Tag Archives: fly ash

Hot Night on the Power Plant Precipitator

Scott Hubbard and I weren’t too sure why we had been called out that night when we met at the Bowling Alley on Washington Street at two o’clock in the morning in Stillwater Oklahoma to drive out to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Something about a fire on the top of the precipitator.

I was glad that Scott was driving instead of me when I climbed into his pickup and he began the 20 mile journey up Highway 177.  I wasn’t quite awake yet from the phone call at 1:45 am telling me that there was a fire on the Unit 1 precipitator roof and they were calling Scott and I out to put it out.  I figured if there was a fire it should be put out long before the 45 minutes it takes me and Scott to arrive at the plant.

We had all been trained to fight fires this size, so it didn’t make sense why we had to go do this instead of the operators.

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

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

My head was still swimming from the lack of sleep when we arrived at the plant, and headed to the Control Room to find out more about the fire we were supposed to fight.  The Shift Supervisor explained that there was an oil fire under one of the high voltage transformers next to some high voltage cables, and the operators that were on duty didn’t feel comfortable climbing under the transformer stands to try and put it out because of high voltage cable tray that ran alongside the fire (ok, now it made sense.  Electricity was involved.  Electricians had to work on anything that had an electric cable attached even if it was a fire).

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home.  The ones we used were bigger

The operators had already brought a number of fire extinguishers appropriate to putting out an oil fire to the precipitator roof, and they had an SCBA (Self Contained Breating Apparatus) waiting there as well.

Man wearing an SCBA

Man wearing an SCBA from Google Images

Scott and I went to the Electric Shop to get a couple of pairs of asbestos gloves just in case we needed them.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

When we arrived on the precipitator roof we could smell the fire smoldering right away.  The operator explained that some oil soaked insulation was on fire under the transformer stand for Transformer 1G9 and that he had tried to put it out using the extinguisher, but since the transformer oil was soaked into the bricks of insulation, it didn’t seem to do any good.

The transformer stands are about 18 inches tall, so climbing under them reminded me of the time I was sandblasting the water treatment tanks and Curtis Love turned off my air (see the post:  “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“).  This time I had a self-contained breathing apparatus, so I was in control of my own air… only there would only be about 30 minutes of air in the tank.

After assessing the situation Scott and I decided that the only way to put the fire out was to remove the blocks of insulation that were burning.  This meant that I had to lay down under the precipitator transformers and come face to face with the burning insulation and pull them out while wearing the asbestos gloves and put them in a barrel.

The plan was that we would then lower the 55 gallon barrel down to the ground and extinguish the fire by filling the barrel with water.

Barrel of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner

A barrel this size, only it was empty and the top was removed

The precipitator is on the outlet end of the boiler.  The boiler exhaust blows through the precipitator and the ash in the exhaust is removed using static electricity generated by the large transformers on the precipitator roof using up to 45,000 volts of electicity.  When the precipitator is on, the roof is generally a warm place to be.

When a person is laying on the insulation under a transformer, the temperature is somewhat higher as the heat is trapped in the enclosed space between two enclosures called “Coffin Houses” (how appropriate).  When the insulation is soaked with burning oil, the temperature seemed to rise significantly.  Luckily the insulation was not fiberglass as you may have in your attic, because I was wearing nothing but a tee shirt and jeans.  So, I was not subject to the itching I would have if the insulation had been fiberglass.

I had turned the air on the SCBA without using the “Postive Pressure” setting.  That meant that when I inhaled, I pulled air from the air tank, but the air didn’t apply pressure on the mask to keep out the bad air.

I did that because, this looked like it was going to be a long job and I wanted to conserve the air in the tank, and I found that on this setting I was not breathing the smoke pouring up around my face.  Otherwise I would have reached down to the valve on my belt and changed the setting to positive pressure.

I kept wondering while I was lying there with my face a few inches from the smoldering blocks of insulation why I was so calm the entire time.  The hot temperature had caused my sweat reflex to pour out the sweat so I was quickly drenched.  I would just lay my head on the insulation as I reached into the hole I was creating and pulled a glowing brick of insulation out using the asbestos gloves.

I knew I was only half awake so I kept telling myself… “Pay attention.  Work slowly.  One step at a time.  I tried to work like Granny would when she was digging Taters on the Beverly Hillbillies (see the video below):

In case you are not able to view the video above, try this link:  “Granny Digging Taters“.

It’s funny when you’re half dreaming the various things that come to mind.  I’m not sure how picking up smoldering bricks of insulation translated in my mind to Granny teaching beatniks how to pick “taters”…. but it did.

There was also something about this that reminded me of eating chocolate…. oh wait… that was probably left over from the dream I was having when the phone first rang back at the house.

For the next hour or so, I filled the barrels with the burning insulation and then lowered them down to the alleyway between Unit 1 and 2.  During this time I was still groggy from the lack of sleep and the entire process seemed like a dream to me.

I remember lying on my stomach next to the burning insulation.  Pulling the blocks out one at a time, layer by layer until I reached the precipitator roof underneath.  I placed each block of smoldering insulation in the barrel that had been lowered down by an overhead chain-fall near me.

When the barrel was about 3/4 full, we would work the chain fall over to the motorized hoist that would lower it down to the pickup truck bed 100 feet below.  When the barrel left the confines of the precipitator roof and the night air blew over the top of it, the insulation would burst into flames.  By the time the barrel landed in the back of the pickup truck the flames would be lighting up the alley way.

Scott doused the flames with a hose and an extinguisher and hauled the barrel of insulation off to a hazardous waste bin while I repeated the process with the next barrel that Scott attached to the hoist.

By the time we were through I smelled like something that crawled out of a damp fireplace.  My shirt and jeans were soaked with sweat and caked with pink insulation.  The SCBA was out of air after using it for an hour and we were ready to go home.

The operators said they would bring the empty extinguishers back to the plant and send the SCBA off to have it recharged.  We checked back in with the Shift Supervisor in the control room and told him we were heading for home.

I don’t remember which Shift Supervisor it was, though Gary Wright comes to my mind when I think about it.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gary Wright is the red haird man in the front row with the big round glasses

I don’t remember which operator was helping us on the precipitator roof either.  I would usually remember those things, but like I said, I was still dreaming during this entire process.

Normally at this time, since it was close to 3:30 in the morning, we would opt to stay over and just do some odd jobs until it was time to start work because the 6 hour rule would still require us to come back to work at the regular time (see the Post: “Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rule“).  Scott and I decided that we both needed a good shower and if we could catch even one hour of sleep before we had to head back out to work, that would help.

So, we climbed back into Scott’s truck and headed back to Stillwater to the bowling alley where I had left my car.  I don’t remember the drive home.  I don’t even remember taking off my shirt and jeans in the utility room where I walked in the house and placing them in the washing machine straightaway… though that’s what I did.

I know I took a shower, but all that was just part of the same dream I had been having since the phone rang earlier that night.  Usually I didn’t have trouble waking up when the phone rang in the middle of the night, but for some reason, this particular night, I never fully woke up.

Or… maybe it’s something else….  Could I have dreamed the entire thing?  Maybe I never did receive that call, and we didn’t have to go out to the plant in the middle of the night to put out a fire.  I mean… how crazy is that anyway?  Does it make any sense?

I suppose I will have to rely on Scott Hubbard to confirm that we really did fight that fire.  How about it Scott?

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

As Bill Gibson asked one time…. “Is the Fact Truer than the Fiction?”

Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor

Originally posted August 30, 2014.

When a death or a near death occurs at a workplace due to an accident, OSHA Occupational Safety and Health Administration) will investigate what happened. There are two reasons for this. If they find that the company has been negligent in following the safety regulations set down in CFR 1910, then they are fined (if the negligence is sever enough). OSHA also investigates the accident to see if changes are needed to regulations in order to protect employees due to new unsafe workplace conditions that are not currently covered under CFR 1910.

