about Kevin.  He probably has this guy wrapped around his little finger.  He’s probably using his ‘psychology’ on him”  I always loved Bill with all my heart.  He knew me too well.  I told Bill that I knew OSHA Jerry’s life story by the time we were done.  Bill smiled…. just like this:

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

Bill Cosby trying to smile like Bill Bennett

I smiled back at Bill.  I returned to the Electric Shop to continue with Unit 1 Overhaul.  After all.  That was my “real” job.  I put on my fly ash suit, my full face respirator, and my rubber boots and returned to the innards of the precipitator to continue where I had left off.  I had a lot to think about as I scanned the Precipitator plates and wires in the dark with my flashlight safely strapped around my neck.

Comment from the original post

  1. Ron Kilman August 23, 2014

    Great story! And good job interviewing OSHA Jack.
    When the OSHA (EPA, OFCCP, EEOC, etc.) Man cometh, whatever was scheduled for that day (week, etc.) was suspended and you do whatever he/she wants. Cost to implement changes was not a factor and permanent effects on plant efficiency or employee morale were of little importance either. At 67 (with increasing arthritis) I’m reminded of OSHA’s “help” every time I have to use both hands to start my recip saw (one to pull the trigger and the other to push the “safety” switch), or when I have to re-start my lawnmower every time I empty the grass bag.

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“.

Power Plant Gulf War Syndrome

It seemed like it was getting dark already when Scott Hubbard and I were driving home from the plant in Scott’s pickup on January 16, 1991. We were listening to NPR on the radio, as we did most days. Just as we were entering Stillwater on Hwy 177, NPR suddenly stopped their regular broadcast to announce that there were reports of bombs dropping in Baghdad.

Up to this point, we had all hoped that Saddam Hussein, seeing the massive buildup of the U.S. and other countries at his border would pull his forces out of Kuwait and go home. At 5 pm Central Standard Time (2 am Baghdad time), the week long air assault on Saddam Hussein’s troops began. Scott dropped me off at the church where he had picked me up 9 1/2 hours earlier and I drove straight home. Glued to the radio for any new update.

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

When I arrived home, my wife Kelly met me by the door to tell me the news. By the expression on my face, she could tell I had already heard. I was not able to speak. I just gave her a hug and broke out in tears. As much as we knew that this was necessary, and even though we had watched the buildup over the previous three months, I was not prepared for the actual assault to begin.

For the next five hours we watched as Peter Arnett and his camera man reporting from their hotel room in the middle of Baghdad showed actual footage of anti-aircraft fire continuously firing into the night sky. We could see our bombs hitting carefully determined targets. The battle was taking place right in our living room.

 

Peter Arnett

Peter Arnett

My brother Gregory T. Breazile was (and still is) a U.S. Marine officer in Saudi Arabia preparing for the ground assault. We had been able to talk to him a few days earlier when AT&T setup a bank of phones in the desert so that the soldiers could phone home. – On a side note… my mom was not too happy when she received a very large bill from AT&T for the phone calls to her house. She called AT&T and complained. I think they gave her a refund.

I went to sleep that night after the sun had come up in Baghdad, and even though the bombings were continuing, the initial impact of what was happening had finally been processed in my brain.

The next day at work the radios around the Power Plant were all tuned to stations that were keeping everyone updated on the progress of the Gulf War (Desert Storm, they were calling it). I had a job for the next week or so organizing the old Brown and Root electrical parts warehouse. This was a long tedious job that consisted of going through boxes of all sorts of electric parts and organizing them into meaningful piles of good junk.

I drove one of the pickups over to the warehouse and positioned it so that the passenger side door was lined up with the door to the warehouse. Then I turned the volume on the radio all the way up so that I could hear it in the warehouse. It was an AM radio that didn’t have receptions inside the warehouse. I didn’t want to miss any new information about what was going on in Iraq. Since the radio in the truck didn’t have reception when it was in the warehouse, I would carry (or drag) the boxes toward the front of the warehouse so that I could be close enough to hear the radio.

After one week of constant bombing and after the U.S. along with our allies which consisted mostly of Britain, France and Saudi Arabia along with another 30 countries around the globe had flown over 100,000 bombing missions and dropped over 88,000 tons of bombs on Iraq’s army, the U.S. was finally ready for the ground assault.

Soon after the ground assault began, it became apparent that Iraq’s troops were no match for the U.S.. Their Soviet tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft found it difficult to inflict a dent on the side of one of our tanks. It was apparent that the United States had won the arms race and the demise of the Soviet Union was right around the corner (exactly 11 months later on December 26, 1991). All they could do was blindly send some SCUD missiles toward us hoping to hit a target…. any target. The most casualties that occurred on the allies was when a SCUD missile hit a barrack in the middle of the desert killing 28 soldiers.

My brother Greg was attached to the first Marine Division and was part of the group that attacked the Iraqi Republican Guard at the Kuwait Airport. He later described the battle something like this…. “Rockets were being fired in both directions. Bombs exploding all over the place. The entire scene seemed like chaos. Even though it looked like it was a fierce battle, it was as if we were being protected somehow. Throughout the entire siege, we didn’t experience so much as one broken fingernail as we cleared the enemy from the airport.”

Colonel Gregory T. Breazile

Colonel Gregory T. Breazile

The ground assault lasted exactly 100 hours. In that time Kuwait was liberated, and the Republican Guard was decimated.

The Power Plant Men and Women did what they could to show their support for our troops. A great many of the Power Plant Men had served in the Vietnam War and they were proud patriots. There might have been a few that felt like we had no business there in the first place, but those that I remember weren’t the real Power Plant Men.

The critics of the first Gulf War said that freeing Kuwait from their Iraqi invaders was all about oil. That was pretty evident when Saddam Hussein set over 700 oil wells on fire as his troops were being driven out of Kuwait. Kuwait’s main product is oil. That’s hardly debatable.

Iraqi Oil Wells on set on fire by Iraqi soldiers

Iraqi Oil Wells on set on fire by Iraqi soldiers

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma knew the importance of energy to our country, and a fight over oil is just about as serious as it gets. Those people who criticize our protection of the oil fields in Kuwait by saying that this was just a fight over oil lack the same perspective as Power Plant Men. A steady flow of energy in our lives is essential to our way of life.

A response to that may be that maybe (… “may be that maybe”…. interesting way of saying that… I’m sure my English Teacher would have had something to say about that one) our way of life needs to be changed. I would agree with that, but I would argue that it needs to be changed for the better. Let me try to explain what Power Plant Men across our country know each morning when they awaken.

From the alarm clock that rings in the morning that wakes the Power Plant Man, to the light in the bathroom where they take their shower with hot water, energy is being supplied to their house either through electricity or some sort of natural gas or oil. The act of eating breakfast, whether it is eating a bowl of cereal with milk that has been cooled in the refrigerator or frying some eggs, all this takes energy.

All the Power Plant Men had to drive to the Power Plant located out in the country 20 miles from the nearest towns (except for Red Rock or Marland where few people lived). It would be hard to produce the electricity at the plant if the Power Plant Men and Women didn’t have gasoline to drive their cars to work each and every day. Even if they had an electric car, they would have to charge it with electricity that comes from a power plant that is either powered from coal or natural gas for the most part.

Sure we have a dream of a world where all cars are electric all charged with electricity that is generated without fossil fuels. That is a noble dream and the struggle to reach that point some day is one worth having, but today it doesn’t exist. We can’t transition to that world overnight. In the meantime, the free flow of oil is and should be one of our greatest priorities.

Power Plant Men live with this priority every day. The free flow of electricity to our nation is just as vital. Look at the disasters that happen when a region of the United States suddenly goes dark. Each Power Plant Man and Woman plays their part in ensuring that never happens.

Each Electric Company employee has a picture in the back of their mind of someone laying on an operating table and as the surgeon is in the middle of the operation, the lights suddenly go out. Or an elevator full of people travelling up around the 20th floor of a building when all of the sudden it stops and they are trapped in the dark. What then? No Power Plant Man wants that to happen.

So, how do you thank someone who has freely risked their life serving our country? Someone who is willing to die for our country? How can you? Who am I that others should be willing to die for me? All I can think of doing is to pray “God Bless Them”.

