Tag Archives: fire hose

Destruction of a Power Plant God

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

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

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

Power Plant at sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning Gear

Turning Gear

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

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

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

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

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

Charles Patton

Charles Patton

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

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

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

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

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

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

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

Like this only with a mop handle

Like this only with a mop handle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnny Cash Man in Black

Johnny Cash Man in Black

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

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face (Google Image)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny Kendrick

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

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

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

A large coupling

A large coupling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays to Listen

Originally Posted:  May 4, 2012.  I added some comments from the original post at the end of this post:

I wrote an earlier post about days some people would have liked to take back.  There was one day that I would like to take back.  It was the day Ken Conrad was teaching me how to setup and operate the two large water cannons that we used to irrigate the plant grounds.  During my second summer as a summer help (1980), when I had about 6 weeks left of the summer, I was asked to take over the watering of the plant grounds because Ken Conrad was needed to do other jobs and this was taking too much of his time.

The first summer I worked as a summer help, whenever it rained, by the time you had walked from the Engineer’s Shack parking lot to the Welding Shop entrance, you felt like someone 10 feet tall.  Because the entire distance would turn into a pool of red mud and as you took each step, you grew taller and taller as the mud stuck to your feet.  Just before you entered the maintenance shop, you could scrape your feet on a Boot Scraper  to whittle you down to size so that you would fit through the doorway.

 The entire main plant grounds would be nothing but mud because there wasn’t any grass.  It had all been scraped or trampled away while building the plant and now we were trying to grow grass in places where only weeds had dared to trod before.  When trucks drove into the maintenance garage, they dropped mud all over the floor.  It was the summer help’s job the first summer to sweep up the shop twice each week.  If it had been raining, I usually started with a shovel scraping up piles of mud.  So, I recognized the importance of quickly growing grass.

The day that Ken Conrad was explaining to me how to setup and operate the water cannons, I was only half paying attention.  “I got it.  Roll out the plastic fiber fire hose, unhook the water cannon from the tractor, let out the cable.  turn it on the fire hydrant… Done….”  That was all I heard.  What Ken was saying to me was a lot different.  it had to do with all the warnings about doing it the correct way.  I think in my mind I wasn’t listening because I was thinking that it really wasn’t all that difficult.

Water Cannon similar to ours only ours had another spool on it that held the fire hose

So, here is what happened the next morning when I went to setup the first water cannon to water the field just north of the water treatment plant up to the Million Gallon #2 Diesel Oil Tanks berms.  I thought… ok… Step one:  roll out the hose…  Hmmm… hook it up to the fire hydrant, and then just pull the water gun forward with the tractor and it should unroll the hose….

Well.  my first mistake was that I hadn’t disengaged the spool so that it would turn freely, so when I pulled the tractor forward, off popped the connector on the end of the hose attached to the fire hydrant.  That’s when I remembered Ken telling me not to forget to disengage the spool before letting out the hose.  That’s ok.  Ken showed me how to fix that.

I beat on it with a hammer to knock out the clamp and put it back on the end of the hose after I had cut off a piece with my pocket knife to have a clean end.  Disengaged the spool, and tried it again… Nope.  Pulled the end off again…  I was letting it out too fast.  That’s when I remembered Ken Conrad telling me not to let the hose out too fast or it would pull the end off.  I repaired the connector on the hose again.

After finally laying the hose out and hooking it up to the water cannon, I disconnected the water cannon from the tractor and hooked up the hose and began pulling the steel cable out of the cable spool by pulling the tractor forward.  Well, at first the water cannon wanted to follow me because you had to disengage that spool also, (as Ken had showed me).

So I thought I could just drag the water cannon back around to where it started, but that wasn’t a good idea because I ended up pulling off the connector on the fire hose again, only on the other end than before.  Anyway, after repairing the hose at least three times and getting everything in position twice, I was finally ready to turn on the water.

That was when things turned from bad to worse.  The first thing I did was turned on the fire hydrant using a large wrench where the water pressure instantly blew the hose out of the connector and water poured out into a big mud  puddle by the time I could turn it off.  then I remembered that Ken had told me to remember to make sure the screw valve was closed when you turned on the fire hydrant or else you will blow the end off of the hose….

So, I repaired the hose again, and reconnected it (standing in mud now).  Closed the screw-type valve and turned on the fire hydrant.  Then I opened the screw-type valve and the end of the hose blew off again…  Then I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me to make sure I open the valve very slowly otherwise I would blow the connector off of the hose.  So I repaired the hose again and hooked everything up (while standing in a bigger mud puddle) and tried it again.

I opened the valve slowly and the water cannon began shooting water out as I opened the valve up further and further… until a hole blew out in the middle of the hose shooting water all over the tractor.  So I turned off the water again as I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me not to open the valve very far or it would start to blow out holes in the hose.  I went and patched the hole the way that Ken Conrad has showed me and went back to try it again… walking through mud over to the fire hydrant, where there was an increasingly larger puddle.

I remember that it was around lunch time when I was standing in the middle of that field covered with mud  standing in what looked like a mud hole that pigs would just love, trying to repair a hole in the hose for the 3rd or 4th time that it dawned on me how different my morning would have been if I had only paid more attention to Ken when he was explaining everything to me the day before.

I skipped lunch that day. Finally around 1 o’clock the water cannon was on and it was shooting water out about 40 yards in either direction.  I spent that entire day making one mistake after the other.  I was beat by the time to go home.

Like this only without the grass

After sleeping on it I was determined not to let the experience from the day before intimidate me.  I had learned from my mistakes and was ready to tackle the job of watering the mud in hopes that the sprigs of grass would somehow survive the 100 degree heat.  As a matter of fact, the rest of the next 6 weeks the temperature was over 100 degrees every day.  This was Oklahoma.

When I first took over for Ken, the watering was being done in three shifts.  I watered during the day, the other summer help watered in the evening and a fairly new guy named Ron Hunt watered during the late night shift (not the Ron Hunt of Power Plant Man Fame, but a guy that eventually moved to the plant in Midwest City and became an operator).  After two weeks, they did away with the night shift and I was put on 7 – 12s.  that is 7 days a week, 12 hour days.

I didn’t own a car so, I had to catch a ride with someone in the morning in order to be at the plant by 6am.  Then I had to catch a ride back to Stillwater in the evening when I left at 6:30pm each day of the week.  The Operators and the security guards worked out good for this.  I would ride to work in the morning with whichever operator was kind enough to pick me up at the corner of Washington and Lakeview (where I had walked from my parent’s house) and whichever security guard that was going that way in the evening.

I found out after a few days on this job that Colonel Sneed whose office was in the Engineer’s Shack was in charge of this job.  So he would drive by and see how things were going.  After a while I had a routine of where I would put the water cannons and where I would lay the Irrigation pipes.  He seemed to be well pleased and even said that I could go to work for him when I was done with this job.

I told him that I was going to go back to school in a few weeks and he said that he would be waiting for me the next summer.  Only Colonel Sneed, who was an older man with silver hair wasn’t there when I returned the next summer.  He had either retired or died, or both.  I never was sure which.  I did learn a few years later that he had died, but I didn’t know when.

Besides the first day on that job, the only other memorable day I had was on a Sunday when there wasn’t anyone in the maintenance shop, I remember parking the yellow Cushman cart out in the shade of 10 and 11 belts (That is the big long belt that you see in the power plant picture on the right side of this post) where I could see both water cannons and the irrigation pipes.

I was watching dirt devils dance across the coal pile.  This was one of those days when the wind is just right to make dirt devils, and there was one after the other travelling from east to west across the coal pile.

A Dust Devil

The Security guard was on his way back from checking the dam when he stopped along the road, got out of his jeep and sat on the hood and watched them for 5 or 10 minutes.  For those of you who might not know, a dirt devil looks like a miniature tornado in training as it kicks up the dirt from the ground.  These dirt devils were actually “coal devils” and they were black.  They were lined up one after the other blowing across the the huge black pile of coal.  You can see the size of the coal pile from this Google Image:

This is an overhead view of the plant

This is an overhead view of the plant

Then as the security guard on the hill and I were watching the coal pile, this long black finger came flying up from the coal pile reaching higher and higher into the sky twirling itself into one huge coal devil!  It traveled toward me from the coalyard and across the intake coming straight toward where I was.  It ended up going directly between the two smoke stacks which are each 500 feet tall.  This coal devil was easily twice the size of the smoke stacks.  Tall and Black.  After it went between the smoke stacks it just faded like dust devils do and it was gone.

Picture a dust devil this size but pure black

As the monstrous black coal devil was coming toward the plant, the security guard had jumped in his jeep and headed down to where I was parked.  He was all excited and asked me if I had seen how big that was.  We talked about the dust devils for a few minutes, then he left and I went back to watching the water cannons and irrigation pipes.

I had to wonder if that big coal devil had been created just for our benefit.  It seemed at the time that God had been entertaining us that Sunday by sending small dust devils across the coal pile, and just as they do in Fireworks shows, he had ended this one with the big grand Finale by sending the monster-sized coal devil down directly between the smoke stacks.

Some times you just know when you have been blessed by a unique experience.  We didn’t have cameras on cell phones in those days, and I’m not too quick with a camera anyway, but at least the guard and I were able to share that moment.

I began this post by explaining why it is important to listen to a Power Plant Man when he speaks and ended it with the dust devil story.  How are these two things related?  As I pointed out, I felt as if I had been given a special gift that day.  Especially the minute it took for the monster coal devil to travel almost 1/2 mile from the coal yard through the smoke stacks.