Because of the tragedy that happened at our plant that I outlined in the post: “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Committee” and after I had met with the OSHA man (Gerald Young) to give him my deposition as discussed in the post last week: “The OSHA Man Cometh“, the plant manager, the assistant plant manager, and I were summoned to the Department of Labor building in Oklahoma City at 10 o’clock on Monday April 18, 1994.

On a side note:

The Department of Labor office in Oklahoma City is just a couple of blocks from the Murrah Federal Building that was bombed exactly one year and one day after our visit on April 19, 1995. Not that there was any connection.

Murrah Building before the bombing in 1995

Murrah Building before the bombing in 1995

I mentioned this because I went to the Murrah building later that day after the meeting with OSHA to meet my brother for lunch. He was working there in the Marine Recruiting office at the time. I think he was a Major then. He changed jobs in June 1994 and moved to Washington D.C. I think. His replacement was killed in the bombing. Here he is Greg today as a full Colonel:

 

Colonel Gregory T. Breazile

Colonel Gregory T. Breazile

End of Side Note:

I was asked by Ron Kilman our plant manager to show up at 9:00 am on Monday in the building south of our main corporate headquarters where we rented office space to meet with the guys from our own Safety Department because they were required to attend the OSHA meeting with us. The Department of Labor building was just across the parking lot and across the street from this building, so we planned to walk from there.

I drove myself because Ron said he had other meetings to attend in Oklahoma City after this meeting was over and he wouldn’t be driving back to the plant. That was why I arranged to have lunch with my brother.

When we met with the Corporate Safety Department Jack Cox told us how we should act during the meeting with OSHA. He didn’t tell us to do anything wrong, like withhold information. He just told us to answer all the questions as truthfully as we could. Don’t offer any information that isn’t directly asked by OSHA. Don’t argue with them if you disagree.

From what I understood from the conversation, we were supposed to be polite, truthful and don’t waste their time going down a rat hole with specifics. I was told that I shouldn’t have to say anything and I should be quiet unless I was asked a specific question. The Safety department would answer all the questions and make any statements that need to be made. I was assured by them that I had nothing to be worried about. I only needed to tell the truth if asked anything.

If you know my personality, I always want to throw in my 2 cents, even when I know it is wasted on the audience. But I took this seriously. We were going to be fined by OSHA for 10 different violations relating to the accident that occurred at the plant. I was there because I was directly in charge of the work that was being done when the accident occurred. It was my deposition that was used to determine about half of the violations.

After we had been briefed on how we should behave during the meeting, as a group we walked from the corporate building over to the Department Of Labor building. One of the safety guys was carrying a few binders. I think one was the company’s Policies and Procedures book (We called it the GP&P).

One of two General Policies and Procedures Binders

One of two General Policies and Procedures Binders

Upon entering the building we went to the 3rd floor where we were asked to wait in a room until OSHA was ready for the meeting. The room had a long table down the middle. As usual, I picked a seat about halfway down on one side. I remember Ron Kilman sitting across from me and about 2 seats down.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman

We waited and we waited….. 10:00 came and went, and no one came. We quietly discussed whether this was to make us more nervous by keeping us waiting. Then someone came to the door and apologized. They said that Robert B. Reich, the U.S. Secretary of Labor was in the office that day and that had thrown off everyone’s schedule.

 

Robet B. Reich as he looked in 1994

Robet B. Reich as he looked in 1994

This was quite a coincidence, and we wondered if Robert B. Reich (it seems like you need to put the B in his name in order to say it right) would be attending our meeting. That would sort of throw a whole new importance of me keeping my mouth shut to make sure I wasn’t putting my foot in it.

It seemed as if Mr. Reich had shown up unexpectedly. Or at least on short notice. Almost as if it was a surprise visit to check up on the place. He didn’t end up coming to our meeting. Now that I think about it. This was one day shy of being one year to the date that the Branch Davidians had burned themselves alive in Waco, which was one year and one day before the Murrah Building Bombing three blocks away from where we were sitting that morning. Aren’t coincidences interesting? Just saying…

The Siege of the Branch Davidian Compound outside Waco Texas

The Siege of the Branch Davidian Compound outside Waco Texas

More about why Robert B. Reich was there further below.

Around 10:30 four or five OSHA lawyers (I assume they were lawyers, they talked like they were), came in the room along with the Jerry that had interviewed me a few weeks earlier. They apologized again for being late due to the arrival of their “supreme” boss. They sort of sat at one end of the room and the people from our company was more on the other end. Jerry, the OSHA man, sat next to me in the middle.

I was saying a mantra to myself…. “Don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen…. don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen.

The meeting began by the Lady at the end of the table reading off the violations to us. I don’t remember all 10. I remember the most important violations. They mainly centered around the new Confined Space section of 1910. It was 1910.146 that dealt with confined spaces and it had gone into affect April 1, 1993, almost one year before the accident happened. Generally, OSHA gives companies about a year to comply to the new regulations, which kind of put us right on the edge since the accident at our plant had occurred on March 3, 1994.

Because of this, some of the violations were quickly removed. That lowered the number down to 6 violations right away. That was good. No one from our company had said a word yet, and already the OSHA lawyers seemed to be on our side. Then they read off a violation that said that our company had not implemented the required Confined Space Program as outlined in CFR 1910.146.

This was when our Safety Department leader, Jack Cox. said that we would like to contest that violation, because here is the company policy manual that shows that we implemented the Confined Space Program before the end of the year.

One of the OSHA lawyers responded by saying that we had not fully implemented it because we had not trained the employees how to follow the policy. When he made that statement, Ron Kilman contested it. He had a stack of papers that showed that each of the employees at the plant had taken the training and had signed a paper saying they had read the policy. Not only that, but the person that was hurt was not a company employee, they were an outside vendor who was hired by the company to vacuum out the hoppers.

The OSHA man said that just because they took the course did not mean that they were properly trained. Ron asked how do you know they weren’t properly trained. The OSHA man replied, “Because they didn’t follow all the rules. If they had, no one would have been hurt.” — What do you say to that? You can tell we weren’t properly trained because someone was hurt? I suppose that the OSHA rules were written in such a way that if you followed them to the letter, no matter what kind of mechanical failure happens, no one will be hurt. I could see the frustration on Ron’s face.

I was a little amused by Ron’s statement though because Jack Cox had told us to just let them answer all the questions and the first seemingly absurd thing the OSHA man had said, Ron had addressed. — I smiled and said to myself…. “Don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen…”

One of the violations was that we didn’t have a Confined Space Rescue Team. That was true, we didn’t. There was something in the regulations that said, if a rescue team could arrive in a reasonable time from somewhere else, we didn’t have to have our own rescue team…. Well, we lived 20 miles from the nearest fire station equipped with a Confined Space Rescue team. So, there was that…. That was a legitimate violation.

The next violation was that we didn’t have a rescue plan for every confined space in the plant and each confined space was not clearly marked with a Confined Space sign. This was a legitimate violation.

The next violation was that we hadn’t coordinated efforts between different work groups working in confined spaces together. This was clearly stated in the regulations…. — Oh oh. that was me… I think I was mid-mantra when I heard that one. I had just said to myself… “…anything….just keep….” when I heard this violation. I stopped muttering to myself and immediately forgot that I was supposed to keep quiet.

I said, “But wait a minute. We did coordinate between the three groups that were working in the confined spaces. I was coordinating that. I had posted a sheet on a beam in the middle of the hopper area where the accident occurred where the Brown and Root contractors, and the vacuum truck contractors knew what hoppers were still full and which were safe to enter. I kept the sheet updated each day and so did the vacuum truck workers. They indicated when they had finished vacuuming out a hopper, and I would inspect it from above. When I deemed it safe, the Brown and Root contractors could enter the space. The accident occurred because one of the vacuum truck workers entered the confined space while still cleaning it out and before I had inspected it to make sure it was safe.”