Some Power Plant veterans may have wished they could have been there fighting with their brothers in arms in the Gulf War. The truth is, those men were needed right where they were. The best way to thank our troops during the Gulf War was by showing that we supported what they were doing and by continuing to perform our daily tasks of keeping the lights on at home by producing a steady flow of electricity. Day in and day out without fail.

The reason we take electricity for granted is because the Power Plant Men and Women in this country have been performing their job nearly flawlessly. it is almost like the words my brother used to describe the battle at the Kuwaiti Airport, “it was as if we were being protected somehow”. There are so many things that can go wrong that could bring down the electric grid in the United States, it is amazing that we are able to depend on electricity being there when we turn on the TV.

So, how do you thank the Power Plant Men and Women that work each day to bring us that reliable source of energy? How can we? Certainly the service they provide is far more than the salary and benefits provided by the Electric Company. We can show our appreciation by letting them know that we support them.

When you see an Electric Company truck driving down the road, smile at them and wave. When you run across a Power Plant Man eating lunch at Braum’s, buy him a cup of coffee.

Braum's is a great place to go for a Chocolate Malt and a Burger. It is only found around Oklahoma and the surrounding states not too far from the Oklahoma border.

Braum’s is a great place to go for a Chocolate Malt and a Burger. It is only found around Oklahoma and the surrounding states not too far from the Oklahoma border.

Power Plant Men generally spend the majority of their waking hours in isolation at a Power Plant where they don’t directly see the benefit of their labor. All they experience is their paycheck every couple of weeks and their benefits. They don’t often willingly leave their job to go work somewhere else. They spend their entire working life laboring to produce electricity for others.

If there is a Power Plant Man in your neighborhood, maybe you could give them some small Christmas present this holiday to show your appreciation for the service they have been providing you and your family this year.

If there is a soldier living nearby, do the same. Find any opportunity to show them you appreciate their service to our country. A Braum’s Gift Card perhaps!

Pain in the Neck Muskogee Power Plant Relay Testing

Don’t let the title fool you.  I love testing Power Plant Protective Relays.  There is a sense of satisfaction when you have successfully cleaned, calibrated and tested a relay that is going to protect the equipment you have to work on every day.  With that said, I was hit with such an unbelievable situation when testing Muskogee Relays in 1995 that I was left with a serious pain in the neck.

On August 14, 2003 the electric power in the Northeast United States and Canada went out.  The Blackout lasted long enough to be a major annoyance for those in the that region of the United States.

Map of the power blackout in 2003

Map of the power blackout in 2003

When I heard about how the blackout had moved across the region, I immediately knew what had happened.  I was quickly reminded of the following story.  I told my wife Kelly, “I know exactly why such a large area lost power!  They hadn’t done proper preventative maintenance on the Protective Relays in the substations!  Just like….”  Well…. I’ll tell you that part now:

I have mentioned in a couple of earlier posts that something always seemed a little “off” at the Muskogee Power Plant.  I had decided early on that while working there I would stick to drinking sodas instead of water.  See the post:  “Something’s In the Water at the Muskogee Power Plant“.  Even with that knowledge, I was still shocked at what I found while testing relays at the plant.

This story really begins one Sunday at Muskogee when one of the Auxiliary Operators was making his rounds inspecting equipment.  He was driving his truck around the south edge of the Unit 6 parking lot on the service road.  He glanced over at a pump next to the road, and at first, he thought he was just seeing things.  After stopping the truck and backing up for a second glance, he was sure he wasn’t dreaming.  It’s just that what he was seeing seemed so strange, he wasn’t sure what was happening.

The operator could see what appeared to be silver paint chips popping off of the large pump motor in all directions.  After closer examination, he figured out that the motor was burning up.  It was still running, but it had become so hot that the paint was literally burning off of the motor.

Horizontal pump

Like this Horizontal pump only much bigger and painted silver

A motor like this would get hot if the bearings shell out.  Before the motor is destroyed, the protective relays on the breaker in the 4,000 Volt switchgear shuts the motor off.  In this case, the relay hadn’t tripped the motor, so, it had become extremely hot and could have eventually exploded if left running.  The operator shut the motor down and wrote a work order for the electricians.

Doyle Fullen was the foreman in the electric shop that received the work order.  When he looked into what had happened, he realized that the protective relay had not been inspected for a couple of years for this motor.

I couldn’t find a picture of Doyle.  In his youth he reminds me of a very smart Daryl in Walking Dead:

Norman Reedus from Walking Dead

Norman Reedus from Walking Dead

In fact, since before the downsizing in 1994, none of the Protective Relays at the plant had been inspected.  The person that had been inspecting the relays for many years had moved to another job or retired in 1994.  This was just a warning shot across the bow that could have had major consequences.

No one at Muskogee had been trained to test Protective Relays since the downsizing, so they reached out to our plant in North Central Oklahoma for help.  That was when I was told that I was going to be going to Muskogee during the next overhaul (outage).  I had been formally trained to inspect, clean, calibrate and test Protective Relays with two of my Power Plant Heroes, Ben Davis and Sonny Kendrick years earlier.  See the post:  “Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis“.

My Protective Relay Maintenance course book

My Protective Relay Maintenance course book

Without going into too much detail about the actual tests we performed as I don’t want to make this a long rambling post (like… well…. like most of my posts…..I can already tell this is going to be a long one), I will just say that I took our antiquated relay tester down to Muskogee to inspect their relays and teach another electrician Charles Lay, how to perform those tests in the future.  Muskogee had a similar Relay Test Set.  These were really outdated, but they did everything we needed, and it helped you understand exactly what was going on when you don’t have a newfangled Relay Test Set.

AVO Multi-Amp SR-76 Relay Test Set

AVO Multi-Amp SR-76 Relay Test Set

You need to periodically test both mechanical and electronic protective relays.  In the electronic relays the components change their properties slightly over time, changing the time it takes to trip a breaker under a given circumstance (we’re talking about milliseconds).  In the mechanical relays (which I have always found to be more reliable), they sit inside a black box all the time, heating up and cooling as the equipment is used.  Over time, the varnish on the copper coils evaporates and settles on all the components.  This becomes sticky so that the relay won’t operate at the point where it should.

A panel of Protective Relays

A panel of Protective Relays

In the picture above, the black boxes on the top, middle and right are mechanical relays.  This means that something actually has to turn or pick up in order to trip the equipment.  The electronic relays may have a couple of small relays, but for the most part, they are made up of transistors, resistors, capacitors and diodes.

So, with all that said, let me start the real story…. gee…. It’s about time…

So, here I am sitting in the electric shop lab just off of the Unit 6 T-G floor.  We set up all the equipment and had taken a couple of OverCurrent relays out of some high voltage breakers in the switchgear.  I told Charles that before you actually start testing the relays, you need to have the test documents from the previous test and we also needed the instruction manuals for each of the relays because the manuals will have the diagrams that you use to determine the exact time that the relays should trip for each of the tests.  So, we went up to the print room to find the old tests and manuals.  Since they weren’t well organized, we just grabbed the entire folder where all the relays tests were kept since Unit 6 had been in operation.

When we began testing the relays at first I thought that the relay test set wasn’t working correctly.  Here I was trying to impress my new friend, Charles Lay, a 63 year old highly religious fundamental Christian that I knew what I was doing, and I couldn’t even make a relay trip.  I was trying to find the “As Found” tripping level.  That is, before you clean up the relay.  Just like you found it.  Only, it wouldn’t trip.

It turned out that the relay was stuck from the varnish as I explained above.  It appeared as if the relay hadn’t been tested or even operated for years.  The paperwork showed that it had been tested three years earlier.  Protective Relays should be tested at least every two years, but I wouldn’t have thought that the relay would be in such a bad condition in just three years.  It had been sitting in a sealed container to keep out dust.  But it was what it was.

I told Charles that in order to find the “As Found” point where the relay would trip, we would need to crank up the test set as high as needed to find when it actually did trip.  It turned out that the relay which should have instantaneously tripped somewhere around 150 amps wouldn’t have tripped until the motor was pulling over 4,000 amps.  I could tell right away why the Auxiliary Operator found that motor burning up without tripping.  The protective relays were stuck.

As it turned out… almost all of the 125 or so relays were in the same condition.  We cleaned them all up and made them operational.

There is an overcurrent relay for the main bus on each section of a main switchgear.