It may be that one moment when a Power Plant Man speaks that he exposes his hidden wisdom.  If you aren’t paying close attention, you may miss it.  I did Ken Conrad an injustice the day he explained how to run the irrigation equipment and it cost me a day of pure frustration, but the real marvel was that as I made each mistake I could remember Ken telling me about that.

Ken had given me a full tutorial of the job I was about to do.  How many people would do that?  If I had only been listening, I would have heard Ken telling me much more than how to do the job.  I would have seen clearly how Ken cared enough about me to spend all the time it took to thoroughly teach me what he knew.

That is the way it is with True Power Plant Men.  Ken could have said, “roll out the hose, pull out the cable,, turn the water on … and good luck…”, but he didn’t.  he went through every detail of how to make my job easier.  I may have felt blessed when the monster coal devil flew between the stacks, but it was that day a couple of weeks earlier when Ken had taken the time and showed his concern that I had really been blessed.

I didn’t recognize it at the time.  But as time goes by and you grow older, the importance of simple moments in your life come to light.  My regret is that I didn’t realize it in time to say “Thank You Ken.”  If I could take back that day, I would not only listen, I would appreciate that someone else was giving me their time for my sake.  If I had done that.  I’m sure I would have ended the day by saying, “Thank you Ken.”

  1. Comments from the original post:

    1. susanhull May 5, 2012

    Ken reminds me of my dad, who, though not a power plant man per se (he was an electrical engineer, that’s pretty close,right?), would give us way more details than we thought we needed. And now I see myself doing it to my grandson (age 11), who is likely to roll his eyes and say, “I already know that!”, when I know darn well he doesn’t. Then I try to resist doing the “I told you so” dance when he finds out he doesn’t already know that. Unfortunately, he does not resist doing the dance when we find out that he did, in fact, already know it!

  2. zensouth May 5, 2012

    I like your blog because the stories are always substantial. It takes a while to take in all the flavor of it, like sampling a fine meal or a rich pastry. I do dislike the visual theme, but I think it forces me to concentrate on the content of the story.

    1. Plant Electrician May 5, 2012

      Thanks Zen, I understand your feelings. A coal-fired power plant is hardly a normal setting. It was built way out in the country because no one really wants one in their backyard. It was the place I called home for many years. I know that when I left I took with me silicon-based ash, a couple of pounds of coal dust and asbestos particles in my lungs. I will not be surprised the day the doctor tells me that I have mesothelioma. I realized after I left, that it wasn’t the place, it was the people that were so dear to me that I called “home”.

  3. jackcurtis May 13, 2012

    I’ve served time with similar folk, people who had more time for a kid learning a job than the kid had for them. Two things stuck besides an entirely different evaluation of those people over time…first one was the old (now): “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you know that ain’t so.” And the other was, remembering the old guys who had patience with you along the way, it’s always like remembering your parents and you pay it forward…(and I still think you have a book in you)

Power Plant Men Fighting Fires for Fun

Originally Posted October 5, 2012:

The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked first as a summer help, then as a janitor, a labor crew hand and finally as an Electrician is located about 20 miles north of Stillwater, Oklahoma.  It just so happened that Oklahoma State University in Stillwater has one of the leading Fire Protection and Safety schools in the country.  They offer Fire Service Training for companies who need to train their employees how to fight fires.  As a summer help I was fortunate enough to take the onsite training that they provided at the power plant about every other summer to train the employees how to put out difficult fires.

It does sound like a good idea considering that there was all this coal laying around that had the habit of spontaneously igniting into smouldering embers that could easily lead to a large raging ball of flames.  In fact, the Coal Yard heavy equipment operators had to drive their large dirt movers over and over the coal on the coal pile to pack it down because if it was exposed to too much air, it would develop hot spots that would turn into smoldering piles of coal that were nearly impossible to put out.

Dirt Mover full of coal

I have seen a spot smoldering on the coal pile where a water wagon would drench it with water over and over.  That only seemed to keep it from spreading as fast.  The only way to deal with it was to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn itself out.

You would think that the OSU Fire Training Service would do a good job of teaching the employees the proper use of the fire extinguishers, and they did.  The plant was loaded with Fire Extinguishers.  As a summer help and labor crew hand, we would have to do a monthly inspection of all the plant extinguishers to check their pressures and initial the inspection sticker showing that we had been by to check it.  This was a practice that would later change to once each quarter when the Power Plant Men were strung out too thin and the labor crew no longer existed.  Even later, the operators inspected them as they made their rounds, since they walked by them during their shifts anyway.

The plant had more than just the regular chemical fire extinguishers, it had the larger roll-around type in a few places as well:

More than what is needed in your average kitchen

The Fire Training Service trained us to use this as well.  Actually, they motivated us to go out and buy fire extinguishers to put in our own homes.  Which came in handy for me one year when an air condition repairman was using a blow torch in my house to cut out the cooling coils but forgot to take out the filter first.

The moment I saw him light up his torch, I pulled out the extinguisher from under the sink and set it on the counter.  As I watched him, he suddenly started jerking back and forth.  I figured something was up, so I pulled the pin, and when he was finally able to pull the burning filter out of the air duct, I was ready to blast it with the extinguisher.  So, I gratefully thank the electric company for properly training us to use the handy dandy fire extinguishers that you might use around the house.

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

One important thing that you learn about the little extinguishers in your house is that they don’t really go very far before they run out of chemicals.  So, you have to get the job done quickly while the fire is still small and manageable.

When I first heard that we were going to be trained to fight fires the second summer I was at the plant as a summer help, I was pretty excited.  Wow… Great!!!  Fight Fires!  That sounds fun.  A day of watching safety videos and playing with fire extinguishers.  I didn’t realize at the time that there was a reason why OSU Fire Training Service was the best fire training school in the radius of about 1,000 miles.

Sure.  We watched the training videos.  We learned all about proper fire extinguisher care and maintenance.  We heard stories about how small fires turned into raging infernos that burned companies right out of business.  One thing I remember is that some large percentage of companies that have a major fire are never able to recover to the point that they go completely out of business.

If you need the exact percentage, I suggest you call up the OSU School of Fire Protection and Safety.  They probably have the latest statistic printed on their school lunch napkins, because these guys eat, drink and sleep fire safety.

Then, after they had impressed us with their Fire Safety Prowess, they said, “Let’s take about a 15 minute break, and we will meet outside just north of the water treatment plant where we will resume your lessons.  Oh, and bring your rubber boots and maybe a rain suit.”  Rain Suit?  What?  It’s about 100 degrees outside.  “I wouldn’t mind getting a little wet”, I thought to myself. — The simpleminded summer help that I was at the time.

I would describe in detail to you how they had this obstacle course of staircases and pipes and other metal structures all sitting in a big tray.  It’s enough to say that it was quite a tangled mess of a contraption.

“Interesting.” I thought… Are we going to climb the staircase  and shoot the fire from up above with our handy dandy fire extinguishers which were lined up in a row off to one side?  Climbing over pipes to fight a fire under the stairs maybe…  Do we get to use the big roll around fire extinguisher that was there too?  This looks like it might be fun.

That was when the fun began.  One of the trainers turned a valve, and then I noticed that there was a fairly large tank there also that was hooked up to the pipes that wound around the mocked up structure of a stairway and other obstacles in the large tray.  As he turned the valve, what looked like diesel or kerosene like petroleum product  came spraying out of various holes in the piping spraying everything in the tray drenching it with fuel.

This other guy had a long rod that he had lit like a large lighter only it was giant size, and after the fuel had been spraying out for a while, he lowered the flame down into the tray that now was beginning to fill up with some kind of oily substance.  He lit it and the flames quickly spread over the entire structure.  He had us go in groups of 4 people with fire extinguishers to try to put out the fire.  As their extinguishers ran out of fuel, others waiting behind would take their place trying to put out the fire.

We would chase the fire around the structure trying to put it out, but it wasn’t as easy as you would think.  If you didn’t completely suffocate it by hitting it from many different directions and in a pattern from one end to the other just right, the fire would dodge around the spray from the extinguishers to be right back where you started.  By the time we had used up all the extinguishers, we may have put the fire out about 3 times.

Rubber boots… I kept thinking…. my feet are getting hot…  You couldn’t hardly get close enough to the fire to use your fire extinguisher without getting your eyebrows singed.  I was always known for having long eyelashes, and I thought I could hear them sizzle as they brushed against my safety glasses.

That’s when they pulled the fire hose out of the fire box that was there next to the fire hydrant.  All over the plant grounds there were these red boxes.  They are lined up alongside the long conveyor belt from the coal yard to the plant (about 1/2 mile).  They were also lined up around the two silver painted million gallon number 2 Diesel tanks.  They were just about everywhere you looked (come to think of it).

I remember Summer Goebel when she was a new plant engineer one time asked me when she had first arrived, “What are all those red boxes out there?” (she was pointing out the window of the Engineer’s office).  I told her they each contained fire hose and a valve wrench to open up the fire hydrant.  I neglected to add that they also provided great shade for all the Jack and Jill rabbits that inhabited the plant grounds, which doubled as a wild life preserve.

An outdoor Power Plant fire hose cabinet and Metallic Rabbit shade tree

So, we were going to use the fire hose!  That sounded like more fun.  That is until the one guy said to the other guy (more using hand and face signals — like putting his thumb up and winking) “open ‘er up”  — so, he was using “slang” hand and face signals…

That’s when the real training began.  First of all, we all backed up because as the flames grew on their structure, the heat literally talked directly to your legs and magically told them…. “back up, or else…”  so, now that we were standing a good 50 feet away from the fire, we lined up in a row on the fire hose.