Jerry (the OSHA man that had interviewed me turned and said, “Oh. I didn’t know that. Do you still have that piece of paper?” — Incredibly, I did. About a week after all the vacuuming had finished and all the hoppers were safe, I was walking through the hopper area under the precipitator when I found the paper with the duct tape still on it laying on the grating. Without realizing the importance, I picked it up and brought it back to the janitor closet behind the electric shop that we now used as a “Precipitator Fly Ash Cleanup Room”. I had laid it on a shelf there. The lawyers said, “Send us the original sheet and we will drop this violation.

Here is a copy of the piece of paper. The big black splotch at the top is what duct tape looks like when you make a copy of it.

A copy of The Hopper Tracking Sheet

A copy of The Hopper Tracking Sheet

Well, that worked out good. I had stepped out of line by opening my mouth before I had been asked a question, but everything worked out all right.

The final verdict was that we had four violations. We had to re-train our employees on Confined Spaces. We had to create a Confined Space Rescue Team. We had to put the correct signs on all of the confined spaces and we had to develop rescue plans for all of the confined spaces on the plant grounds. If we did that by August 1, 1994, the four remaining violations which amounted to a $40,000 fine would all be dropped. So, we had our work cut out for us. This not only impacted our plant, but all the Power Plants. The meeting was adjourned.

I already told you what I did after the meeting (I went and ate lunch with my brother). But I haven’t mentioned yet why Robert B. Reich had made a surprise visit to the Department of Labor building in Oklahoma City on April 18.

As it turned out, that morning, Labor Secretary Reich had come to Oklahoma City to hand deliver a $7.5 million fine to Dayton Tire Company. This was due to an accident that had resulted in a man, Bob L. Jullian, being crushed by a piece of machinery in the tire plant. He died a week and a half later at the age of 53.

Robert B. Reich had become so angry when he had studied the case on Friday that he wanted to hand deliver the citation himself the following Monday. That is how we ended up in the building at the same time on Monday, April 18, 1994. We resolved our dispute with OSHA on a congenial note and the citations were dropped on August 1. Dayton, however, was still fighting the conviction 18 years later, eventually paying around a $2 million penalty.

Now you know the rest of the story. Well, almost. Like I said, we had a lot of work to do in the next three and a half months.

Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting

Originally posted August 16, 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vacuum Truck

Vacuum Truck

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….

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

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

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

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

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

 

Comments from the original post

    1. Dan Antion August 16, 2014

      Too close.

       

    1. Ron Kilman August 16, 2014

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

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

       

    1. Garfield Hug August 16, 2014

      Thankfully glad you made it to safety *blessings*

    1. Donna Westhoff Collins August 16, 2014

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

    1. Anna Waldherr August 17, 2014

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

    1. T. Foster August 19, 2014

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

    1. createthinklive September 14, 2014

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

Hot Night on the Power Plant Precipitator

Scott Hubbard and I weren’t too sure why we had been called out that night when we met at the Bowling Alley on Washington Street at two o’clock in the morning in Stillwater Oklahoma to drive out to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Something about a fire on the top of the precipitator.

I was glad that Scott was driving instead of me when I climbed into his pickup and he began the 20 mile journey up Highway 177.  I wasn’t quite awake yet from the phone call at 1:45 am telling me that there was a fire on the Unit 1 precipitator roof and they were calling Scott and I out to put it out.  I figured if there was a fire it should be put out long before the 45 minutes it takes me and Scott to arrive at the plant.

We had all been trained to fight fires this size, so it didn’t make sense why we had to go do this instead of the operators.

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

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

My head was still swimming from the lack of sleep when we arrived at the plant, and headed to the Control Room to find out more about the fire we were supposed to fight.  The Shift Supervisor explained that there was an oil fire under one of the high voltage transformers next to some high voltage cables, and the operators that were on duty didn’t feel comfortable climbing under the transformer stands to try and put it out because of high voltage cable tray that ran alongside the fire (ok, now it made sense.  Electricity was involved.  Electricians had to work on anything that had an electric cable attached even if it was a fire).

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home

The size fire extinguisher you would find in your home.  The ones we used were bigger

The operators had already brought a number of fire extinguishers appropriate to putting out an oil fire to the precipitator roof, and they had an SCBA (Self Contained Breating Apparatus) waiting there as well.

Man wearing an SCBA

Man wearing an SCBA from Google Images

Scott and I went to the Electric Shop to get a couple of pairs of asbestos gloves just in case we needed them.

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

Asbestos Gloves worn when putting hot bearings on a motor shaft (for instance)

When we arrived on the precipitator roof we could smell the fire smoldering right away.  The operator explained that some oil soaked insulation was on fire under the transformer stand for Transformer 1G9 and that he had tried to put it out using the extinguisher, but since the transformer oil was soaked into the bricks of insulation, it didn’t seem to do any good.

The transformer stands are about 18 inches tall, so climbing under them reminded me of the time I was sandblasting the water treatment tanks and Curtis Love turned off my air (see the post:  “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“).  This time I had a self-contained breathing apparatus, so I was in control of my own air… only there would only be about 30 minutes of air in the tank.

After assessing the situation Scott and I decided that the only way to put the fire out was to remove the blocks of insulation that were burning.  This meant that I had to lay down under the precipitator transformers and come face to face with the burning insulation and pull them out while wearing the asbestos gloves and put them in a barrel.

The plan was that we would then lower the 55 gallon barrel down to the ground and extinguish the fire by filling the barrel with water.

Barrel of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner

A barrel this size, only it was empty and the top was removed

The precipitator is on the outlet end of the boiler.  The boiler exhaust blows through the precipitator and the ash in the exhaust is removed using static electricity generated by the large transformers on the precipitator roof using up to 45,000 volts of electicity.  When the precipitator is on, the roof is generally a warm place to be.

When a person is laying on the insulation under a transformer, the temperature is somewhat higher as the heat is trapped in the enclosed space between two enclosures called “Coffin Houses” (how appropriate).  When the insulation is soaked with burning oil, the temperature seemed to rise significantly.  Luckily the insulation was not fiberglass as you may have in your attic, because I was wearing nothing but a tee shirt and jeans.  So, I was not subject to the itching I would have if the insulation had been fiberglass.

I had turned the air on the SCBA without using the “Postive Pressure” setting.  That meant that when I inhaled, I pulled air from the air tank, but the air didn’t apply pressure on the mask to keep out the bad air.

I did that because, this looked like it was going to be a long job and I wanted to conserve the air in the tank, and I found that on this setting I was not breathing the smoke pouring up around my face.  Otherwise I would have reached down to the valve on my belt and changed the setting to positive pressure.

I kept wondering while I was lying there with my face a few inches from the smoldering blocks of insulation why I was so calm the entire time.  The hot temperature had caused my sweat reflex to pour out the sweat so I was quickly drenched.  I would just lay my head on the insulation as I reached into the hole I was creating and pulled a glowing brick of insulation out using the asbestos gloves.

I knew I was only half awake so I kept telling myself… “Pay attention.  Work slowly.  One step at a time.  I tried to work like Granny would when she was digging Taters on the Beverly Hillbillies (see the video below at 9:30 to 11:00 into the show):

In case you are not able to view the video above, try this link:  “Granny Digging Taters“.

It’s funny when you’re half dreaming the various things that come to mind.  I’m not sure how picking up smoldering bricks of insulation translated in my mind to Granny teaching beatniks how to pick “taters”…. but it did.

There was also something about this that reminded me of eating chocolate…. oh wait… that was probably left over from the dream I was having when the phone first rang back at the house.

For the next hour or so, I filled the barrels with the burning insulation and then lowered them down to the alleyway between Unit 1 and 2.  During this time I was still groggy from the lack of sleep and the entire process seemed like a dream to me.

I remember lying on my stomach next to the burning insulation.  Pulling the blocks out one at a time, layer by layer until I reached the precipitator roof underneath.  I placed each block of smoldering insulation in the barrel that had been lowered down by an overhead chain-fall near me.