A picture of a clean switchgear. Picture 6 rows of switchgear like this

A picture of a clean switchgear. Picture 6 rows of switchgear like this

When I tested the “As Found” instantaneous trip for the main bus relay, I found that it was so high that the Unit 6 Main Turbine Generator would have melted down before the protective relay would have tripped the power to that one section of switchgear.  The entire electric bus would have been nothing but molten metal by that time.

As I tested each of these relays, I kept shaking my head in disbelief.  But that wasn’t the worst of it.  The mystery as to why these relays were all glued shut by varnish was finally solved, and that reason was even more unbelievable.

Here is what I found…..  The first thing you do when you are going to test a relay is that you fill out a form that includes all the relay information, such as, what it is for, what are the settings on the relay, and what are the levels of tests that you are going to perform on it.  You also include a range of milliseconds that are acceptable for the relay for each of the tests.  Normally, you just copy what was used in the previous test, because you need to include the time it took for the Previous “As Left” test on your form.  That is why we needed the forms from the previous test.

So, I had copied the information from the previous test form and began testing the relay (one of the first overcurrent relays we tested)…  Again… I was a 34 year old teacher trying to impress my 63 year old student.  So, I was showing him how you mechanically adjust the relay in order for it to trip within the acceptable range.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t adjust the relay so that it would even be close to the desired range for the longer time trip times…. like the 2 second to 25 second range.  It wasn’t even close to the range that was on the form from the last test.

The form from the last test showed that the relay was in the right range for all the levels of test.  When I tested it, like I said, it wasn’t even close.  So, I went to the diagram in the instruction manual for this type of relay.  The diagram looks similar to this one used for thermal overloads:

Thermal Overload Tripping curves

Thermal Overload Tripping curves

See all those red lines?  Well, when you setup a relay, you have a dial where you set the range depending on the needs for the type of motor you are trying to trip. Each red line represents each setting on the dial.  Most of the relays were set on the same number, so we would be using the same red line on the diagram to figure out at different currents how long it should take for a relay to trip….

Here is the clincher….The time range that was written on the previous form wasn’t for the correct relay setting.  The person that tested the relay had accidentally looked at the wrong red line.  — That in itself is understandable, since it could be easy to get on the wrong line… The only thing is that as soon as you test the relay, you would know that something is wrong, because the relay wouldn’t trip in that range, just like I had found.

I double and triple checked everything to make sure we were looking at the same thing.  The previous form indicated the same settings on the relay as now, yet, the time ranges were for a different line! — Ok.  I know.  I have bored you to tears with all this stuff about time curves and overcurrent trips… so I will just tell you what this means…

This meant that when the person completed the forms the last time, they didn’t test the relays at all.  They just filled out the paperwork.  They put in random values that were in the acceptable range and sat around in the air conditioned lab during the entire overhaul smoking his pipe. — Actually, I don’t remember if he smoked a pipe or not.  He was the Electrical Specialist for the plant.  I remembered seeing him sitting in the lab with a relay hooked up to the test set throughout the entire overhaul when I had been there during previous overhauls, but I realized finally that he never tested the relays.  He didn’t even go so far as try to operate them.

I went back through the records to when the plant was first “checked out”.  Doyle Fullen had done the check out on the relays and the test after that.  Doyle had written the correct values from the manual on his forms.  I could see where he had actually performed the tests on the relays and was getting the same values I was finding when I tested the relays, so I was certain that I wasn’t overlooking anything.

As I tested each of the relays, I kept shaking my head in disbelief.  It was so unbelievable.  How could someone do such a thing?  Someone could have been killed because a protective relay wasn’t working correctly.  This was serious stuff.

One day while Charles and I were working away on the relays, Jack Coffman, the Superintendent of all the Power Plants came walking through the lab.  He asked us how we were doing.  I swiveled around in my chair to face him and I said, “Pretty good, except for this pain in my neck” as I rubbed the back of my neck.

Jack stopped and asked me what happened.  I told him that I had been shaking my head in disbelief for the last two weeks, and it gave me a pain in the neck.  Of course, I knew this would get his attention, so he asked, “Why?”  I went through all the details of what I had found.

I showed him how since the time that Doyle Fullen last tested the relays more than 10 years earlier, these relays hadn’t been tested at all.  I showed him how the main bus relays were so bad that it would take over 100,000 amps to have tripped the 7100 KV switchgear bus or 710 Megawatts!  More power than the entire generator could generate.  It was only rated at about 550 Megawatts at the most.

Jack stood there looking off into space for a few seconds, and then walked out the door…. I thought I saw him shaking his head as he left.  Maybe he was just looking both ways for safety reasons, but to me, it looked like a shake of disbelief.  I wonder if I had given him the same pain in the neck.

That is really the end of the relay story, but I do want to say a few words about Charles Lay.  He was a hard working electrician that was nearing retirement.  People would come around to hear us discussing religion.  I am Catholic, and he went to a Fundamental Christian Church.  We would debate the differences between our beliefs and just Christian beliefs in general.  We respected each other during our time together, even though he was sure I am going to hell when I die.

People would come in just to hear our discussion for a while as we were cleaning and calibrating the relays.  One day Charles asked me if I could help him figure out how much he was going to receive from his retirement from the electric company.  He had only been working there for three years.  Retirement at that time was determined by your years of service.  So, three years didn’t give him too much.

When I calculated his amount, he was upset.  He said, “Am I going to have to work until I die?”  I said, “Well, there’s always your 401k and Social Security.”  He replied that he can’t live on Social Security.  I said, “Well, there’s your 401k.”  He asked, “What’s that?” (oh.  not a good sign).

I explained that it was a retirement plan where you are able to put money in taxed deferred until you take it out when you retire.  He said, “Oh.  I never put anything in something like that.”  My heart just sank as I looked in his eyes.  He had suddenly realized that he wasn’t going to receive a retirement like those around him who had spent 35 years working in the Power Plant.

When I left the plant after teaching Charles Lay how to test the relays, that was the last time I ever saw him.  I don’t know what became of Charles.  I figure he would be 83 years old today.  I wonder if he finally retired when he reached the 80 points for your age and years of service.  He would have never reached enough years of service to receive a decent amount of retirement from the Electric Company since he didn’t start working there until he was 60 years old.  That is, unless he’s still working there now.

As I said earlier in this post, Charles Lay was a very good worker.  He always struck me as the “Hardworking type”.  I often think about the time we spent together, especially when I hear about a power blackout somewhere.  — A word of caution to Power Companies…. keep your protective relays in proper working condition.  Don’t slack off on the Preventative Maintenance.  — I guess that’s true for all of us… isn’t it?  Don’t slack off on Preventative Maintenance in all aspects of your life.

Added note:  On 7/6/2019, 3 weeks after re-posting this story, look what happened:  Con Edison says cause of NYC blackout was substation’s faulty relay protection system

UK Kudos for Okie Power Plant

I began writing this blog more than three years ago in order to share some of the stories about the great Power Plant Men and Women that I was privileged to work with for twenty years at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  I have put the men and women of this plant on a well-deserved pedestal.  Don’t just take my word for it.  The rest of the world had their eyes fixed on our plant.  Of the 700 Coal-fired Power Plants operating in the United States, there was one that stood out above all the rest.  It was no wonder to me.

The Power Plant had been told that in 1995 our plant had the lowest operating and maintenance cost of any fossil fueled Power Plant in the United States.  This included the cost for the fuel, which was coal being transported from Wyoming on trains.  The second lowest operating Power Plant was our sister plant in Muskogee.  After that was a plant in Texas that happened to sit on coal mine, and didn’t have the cost of shipping their coal 1,000 miles before they burned it.

The company was so proud of our achievements that they gave each of us a Jean Jacket with our names embroidered on it.  On the upper right it said, “1995 Low Cost Award”.

1995 Low Cost Award Jean Jacket

1995 Low Cost Award Jean Jacket

I don’t do Selfies, that’s why I draped this over a chair.

A couple of years later, we were again awarded as the low cost provider of electricity in the country.  This time they gave us Denim shirts.  Okies like Denim… I guess you could tell.  The cuff on the sleeve says, “1997  Sooner Power Plant Model Of Cost Efficiency”.