4 of us.  Four hefty Brawny Power Plant men… (well, 3 hefty brawny  power plant men, and one scrawny little runt of a summer help who actually thought he could be measured alongside them),  Isn’t that a bit much for this one 4 inch fire hose? (or was it just 3 inches?).  There were two hoses actually being used.  One to create a wide barrier of water to protect us from the heat, and another hose to shoot water through the barrier into the fire.

A couple of guys manned the large roll around fire extinguisher.  Here is an actual picture of the OSU Training Service training a group of employees at a work site to fight fires to give you a picture of what we faced:

This is an actual picture of the OSU Fire Service training plant workers to fight fires.

Notice the two different types of sprays in the picture.  I very wide spray and a narrow spray.

Like I said, these guys aren’t called the best Fire Trainers because they have pretty pamplets.  so, the first time I slipped in the mud, I thought… hmm… I suppose the rainsuit would have kept all that mud from coming into contact with my jeans, and my shirt and my ego.

Well, the most fascinating thing was that we could walk up real close to this intense fire and the wide spray of water sheltered us from the heat.

This is how you open the nozzle to create the wide barrier spray

Then with the large fire extinguisher on wheels, you could open it up on the fire by standing behind this barrier and shoot the chemicals right through the water onto the fire, and it would quickly and incredibly put out that tremendous fire when it was done right.  The other fire hose that was spraying through the barrier of water was used to cool everything down so that the fire didn’t spring right back up.  the water wasn’t going to put out an oil fire.

Anyway, not long after our first of many fire fighting training sessions that we had throughout the years, the night that we were actually fighting the dragon in the boiler (See the Post, “Where do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today“), the Control Room came over the gray phone (PA system) saying that there was a fire on the turbine room floor.

A bunch of power plant he-men dropped the lance they were using to pierce the dragon and ran off to fight the fire.  It turned out to be a barrel full of oily rags that had spontaneously combusted.  The fire refused to go out for a long time.  It kept re-igniting until the contents had completely burned up.

I remained in the bottom ash area as I was still reeling from the steaming hot water that had been spewed all over me.  A little while later the men were back ready to grab the lance and go back to work on the boiler around 10pm (this after a full day of coal cleanup from 8am that morning).

The one important topic that they ingrained into our minds while we were taking the training was that you have to know when the fire is too big to fight.  We had learned what our equipment could do and what it couldn’t do.  So, we had the knowledge to realize that if the fire is too big, then it is time to get out of there and call the professionals.  The only problem was that the nearest professionals were about 20 minutes away.  A lot can burn down in that amount of time…. but that is a story for another time.  I see the grin on the power plant men’s faces.  They know what I am talking about.

Comments from Previous Repost:

  1. coffeegrounded  October 6, 2014

    I am extremely proud of my 2006 graduate of OSU’s Fire Protection program! My son-in-law went on to establish his own fire protection services company in Northern California.

    Go OSU!

    Very interesting article; thanks for sharing. I’m forwarding this post to my #1 son. Seeing this article and knowing the integrity of the program is gratifying and greatly appreciated. (My own parents lost their lives in a house fire.) Thanks for spreading the word on fire safety.

  2. Ron Kilman October 7, 2014

    Great story and reminder. After your original post I checked our little fire extinguisher in our kitchen. The pressure gauge was still in the green but it was 10 years old. So we decided to see if it still worked. It did – emptied all the chemical with good pressure. We replaced it with a new one and my wife got some “hands on” experience. Thanks for the reminder.

Destruction of a Power Plant God

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

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

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

Power Plant at sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning Gear

Turning Gear

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

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

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

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

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

Charles Patton

Charles Patton

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

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

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

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

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

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

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

Like this only with a mop handle

Like this only with a mop handle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnny Cash Man in Black

Johnny Cash Man in Black

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

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face (Google Image)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny Kendrick

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

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

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

A large coupling

A large coupling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Power Plant Men Fighting Fires for Fun

Originally Posted October 5, 2012:

The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked first as a summer help, then as a janitor, a labor crew hand and finally as an Electrician is located about 20 miles north of Stillwater, Oklahoma.  It just so happened that Oklahoma State University in Stillwater has one of the leading Fire Protection and Safety schools in the country.  They offer Fire Service Training for companies who need to train their employees how to fight fires.  As a summer help I was fortunate enough to take the onsite training that they provided at the power plant about every other summer to train the employees how to put out difficult fires.

It does sound like a good idea considering that there was all this coal laying around that had the habit of spontaneously igniting into smouldering embers that could easily lead to a large raging ball of flames.  In fact, the Coal Yard heavy equipment operators had to driver their large dirt movers over and over the coal on the coal pile to pack it down because if it was exposed to too much air, it would develop hot spots that would turn into smouldering piles of coal that were nearly impossible to put out.

Dirt Mover full of coal

I have seen a spot smouldering on the coal pile where a water wagon would drench it with water over and over.  That only seemed to keep it from spreading as fast.  The only way to deal with it was to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn itself out.

You would think that the OSU Fire Training Service would do a good job of teaching the employees the proper use of the fire extinguishers, and they did.  The plant was loaded with Fire Extinguishers.  As a summer help and labor crew hand, we would have to do a monthly inspection of all the plant extinguishers to check their pressures an initial the inspection sticker showing that we had been by to check it.  This was a practice that would later change to once each quarter when the Power Plant Men were strung out too thin and the labor crew no longer existed.  Even later, the operators inspected them as they made their rounds, since they walked by them during their shifts anyway.

The plant had more than just the regular chemical fire extinguishers, it had the larger roll-around type in a few places as well:

More than what is needed in your average kitchen

The Fire Training Service trained us to use this as well.  Actually, they motivated us to go out and buy fire extinguishers to put in our own homes.  Which came in handy for me one year when an air condition repairman was using a blow torch in my house to cut out the cooling coils but forgot to take out the filter first.

The moment I saw him light up his torch, I pulled out the extinguisher from under the sink and set it on the counter.  As I watched him, he suddenly started jerking back and forth.  I figured something was up, so I pulled the pin, and when he was finally able to pull the burning filter out of the air duct, I was ready to blast it with the extinguisher.  So, I gratefully thank the electric company for properly training us to use the handy dandy fire extinguishers that you might use around the house.

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

One important thing that you learn about the little extinguishers in your house is that they don’t really go very far before they run out of chemicals.  So, you have to get the job done quickly while the fire is still small and manageable.

When I first heard that we were going to be trained to fight fires the second summer I was at the plant as a summer help, I was pretty excited.  Wow… Great!!!  Fight Fires!  That sounds fun.  A day of watching safety videos and playing with fire extinguishers.  I didn’t realize at the time that there was a reason why OSU Fire Training Service was the best fire training school in the radius of about 1,000 miles.

Sure.  We watched the training videos.  We learned all about proper fire extinguisher care and maintenance.  We heard stories about how small fires turned into raging infernos that burned companies right out of business.  One thing I remember is that some large percentage of companies that have a major fire are never able to recover to the point that they go completely out of business.

If you need the exact percentage, I suggest you call up the OSU School of Fire Protection and Safety.  They probably have the latest statistic printed on their school lunch napkins, because these guys eat, drink and sleep fire safety.

Then, after they had impressed us with their Fire Safety Prowess, they said, “Let’s take about a 15 minute break, and we will meet outside just north of the water treatment plant where we will resume your lessons.  Oh, and bring your rubber boots and maybe a rain suit.”  Rain Suit?  What?  It’s about 100 degrees outside.  “I wouldn’t mind getting a little wet”, I thought to myself. — The simpleminded summer help that I was at the time.

I would describe in detail to you how they had this obstacle course of staircases and pipes and other metal structures all sitting in a big tray.  It’s enough to say that it was quite a tangled mess of a contraption.

“Interesting.” I thought… Are we going to climb the staircase  and shoot the fire from up above with our handy dandy fire extinguishers which were lined up in a row off to one side?  Climbing over pipes to fight a fire under the stairs maybe…  Do we get to use the big roll around fire extinguisher that was there too?  This looks like it might be fun.

That was when the fun began.  One of the trainers turned a valve, and then I realized that there was a fairly large tank there also that was hooked up to the pipes that wound around the mocked up structure of a stairway and other obstacles in the large tray.  As he turned the valve, what looked like diesel or kerosene some petroleum product  came spraying out of various holes in the piping spraying everything in the tray drenching it with fuel.

This other guy had a long rod that he had lit like a large lighter only it was giant size, and after the fuel had been spraying out for a while, he lowered the flame down into the tray that now was beginning to fill up with some kind of oily substance.  He lit it and the flames quickly spread over all the structure.  He had us go in groups of 4 people with fire extinguishers to try to put out the fire.  As their extinguishers ran out of fuel, others waiting behind would take their place trying to put out the fire.

We would chase the fire around the structure trying to put it out, but it wasn’t as easy as you would think.  If you didn’t completely suffocate it by hitting it from many different directions and in a pattern from one end to the other just right, the fire would dodge around the spray from the extinguishers to be right back where you started.  By the time we had used up all the extinguishers, we may have put the fire out about 3 times.

Rubber boots… I kept thinking…. my feet are getting hot…  You couldn’t hardly get close enough to the fire to use your fire extinguisher without getting your eyebrows singed.  I was always known for having long eyelashes, and I thought I could hear them sizzle as they brushed against my safety glasses.

