Tag Archives: engulfed in ash

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

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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.

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

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 anyway 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 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 would 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 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 anyway 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 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 would 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 in 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 Jack 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 Jack’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.

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

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 Tuesday, March 8, 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 Jack, (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 view 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 anyway 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 Jack 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 think OSHA Jack 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 think he did 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 Jack 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 Jack.  He reminded me a little of the guy 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 would personally tell the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman to his face.

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 in it one day where we went over our new confined space requirements.  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, Jack 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.  How long he had been working for OSHA.  Did he enjoy his job…..  At times, I could get him to digress and tell me a story about his life.

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

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

I took Jack 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 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 Jack 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 Jack’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.

Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting

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.