Denim Shirt awarded for being the 1997 "Model of Cost Efficiency"

Denim Shirt awarded for being the 1997 “Model of Cost Efficiency”

In the spring of 1998 (someone can correct me on the year), a plant manager, Mark Draper from England came to our plant to study us.  He wanted to see how a group of 124 employees could run a plant the size of a small city as efficiently as we did.  Throughout the year he worked on various teams to see how we operated.  He wanted to learn our secret.  The plant was willing to share everything with Mark.

Mark Draper

Mark Draper

Mark would spend a month working as a welder, then another month working as an Instrument and Controls Technician, then another in the machine shop.  He continued throughout the year bouncing from job to job watching and learning.  He spent a lot of time working with the Engineers.  I kept waiting for him to work as an electrician.

I had our second biggest secret just waiting to show to Mark, but it seems that it never occurred to Mark that electricians had something to offer to the efficiency of the Power Plant.  Because during the twelve months Mark spent at our plant, he never worked as an electrician.

The first biggest secret came in the form of an Engineer named Larry Kuennen.  He had studied the way the coal burned in the boiler and had come up with ways to increase the efficiency.  I’m sure Mark learned a lot from working with Larry.

I kept itching for the day that Mark Draper ended up working out of the electric shop.  I was going to take him on a tour and show him how we were saving a huge amount of electricity at our plant in a way that is totally overlooked by everyone else.  Without this secret, there would be no way we would have been the low cost provider of electricity.  I think at the time our plant could create electricity at a rate around 1.5 cents per killowatthour (someone at the plant can correct me.  It has been a while and I may be confusing this with the percent cost of IT by revenue at Dell).

Before I tell you about the report that Mark Draper gave us at the end of his year of studying the heman habits of Oklahoma Power Plant Men, let me expand on the way the electricians had increased the efficiency of the power plant.  It has to do with what a foreman, Mark Fielder would refer to as “My Baby.”  The precipitator.

Mark Fielder

Mark Fielder

The Precipitator is the piece of equipment that uses more power than just about everything else at the plant combined.  It takes the ash out of the exhaust before it goes out of the smoke stack.  That is why you don’t see smoke coming out of the smoke stack on a coal-fired Power Plant when it’s running.  When a precipitator is running efficiently, it should be able to take out 99.97% of the ash from the exhaust from the boiler.

The amount of ash going out of the smoke stack is measured by opacity.  That is, how much do the particles in the exhaust block a ray of light shining across the stack.  We tried to keep the opacity below 5%.  I think we legally had to keep it below 20%, but anything above 8% didn’t look good when you drove by the plant.  You would be able to see the smoke.

The precipitator at our plant used Static electricity to collect the ash.  Like I said, it used a lot of electricity.  Megawatts of power.  The secret is that Static electricity shouldn’t use much power.  Practically none.  If you calculated the work that actually had to be done, it was miniscule compared to running a conveyor or a big fan or a bowl mill.  This meant that 90% or more of the electricity used by an Electrostatic precipitator is wasted energy.  It is leaking, and in many cases actually working against collecting the ash.  A fine tuned electrostatic precipitator shouldn’t use much electricity.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only ours is twice as long

We had found a number of ways at our plant to manipulate the electric pulse used to charge the plates in the precipitator in order to reduce the wasted electricity.  When everything ran correctly, when the unit was at full load (510 Megawatts), the precipitator could have an opacity close to 0% using less than 100 Kilowatts (yes.  I said Kilowatts) of power.  This was so unheard of that the company that manufactured our controls refused to believe it even when they were standing in the Precipitator Control Room watching it operate.

To put this in perspective.  One winter day, while I was tuning the precipitator, the space heaters in the Precipitator control room was using more power to heat the room than the entire precipitator was using to remove the ash at full load.  The opacity was almost 0%.

Another side story about this is that at one point, the opacity monitor was measuring a negative 0.2%.  Tony Mena, the Instrument and Controls Technician worked on calibrating the monitor.  He would take it to the logic room and set it up on some stands there that had the same measurements as the stack.  No matter how many times he calibrated the monitor, he was still coming out with -.1 or -.2% when he hooked it up to the smoke stack.  The final conclusion was that the precipitator was operating so efficiently that the exhaust going out of the smoke stack was cleaner than the ambient air.  — I know… I know… impossible… right?

I’ll admit, it wasn’t just the manipulation of the electric pulse, it was also sensitive to the temperature of the exhaust and the amount of sulfur in the coal.  We burned Wyoming coal which has a very low amount of sulfur.  This made it more challenging.

I couldn’t wait to show this to Mark Draper, the UK Plant Manager.  This was my baby, and I was proud of it.  Only, Mark never showed up.

One day I saw a man with a clipboard walking around the precipitator hoppers writing something down as he studied them.  So, I walked up to him.  I could tell right away that he was someone from England that had come as part of Mark Drapers crew of spectators.  I asked him if he was interested in learning how we ran our precipitators.

I thought, maybe this is someone who is finally interested in how we save tons of money in operating cost each year by not wasting it on the precipitator.  He was an engineer taking notes on our ash transport system.  He wasn’t interested in how we operated the controls.  He said in England they just throw the switch and power up the precipitator to full power and let it go at that.  — A total waste of power and it’s less efficient.  I couldn’t even convince him to take a walk through the control cabinets just to see the voltage and amp meters.

Oh well, I thought…  This would just be our plant’s little secret.  No one else seems to want to know about it.

At the end of the year during our monthly safety meeting, Mark Draper gave us a report of his findings.  He went through a lot of bullet points in a PowerPoint Presentation. — Yeah.  We were beginning to get fancy with the computers around that time.

The first thing that Mark brought up was this…. He said that there was no way he was going to be able to go back to England and repeat what he had learned here.  The reason was that the Fine Power Plant Men and Women at our plant came to work each day and began working at 8:00.  They took close to a 20 minute break in the morning and in the afternoon.  They took a 40 minute lunch (Breaks were technically 15 minutes and lunch was 30, but…. you know how it is… you have to stretch them a little).  He explained that at our plant, we had about 6 and a half hours each day of productive time.  6-1/2 hours of actually working on something.

In England, this was impossible.  When the workers arrived at the plant in England, they took a long time getting ready for work.  They took longer breaks and longer lunches, and at the end of the day, they would take a long time to take a shower and clean up.  Almost an hour to clean up at the end of the day.  In England they were lucky when they were able to get 4 hours of actual work out of their workers.  Because of union agreements and such, they were helpless to change this culture.

Mark was impressed at the amount of pride people took doing their jobs.  I will paraphrase what Mark told us:  He could tell that the Oklahoma Power Plant Men and Women wanted to do a good job.  They received satisfaction by applying their skills to their work.  In England, the attitude of the worker was more like this was just a job.  Their real satisfaction in life was when they left the plant.  In Oklahoma, when the Power Plant Men left the plant, they left with more of a feeling of pride over doing a good job.

Mark did offer us some advice on how we could better ourselves.  He did give us his honest opinion about some things that he thought we might do better.  They sounded more like they were coming from his Plant Manager training than from his experience at our plant.

As Mark never did work with the electricians, I was never able to work with him.  Others who did, found Mark to be very friendly.  I know that some also kept in touch with him long after he left to go back to England.  I missed the opportunity to befriend Mark.  I wish I had.

Mark Draper must have had a tremendous amount of character to be able to persuade those in England that he should take off an entire year to go work at a Power Plant in Oklahoma U.S.A.. Just think of the commitment he was making to leave his home for a year to go work alongside skilled labor in another country.

I didn’t know Mark personally like a lot of the other Power Plant Men did, but after I originally posted this post (yesterday), a Control Room Operator, Jim Cave who knew Mark better told these stories to me:

  • Mark told me that he wanted to live a normal American life while in the states. Bill Green had bought him a gift of an outdoor grill. The first opportunity that he had to use it he told me that he grilled the family some burgers and then they all went and sat in the car and ate them!
  •  He also went and bought some American jeans so he would blend in with the workers. He caught all kinds of grief from the guys when they noticed his jeans didn’t have any back pockets! His wife had to go back to the store and buy him some “guy” pants.
  •  He WAS a very nice and very smart guy. The cultural differences were interesting. He came into the control room one day asking me for “a pair of steps”. We had no idea that he wanted a ladder.

Mark did make sense when he said that what he saw at our plant he would not be able to reproduce in England.  The truth was that what Mark saw at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was something that few plants in the United States could reproduce.  I have been attempting to make this point each week for the past 3 years.