When the barrel was about 3/4 full, we would work the chain fall over to the motorized hoist that would lower it down to the pickup truck bed 100 feet below.  When the barrel left the confines of the precipitator roof and the night air blew over the top of it, the insulation would burst into flames.  By the time the barrel landed in the back of the pickup truck the flames would be lighting up the alley way.

Scott doused the flames with a hose and an extinguisher and hauled the barrel of insulation off to a hazardous waste bin while I repeated the process with the next barrel that Scott attached to the hoist.

By the time we were through I smelled like something that crawled out of a damp fireplace.  My shirt and jeans were soaked with sweat and caked with pink insulation.  The SCBA was out of air after using it for an hour and we were ready to go home.

The operators said they would bring the empty extinguishers back to the plant and send the SCBA off to have it recharged.  We checked back in with the Shift Supervisor in the control room and told him we were heading for home.

I don’t remember which Shift Supervisor it was, though Gary Wright comes to my mind when I think about it.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gary Wright is the red haird man in the front row with the big round glasses

I don’t remember which operator was helping us on the precipitator roof either.  I would usually remember those things, but like I said, I was still dreaming during this entire process.

Normally at this time, since it was close to 3:30 in the morning, we would opt to stay over and just do some odd jobs until it was time to start work because the 6 hour rule would still require us to come back to work at the regular time (see the Post: “Power Plant Black Time and Six Hour Rule“).  Scott and I decided that we both needed a good shower and if we could catch even one hour of sleep before we had to head back out to work, that would help.

So, we climbed back into Scott’s truck and headed back to Stillwater to the bowling alley where I had left my car.  I don’t remember the drive home.  I don’t even remember taking off my shirt and jeans in the utility room where I walked in the house and placing them in the washing machine straightaway… though that’s what I did.

I know I took a shower, but all that was just part of the same dream I had been having since the phone rang earlier that night.  Usually I didn’t have trouble waking up when the phone rang in the middle of the night, but for some reason, this particular night, I never fully woke up.

Or… maybe it’s something else….  Could I have dreamed the entire thing?  Maybe I never did receive that call, and we didn’t have to go out to the plant in the middle of the night to put out a fire.  I mean… how crazy is that anyway?  Does it make any sense?

I suppose I will have to rely on Scott Hubbard to confirm that we really did fight that fire.  How about it Scott?

Scott Hubbard

Scott Hubbard

As Bill Gibson asked one time…. “Is the Fact Truer than the Fiction?”

Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

Originally Posted May 25, 2013;

Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline.  The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators.  This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust.  The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”.  The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust.  When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air.

Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop.  These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator.  I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post:  Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant.  It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years.  You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant.  I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.

When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it.  He likes to get dirty.”  At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop.  Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning…  Now those words took on their full meaning.

I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning.  Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post:  Singin’ Along with Sonny Kendrick).  I was his chance to be from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey.  I had accepted that.  I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.

So, here I was…  One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post:  Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door).  Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers.  I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit.  Just a rain suit.

A man wearing a half faced respirator -- not me... just an image I found on Google Images

A man wearing a half faced respirator — not me… just an image I found on Google Images

Not a lot of protection….

I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul.  I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string.  I had  a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.

A notepad like this

A notepad like this

So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world.  It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon.  We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point.  We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.

Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart.  He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above.  At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me.  Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip.  There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.

Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip.  Then even lower.  About 10 feet above us.  A third clip.  — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It pays to Listen“),  then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….”  A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn.

Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate.  Every clip must be in their place.  Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so.  Ok.  I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 plates per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and  7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…

Bill explained….. Clean each insulator.  there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place.There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers.  there were 84 hoppers,   Great.  Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks….  Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof.  two on section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension hosue on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a ciip or broken.  Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force.  That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below.  Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each.  There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers.  In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.

Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates.  In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly.  There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers.   This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul.  Oh.  And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.

So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units).  Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator. For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators.  Some of my closest friends were precipitator components.  Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.

We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me.  I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment.  I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.

Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas….  I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home…. Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”.  I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash.  I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby…  Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it.  He apologized.  He explained that he meant it with affection.

At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it.  The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter.  That meant that they would infiltrate your filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs.  Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.

I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu.  This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so.  I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth.  I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.

I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator.  So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters.  They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles.  I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.

To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell.  The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors.  Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals….  Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.

You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate.  Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.

I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post:  A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff.  He said it had some kind of  a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….

He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell.  You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.

There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name).  She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical.  Unfortunately, we never found out what it was.  In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces.  This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.

I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of  an electron microscope.  I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one.  I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.

So, I just continued wearing the organic filters.  This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms.  Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator.  When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands.  They knew everything I did.

One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job.  One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma.  They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had.  They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.

Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be.  I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously.  No.  I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it.  I loved it.   I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.

I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator.  I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them.  Coaxing them.  Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job.  If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”.  Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7.  But they were each my friends in their own way.

You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?”  I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me.  I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.

I have my own understanding of who I should be.  My wife may call it “stubbornness”, and that may be what it is.  I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again….  What was I going to do?  Give up?  How could I do that to a friend?  I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma.  That isn’t going to change who I am.”

Today I am called an IT Business Analyst.  I work for Dell  Computers.  It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world.  I see the same pattern.  When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job.  You become invaluable.  Almost unreplaceable.  People look to you for answers.  They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business.  I am glad to be able to serve them.

Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?”  Arnold replied, “Oh.  nothing anyone wants.”  (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators.  No.  I wouldn’t do that.  Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.

Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good.  His son, Tim Foster has taken his place.  One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator.  I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim….  I know Scott understands….

Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them….  Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness.   Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly…  Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good…  next row….

Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door

Originally published on May 25, 2012:

Either this was the luckiest day of my life, or a day where stupidity seemed to be my natural state of mind. This particular day occurred sometime in September 1983. The Main Power transformer for Unit 1 had  shutdown because of an internal fault during an exceptionally hot day during the summer and was being replaced. While the unit was offline, while I was on the labor crew, I was asked to help out the electricians who were doing an overhaul on the Precipitator. The Precipitator takes the ash out of the boiler exhaust before it goes up the smoke stack. Without it, you would see thick smoke, instead, you see only clear exhaust. At the time the electricians I worked with were Sonny Kendrick and Bill Rivers. I had already applied for a job in the electric shop and was waiting to see if I was going to be offered the job. This gave me the chance to show the electricians what a brilliant worker I was.

Bill Rivers told me to go in the precipitator and wipe down the insulators that held the wire racks in place. He showed me where they were. I wore a regular half-face respirator because the fly ash is harmful to inhale.

Half-face respirator

Just before I went in the precipitator door to begin wiping down the insulators using a Scotch Brite Pad, Bill Rivers pointed to my flashlight and said, “Don’t drop your flashlight in a hopper otherwise you will have to make sure that you get it out of the hopper before we go back online.” I told him I would be sure to hold onto my flashlight (noticing that Bill had a string tied to his flashlight which was slung over his shoulder) and I entered the precipitator door.

Yellow Flashlight similar to the one I carried

The inside of the precipitator was dark. 70 foot tall plates are lined up 9 inches apart. Wires hang down between the plates and when the precipitator is turned on, the wires are charged up to around 45,000 volts of electricity. The wires each have a 30 pound weight on the bottom to keep the wires straight, and the wires are kept apart and lined up by a rack at the bottom. One end of the rack which is about 25 feet long is held in place by an electrical insulator about 3 feet long. This is what I was supposed to clean. The light from the flashlight lit up the area around me because everything was covered with the fine white powder reflecting the light.

The first hopper I came to was full of ash up to the top of the hopper, but just below where the insulator was mounted to the edge of the hopper. So, I worked my way down to the ledge along the edge of the hopper and dangled my feet down into the ash as I prepared to wipe down the first of the four insulators on this particular hopper. Just as I began, the precipitator suddenly went dark as my flashlight fell from my hand and down into the hopper. — Oh boy, that didn’t take long.