That’s when they pulled the fire hose out of the fire box that was there next to the fire hydrant.  All over the plant grounds there were these red boxes.  They are lined up alongside the long conveyor belt from the coal yard to the plant (about 1/2 mile).  They were also lined up around the two silver painted million gallon number 2 Diesel tanks.  They were just about everywhere you looked (come to think of it).

I remember Summer Goebel when she was a new plant engineer one time asked me when she had first arrived, “What are all those red boxes out there?” (she was pointing out the window of the Engineer’s office).  I told her they each contained fire hose and a valve wrench to open up the fire hydrant.  I neglected to add that they also provided great shade for all the Jack and Jill rabbits that inhabited the plant grounds, which doubled as a wild life preserve.

An outdoor Power Plant fire hose cabinet and Metallic Rabbit shade tree

So, we were going to use the fire hose!  That sounded like more fun.  That is until the one guy said to the other guy (more using hand and face signals — like putting his thumb up and winking) “open ‘er up”  — so, he was using “slang” hand and face signals…

That’s when the real training began.  First of all, we all backed up because as the flames grew on their structure, the heat literally talked directly to your legs and magically told them…. “back up, or else…”  so, now that we were standing a good 50 feet away from the fire, we lined up in a row on the fire hose.

4 of us.  Four hefty Brawny Power Plant men… (well, 3 hefty brawny  power plant men, and one scrawny little runt of a summer help who actually thought he could be measured alongside them),  Isn’t that a bit much for this one 4 inch fire hose? (or was it just 3 inches?).  There were two hoses actually being used.  One to create a wide barrier of water to protect us from the heat, and another hose to shoot water through the barrier into the fire.

A couple of guys manned the large roll around fire extinguisher.  Here is an actual picture of the OSU Training Service training a group of employees at a work site to fight fires to give you a picture of what we faced:

This is am actual picture of the OSU Fire Service training plant workers to fight fires.

Notice the two different types of sprays in the picture.

Like I said, these guys aren’t called the best Fire Trainers because they have pretty pamplets.  so, the first time I slipped in the mud, I thought… hmm… I suppose the rainsuit would have kept all that mud from coming into contact with my jeans, and my shirt and my ego.

Well, the most fascinating thing was that we could walk up real close to this intense fire and the wide spray of water sheltered us from the heat.

This is how you open the nozzle to create the wide barrier spray

Then with the large fire extinguisher on wheels, you could open it up on the fire by standing behind this barrier and shoot the chemicals right through the water onto the fire, and it would quickly and incredibly put out that tremendous fire when it was done right.  The other fire hose that was spraying through the barrier of water was used to cool everything down so that the fire didn’t spring right back up.  the water wasn’t going to put out an oil fire.

Anyway, not long after our first of many fire fighting training sessions that we had throughout the years, the night that we were actually fighting the dragon in the boiler (See the Post, “Where do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today“), the Control Room came over the gray phone (PA system) saying that there was a fire on the turbine room floor.

A bunch of power plant he-men dropped the lance they were using to pierce the dragon and ran off to fight the fire.  It turned out to be a barrel full of oily rags that had spontaneously combusted.  The fire refused to go out for a long time.  It kept re-igniting until the contents had completely burned up.

I remained in the bottom ash area as I was still reeling from the steaming hot water that had been spewed all over me.  A little while later the men were back ready to grab the lance and go back to work on the boiler around 10pm (this after a full day of coal cleanup from 8am that morning).

The one important topic that they ingrained into our minds while we were taking the training was that you have to know when the fire is too big to fight.  We had learned what our equipment could do and what it couldn’t do.  So, we had the knowledge to realize that if the fire is too big, then it is time to get out of there and call the professionals.  The only problem was that the nearest professionals were about 20 minutes away.  A lot can burn down in that amount of time…. but that is a story for another time.  I see the grin on the power plant men’s faces.  They know what I am talking about.

Comments from Previous Repost:

  1. coffeegrounded  October 6, 2014

    I am extremely proud of my 2006 graduate of OSU’s Fire Protection program! My son-in-law went on to establish his own fire protection services company in Northern California.

    Go OSU!

    Very interesting article; thanks for sharing. I’m forwarding this post to my #1 son. Seeing this article and knowing the integrity of the program is gratifying and greatly appreciated. (My own parents lost their lives in a house fire.) Thanks for spreading the word on fire safety.

  2. Ron Kilman October 7, 2014

    Great story and reminder. After your original post I checked our little fire extinguisher in our kitchen. The pressure gauge was still in the green but it was 10 years old. So we decided to see if it still worked. It did – emptied all the chemical with good pressure. We replaced it with a new one and my wife got some “hands on” experience. Thanks for the reminder.

Destruction of a Power Plant God

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

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

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

Power Plant at sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turning Gear

Turning Gear

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

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

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

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

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

Charles Patton

Charles Patton

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

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

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

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

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

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

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

Like this only with a mop handle

Like this only with a mop handle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnny Cash Man in Black

Johnny Cash Man in Black

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

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face (Google Image)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny Kendrick

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

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

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

A large coupling

A large coupling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays to Listen

Originally Posted:  May 4, 2012.  I added some comments from the original post at the end of this post:

I wrote an earlier post about days some people would have liked to take back.  There was one day that I would like to take back.  It was the day Ken Conrad was teaching me how to setup and operate the two large water cannons that we used to irrigate the plant grounds.  During my second summer as a summer help (1980), when I had about 6 weeks left of the summer, I was asked to take over the watering of the plant grounds because Ken Conrad was needed to do other jobs and this was taking too much of his time.

The first summer I worked as a summer help, whenever it rained, by the time you had walked from the Engineer’s Shack parking lot to the Welding Shop entrance, you felt like someone 10 feet tall.  Because the entire distance would turn into a pool of red mud and as you took each step, you grew taller and taller as the mud stuck to your feet.  Just before you entered the maintenance shop, you could scrape your feet on a Boot Scraper  to whittle you down to size so that you would fit through the doorway.

 The entire main plant grounds would be nothing but mud because there wasn’t any grass.  It had all been scraped or trampled away while building the plant and now we were trying to grow grass in places where only weeds had dared to trod before.  When trucks drove into the maintenance garage, they dropped mud all over the floor.  It was the summer help’s job the first summer to sweep up the shop twice each week.  If it had been raining, I usually started with a shovel scraping up piles of mud.  So, I recognized the importance of quickly growing grass.

The day that Ken Conrad was explaining to me how to setup and operate the water cannons, I was only half paying attention.  “I got it.  Roll out the plastic fiber fire hose, unhook the water cannon from the tractor, let out the cable.  turn it on the fire hydrant… Done….”  That was all I heard.  What Ken was saying to me was a lot different.  it had to do with all the warnings about doing it the correct way.  I think in my mind I wasn’t listening because I was thinking that it really wasn’t all that difficult.

Water Cannon similar to ours only ours had another spool on it that held the fire hose

So, here is what happened the next morning when I went to setup the first water cannon to water the field just north of the water treatment plant up to the Million Gallon #2 Diesel Oil Tanks berms.  I thought… ok… Step one:  roll out the hose…  Hmmm… hook it up to the fire hydrant, and then just pull the water gun forward with the tractor and it should unroll the hose….

Well.  my first mistake was that I hadn’t disengaged the spool so that it would turn freely, so when I pulled the tractor forward, off popped the connector on the end of the hose attached to the fire hydrant.  That’s when I remembered Ken telling me not to forget to disengage the spool before letting out the hose.  That’s ok.  Ken showed me how to fix that.

I beat on it with a hammer to knock out the clamp and put it back on the end of the hose after I had cut off a piece to have a clean end.  Disengaged the spool, and tried it again… Nope.  Pulled the end off again…  I was letting it out too fast.  That’s when I remembered Ken Conrad telling me not to let the hose out too fast or it would pull the end off.  I repaired the connector on the hose again.

After finally laying the hose out and hooking it up to the water cannon, I disconnected the water cannon from the tractor and hooked up the hose and began pulling the steel cable out of the cable spool by pulling the tractor forward.  Well, at first the water cannon wanted to follow me because you had to disengage that spool also, (as Ken had showed me).

So I thought I could just drag the water cannon back around to where it started, but that wasn’t a good idea because I ended up pulling off the connector on the fire hose again, only on the other end than before.  Anyway, after repairing the hose at least three times and getting everything in position twice, I was finally ready to turn on the water.

That was when things turned from bad to worse.  The first thing I did was turned on the fire hydrant using a large wrench where the water pressure instantly blew the hose out of the connector and water poured out into a big mud  puddle by the time I could turn it off.  then I remembered that Ken had told me to remember to make sure the screw valve was closed when you turned on the fire hydrant or else you will blow the end off of the hose….

So, I repaired the hose again, and reconnected it (standing in mud now).  Closed the screw-type valve and turned on the fire hydrant.  Then I opened the screw-type valve and the end of the hose blew off again…  Then I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me to make sure I open the valve very slowly otherwise I would blow the connector off of the hose.  So I repaired the hose again and hooked everything up (while standing in a bigger mud puddle) and tried it again.

I opened the valve slowly and the water cannon began shooting water out as I opened the valve up further and further… until a hole blew out in the middle of the hose shooting water all over the tractor.  So I turned off the water again as I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me not to open the valve very far or it would start to blow out holes in the hose.  I went and patched the hole the way that Ken Conrad has showed me and went back to try it again… walking through mud over to the fire hydrant, where there was an increasingly larger puddle.