There was something very special at this Power Plant during the 20 years when I worked there.  Something you are not going to find just anywhere.  The plant housed a collection of some of the most fantastic minds and personalities on the planet.  They had somehow all come together to perform a team that not only produced the “Model of Cost Efficiency” as it said on our shirts, but had also created a group of extraordinary teamwork.

Whenever I sat in a meeting like the Monthly Safety Meeting, where the entire maintenance department was present, as I looked around the room, I honestly could see that for the most part we were more of a family than we were employees.  I was lucky to have been invited to be a part of this family.  Kudos to you all.

Destruction of a Power Plant God

Sometimes we unknowingly end up worshiping things we never intend.  It isn’t until those things are destroyed before we realize what has happened.  We have a natural tendency to worship something.  It’s built into our DNA to worship God just as sure as the God Particle converts energy into matter and subsequently atoms into earth and water.  I’m not sure when my obsession began, but I definitely know the day when it was destroyed.  August 5, 1996.

The day of realization began as a normal day, as Scott Hubbard and I were driving to the plant.  It seemed like an extra dark morning considering it was the middle of the summer.  Perhaps it was because by this time we were working four tens, which meant we arrived at the plant before 7:00 am so we left Stillwater, Oklahoma at 6:15 to drive to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

When we topped the overpass to the turnpike at 6:32 we thought we could see something strange at the Power Plant off in the distance.  The sun was going to rise in the next few minutes (at 6:42), yet, the sky seemed darker than usual.  It must have been a cloudy morning.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset (only we were arriving before sunrise)

We thought we could see red and blue flashing lights coming from one end of the plant.  It was only momentary, because once over the overpass, we were too low to see that section of the plant.  We weren’t really sure what we had seen.  It became even more confusing as we approached the entrance to the plant.

There seemed to be a little more activity happening at the front gate than usual.  there was a guard or an operator standing out there.  He waved us through the gate.  about 300 yards past the main gate, we had a clear view of the plant grounds laying before us as we made our way to the parking lot.  It was here that the significance of the flashing lights suddenly caused us to gasp. We were stunned into silence.

The area around the Unit 1 main power transformer was flashing with the red and blue lights of several fire trucks.  They seemed to be pulling away just about that time.  Some of the siding on the Turbine-Generator room was missing, some was blackened from smoke as it had poured out of the windows along the turbine room floor.  The real shock to me came as we approached the parking lot and I looked up through where a window used to be and I could see the sky.  I could see the sky where the T-G roof should have been.

We were directed to go into the maintenance garage to avoid the fire trucks who that were backing away.  We met with our team and Alan Kramer told us that there had been an explosion during the night when an overspeed test was being performed on the Unit 1 Boiler Feed Pump Turbine (BFPT).  The number one question we all wanted answered was quickly given to us…. No one was hurt in the explosion.

Alan mentioned that in our recent fire fighter training, we had learned that a large percentage of companies that have a major fire (such as ours) goes out of business within the next year.  That was not going to happen to us even though the damage was extensive.  Our job was to put everything back to the way it was before the fire.

Here is the story as it happened, as much as I know:

The explosion occurred when an operator (I’ll let one of the operators remind me who it was) was running an overspeed test on the BFPT.  Suddenly he heard a loud pop and then the turbine winding up out of control.  He took off running and was around the corner of a concrete pillar when the turbine exploded.  The turning gear shot out like a top and flew across the mezzanine floor, hit the corner of the north stairway, and still spinning like a top, tore up the stairway as it made the turn halfway down and ended up in middle of the the T-G basement where it finally came to rest.  This turning gear weighs somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand pounds (I’m guessing).

Turning Gear

Turning Gear

At this point steam was shooting out of the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine.  The oil pumps that keep the bearings lubricated were spraying oil into the steam which burst into flames.  The flames shot up to the concrete floor 40 feet above.  The fire was so hot that it melted the metal structure holding up the floor and the rebar in the concrete.  The Turbine Room Floor literally melted away as the oil fire shot the flames up toward the roof another 80 feet above the turbine room floor  melting the roof as if it was butter.  The asbestos siding on the T-G floor was falling off because the bolts that held them to the brackets literally melted away.

The same reservoir that feeds the oil to the the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine bearings also fed the Main Turbine Generator.  This is the same generator that makes the electricity that causes the light bulb to glow in your house when you turn it on.  The Main Turbine Generator tripped when the explosion occurred, as it should.  As it slowed down to a stop, the oil for the bearings was all gone.  It had been creating the large fire ball that was melting down the T-G floor.

Normally, when the Turbine-Generator comes to a stop, it is put on a turning gear while the shaft cools down otherwise the shaft will become warped under it’s own weight.  The Turning gear slowing rotates the turbine for a day or so while it cools.  Without bearing oil, the turning gear would not be able to turn the turbine generator.  The bearings require a layer of oil to function properly.

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

Charles Patton, one of the Maintenance foremen was called out, and he took cans of STP Oil Treatment and for hours poured them onto the bearings and manually rotated the 50 ton turbine generator (Ray, help me out with the actual weights).  Through the heroic efforts of Charles and others that were there to help, the Turbine Generator was spared from even more damage.

Charles Patton

Charles Patton

By the time we arrived that morning, the fire was out, things were cooling down.  Unit 2 was still running, and it was our job to keep it going.

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

As I walked out onto the T-G floor everything went into slow motion.  I don’t know if that has ever happened to you before.  There have been a few times in my life when I was in a near death situation where my surroundings all seem to switch into a slow motion mode.  I think it happens because your brain kicks into high gear in order to process what is happening and to put as much effort forward as possible to avoid danger.

The first time I think that happened to me was when I was with some friends climbing around on some cliffs by the Missouri River.  One boy was falling back after the ledge he was on gave way and was going to fall most likely to his death when everything switched into slow motion even before I realized what was wrong.  I was able to make quick decisions that allowed me to push him back onto the ledge and grab onto a branch that luckily kept me from the same fate.

When I walked onto the T-G floor and saw the devastation, I think my mind was trying to take everything in all at once.  The Turbine Generator was covered in soot and debris.  I flashed back to the days when I was a janitor and used to keep the turbines waxed so that they would shine.  It was at this moment that I realized I actually worshiped the Turbine Generators in a way similar to the way the religious cult worshiped the alpha-omega doomsday bomb in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”.

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

The near destruction of the Turbine Generator made me realize the importance I had placed on it.  I felt as if I had almost lost my close friend like the boy climbing on the cliff.  I used to stand on the sides of the Turbines when I was a janitor with my dust mop and after spraying furniture polish on the mop, I would caress the turbines as if I was running my fingers through someone’s hair.

Like this only with a mop handle

Like this only with a mop handle

We began the clean up by taking fire hoses and washing down the siding on the Unit 2 side to try to bring some normalcy back to a surreal situation.  The soot didn’t just wash off.  Not long after we had dragged out the fire hoses and were blasting away at the siding, Alan Kramer asked Charles Foster and I to look at the air duct to the Instrument room on the north side of the Turbine room.  The room was getting too hot and the air conditioner seemed to have frozen.

We climbed into the air duct on the roof of the instrument room and replaced the filters that were packed with soot stopping the air flow for the Air Conditioner.  This seemed like one task in 100,000 that would need to be done to put this puzzle back together again.  All the electric cables that ran through the Unit 1 Mezzanine had melted away, everything had been utterly destroyed.

The thought was too overwhelming.  I felt like Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” when she said, “I can’t think about that right now.  If I do, I’ll go crazy.  I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind

Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind

With everything on the T-G floor covered in soot, everyone was quickly black from head to toe.  Are clothes were now black.  We looked like Johnny Cash impersonators

Johnny Cash Man in Black

Johnny Cash Man in Black

literally with Al Jolsen Black Face as the soot was pitch black.

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face (Google Image)

We had just climbed out of the air duct and were making our way to the electric shop when Glenn Rowland approached me and said, “You Lucky Dog!”  I thought he must be making a comment about my appearance seeing how I was covered in soot.  Then he explained.  “For the next 10 weeks you have to report to Oklahoma City to work on an SAP project.  You’re a lucky dog because you are going to miss all the fun of cleaning up this mess.”

Did I ever mention that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world?  Well.  I am.  I had just come to grips with my false God, and now I had been rescued from two and a half months of working in soot and grime to go work in an air conditioned office building in Oklahoma City.