Fly Ash Hoppers. Our hoppers were 12 foot by 12 foot at the top.

I sat there for a minute in the dark as my eyes grew accustomed to the small amount of light that was coming through the doors. After I could see again, I reached my hand into the ash to feel for my flashlight. The ash was very fluffy and there was little or no resistance as I flailed my hand around searching for it. I leaned over farther and farther to reach down deeper into the ash. I was at the point where I was laying down flat on the ledge trying to find the flashlight, and it was no where to be found.

I pulled myself over to the side edge of the hopper and dropped myself down into the ash so that I could reach over where I had dropped the light, but I was still not able to find it. At that point, I was leaning out into the hopper with only my one index finger gripping the ledge around the hopper. I had a decision to make… I thought I would just bail off into the ash to see if I could find the flashlight, or I could give up and go tell Bill Rivers that I had done the one thing that he told me not to do, and in record time.

I don’t usually like to give up until I have exhausted every effort, so here was my dilemma. Do I let go and dive into this ash to retrieve my flashlight? Or do I leave the hopper and go tell Bill? I regretfully decided to go tell Bill. So, I climbed up out of the hopper, with my clothes covered with Ash (as we did not have fly ash suits at the time and I was wearing my coveralls). I made my way to the precipitator door and once I was outside, I determined which hopper I had been in when I dropped my flashlight.

I found Bill and told him that I had dropped my flashlight in a hopper full of ash. He told me to get the key for that hopper and open the door at the bottom and see if I could find the flashlight. Unlike the picture of the hoppers above, we had a landing around the base of the hoppers by the access door so you didn’t need a ladder to reach them.

Curtis Love had been watching the door of the precipitator for me while I was supposed to be wiping off the insulators. He came down with me, and we proceeded to open the access door at the bottom on the side of the hopper. When I opened the door both Curtis and I were swept backward as a stream of fly ash shot from the door. The ash fell through the grating to the ground below. We regained our footing and watched as a tremendous pile of ash grew below us. If the flashlight had come out of the doorway, it would have remained on the landing since it was too big to go through the grating, but it never came out.

After the ash had finished pouring out of the hopper as if it were water, I reached down into the remaining ash to see if I could feel the flashlight. Still I was unable to find it. There was about 4 more feet from the doorway to the bottom of the hopper, so I emptied out as much ash as I could using my hard hat for a shovel. Then I pulled my body head first into the hopper and I reached down as far as I could in the bottom of the hopper, but I couldn’t find the flashlight.

So, in my infinite wisdom, I asked Curtis Love to hold onto my legs as I lowered myself down to the throat at the bottom of the hopper. I lowered myself down until I had half of my face laying in the ash. At this point only one of the two filters on my respirator was able to function as the other one was down in the ash. I reached my hand into the top of the feeder at the bottom of the hopper and with my finger tips I could just feel the flashlight. I had reached as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach far enough to grip the flashlight.

All of the sudden my head dipped down into the ash and my hand went around the flashlight. I was not able to breathe as my respirator (and my entire head) was entirely immersed in ash. Everything went dark. I struggled to get up, as Curtis had let go of my legs and I had plunged head first into the bottom of the hopper. I had one hand free as the other one held the flashlight. I used it to push against the opposite wall of the hopper to raise my head up out of the ash. I still couldn’t breathe as my respirator was now clogged solid with ash. When I tried to inhale, the respirator just gripped my face tighter. Finally with my one free hand pushing against the hopper wall to hold my head out of the ash, I reached up with the hand that held the flashlight and pushed against my respirator enough to break the seal around my face so that I was able to get a breath of air.

Then I quickly pulled myself out of the precipitator as I heard Curtis saying the mantra that I had heard one other time (as I indicated in the post about Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love). He was saying over and over again, “I’mSorry,I’mSorry, KevinI’mSorry, ThoseGuysWereTicklingMe. I’mSorry,IDidn’tMeanToLetGo,ITriedToHoldOn, butThoseGuysWereTicklingMe.”

Looking around I spied a few Labor Crew hands sneaking away. As this happened before when I was sandblasting in the sand filter tank when Curtis Love had turned off my air, this wasn’t the first encounter I had with Power Plant Men In-Training playing a Power Plant joke on me. I told Curtis to forget it. I had retrieved my flashlight and everything was all right. I was covered from head-to-toe with fly ash, but that washes off pretty easily.

It dawned on me then that when I had dropped the flashlight, it had sunk clear to the bottom of the hopper and down into the throat of the feeder at the bottom. If I had dived into the ash in the hopper from up above, I would have fallen right down to the bottom of the hopper and been engulfed in ash. My feet would have been pinned down in the feeder pipe, and that would have been the end of me. It probably would have taken many hours to figure out where I was, and they would have found only a corpse.

While I was hanging on the edge of the hopper with only the tip of my index finger gripping the ledge, I was actually considering letting go. There never would have been an electrician at the power Plant named Kevin Breazile. I never would have married my wife Kelly, and had my two children Elizabeth and Anthony. I would not be writing this story right now. If it had been left to my own stupidity, none of those things would have happened. I believe it was my guardian angel that had talked me out of letting go (or had actually been standing on my fingers). As stubborn as I was, and against my nature, that day I had decided to give up searching for my flashlight and seek help. That one momentary decision has made all the difference in my life.

Since that day I have had a certain appreciation for the things that happen to me even when they seem difficult at the time. I have lived a fairly stress-free life because each day is a gift. Currently I work in a stress-filled job where individual accomplishments are seldom rewarded. From one day to the next I may be laid off at any time. I still find a lot of satisfaction in what I do because it was possible that it never would have happened. I have been kept alive for a purpose so I might as well enjoy the ride.

I find a special love for the people I work with today, because they are all gifts to me. I try to pay them back with kindness… when that doesn’t work.. I try to annoy them with my presence… Just to say….. — I am still here!

Comments from previous repost:

  1. Dan Antion May 27, 2014

    Scary thought there at the end. Sounds like quick sand.

  2. Ron May 27, 2014

    I’m glad you chose to “give up” on going after a flashlight! There is a Proverb that says “There is a way which seems right to a man, but the end thereof is the way death.” Sounds like you found one of those “ways”. To choose to find your flashlight and lose your life would be the ultimate bad choice. God, give us the wisdom to choose the way of life.

  3. A.D. Everard August 4, 2014

    Wow. So close! You have a book with all these adventures, you really do. I’m enjoying reading these pages very much. I’m so glad you survived to write them!

  4. inmytwisteddreams August 17, 2014

    You are a very good story teller! I was drawn in from the first sentence, and engulfed in your words until the last. Great Story! I mean, not so great at the time, but glad you brought it full circle in the end! I always say, “You must never hesitate” – a simple statement, whose words most might take for granted. As humans, it’s typically against our nature to trust our first (or gut) instinct, but as you know, it is there for a reason! Good story! 🙂

    ~Nikki

Making Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes

Originally posted April 25, 2014:

Later in life, thinking back to when I was young, I sometimes wonder at how my first real friend, Mark Schlemper remained my friend throughout my childhood.  I remember as a boy, there were times when I wasn’t the friendliest friend.  Sometimes I was downright selfish.  Mark, on the other hand, was always considerate.  Not in an Eddie Haskell way, but in a sincere way.  I learned a lot about being a kinder person from Mark, and I’m forever grateful.

Mark Schlemper with his Mother.  Two very good people.

My favorite picture of Mark Schlemper with his Mother

I think if Mark had not been my friend during my childhood, then this story would have a very different ending.

Last Friday (April 18, 2014), I posted a story called “Vertan or Sand and Making Enemies of a Power Plant Man“.  At the end of that post I explained that I had become the enemy of a team leader during the “We’ve Got The Power” program.  I explained this program in the post:  “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“.  With all that said, here is the story:

I was a plant electrician at a coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we took part in the “We’ve Got The Power” program.  At the time, I was in charge of maintaining the Unit 1 precipitator.  The precipitator is what takes the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler, so that you don’t normally see smoke coming out of a Power Plant Smokestack.