I remember that it was around lunch time when I was standing in the middle of that field covered with mud  standing in what looked like a mud hole that pigs would just love, trying to repair a hole in the hose for the 3rd or 4th time that it dawned on me how different my morning would have been if I had only paid more attention to Ken when he was explaining everything to me the day before.

I skipped lunch that day. Finally around 1 o’clock the water cannon was on and it was shooting water out about 40 yards in either direction.  I spent that entire day making one mistake after the other.  I was beat by the time to go home.

Like this only without the grass

After sleeping on it I was determined not to let the experience from the day before intimidate me.  I had learned from my mistakes and was ready to tackle the job of watering the mud in hopes that the sprigs of grass would somehow survive the 100 degree heat.  As a matter of fact, the rest of the next 6 weeks the temperature was over 100 degrees every day.  This was Oklahoma.

When I first took over for Ken, the watering was being done in three shifts.  I watered during the day, the other summer help watered in the evening and a fairly new guy named Ron Hunt watered during the late night shift (not the Ron Hunt of Power Plant Man Fame, but a guy that eventually moved to the plant in Midwest City and became an operator).  After two weeks, they did away with the night shift and I was put on 7 – 12s.  that is 7 days a week, 12 hour days.

I didn’t own a car so, I had to catch a ride with someone in the morning in order to be at the plant by 6am.  Then I had to catch a ride back to Stillwater in the evening when I left at 6:30pm each day of the week.  The Operators and the security guards worked out good for this.  I would ride to work in the morning with whichever operator was kind enough to pick me up at the corner of Washington and Lakeview (where I had walked from my parent’s house) and whichever security guard that was going that way in the evening.

I found out after a few days on this job that Colonel Sneed whose office was in the Engineer’s Shack was in charge of this job.  So he would drive by and see how things were going.  After a while I had a routine of where I would put the water cannons and where I would lay the Irrigation pipes.  He seemed to be well pleased and even said that I could go to work for him when I was done with this job.

I told him that I was going to go back to school in a few weeks and he said that he would be waiting for me the next summer.  Only Colonel Sneed, who was an older man with silver hair wasn’t there when I returned the next summer.  He had either retired or died, or both.  I never was sure which.  I did learn a few years later that he had died, but I didn’t know when.

Besides the first day on that job, the only other memorable day I had was on a Sunday when there wasn’t anyone in the maintenance shop, I remember parking the yellow Cushman cart out in the shade of 10 and 11 belts (That is the big long belt that you see in the power plant picture on the right side of this post) where I could see both water cannons and the irrigation pipes.

I was watching dirt devils dance across the coal pile.  This was one of those days when the wind is just right to make dirt devils, and there was one after the other travelling from east to west across the coal pile.

A Dust Devil

The Security guard was on his way back from checking the dam when he stopped along the road, got out of his jeep and sat on the hood and watched them for 5 or 10 minutes.  For those of you who might not know, a dirt devil looks like a miniature tornado as it kicks up the dirt from the ground.  These dirt devils were actually “coal devils” and they were black.  They were lined up one after the other blowing across the the huge black pile of coal.  You can see the size of the coal pile from this Google Image:

This is an overhead view of the plant

This is an overhead view of the plant

Then as the security guard on the hill and I were watching the coal pile, this long black finger came flying up from the coal pile reaching higher and higher into the sky twirling itself into one huge coal devil!  It traveled toward me from the coalyard and across the intake coming straight toward where I was.  It ended up going directly between the two smoke stacks which are each 500 feet tall.  This coal devil was easily twice the size of the smoke stacks.  Tall and Black.  After it went between the smoke stacks it just faded like dust devils do and it was gone.

Picture a dust devil this size but pure black

As the monstrous black coal devil was coming toward the plant, the security guard had jumped in his jeep and headed down to where I was parked.  He was all excited and asked me if I had seen how big that was.  We talked about the dust devils for a few minutes, then he left and I went back to watching the water cannons and irrigation pipes.

I had to wonder if that big coal devil had been created just for our benefit.  It seemed at the time that God had been entertaining us that Sunday by sending small dust devils across the coal pile, and just as they do in Fireworks shows, he had ended this one with the big grand Finale by sending the monster-sized coal devil down directly between the smoke stacks.

Some times you just know when you have been blessed by a unique experience.  We didn’t have cameras on cell phones in those days, and I’m not too quick with a camera anyway, but at least the guard and I were able to share that moment.

I began this post by explaining why it is important to listen to a Power Plant Man when he speaks and ended it with the dust devil story.  How are these two things related?  As I pointed out, I felt as if I had been given a special gift that day.  Especially the minute it took for the monster coal devil to travel almost 1/2 mile from the coal yard through the smoke stacks.

It may be that one moment when a Power Plant Man speaks that he exposes his hidden wisdom.  If you aren’t paying close attention, you may miss it.  I did Ken Conrad an injustice the day he explained how to run the irrigation equipment and it cost me a day of pure frustration, but the real marvel was that as I made each mistake I could remember Ken telling me about that.

Ken had given me a full tutorial of the job I was about to do.  How many people would do that?  If I had only been listening, I would have heard Ken telling me much more than how to do the job.  I would have seen clearly how Ken cared enough about me to spend all the time it took to thoroughly teach me what he knew.

That is the way it is with True Power Plant Men.  Ken could have said, “roll out the hose, pull out the cable,, turn the water on … and good luck…”, but he didn’t.  he went through every detail of how to make my job easier.  I may have felt blessed when the monster coal devil flew between the stacks, but it was that day a couple of weeks earlier when Ken had taken the time and showed his concern that I had really been blessed.

I didn’t recognize it at the time.  But as time goes by and you grow older, the importance of simple moments in your life come to light.  My regret is that I didn’t realize it in time to say “Thank You Ken.”  If I could take back that day, I would not only listen, I would appreciate that someone else was giving me their time for my sake.  If I had done that.  I’m sure I would have ended the day by saying, “Thank you Ken.”

  1. Comments from the original post:

    1. susanhull May 5, 2012

    Ken reminds me of my dad, who, though not a power plant man per se (he was an electrical engineer, that’s pretty close,right?), would give us way more details than we thought we needed. And now I see myself doing it to my grandson (age 11), who is likely to roll his eyes and say, “I already know that!”, when I know darn well he doesn’t. Then I try to resist doing the “I told you so” dance when he finds out he doesn’t already know that. Unfortunately, he does not resist doing the dance when we find out that he did, in fact, already know it!

  2. zensouth May 5, 2012

    I like your blog because the stories are always substantial. It takes a while to take in all the flavor of it, like sampling a fine meal or a rich pastry. I do dislike the visual theme, but I think it forces me to concentrate on the content of the story.

    1. Plant Electrician May 5, 2012

      Thanks Zen, I understand your feelings. A coal-fired power plant is hardly a normal setting. It was built way out in the country because no one really wants one in their backyard. It was the place I called home for many years. I know that when I left I took with me silicon-based ash, a couple of pounds of coal dust and asbestos particles in my lungs. I will not be surprised the day the doctor tells me that I have mesothelioma. I realized after I left, that it wasn’t the place, it was the people that were so dear to me that I called “home”.

  3. jackcurtis May 13, 2012

    I’ve served time with similar folk, people who had more time for a kid learning a job than the kid had for them. Two things stuck besides an entirely different evaluation of those people over time…first one was the old (now): “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you know that ain’t so.” And the other was, remembering the old guys who had patience with you along the way, it’s always like remembering your parents and you pay it forward…(and I still think you have a book in you)

Power Plant Men Fighting Fires for Fun — Repost

Originally Posted October 5, 2012:

The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked first as a summer help, then as a janitor, a labor crew hand and finally as an Electrician is located about 20 miles north of Stillwater, Oklahoma.  It just so happened that Oklahoma State University in Stillwater has one of the leading Fire Protection and Safety schools in the country.  They offer Fire Service Training for companies who need to train their employees how to fight fires.  As a summer help I was fortunate enough to take the onsite training that they provided at the power plant about every other summer to train the employees how to put out difficult fires.

It does sound like a good idea considering that there was all this coal laying around that had the habit of spontaneously igniting into smouldering embers that could easily lead to a large raging ball of flames.  In fact, the Coal Yard heavy equipment operators had to driver their large dirt movers over and over the coal on the coal pile to pack it down because if it was exposed to too much air, it would develop hot spots that would turn into smouldering piles of coal that were nearly impossible to put out.

Dirt Mover full of coal

I have seen a spot smouldering on the coal pile where a water wagon would drench it with water over and over.  That only seemed to keep it from spreading as fast.  The only way to deal with it was to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn itself out.

You would think that the OSU Fire Training Service would do a good job of teaching the employees the proper use of the fire extinguishers.  the plant was loaded with Fire Extinguishers, and they did.  As a summer help and labor crew hand, we would have to do a monthly inspection of all the plant extinguishers to check their pressures an initial the inspection sticker showing that we had been by to check it.  This was a practice that would later change to once each quarter when the Power Plant Men were strung out too thin and the labor crew no longer existed.  Even later, the operators inspected them as they made their rounds, since they walked by them during their shifts anyway.

The plant had more than just the regular chemical fire extinguishers, it had the larger roll-around type in a few places as well:

More than what is needed in your average kitchen

The Fire Training Service trained us to use this as well.  Actually, they motivated us to go out and buy fire extinguishers to put in our own homes.  Which came in handy for me one year when an air condition repairman was using a blow torch in my house to cut out the cooling coils but forgot to take out the filter first.