Here is a post about how lucky I am:  Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck.

Now for the hard part of the story to write about:

So, why did the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine fail the overspeed test?  What happened to cause the explosion?

The first attempt to place the blame where it didn’t belong was to blame Sonny Kendrick who had worked on the controls during the last outage.   The same person that would accuse me of purposely causing any little opacity problem on the precipitator even when I was on vacation, was now blaming Sonny Kendrick for the multi-million dollar destruction of the Turbine Room Floor.

Sonny Kendrick must have looked like an easy target.  A soft-spoken man that works alone most of the time.  No one really understands some of the things he works on.  Maybe they thought he wouldn’t be able to explain the changes he had made to the controls in enough detail in order to blame him for the explosion.  I use the word “target” because someone else had to be “blamed” for the explosion instead of the person responsible.  The person they picked as the “fall guy” was Sonny Kendrick:

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny Kendrick

You see… someone was directly responsible for the explosion.  Someone who continuously used “Risk Management” as an excuse to cut corners.  I wonder if everything was completely on the unconscious level, or did this person ever realize the impact of his decisions.  You see, I haven’t completely decided.

There appears to have been a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the explosion that took three months to recover.  The first clue was to try to blame Sonny Kendrick without any proof.  I don’t know if Sonny was eventually cleared as the fall guy because he was able to clearly show how all of his wiring changes had no impact on an overspeed test, or someone who knew about the actual cause threatened to come out with the truth if they continued to pursue Sonny as the fall guy.  You see… there was more to this equipment failure than met the eye.

The turbine exploded because the coupling to the pump shattered.  That’s the part that connects the steam turbine to the boiler feed pump.  When the coupling broke the turbine, no longer having any resistance, began to rotate at a rate much faster than it was ever designed to rotate until it flew apart.

A large coupling

A large coupling

It was known at the end of the last outage that the coupling was damaged.  It would have delayed bringing the unit online another 2 or 3 days in order change out the coupling.  In the name of “Risk Management” it was decided to “risk it” until the next outage.  The decision was made without using any type of risk assessment tool… obviously.

I know about the conversations that took place because one of the people involved confided in me.  The person that told me the details of the conversations said that even under oath he would never tell anyone else the truth.  This is the second clue that made me think that a concerted effort was made to cover up the knowledge that it was known that a faulty coupling was operating on the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine and it had been decided to leave it in place.  You see… everyone who was on the team that found the damage knew about it.

The third clue this was a “conspiracy to cover up the truth” was that when an investigation was performed to look into the cause of the explosion, the person responsible for keeping the bad coupling in place played a major role in the investigation.  Like the Fox guarding the Hen House.

Because the truth about the coupling never came to light, the insurance company ended up paying the entire bill for the outage.  It was ruled as “equipment failure”.  Our plant manager Bill Green remarked one day that we actually came out ahead when the insurance company paid for the outage, because they paid our lost revenue without taking all the operating costs into account.

I know sometimes that things just happen and sometimes bad things happen.  Sometimes when everything is done correctly, something still goes wrong.  I know that.  That is why when this explosion first happened it made me step back and think twice about the dangers lurking around a Power Plant.  A tremendously large amount of energy is being converted from coal into electricity.  Somewhere, some time, something is going to go wrong and someone is going to be hurt or killed.

That is also why when this explosion happened, it never occurred to me to place the blame on anyone.  To me it was just one of those things that happens every now and then.  My bubble of innocence was burst the day I heard about the decision to keep a defective coupling in place on such an important piece of equipment.

On one hand I was angry that someone would make a decision that could have ended with the death of an operator, on the other hand, I was relieved to know that accidents like this don’t just happen.  It was only when someone decided to cut corners that this explosion occurred.  It gave me a little of my faith back in the system.  When things are done right, we can work safely without the fear that something is likely to explode in our face.

All right, so I never really worshiped the Turbine Generator.  I just exaggerated that part a bit.  But let me ask this question… Who in this story did?  Who was it that was willing to sacrifice the life of an operator to keep from delaying the “go-live”?  Who thought that having the Generator produce electricity two or three days sooner than it should have been was more important?  That is the person that really needs to re-evaluate their priorities and take another look at which God they worship.

The question is never, “Is there a God?”  The real question is “Which God do you worship?”

Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with “Boring”

One of the most exhilarating moments a Power Plant Man may experience is when, while wearing a pair of high voltage gloves, they crank the handle of a High Voltage Switch closed in a substation.  The booming sound of the electricity crackling overhead and the echoing off of the hills and trees a mile away comes rumbling back!  I never could understand why the training required to be a certified substation switchman had to be the most boring class a Power Plant Man had to sit through.

An Electric Substation. Who would ever want to damage at something so beautiful?

An Electric Substation. Isn’t it beautiful?

I remember when I was young, every child had their own trampoline in their bedroom.  When your mom or dad confined you to your room, you could always find entertainment by jumping on the bed.  Then throwing up the blanket and letting it fall in a way that created a big blanket bubble, then you could plop yourself down in the middle as the mushroomed bed sheet burped the air out.

Once when I was young, my dad took my brother and me to Saint Louis because he was attending a meeting.  He was in the meeting most of the day, as we stayed in the hotel room.  This was back when you didn’t have 24 hour cable TV.  The day whizzed by as my brother and I jumped around between the two beds.  Leaping as high as we could, and pouncing from one bed to the other.  When our dad arrived after a day in meetings, he didn’t find a couple of young boys staring at the walls, he found two worn out kids who had just had one of the funnest days we could remember…. being cooped up in a hotel room all day long.

Contrast that to the first time I attended Substation Switchman Certification training.

The instructor explained at the beginning of the day long class that he was required to read through the company policies and procedures on substation switching before we were allowed to take the test.  There were a number of procedures that were practically duplicates of each other, so we had to listen to the same boring documents being read to us over and over again throughout the day.  This didn’t include just the switching procedures in the switchyard.  It also included the clearance procedures required before and after the switching has occurred.

Six hours later, I thought my eyelids had grown little lead weights on the end of every eyelash (and if you have ever seen how many eyelashes I have, you would know how serious of a situation this was).

That wasn’t the worst of it.  Switchman training back then was required every two years.  Think about this.  I was an electrician for 18 years.  During that time, I had to take Switchman training 7 times!  Each time the instructor had to read the entire text of the switchman policies and procedures.  Think of the most boring lecture or sermon you ever had to sit through, then multiply it by six, and you will understand the agony we had to endure each time to receive the Certified Switchman card for our wallets.

During the summer of 1995, after we had downsized to where we only had 7 electricians at the large coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma, we decided we needed to train more operators to be switchman.  After all, they had the clearance part down already, and basically did lower voltage switching in the switchgears.  It made a lot of sense.

We told the switchman trainer that we wanted to add some hands-on practical training to the course to try to make training more exciting.  Andy Tubbs, the foreman who was also an electrician and long time switchman, worked to arrange it so that we could have the operators switch out a section of the substation after they had learned the boring part of their training.

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

After an entire day of sitting in a classroom.  The switchmen trainees had a real life opportunity to watch and experience switching out a real section of the substation.  They could wear the high voltage gloves and open the switches.

High Voltage gloves like this

High Voltage gloves like this

We also took switching orders and added some errors to them, and asked the students to review the orders to see if they would approve the switching before they went to the substation and to make any corrections necessary.  This is one of the steps a switchman is required to do before going out to switch.  They have to review each step of the switching and approve them.

Two years later in 1997, I was asked to go to Oklahoma City and become certified as a Switchman Trainer.  I remember going to the training center just north of Norman Oklahoma where I met our instructor, Harry McRee.  He was a trainer in his early 50’s.  He had been a safety trainer for years.

Harry McRee's Business Card

Harry McRee’s Business Card

Harry explained to us that he would like to make the switchman training more interesting, but the company’s requirements demanded that all of the documentation be read through entirely every time a person was re-certified.  Since the documentation took most of the day to read, his hands were sort of tied when it came to making the class more interesting.

To give you an idea… here is how many steps it takes just to take a clearance on a breaker in a plant…. We had to review each step of the process:

Clearance Procedures

Clearance Procedures

As a side note… In 1993, I had received a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans.  My emphasis was on Adult Education.  So, when I went back to the plant and began developing the class for our plant, I thought I should be able to come up with some way to make the class more interesting.