My bucket buddy in the Electric Shop, Diana Brien was on a team that tried an experiment on the Unit 1 precipitator by injecting sand into the intake duct in the hope that it would increase the performance.  I didn’t put much faith in the experiment, because it was based on something that had happened almost a year earlier when sand was burned in the boiler in order to burn off the oil that had been soaked into the sand.

I hadn’t seen any sand build up in front of the precipitator during the next overhaul, and didn’t believe that any of it had been able to make it’s way through the economizer and the air preheaters to the precipitator.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler.  The precipitator is after the air preheater where it is labelled “Flue gas”

When Ron Kilman asked me about it, I said that I didn’t think it would do any good, but also, it wouldn’t do any harm either, so I told Ron that I couldn’t see any reason not to do the experiment.  Who knows.  Maybe something unexpected would happen.  — Something did, but not quite in the way anyone would have expected.

On the day of the experiment, sand was blown into the intake duct of the precipitator.  When the experiment was taking place, Diana Brien sat at the precipitator computer behind the Unit 1 Alarm Panel in the Control Room.  She was printing out readings every so many minutes as the experiment progressed.

At times, I walked by and checked on her to see how it was going.  One time when I was standing there watching the readings on the computer, all of the sudden the Opacity shot up.  Opacity is used to measure how much smoke is going out of the smoke stack.  Something definitely happened to cause a large puff of smoke.

I switched screens to look at the power on each of the control cabinets.  After a few seconds I found that cabinet 1A10 had zero Volts on the secondary side of the transformer.  It should have been somewhere above 40 Kilovolts.  The cabinet hadn’t tripped, but it wasn’t charging up the plates.  Cabinet 1A10 was in the very back row of the precipitator, and when the power shuts off on the cabinet it readily lets go of the ash that had built up on it when the rappers on the roof strike the plates.

When I saw the puff occur, I knew where to go look, because this happened whenever one of the back cabinets was turned off.  I told Dee that it looked like a fuse had blown on the cabinet.  The ash was going to continue billowing out of the precipitator for a couple of hours if I didn’t go do something about it.  So, I told Dee that I was going to go to the Precipitator Control Room and replace the fuse.

I passed through the electric shop to grab my tool bucket and headed out to the precipitator.  When I arrived, I found the cabinet just as it had indicated on the computer.  The fuse had obviously failed.  Interesting timing.  Coincidence?  I thought it was.  The fuses controlling the back cabinets were usually the ones that blew because we ran them at a much higher voltage than the rest of the cabinets (at the time).

This is a picture of the exact fuse I replaced, except the writing was pink instead of blue

This is a picture of the exact fuse I replaced, except the print was orange instead of blue

I quickly replaced the fuse (after attaching grounding cables to the leads, and using a pair of high voltage gloves).  Then I powered the cabinet back on.

 

High Voltage gloves like this

High Voltage gloves like this

I returned to the Control Room and told Dee that I replaced the fuse on cabinet 1A10.  The opacity had returned to normal.  I watched a few more minutes to make sure everything had stabilized, and then I left.

When Ron Kilman was evaluating the results of the experiment, he could plainly see that something strange had happened.  Smoke had been pouring out of the smoke stack in the middle of the experiment.  So, he asked me what I thought about it.

First of all, as a disclaimer, our team had our own experiments we had been conducting on the precipitator in hopes of coming up with money savings ideas.  So, when I told Ron what had happened with the fuse blowing, I wondered if he would trust me to tell the truth, since I had my own skin in the game.

I explained in detail to Ron how the fuse had blown and that I was standing next to Dee watching the computer when the smoke started blowing out of the stack.  I could tell that a fuse had blown by looking at the readings, so I went out and replaced the fuse.  I told him that fuses do blow periodically in the back of the precipitator, but I couldn’t explain why it happened to fail at that particular time.  After I gave him my explanation, he seemed satisfied that I was telling the truth.

I think a token amount of points were awarded to the team because something obviously had happened during the experiment, though it wasn’t clear that sand had anything to do with it.  On the other hand, our team was awarded a large amount of points for increasing the precipitator performance using a different method that I may bring up in a later post.  To the team that burned the sand, this looked a lot like foul play.

The leader of the team was the Shift Supervisor Jim Padgett.  He became very upset when he found out that I had gone to the precipitator control room during the experiment and worked on the equipment.  Our team had been awarded a lot of points that was enough to purchase the dining room table set that I have in my dining room today:

Dining Room Table received as an award from the "We've Got The Power" program

Dining Room Table received as an award from the “We’ve Got The Power” program

It became known throughout the control room and the electric shop that Jim Padgett viewed me as his enemy.  The other electricians would jokingly refer to Jim as my “friend”, knowing that Jim had basically declared “war” on me.  Any time someone in the shop would have something to say about Jim, they would say, “Kevin’s friend” Jim Padgett….”

When I first became aware that Jim was upset with me, I understood why.  If I had been in his shoes I would probably feel the same way.  It’s a rotten feeling when you believe that someone has cheated you out of something important.  So, I decided up front that I was going to become Jim’s best friend.  This is where I think my memory of Mark Schlemper with his patience for me as a boy helped me with this decision.

I had determined that any time Jim asked me to do something I wouldn’t hesitate to help him.  It took about a year before Jim could look at me without grimacing.  Finally, one day, he asked me if I would go look at something for him to see if we needed a clearance, or if it was something that could be fixed right away.  It was something minor, but I knew that this was an indicator that the ice was finally beginning to melt.  I was able to fix the problem on the spot, and returned to let him know.

Once we were on semi-speaking terms again, I took an opportunity one day to ask Jim if he would like to join our Computer Club.  I had started a Computer Club in the Electric Shop.  Anyone could join it for a one time fee of $5.00 that was used to buy shareware and disk cases.  For a while I also published a newsletter letting the members of the club know what games and such we had that could be checked out.

Once Jim Padgett joined the Computer Club, it was much easier to have a regular conversation outside of the normal daily business.  I had put the thought in my mind when I decided that Jim was going to become my best friend that nothing would make me happier than to be able to do something for Jim.  That way, no matter what I was doing at the time, if Jim asked me to do something for him, I would drop whatever I was doing and do my best to help.

I could go on and on explaining how gradually over time, not only was Jim my friend, but Jim acted more and more as if I was his friend as well.  Let me just say that the entire process took almost exactly ten years.  I can remember the exact moment when Jim indicated to me that I had become his friend.

Here is what happened:

The phone next to my bed rang at 2:15 in the morning on Thursday February 17, 2000.  I instantly knew what it meant when the phone rang in the middle of the night.  It meant that someone at the plant was calling because there was a problem.  Who else would be up on in the middle of the night?  The night shift of course.

When I answered the phone, Jim Padgett said, “I hate to wake you up buddy.”  I replied, “No.  That’s okay.  What’s up?”  Jim explained that the dumper was down and a train was about halfway through dumping the coal and everything was dead in the water.  I said, “Ok.  I’ll be right out.”

I turned to Kelly and told her that I had to go fix the dumper.  She already knew of course.  I pulled on a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and on the way out the door, I slipped on my work boots and laced them up.  Then I drove the 30 miles out to the plant.

It was just before 3:00 am when I arrived.  I grabbed my hardhat from the electric shop and took the elevator up to the Control Room.  Jim apologized again and told me that how the dumper acted when it shutdown.  I went back down the elevator to the electric shop where I grabbed the key to the pickup truck and my tool bucket and left the electric shop into the cool night air.

Power Plants at night take on magical properties.  It’s hard to explain.  Lights shining from the 25 story boilers, noises from steam pipes.  Hums from motors and transformers.  Night Hawks screeching.

When I arrived at the coalyard, I went straight into the Dumper Switchgear where the relays that controlled the dumper were mounted.  Having worked on the dumper for the past 17 years, I could troubleshoot the circuits in my sleep.  — Actually, I may have done just that.  It didn’t take long, and I had replaced a contact on a relay that had broken and had the Coalyard Operator test the dumper long enough to know it was going to work.