The moment I saw him light up his torch, I pulled out the extinguisher from under the sink and set it on the counter.  As I watched him, he suddenly started jerking back and forth.  I figured something was up, so I pulled the pin, and when he was finally able to pull the burning filter out of the air duct, I was ready to blast it with the extinguisher.  So, I gratefully thank the electric company for properly training us to use the handy dandy fire extinguishers that you might use around the house.

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

One important thing that you learn about the little extinguishers in your house is that they don’t really go very far before they run out of chemicals.  So, you have to get the job done quickly while the fire is still small and manageable.

When I first heard that we were going to be trained to fight fires the second summer I was at the plant as a summer help, I was pretty excited.  Wow… Great!!!  Fight Fires!  That sounds fun.  A day of watching safety videos and playing with fire extinguishers.  I didn’t realize at the time that there was a reason why OSU Fire Training Service was the best fire training school in the radius of about 1,000 miles.

Sure.  We watched the training videos.  We learned all about proper fire extinguisher care and maintenance.  We heard stories about how small fires turned into raging infernos that burned companies right out of business.  One thing I remember is that some large percentage of companies that have a major fire are never able to recover to the point that they go completely out of business.

If you need the exact percentage, I suggest you call up the OSU School of Fire Protection and Safety.  They probably have the latest statistic printed on their school lunch napkins, because these guys eat, drink and sleep fire safety.

Then, after they had impressed us with their Fire Safety Prowess, they said, “Let’s take about a 15 minute break, and we will meet outside just north of the water treatment plant where we will resume your lessons.  Oh, and bring your rubber boots and maybe a rain suit.”  Rain Suit?  What?  It’s about 100 degrees outside.  I wouldn’t mind getting a little wet I thought to myself. — The simpleminded summer help that I was at the time.

I would describe in detail to you how they had this obstacle course of staircases and pipes and other metal structures all sitting in a big tray.  It’s enough to say that it was quite a tangled mess of a contraption.

“Interesting.” I thought… Are we going to climb the staircase  and shoot the fire from up above with our handy dandy fire extinguishers which were lined up in a row off to one side?  Climbing over pipes to fight a fire under the stairs maybe…  Do we get to use the big roll around fire extinguisher that was there too?  This looks like it might be fun.

That was when the fun began.  One of the trainers turned a valve, and then I realized that there was a fairly large tank there also that was hooked up to the pipes that wound around the mocked up structure of a stairway and other obstacles in the large tray.  As he turned the valve, what looked like diesel or kerosene some petroleum product  came spraying out of various holes in the piping spraying everything in the tray drenching it with fuel.

This other guy had a long rod that he had lit like a large lighter only it was giant size, and after the fuel had been spraying out for a while, he lowered the flame down into the tray that now was beginning to fill up with some kind of oily substance.  He lit it and the flames quickly spread over all the structure.  He had us go in groups of 4 people with fire extinguishers to try to put out the fire.  As their extinguishers ran out of fuel, others waiting behind would take their place trying to put out the fire.

We would chase the fire around the structure trying to put it out, but it wasn’t as easy as you would think.  If you didn’t completely suffocate it by hitting it from many different directions and in a pattern from one end to the other just right, the fire would dodge around the spray from the extinguishers to be right back where you started.  By the time we had used up all the extinguishers, we may have put the fire out about 3 times.

Rubber boots… I kept thinking…. my feet are getting hot…  You couldn’t hardly get close enough to the fire to use your fire extinguisher without getting your eyebrows singed.  I was always known for having long eyelashes, and I thought I could hear them sizzle as they brushed against my safety glasses.

That’s when they pulled the fire hose out of the fire box that was there next to the fire hydrant.  All over the plant grounds there were these red boxes.  They are lined up alongside the long conveyor belt from the coal yard to the plant (about 1/2 mile).  They were lined up along around the two silver painted million gallon number 2 Diesel tanks.  They were just about everywhere you looked (come to think of it).

I remember Summer Goebel when she was a new plant engineer one time asked me when she had first arrived, “What are all those red boxes out there?” (she was pointing out the window of the Engineer’s office).  I told her they each contained fire hose and a valve wrench to open up the fire hydrant.  I neglected to add that they also provided great shade for all the Jack and Jill rabbits that inhabited the plant grounds, which doubled as a wild life preserve.

An outdoor Power Plant fire hose cabinet and Metallic Rabbit shade tree

So, we were going to use the fire hose!  That sounded like more fun.  That is until the one guy said to the other guy (more using hand and face signals — like putting his thumb up and winking) “open ‘er up”  — so, he was using “slang” hand and face signals…

That’s when the real training began.  First of all, we all backed up because as the flames grew on their structure, the heat literally talked directly to your legs and magically told them…. “back up, or else…”  so, now that we were standing a good 50 feet away from the fire, we lined up in a row on the fire hose.

4 of us.  Four hefty Brawny Power Plant men… (well, 3 hefty brawny  power plant men, and one scrawny little runt of a summer help who actually thought he could be measured alongside them),  Isn’t that a bit much for this one 4 inch fire hose? (or was it just 3 inches?).  There were two hoses actually being used.  One to create a wide barrier of water to protect us from the heat, and another hose to shoot water through the barrier into the fire.

A couple of guys manned the large roll around fire extinguisher.  Here is an actual picture of the OSU Training Service training a group of employees at a work site to fight fires to give you a picture of what we faced:

This is am actual picture of the OSU Fire Service training plant workers to fight fires.

Notice the two different types of sprays in the picture.

Like I said, these guys aren’t called the best Fire Trainers because they have pretty pamplets.  so, the first time I slipped in the mud, I thought… hmm… I suppose the rainsuit would have kept all that mud from coming into contact with my jeans, and my shirt and my ego.

Well, the most fascinating thing was that we could walk up real close to this intense fire and the wide spray of water sheltered us from the heat.

This is how you open the nozzle to create the wide barrier spray

Then with the large fire extinguisher on wheels, you could open it up on the fire by standing behind this barrier and shoot the chemicals right through the water onto the fire, and it would quickly and incredibly put out that tremendous fire when it was done right.  The other fire hose that was spraying through the barrier of water was used to cool everything down so that the fire didn’t spring right back up.  the water wasn’t going to put out an oil fire.

Anyway, not long after our first of many fire fighting training sessions that we had throughout the years, the night that we were actually fighting the dragon in the boiler (See the Post, “Where do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today“), the Control Room came over the gray phone (PA system) saying that there was a fire on the turbine room floor.

A bunch of power plant he-men dropped the lance they were using to pierce the dragon and ran off to fight the fire.  It turned out to be a barrel full of oily rags that had spontaneously combusted.  The fire refused to go out for a long time.  It kept re-igniting until the contents had completely burned up.

I remained in the bottom ash area as I was still reeling from the steaming hot water that had been spewed all over me.  A little while later the men were back ready to grab the lance and go back to work on the boiler around 10pm (this after a full day of coal cleanup from 8am that morning).

The one important topic that they ingrained into our minds while we were taking the training was that you have to know when the fire is too big to fight.  We had learned what our equipment could do and what it couldn’t do.  So, we had the knowledge to realize that if the fire is too big, then it is time to get out of there and call the professionals.  The only problem was that the nearest professionals were about 20 minutes away.  A lot can burn down in that amount of time…. but that is a story for another time.  I see the grin on the power plant men’s faces.  They know what I am talking about.

When Power Plant Men Talk… It Pays to Listen — Repost

Originally Posted:  May 4, 2012.  I added some comments from the original post at the end of this post:

I wrote an earlier post about days some people would have liked to take back.  There was one day that I would like to take back.  It was the day Ken Conrad was teaching me how to setup and operate the two large water cannons that we used to irrigate the plant grounds.  During my second summer as a summer help (1980), when I had about 6 weeks left of the summer, I was asked to take over the watering of the plant grounds because Ken Conrad was needed to do other jobs and this was taking too much of his time.

The first summer I worked as a summer help, whenever it rained, by the time you had walked from the Engineer’s Shack parking lot to the Welding Shop entrance, you felt like someone 10 feet tall.  Because the entire distance would turn into a pool of red mud and as you took each step, you grew taller and taller as the mud stuck to your feet.  Just before you entered, you could scrape your feet on a Boot Scraper

 to whittle you down to size so that you would fit through the doorway.  The entire main plant grounds would be nothing but mud because there wasn’t any grass.  It had all been scraped or trampled away while building the plant and now we were trying to grow grass in places where only weeds had dared to trod before.  When trucks drove into the maintenance garage, they dropped mud all over the floor.  It was the summer help’s job the first summer to sweep up the shop twice each week.  If it had been raining, I usually started with a shovel scraping up piles of mud.  So, I recognized the importance of growing grass quickly.

The day that Ken Conrad was explaining to me how to setup and operate the water cannons, I was only half paying attention.  I got it.  Roll out the plastic fiber fire hose, unhook the water cannon from the tractor, let out the cable.  turn it on the fire hydrant… Done….  That was all I heard.  What Ken was saying to me was a lot different.  it had to do with all the warnings about doing it the correct way.  I think in my mind I wasn’t listening because I was thinking that it really wasn’t all that difficult.