I also thought that if it was possible for a couple of kids to keep themselves entertained all day just with a couple of beds in a hotel room, then something should be able to be done to make this ultra-boring class, more entertaining.

Since I was the “computer person” at the plant, I decided that I would use my computer as a learning aid.  I went to our substations and took pictures of everything I could find, so I could add them to a PowerPoint Project.  PowerPoint was fairly new at the time, so I decided to dazzle the class with animated fly-ins and popups, and cool transitions.  I also consolidated the various documents so that I wasn’t repeating myself throughout the day.  I brought my computer from home and set it up in the conference room.

I also employed my daughter Elizabeth to help me.  I figured if she could teach some of the training, and the students could see that even a seven year old can learn this, then maybe they would be a little more interested.  I had recently bought a new Ball Camera for my computer.  It was a new thing to have a camera on your computer.  They weren’t really used for things like Skype back then, since you only had 28,800 baud modems, which doesn’t give you very much bandwidth.  So needless to say.  No one in the room knew what that little white ball was.

White ball computer camera

White ball computer camera

I had my daughter dress up in one of my wife’s lab coats and wear over-sized glasses to give her the look of a teacher.  Then we created a number of short film clips that gave specific instructions.  Here are a few screenshots from the short videos we made:

Elizabeth, The Switchman Trainer

Elizabeth, The Switchman Trainer

At any moment her video would come flying in and she would often say….. “Look Class!  I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”

She would also fly in and say, “Pay Attention!  This is on the test!”

There were still a couple of videos that the switchmen-in-training had to watch that were boring, especially since we had all watched them many times in our careers.  I knew that during the videos, many would be falling asleep, so, I took my ball camera with me and kept it sitting on the table while we went through the training.  No one really knew what it was.

While we were watching the first boring video, I sat looking at my computer monitor, which no one in the room could see.  What I was doing was acting like I wasn’t paying any attention to anyone when I really was.  I had the ball camera in my hand.  I was looking for anyone who was dozing off.  Then I would take a movie clip of them nodding off.  Some fighting to keep their eyes open.  Others leaning way back in their chair with their mouth hanging wide open fast asleep.

I took the movie clips and put them about 5 slides later in the next section we were going to cover.  Just when they were ready to be bored from the next section of the class, I would present a slide to them with movie clips of them sleeping during the videos and Elizabeth would slide in from the bottom of the slide and say, “Look Class!  I know this is boring, but you HAVE to learn it!”

People Sleeping in Chairs. Just random pictures from Google. Not actual Power Plant Men

People Sleeping in Chairs. Just random pictures from Google. Not actual Power Plant Men

That was the clincher.  Once they realized that I had taken movie clips of them sleeping in the class just a few minutes earlier, they were all wide awake the rest of the day.  No one dared to nod off again.  It worked great!  When the second video was playing, you can be sure that everyone in the room was wide-eyed and wide awake.

When it came to the part where they took their test, they could use any notes they had taken.  Since Elizabeth had popped in and notified them about the parts that were going to be on the test, they were all prepared.  Here is a copy of the test they took:

Switchman Training Final Exam

Switchman Training Final Exam

Isn’t it funny that back then, you regularly used your Social Security Number for things like this?  We wouldn’t think of doing that today.

Later, after the class was over, Harry McRee, the trainer that had trained me in Oklahoma City, had heard how I had made the class interesting. So, he called me and asked if he could come out to our plant and see what I had done.  When he arrived I showed him all my material and gave him a copy of the PowerPoint and videos.  I told him he was free to use them however he wanted.

Because of this, I was asked to train the Power Plant Man in some other areas including general Windows training.  When a job to be the “official” trainer opened up at the plant, I applied for it…. but that is a topic for another post.  See the post “Power Plant Train Wreck“.

Power Plant Men Meet The Wild West

I was five years old the first time I witnessed a shootout between two people the summer of 1966.  One person was a law enforcement officer and the other person was apparently a criminal.  The criminal who had run out into the middle of the street decided to stand his ground and turned around to face the Sheriff who had been calling to him to stop… “In the name of the law” I think he said.  They paused for a moment, and then in a flurry of bullets the criminal fell to the ground.  The crowd that had gathered around in that brief moment clapped.

I had never seen a dead body before that day.

The scene I had witnessed happened on the north side of Oklahoma City, just across I-35 from a restaurant called “The Surrey House”.  It was a famous restaurant in Oklahoma City since the mid 1950’s, known for having the best pies around.  We had traveled all the way from Stillwater Oklahoma to eat at this restaurant several times in the past 2 years before this incident occurred.

The Surrey House in the early 1960s. Notice the great set of cars in the parking lot

The Surrey House in the early 1960’s. Notice the great set of cars in the parking lot

That particular day after we had eaten, we took a short jog across I-35 to go for a stroll down a street that had a western feel to it, much like the stockyard area of Fort Worth, Texas.  At that time, this particular stretch of the Interstate Highway was different than any Interstate I had ever seen in my five informative years of existence.

You could pull off into the restaurant without taking a “formal” exit.  You could even cross the highway at a couple of places by just jogging across the center median and pulling off the side of the road directly into another place of business.

As a side note:

In 1966, this particular section of I-35 was under construction.  It was still under construction when we left Oklahoma in 1967 to move to Columbia, Missouri.  Oh… and it was still under construction when we returned to Oklahoma in 1978.  In fact.  This particular stretch of I-35 was under construction for about 33 years.  It was known as a “Boondoggle”.  It was the laughing stock of the Interstate Highway system.  It did look nice when it was finally finished some time around 1990.

At This time this small stretch of highway was still referred to as Route 66.

End Side note.

As fate would have it, August 14, 1999, when my son was 4 years old and my daughter was 9, we returned to the same street where I had witnessed the shootout 33 years earlier.  The buildings were much the same, only they had a better coat of paint than when I was a child.  As fate would also have it, another shootout occurred very similar to the one I had witnessed as a boy.  The players were obviously not the same as before, but it did involve another lawman and another criminal.  The criminal ended up with his gun being shot out of his hand then he was dragged off in handcuffs.  Again, the crowd that had gathered clapped.

Here is a picture of the street where the shootout occurred:

The street where the shootout took place

The street where the shootout took place

When I was a child and we entered this small town across from the Surrey House Restaurant, this is what the entrance looked like:

Frontier City I visited as a child

Frontier City I visited as a child

When I returned with my children, here is closer to what it looked like:

Frontier City Entrance

Frontier City Entrance

As you can tell by now, I am talking about an amusement park.  As a child, it was more of a place where you just strolled around and looked at the western stores and the people dressed up in western outfits, who would occasionally break out into shootouts and play tunes on tinny pianos in mocked up saloons.

When we returned 33 years later, Frontier City had turned into a full fledged amusement parks with roller coasters and water rides.  It still had the occasional shootouts that would spill out into the streets when some Black Bart character would call the Sheriff out into the street for a one-on-one “discussion”.

I suppose you think I must have slipped off my usual “Power Plant” topic.  Actually, the day my children were standing there watching the shootout at Frontier City, all of the people standing with us worked at the Electric Company.  Frontier City had been closed to the public on August 14 (and 21) and was only allowing Power Plant Men and other Electric Company employees in the gate on those dates.

There was a sort of a rivalry within the Electric Company that I had found existed about 3 years earlier in 1996 when some lineman were at our plant from what might be called the T&D department.  This stands for Transmission and Distribution.  In other words, the department where the linemen and transformer people worked.

One of the linemen told me while we were working in the substation that the company really didn’t need Power Plants anymore.  When I asked him why, he explained that since Electricity is bought on the open market now, the company could buy their electricity from anybody.  It didn’t matter who.  The company didn’t need to own the plants.

Not wanting to start a “turf war”, I kept to myself the thought that the Electric Company that produces the electricity is the one making the money just as much as the one with the wire going to the house.  Do you think you can just buy electricity as cheap as you can from our power plants?  After all, our electric company could produce electricity cheaper (at the time) than any other electric company our size in the country.

So, when we were walking around Frontier City going from ride to ride, I half expected to see a mock shootout between a Power Plant Man and a Lineman.  Fortunately, I don’t think one incident of that nature occurred that day.  If you keep reading, you may find out why.