When I returned back to Control Room Jim was sitting in the Shift Supervisor’s office.  I walked in and showed him the small relay contact that had caused the failure.  Jim, looked at me and said something that I thought only a friend would say so casually.  I won’t use his exact words, though I remember not only the exact words, I remember his exact expression.  He indicated to me that he had passed some gas, and he was apologizing about it.  I replied, “Well.  That happens.” (No.  Not the other thing that happens).  I told him I was going to go home.  It was about 3:40 by that time.

Jim wished me a good night, and smiling with gratitude, thanked me again for coming  out.  As I was going back to the parking lot, and on the way home driving through the dark, tired from being woken up in the middle of the night, I had a great feeling of peace.  That brief conversation with Jim just before I left was so pleasant in an odd way that I knew we had become friends.  This was such a long way from where we had been 10 years earlier when Jim had literally wanted to kill me (well, not that he actually would…).

When I arrived home, I peeled my clothes off in the utility room to keep from tracking coal all over the house.  I set the small broken relay contact on the kitchen table as a token to my wife, so she could see why I was called out when she wakes up in the morning.  I climbed back into bed around 4:15 to sleep for another two hours.

That morning when I arrived at the plant, the first thing I learned was that about the time that my alarm had woken me up that morning, Jim Padgett had left his shift and driven to his home in Ponca City.  When he walked in the door to his house, he collapsed and died instantly of a heart attack.  That would have been about 3 hours after the moment that we had said goodbye.

 

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

I grieved for Jim’s wife Jane, who had worked for a while at the plant before marrying Jim, but I didn’t grieve for Jim.  Something told me, and maybe it was Jim, that he was at peace.  In the moment that I heard about Jim’s death, I burned the conversation we had just had that morning into my mind so that I would never forget it.

To this day whenever I know that someone is upset with me for something that I have done to them personally (which still happens occasionally), I am determined that they will become one of my best friends.  I will do anything for that person if they ask (unless, of course it is to “not be their friend”).  I have my childhood friend Mark Schlemper to thank for the attitude that helped me decide to reach out to Jim Padgett.  Without that experience while growing up, Jim and I would never have become friends.

I would like to leave you with a song that reminds me of Jim whenever I hear it.  It is called “Bright Eyes” from the movie “Watership Down”. Art Garfunkel sings it:

Note:  If you are not able to watch the video above, try clicking this link:  Bright Eyes, Art Garfunkel

 

Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion April 26, 2014

    I’m glad that you were able to work through a tough situation and reach the point of friendship. although, it does make the loss harder to accept.

  2. Jack Curtis May 6, 2014

    Your story would have been a matter of course for my grandparents and immediately understood and admired by my parents. I suspect that telling it to today’s children might draw blank stares …

    Midwestern values likely still include such behaviors, at least for a reasonable number of people. I doubt many folk on the coasts would identify with it. We have lost a lot and have yet to learn the price of that, seems to me.

Blowing it with Power Plant Retracts and Wall Blowers

Originally Posted February 23, 2013:

I never gave it much thought that when I was on the labor crew at the Coal-fired Power Plant in Oklahoma and we had to go in the boiler to shake the boiler tubes, that next to the portals where you would climb into the boiler there were long metal benches where you could sit just outside while you rested between moments when the dynamiters were getting ready to set off their explosives. (All right… right off the bat…. a run-on sentence the size of a paragraph… I can tell it’s going to be a long night).

To learn more about the dynamiters and shaking boiler tubes you can read the post: Cracking a boiled Egg in the Boiler. At other times while I was on the labor crew, I had heard these same benches making a tremendous sound that you could hear from a few landings away. It sounded like a large steam leak would sound, and at the same time, you could hear some kind of mechanical gears or something running and maybe a chain clanging. I didn’t really understand what the purpose of these long benches served then, only that it was a good place to put the water jug and the box of fly ash suits to keep them from being stepped on.

It was after I had become an electrician that these long metal benches took on another meaning. I found out that they were called “Retracts”. I was told that they called them retracts because what they do is they run a long metal pipe into the boiler and then Retract it back. Ok. I thought it was rather odd to name something for a seemingly insignificant part of the function. After I understood what they were used for, I thought I could come up with a lot better name than “Retract”.

After all, we had equipment like “Honey Wagon” , “Coffin Houses”, “Clinker Grinder”. All really descriptive names. So, when Charles Foster told me to go with Diane Lucas (later Diane Brien) to work on 7R retract, I was expecting to go find some little lever going back and forth making a sound like “brrrr…oops…..brrr…..oops” as it swung back and forth. I would name something like that a “Retract”.

Actually, I would like to have been able to have kept a couple of Retracts in my pocket so that when I would smart off to Leroy Godfrey our Electrical Supervisor, I could pull one out and press the button and… “swoop”! Retracted!

So, what is a Retract? Well. In the story that I linked to above about the cracked egg in the boiler, I explained how when I was on the labor crew we had to go in the boiler and tie ropes to these hanging boiler tubes and then shake them back and forth to clean out the hard ash that had built up on them. Well, The Retract would sort of do that when the boiler was online. They would clean out the tubes in the reheat area of the boiler for the most part.

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

What it would do is this. It seemed like 7R retract was about 40 feet long (someone at the plant can correct me if I’m wrong about the length). When it would turn on, it would start rotating a pipe about that long and start pushing it into the boiler. Once the nozzle at the end of the pipe was in the boiler a couple of feet steam would start blasting down the pipe to the nozzle on the end that would shoot the steam out at right angles to the pipe. As the pipe rotated, it would be shooting out steam in a circular motion as the pipe slowly traversed into the boiler.

You see… My dentist told me a long time ago that I should Floss my teeth more if I didn’t want to wear dentures when I was older. By keeping the bits of food out from between my teeth, not only did my breath smell better, but my gums could remain healthy as well. So, I listened to him and started flossing. Retracts are kind of like that.

The Retracts were designed to clean out the areas of the boiler where the ash would build up the most causing the efficiency of the boiler to be degraded. So at certain times of the day, the Control Room operator will push a button on the side panel (at least that was what they used to do… now they probably click an icon on their computer) and it would start the cycle of the retracts going in and out one at a time cleaning out the boiler.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler.  I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers... no, not really.

This is a drawing of a Steam retract for a boiler. I added the Chinese characters in the drawing for my Asian readers… no, not really. Sorry the picture is a little small

Anyway. I finally learned what those long metal benches were for and it fascinated me. I wonder how long it took before someone said what now would seem obvious…. “Hey. Instead of having to bring the boiler offline every week or so, how about if we just create this boiler flossing equipment that cleans the boiler out while it is online?”

It made me wonder about the other equipment around the plant. I’ll bet there was a good use for just about everything. And you know what? I think I was right. Instead of just putting all that equipment all over the place for us to play on like a big jungle gym, everything seemed to have a real good purpose.

After 4 years working as a summer help, and one more year as a janitor and on the labor crew, I thought I had seen just about everything in the plant. When I became an electrician, all of the sudden a whole new world opened up to me. Even that bench I had been sitting on turned into a monster machine that blasted away ash clinkers while the rest of us lay at home in our beds dreaming of chocolate, and dragons, and um… other things people dream about.

So, what about the Wall Blower? Well. These are like the retracts, only they are much smaller. they were placed around the walls of the main boiler at strategic locations to blast clinkers that may be building up along the main wall of the boiler. The area in the boiler diagram up above called the Water Wall.

For some reason (and I’m sure it’s a good one), From what was called floor 6 1/2, though it was actually about the 13th floor, on down was an area called the “Boiler Enclosure”. This meant that when you walked up to the boiler, you first had to go through a door and enter an enclosed area around the boiler. 7th floor and above, the boiler was outside.