Water Cannon similar to ours only ours had another spool on it that held the fire hose

So, here is what happened the next morning when I went to setup the first water cannon to water the field just north of the water treatment plant up to the Million Gallon #2 Diesel Oil Tanks berms.  I thought… ok… Step one:  roll out the hose…  Hmmm… hook it up to the fire hydrant, and then just pull the water gun forward with the tractor and it should unroll the hose….  well.  my first mistake was that I hadn’t disengaged the spool so that it would turn freely, so when I pulled the tractor forward, off popped the connector on the end of the hose attached to the fire hydrant.  That’s when I remembered Ken telling me not to forget to disengage the spool before letting out the hose.  That’s ok.  Ken showed me how to fix that.  I beat on it with a hammer to knock out the clamp and put it back on the end of the hose after I had cut off a piece to have a clean end.  Disengaged the spool, and tried it again… Nope.  Pulled the end off again…  I was letting it out too fast.  That’s when I remembered Ken Conrad telling me not to let the hose out too fast or it would pull the end off.

After finally laying the hose out and hooking it up to the water cannon, I disconnected the water cannon from the tractor and hooked up the hose and began pulling the steel cable out of the cable spool by pulling the tractor forward.  Well, at first the water cannon wanted to follow me because you had to disengage that spool also, (as Ken had showed me).  So I thought I could just drag the water cannon back around to where it started, but that wasn’t a good idea because I ended up pulling off the connector on the fire hose again, only on the other end than before.  Anyway, after repairing the hose at least three times and getting everything in position twice, I was finally ready to turn on the water.

That was when things turned from bad to worse.  The first thing I did was turned on the fire hydrant where the water pressure instantly blew the hose out of the connector and water poured out into a big mud  puddle by the time I could turn it off.  then I remembered that Ken had told me to remember to make sure the screw valve was closed when you turned on the fire hydrant or else you will blow the end off of the hose….

So, I repaired the hose again, and reconnected it (standing in mud now).  Closed the screw-type valve and turned on the fire hydrant.  Then I opened the screw-type valve and the end of the hose blew off again…  Then I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me to make sure I open the valve slowly.  So I repaired the hose again and hooked everything up (while standing in a bigger mud puddle) and tried it again.

I opened the valve slowly and the water cannon began shooting water out as I opened the valve up further and further… until a hole blew out in the middle of the hose shooting water all over the tractor.  So I turned off the water again as I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me not to open the valve very far or it would start to blow holes in the hose.  I went and patched the hole the way that Ken Conrad has showed me and went back to try it again… walking through mud over to the fire hydrant, where there was an increasingly larger puddle.

I remember that it was around lunch time when I was standing in the middle of that field covered with mud  standing in what looked like a mud hole that pigs would just love, trying to repair a hole in the hose for the 3rd or 4th time that it dawned on me how different my morning would have been if I had only paid more attention to Ken when he was explaining everything to me the day before.   Finally around 1 o’clock I had water cannon on and it was shooting water out about 40 yards in either direction

Like this only without the grass

I spent that entire day making one mistake after the other.  I was beat by the time to go home.

After sleeping on it I was determined not to let the experience from the day before intimidate me.  I had learned from my mistakes and was ready to tackle the job of watering the mud in hopes that the sprigs of grass would somehow survive the 100 degree heat.  As a matter of fact, the rest of the next 6 weeks the temperature was over 100 degrees every day.

When I first took over for Ken, the watering was being done in three shifts.  I watered during the day, the other summer help watered in the evening and a fairly new guy named Ron Hunt watered during the late night shift (not the Ron Hunt of Power Plant Man Fame, but a guy that eventually moved to the plant in Midwest City and became an operator).  After two weeks, they did away with the night shift and I was put on 7 – 12s.  that is 7 days a week, 12 hour days.

I didn’t own a car so, I had to catch a ride with someone in the morning in order to be at the plant by 6am.  Then I had to catch a ride back to Stillwater in the evening when I left at 6:30pm each day of the week.  The Operators and the security guards worked out good for this.  I would ride to work in the morning with whichever operator was kind enough to pick me up at the corner of Washington and Lakeview (where I had walked from my parent’s house) and whichever security guard that was going that way in the evening.

I found out after a few days on this job that Colonel Sneed whose office was in the Engineer’s Shack was in charge of this job.  So he would drive by and see how things were going.  After a while I had a routine of where I would put the water cannons and where I would lay the Irrigation pipes.  He seemed to be well pleased and even said that I could go to work for him when I was done with this job.  I told him that I was going to go back to school in a few weeks and he said that he would be waiting for me the next summer.  Only Colonel Sneed, who was an older man with silver hair wasn’t there when I returned the next summer.  He had either retired or died, or both.  I never was sure.  I did learn a few years later that he had died, but I never was sure when.

Besides the first day on that job, the only other memorable day I had was on a Sunday when there wasn’t anyone in the maintenance shop, I remember parking the yellow Cushman cart out in the shade of 10 and 11 belts (That is the big long belt that you see in the power plant picture on the right side of this post) where I could see both water cannons and the irrigation pipes, watching dirt devils dance across the coal pile.  This was one of those days when the wind is just right to make dirt devils, and there was one after the other travelling from east to west across the coal pile.

A Dust Devil

The Security guard was on his way back from checking the dam when he stopped along the road, got out of his jeep and sat on the hood and watched them for 5 or 10 minutes.  For those of you who might not know, a dirt devil looks like a miniature tornado as it kicks up the dirt from the ground.  These dirt devils were actually “coal devils” and they were black.  They were lined up one after the other blowing across the the huge black pile of coal.

Then as the security guard on the hill and I were watching the coal pile, this long black finger came flying up from the coal pile reaching higher and higher into the sky twirling itself into one huge coal devil!  It traveled toward me from the coalyard and across the intake coming straight toward where I was.  It ended up going directly between the two smoke stacks which are each 500 feet tall.  This coal devil was easily twice the size of the smoke stacks.  Tall and Black.  After it went between the smoke stacks it just faded like dust devils do and it was gone.

Picture a dust devil this size but pure black

As the monstrous black coal devil was coming toward the plant, the security guard had jumped in his jeep and headed down to where I was parked.  He was all excited and asked me if I had seen how big that was.  We talked about the dust devils for a few minutes, then he left and I went back to watching the water cannons and irrigation pipes.  I had to wonder if that big coal devil hadn’t been created just for our benefit.  It seemed at the time that God had been entertaining us that Sunday by sending small dust devils across the coal pile, and just as they do in Fireworks shows, he had ended this one with the big grand Finale by sending the monster-sized coal devil down directly between the smoke stacks.  Some times you just know when you have been blessed by a unique experience.  We didn’t have cameras on cell phones in those days, and I’m not too quick with a camera anyway, but at least the guard was able to share that moment.

I began this post by explaining why it is important to listen to a Power Plant Man when he speaks and ended it with the dust devil story.  How are these two things related?  As I pointed out, I felt as if I had been given a special gift that day.  Especially the minute it took for the monster coal devil to travel almost 1/2 mile from the coal yard through the smoke stacks.  It may be that one moment when a Power Plant Man speaks that he exposes his hidden wisdom.  If you aren’t paying close attention, you may miss it.  I did Ken Conrad an injustice the day he explained how to run the irrigation equipment and it cost me a day of pure frustration, but the real marvel was that as I made each mistake I could remember Ken telling me about that.  He had given me a full tutorial of the job I was about to do.  How many people would do that?  If I had only been listening, I would have heard Ken telling me much more than how to do the job.  I would have seen clearly how Ken cared enough about me to spend all the time it took to thoroughly teach me what he knew.

That is the way it is with True Power Plant Men.  Ken could have said, “roll out the hose, pull out the cable,, turn the water on”, but he didn’t.  he went through every detail of how to make my job easier.  I may have felt blessed when the monster coal devil flew between the stacks, but it was that day a couple of weeks earlier when Ken had taken the time and showed his concern that I had really been blessed.  I didn’t recognize it at the time.  But as time goes by and you grow older, the importance of simple moments in your life come to light.  My regret is that I didn’t realize it in time to say “Thank You Ken.”  If I could take back that day, I would not only listen, I would appreciate that someone else was giving me their time for my sake.  If I had done that.  I’m sure I would have ended the day by saying, “Thank you Ken.”

 

  1. Comments from the original post:

    1. Ken reminds me of m

    Ken reminds me of my dad, who, though not a power plant man per se (he was an electrical engineer, that’s pretty close,right?), would give us way more details than we thought we needed. And now I see myself doing it to my grandson (age 11), who is likely to roll his eyes and say, “I already know that!”, when I know darn well he doesn’t. Then I try to resist doing the “I told you so” dance when he finds out he doesn’t already know that. Unfortunately, he does not resist doing the dance when we find out that he did, in fact, already know it!

    1. That’s great! Thanks for sharing that.

  2. I like your blog because the stories are always substantial. I takes a while to take in all the flavor of it, like sampling a fine meal or a rich pastry. I do dislike the visual theme, but I think it forces me to concentrate on the content of the story.

    1. Thanks Zen, I understand your feelings. A coal-fired power plant is hardly a normal setting. It was built way out in the country because no one really wants one in their backyard. It was the place I called home for many years. I know that when I left I took with me silicon-based ash, a couple of pounds of coal dust and asbestos particles in my lungs. I will not be surprised the day the doctor tells me that I have mesothelioma. I realized after I left, that it wasn’t the place, it was the people that were so dear to me that I called “home”.