Some time in mid-July the employees of the Electric Company in Central Oklahoma received a letter in the mailbox inviting them to spend a day at Frontier City.  You might think this is a misuse of Electric Company funds to pay for the use of an amusement park for two days just for your employees…  After all, this came out of someone’s electric bill.

You will notice on the invite below that the company was thanking everyone for their hard work and long hours and for working safely through a difficult time.

My invitation for Frontier City

My invitation for Frontier City

Wouldn’t you know I would keep a copy….

You may wonder what difficult time an Electric Company in Oklahoma could possibly face, and I suppose the first thing that comes to many people’s minds are “tornadoes”.  In this case you would be right.  We had a very trying year with the storms over Oklahoma that had ripped through Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999.

We call this a tragedy, and it was.  Over 3,000 homes had nothing but concrete slabs where their homes used to be, as an F5 tornado tore through populated areas in the Oklahoma City area.  Throughout all this destruction 36 people lost their lives.  This is a very small number considering the amount of destruction.

The evening of May 3 at my home outside Stillwater, Oklahoma when I had arrived home from work, I swept the bugs and dust out of our storm shelter, which was an 8 foot by 8 foot cube  with 8 inch reinforced concrete walls buried in the ground outside my bedroom window.  The top of it looked like a patio with a big stainless steel plated wooden door.  I stocked the storm shelter with some fresh water and snacks.

We knew tornadoes were heading our way.  The weather experts on KFOR and  KWTV in Oklahoma City were telling us all day the paths where tornadoes were likely to appear.  The majority of the people in Central Oklahoma were bracing themselves for tornadoes all afternoon.  With experts like Gary England, Oklahoma City usually found themselves well warned when tornadoes were on their way.

Gary England of KWTV Oklahoma's Premier Weather Expert of all time

Gary England of KWTV. Oklahoma’s Premier Weather Expert of all time

My wife was working as a Charge Nurse at the Stillwater Medical Center.  I remember sitting on the edge of the bed in my bedroom watching the F5 tornado entering Oklahoma City.  The tornadoes had traveled 85 miles from Lawton Texas, growing as they moved across the state.

As the tornado tore through large residential areas in Oklahoma City I called my daughter, Elizabeth (Ebit) into my room and with tears in my eyes I told her we needed to pray for the people in Oklahoma City because this tornado we were watching on TV was destroying hundreds of people’s lives right before our eyes.

Less than an hour later we entered our own storm shelter as another F5 tornado was within 5 miles of our house.  My wife, Kelly was still at the hospital moving patients to safety in the basement where we had taken shelter from tornadoes when we lived on 6th street.

We spent that night going in and out of our storm shelter as tornadoes passed close by.  The F5 tornado that came close to our house took out the High Voltage power lines coming from our Power Plant to Oklahoma City for a 10 mile stretch.

High Voltage Power Pole

High Voltage Power Pole like this

There were a total of 74 tornadoes that night in Oklahoma City and Kansas.

The Electric Company was scrambling to supply power to a city that had been crippled by a tornado 5 miles wide.  We still had one high voltage line on the 189 KV substation intact where we could funnel electricity to the rest of the state that still had an intact transmission system.

The Oklahoma Electric Company had more experience with tornado damage than any other company in the country.  They often donated their time helping out other companies in their time of need.

Electric Company Trucks on their way from Oklahoma to Indiana to help return power to millions of Americans without power

Electric Company Trucks on their way from Oklahoma to Indiana to help return power to millions of Americans without power

With the help of electric companies from nearby states, electricity was restored as quickly as possible.  The men and women who work for the Electric Company in Oklahoma are the real heroes of the wild west.  It is the lineman that is called out in an emergency like this.

Linemen work until the job is complete when an emergency like this occurs.  Sometimes they are on the job for days at a time, resting when they can, but not returning to the comfort of their own bed until power is turned on for the Million plus customers that they serve.  The lineman had completed their work repairing this natural disaster without any serious injuries.

That day at Frontier City, the heroes of the day were the T&D crews that spent a significant part of their lives working to repair the damage caused by these tornadoes.  Even though there may have been some sort of rivalry between T&D and Power Supply (that is, the Power Plant employees), any Power Plant Man that came across one of the T&D linemen that day at Frontier City, tipped their hat to them (if not literally, then through their expression of gratitude).

As grateful as the Power Plant Men were for the hard work and dedication of the linemen during that time of emergency, the people who were truly grateful were the countless families who had their power restored in a timely manner.  Sitting in your house in the dark trying to find out if another tornado is on the way or wondering if the food in your refrigerator is going to spoil, and water is going to be restored is a frightening thought when your family is counting on you to make everything right.

Ticker tape parades are reserved for returning soldiers from victories.  Invitations to the White House are usually extended to dignitaries and distinguished individuals and basketball teams.  Statues are raised for heroes who have made their mark on the nation.  Pictures of our Founding Fathers are placed on our currency.  All of these are great ways to honor our heroes.

Power Plant Men and Linemen do not need this sort of gesture to know that what they do for mankind is a tremendous benefit to society.  If you would like to honor some great heroes of our day, then if you are ever travelling through Oklahoma and you see a bright orange truck travelling down the highway with an Electric Company Logo on it, then give them a honk and a wave.  They will know what you mean.  When they wave back, know that you have just been blessed by some of the greatest men and women of our generation.

Heroes and Kings of the Power Plant Palace

This story was originally posted on February 11, 2012:

There are five main power plants in the electric company in Central Oklahoma, and maintenance men from each plant would work at other plants when there was an overhaul.  An overhaul is when a generator was taken off line for the purpose of doing maintenance on major parts of the plant that can only be done when the unit isn’t running.  Such as repairing boiler tubes, and working on the turbine and generator.  Because employees would work at other plants for months at a time, living in camping trailers or cheap hotel rooms to save money, most people were able to work with and had the opportunity to know the Power Plant Men  from the other four plants.

I have noticed that most non-plant people have a general misconception about Power Plant Men when they first meet them.  As a young 18 year old entering my first job with real men, I learned very quickly  that they each possessed a certain quality or talent that made them unique and indispensable   Sure there were some “bad apples”, but they were never really and truly Power Plant Men.   They either left because of incompatibility or were promoted to upper management.  I know more than once the plant hired someone new only to have them work one day and never show up again.  There were few if any real Power Plant Men that ever left the plant where the character of the plant and its ability to be maintained properly wasn’t instantly changed.

While I am writing this post this evening a wake service is being held at the First Methodist Church in Moore, Oklahoma for a true Power Plant man; Jimmy Armarfio.  He was an electrician at Mustang plant.  I had heard some stories about Jimmy before I actually met him; most of them about humorous things that had happened to him at one time or other.  Everyone liked his African accent (Jimmy was from Ghana, a country in Africa) as they would imitate his voice while telling the stories.  It seems that Bill Bennett our Electrical A foreman had more than a few stories to tell.

Jimmy came to our plant on an overhaul and worked out of our electric shop.  The first time I talked to Jimmy, he was leaning against a counter during lunch just finishing a book.  I happened to notice when I was walking by that the book was titled “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  I had read that book before, so I stopped and asked him what he thought of it.  He said that it was interesting how this man who was in a prison camp in Siberia living in a miserable state could go to bed at night thinking that he had a pretty good day.  I think I said something like, “Yeah, sort of like us working in this Power Plant.”

Then he said something that has always stuck in my mind.  He said that in the English language there are many words that mean the same thing.  For instance, for a rock, there is pebble, rock, stone and boulder.  In his native language there is one word.  It means “rock”. You may say, large rock, small rock, smooth rock, but there is only one word for rock.  It made me reflect on the phrase, “In the beginning was the Word…”  Suppose there was one word that included everything.

What I didn’t know at that time was that not only was Jimmy Armarfio from Ghana but he was the king of his tribe.  Steven Trammell said that his friends referred to him as “King Jimmy” after he was elected King of his tribe.   When I heard that Jimmy had died, I looked at the funeral home site and saw that one of his coworkers George Carr said the following:  “Jimmy was a beloved coworker and one of my personal heroes.”  Another friend, Jack Riley wrote: “It was my blessing to work with Jimmy.  The most cheerful person I have had the privilege of knowing.”  I have included his picture below.  Jimmy Armarfio…. Take a good long look at  A True Power Plant Man!  A Hero and a King!