  3. I’ve served time with similar folk, people who had more time for a kid learning a job than the kid had for them. Two things stuck besudes an entirely differnet evaluation of those people over time…first one was the old (now): “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you know that ain’t so.” And the ohter was, remembering the old guys who pad patience with you along the way, it’s always like remembering your parents and you pay it forward…(and I still think you have a book in you)

Power Plant Men Fighting Fires for Fun — Repost

Originally Posted October 5, 2012:

The Coal Fired Power Plant where I worked first as a summer help, then as a janitor, a labor crew hand and finally as an Electrician is located about 20 miles north of Stillwater, Oklahoma.  It just so happened that Oklahoma State University in Stillwater has one of the leading Fire Protection and Safety schools in the country.  They offer Fire Service Training for companies who need to train their employees how to fight fires.  As a summer help I was fortunate enough to take the onsite training that they provided at the power plant about every other summer to train the employees how to put out difficult fires.

It does sound like a good idea considering that there was all this coal laying around that had the habit of spontaneously igniting into smouldering embers that could easily lead to a large raging ball of flames.  In fact, the Coal Yard heavy equipment operators had to driver their large dirt movers over and over the coal on the coal pile to pack it down because if it was exposed to too much air, it would develop hot spots that would turn into smouldering piles of coal that were nearly impossible to put out.

Dirt Mover full of coal

I have seen a spot smouldering on the coal pile where a water wagon would drench it with water over and over.  That only seemed to keep it from spreading as fast.  The only way to deal with it was to drag the burning coal off of the pile and let it burn itself out.

You would think that the OSU Fire Training Service would do a good job of teaching the employees the proper use of the fire extinguishers.  the plant was loaded with Fire Extinguishers, and they did.  As a summer help and labor crew hand, we would have to do a monthly inspection of all the plant extinguishers to check their pressures an initial the inspection sticker showing that we had been by to check it.  This was a practice that would later change to once each quarter when the Power Plant Men were strung out too thin and the labor crew no longer existed.  Even later, the operators inspected them as they made their rounds, since they walked by them during their shifts anyway.

The plant had more than just the regular chemical fire extinguishers, it had the larger roll-around type in a few places as well:

More than what is needed in your average kitchen

The Fire Training Service trained us to use this as well.  Actually, they motivated us to go out and buy fire extinguishers to put in our own homes.  Which came in handy for me one year when an air condition repairman was using a blow torch in my house to cut out the cooling coils but forgot to take out the filter first.

The moment I saw him light up his torch, I pulled out the extinguisher from under the sink and set it on the counter.  As I watched him, he suddenly started jerking back and forth.  I figured something was up, so I pulled the pin, and when he was finally able to pull the burning filter out of the air duct, I was ready to blast it with the extinguisher.  So, I gratefully thank the electric company for properly training us to use the handy dandy fire extinguishers that you might use around the house.

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

One important thing that you learn about the little extinguishers in your house is that they don’t really go very far before they run out of chemicals.  So, you have to get the job done quickly while the fire is still small and manageable.

When I first heard that we were going to be trained to fight fires the second summer I was at the plant as a summer help, I was pretty excited.  Wow… Great!!!  Fight Fires!  That sounds fun.  A day of watching safety videos and playing with fire extinguishers.  I didn’t realize at the time that there was a reason why OSU Fire Training Service was the best fire training school in the radius of about 1,000 miles.

Sure.  We watched the training videos.  We learned all about proper fire extinguisher care and maintenance.  We heard stories about how small fires turned into raging infernos that burned companies right out of business.  One thing I remember is that some large percentage of companies that have a major fire are never able to recover to the point that they go completely out of business.

If you need the exact percentage, I suggest you call up the OSU School of Fire Protection and Safety.  They probably have the latest statistic printed on their school lunch napkins, because these guys eat, drink and sleep fire safety.

Then, after they had impressed us with their Fire Safety Prowess, they said, “Let’s take about a 15 minute break, and we will meet outside just north of the water treatment plant where we will resume your lessons.  Oh, and bring your rubber boots and maybe a rain suit.”  Rain Suit?  What?  It’s about 100 degrees outside.  I wouldn’t mind getting a little wet I thought to myself. — The simpleminded summer help that I was at the time.

I would describe in detail to you how they had this obstacle course of staircases and pipes and other metal structures all sitting in a big tray.  It’s enough to say that it was quite a tangled mess of a contraption.

“Interesting.” I thought… Are we going to climb the staircase  and shoot the fire from up above with our handy dandy fire extinguishers which were lined up in a row off to one side?  Climbing over pipes to fight a fire under the stairs maybe…  Do we get to use the big roll around fire extinguisher that was there too?  This looks like it might be fun.

That was when the fun began.  One of the trainers turned a valve, and then I realized that there was a fairly large tank there also that was hooked up to the pipes that wound around the mocked up structure of a stairway and other obstacles in the large tray.  As he turned the valve, what looked like diesel or kerosene some petroleum product  came spraying out of various holes in the piping spraying everything in the tray drenching it with fuel.

This other guy had a long rod that he had lit like a large lighter only it was giant size, and after the fuel had been spraying out for a while, he lowered the flame down into the tray that now was beginning to fill up with some kind of oily substance.  He lit it and the flames quickly spread over all the structure.  He had us go in groups of 4 people with fire extinguishers to try to put out the fire.  As their extinguishers ran out of fuel, others waiting behind would take their place trying to put out the fire.

We would chase the fire around the structure trying to put it out, but it wasn’t as easy as you would think.  If you didn’t completely suffocate it by hitting it from many different directions and in a pattern from one end to the other just right, the fire would dodge around the spray from the extinguishers to be right back where you started.  By the time we had used up all the extinguishers, we may have put the fire out about 3 times.

Rubber boots… I kept thinking…. my feet are getting hot…  You couldn’t hardly get close enough to the fire to use your fire extinguisher without getting your eyebrows singed.  I was always known for having long eyelashes, and I thought I could hear them sizzle as they brushed against my safety glasses.

That’s when they pulled the fire hose out of the fire box that was there next to the fire hydrant.  All over the plant grounds there were these red boxes.  They are lined up alongside the long conveyor belt from the coal yard to the plant (about 1/2 mile).  They were lined up along around the two silver painted million gallon number 2 Diesel tanks.  They were just about everywhere you looked (come to think of it).

I remember Summer Goebel when she was a new plant engineer one time asked me when she had first arrived, “What are all those red boxes out there?” (she was pointing out the window of the Engineer’s office).  I told her they each contained fire hose and a valve wrench to open up the fire hydrant.  I neglected to add that they also provided great shade for all the Jack and Jill rabbits that inhabited the plant grounds, which doubled as a wild life preserve.

An outdoor Power Plant fire hose cabinet and Metallic Rabbit shade tree

So, we were going to use the fire hose!  That sounded like more fun.  That is until the one guy said to the other guy (more using hand and face signals — like putting his thumb up and winking) “open ‘er up”  — so, he was using “slang” hand and face signals…

That’s when the real training began.  First of all, we all backed up because as the flames grew on their structure, the heat literally talked directly to your legs and magically told them…. “back up, or else…”  so, now that we were standing a good 50 feet away from the fire, we lined up in a row on the fire hose.

4 of us.  Four hefty Brawny Power Plant men… (well, 3 hefty brawny  power plant men, and one scrawny little runt of a summer help who actually thought he could be measured alongside them),  Isn’t that a bit much for this one 4 inch fire hose? (or was it just 3 inches?).  There were two hoses actually being used.  One to create a wide barrier of water to protect us from the heat, and another hose to shoot water through the barrier into the fire.

A couple of guys manned the large roll around fire extinguisher.  Here is an actual picture of the OSU Training Service training a group of employees at a work site to fight fires to give you a picture of what we faced:

This is am actual picture of the OSU Fire Service training plant workers to fight fires.

Notice the two different types of sprays in the picture.

Like I said, these guys aren’t called the best Fire Trainers because they have pretty pamplets.  so, the first time I slipped in the mud, I thought… hmm… I suppose the rainsuit would have kept all that mud from coming into contact with my jeans, and my shirt and my ego.

Well, the most fascinating thing was that we could walk up real close to this intense fire and the wide spray of water sheltered us from the heat.

This is how you open the nozzle to create the wide barrier spray

Then with the large fire extinguisher on wheels, you could open it up on the fire by standing behind this barrier and shoot the chemicals right through the water onto the fire, and it would quickly and incredibly put out that tremendous fire when it was done right.  The other fire hose that was spraying through the barrier of water was used to cool everything down so that the fire didn’t spring right back up.  the water wasn’t going to put out an oil fire.

Anyway, not long after our first of many fire fighting training sessions that we had throughout the years, the night that we were actually fighting the dragon in the boiler (See the Post, “Where do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today“), the Control Room came over the gray phone (PA system) saying that there was a fire on the turbine room floor.

A bunch of power plant he-men dropped the lance they were using to pierce the dragon and ran off to fight the fire.  It turned out to be a barrel full of oily rags that had spontaneously combusted.  The fire refused to go out for a long time.  It kept re-igniting until the contents had completely burned up.

I remained in the bottom ash area as I was still reeling from the steaming hot water that had been spewed all over me.  A little while later the men were back ready to grab the lance and go back to work on the boiler around 10pm (this after a full day of coal cleanup from 8am that morning).

The one important topic that they ingrained into our minds while we were taking the training was that you have to know when the fire is too big to fight.  We had learned what our equipment could do and what it couldn’t do.  So, we had the knowledge to realize that if the fire is too big, then it is time to get out of there and call the professionals.  The only problem was that the nearest professionals were about 20 minutes away.  A lot can burn down in that amount of time…. but that is a story for another time.  I see the grin on the power plant men’s faces.  They know what I am talking about.