I’ve been to plants where the entire boiler was enclosed, and I’ve seen some that didn’t look like any of it was enclosed, so I figure this was a happy median between the two. It meant that if it was raining outside and you needed to work on the boiler, it made a big difference how high up you had to go as to whether you needed your rain suit or not.

I mention this because one day I had to go by myself to work on a wall blower that was on the 6 and 1/2 floor just at the top of the boiler enclosure. The wall blower was naturally situated right next to the boiler. and all the heat generated from the boiler and the piping that came from the bowl mills that blew the coal into the furnace had made the area very hot. The Wall blower had been tripping the breaker and I was supposed to go fix it.

I brought an infrared temperature gun with me and found that the area where the wall blower was mounted was 160 degrees. Maybe it was that high because it was the middle of a hot summer day, and with everything else going on, all the heat trapped right at the top of the boiler enclosure, it had just turned into a huge easy-bake oven.

When I touched the metal door to the control panel on the side of the wall blower, it burned my fingers. I had to use my tee-shirt as a rag to keep from burning my self. I could only stand next to the wall blower for about 30 seconds and then I had to walk back over the doorway and breathe some fresh air and cool off for a minute before going back.

After opening the control panel, I could see what the problem was right away. The insulation on the wires going to the terminal block had the insulation dripping off the wires. The insulation was melting.

I went back to the shop and found some wire that was designed for high temperatures, because obviously someone had used the wrong type of wire when assembling this particular wall blower, given it’s location on the boiler.

High Temperature Wire

High Temperature Wire

Because of the intense heat where I was standing when trying to rewire the wall blower, I was not able to take very big breaths. I had to breathe very shallow, or not at all. So, I would go up to the blower and work as fast as I could removing a screw or putting a new wire down and then I would go back to the doorway about 60 feet from the wall blower and cool off.

As I mentioned in the post about the Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew, when you are in this intense heat, your hardhat becomes soft like a baseball cap. In this case, I wasn’t in the heat long enough for this to happen, though I was sweating like a pig.

I had been doing this for a while when an operator showed up wondering what I was doing. His name was Jim Waller and he had been watching me from a distance. He said he was trying to figure out what I was up to because he would see me show up at the doorway and stand there for a while not doing anything, then turning around like I had forgotten something only to show up again about 1/2 minute later.

When he couldn’t figure out what I was doing on his own, he decided to take a closer look. I found him standing at the doorway waiting for me to arrive with a puzzled look on his face. I was tempted to just say nothing and just stand there and take a few breathes and then go back to the wall blower and continue my work.

I couldn’t do that however, when Jim asked me what I was doing. Jim was one of the nicest and most normal operators you could run across. I just couldn’t joke with him. So, I told him I was working on that wall blower over there, but that it was so hot that I had to keep coming to the doorway to cool off.

Jim Waller had come to work for the electric company a month before I began my last summer as summer help in 1982. At the time that I was working on the wall blower in 1984 I was just about to become 24 years old, and a couple of months later, he was going to be 29. Like Gene Day, you instantly knew when you saw Jim that he you liked him. He sort of had that Jim Nabors kind of smile.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger.  He had the same likable demeanor.

Jim Waller reminded me of Jim Nabors when he was younger. He had the same likable demeanor.

Unlike Gene Day, I never felt like playing a joke on Jim. For some reason, Jim just seemed like too nice of a guy. Where Gene had a slight sort of hidden orneriness about him, Jim was just purely a “good guy”.

This past Christmas eve, five days before Jim turned 57 years old, he passed away after a sudden illness. When the guys at the power plant told me about it, I was sad for their loss and for his family. For Jim, on the other hand…. I think he has always had one foot in heaven from the day I met him. I think he finally stepped the rest of the way through the gate.

For someone like me. If I am ever able to make it to heaven, I’m sure there will be a big to-do about it, because someone would have won the pot and I’m sure the odds would have been high against it. However, the day Jim arrived, it was probably more like “business as usual”. — “Oh, Jim’s arrived….. Like no one didn’t see that coming….” If I could say something to Jim now (and being Catholic, I’m allowed to do that), I would ask Jim, “Put in a good word for all the Power Plant Men!” Because I know that Jim’s word is as good as gold. Here is a real picture of Jim, a true Power Plant Man:

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

Jim Waller, a True Power Plant Man!

 

Comment from the original post:

Ron Kilman February 23, 2013:

Good post on Jim, Kevin. Now, what is a “normal operator”? 🙂
I remember doing several jobs in super hot areas where I had to wear a heavy coat and gloves to keep from getting burned. Had to take off rings and wrist watch too. Needed to take off my glasses, but then I couldn’t see.

 

Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor

When a death or a near death occurs at a workplace due to an accident, OSHA Occupational Safety and Health Administration) will investigate what happened.  There are two reasons for this.  If they find that the company has been negligent in following the safety regulations set down in CFR 1910, then they are fined (if the negligence is sever enough).  OSHA also investigates the accident to see if changes are needed to regulations in order to protect employees due to new unsafe workplace conditions that are not currently covered under CFR 1910.

Because of the tragedy that happened at our plant that I outlined in the post:  “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Committee” and after I had met with the OSHA man to give him my deposition as discussed in the post last week:  “The OSHA Man Cometh“, the plant manager, the assistant plant manager, and I were summoned to the Department of Labor building in Oklahoma City at 10 o’clock on Monday April 18, 1994.

On a side note:

The Department of Labor office in Oklahoma City is just a couple of blocks from the Murrah Federal Building that was bombed exactly one year and one day after our visit on April 19, 1995.  Not that there was any connection.

Murrah Building before the bombing in 1995

Murrah Building before the bombing in 1995

I mentioned this because I went to the Murrah building later that day after the meeting with OSHA to meet my brother for lunch.  He was working there in the Marine Recruiting office at the time.  I think he was a Major then.  He changed jobs in June 1994 and moved to Washington D.C. I think.  His replacement was killed in the bombing.  Here he is Greg today as a full Colonel:

 

Colonel Gregory T. Breazile

Colonel Gregory T. Breazile

End of Side Note:

I was asked by Ron Kilman our plant manager to show up at 9:00 am on Monday in the building south of our main corporate headquarters where we rented office space to meet with the guys from our own Safety Department because they were required to attend the OSHA meeting with us.  The Department of Labor building was just across the parking lot and across the street from this building, so we planned to walk from there.

I drove myself because Ron said he had other meetings to attend in Oklahoma City after this meeting was over and he wouldn’t be driving back to the plant.  That was why I arranged to have lunch with my brother.

When we met with the Corporate Safety Department they told us how we should act during the meeting with OSHA.  They didn’t tell us to do anything wrong, like withhold information.  They just told us to answer all the questions as truthfully as we could.  Don’t offer any information that isn’t directly asked by OSHA.  Don’t argue with them if you disagree.

From what I understood from the conversation, we were supposed to be polite, truthful and don’t waste their time going down a rat hole with specifics.  I was told that I shouldn’t have to say anything and I should be quiet unless I was asked a specific question.   The Safety department would answer all the questions and make any statements that need to be made.  I was assured by them that I had nothing to be worried about.  I only needed to tell the truth if asked anything.

If you know my personality, I always want to throw in my 2 cents, even when I know it is wasted on the audience.  But I took this seriously.  We were going to be fined by OSHA for 10 different violations relating to the accident that occurred at the plant.  I was there because I was directly in charge of the work that was being done when the accident occurred.  It was my deposition that was used to determine about half of the violations.

After we had been briefed on how we should behave during the meeting, as a group we walked from the corporate building over to the Department Of Labor building.  One of the safety guys was carrying a few binders.  I think one was the company’s Policies and Procedures book (We called it the GP&P).

One of two General Policies and Procedures Binders

One of two General Policies and Procedures Binders

Upon entering the building we went to the 3rd floor where we were asked to wait in a room until OSHA was ready for the meeting.  The room had a long table down the middle.  As usual, I picked a seat about halfway down on one side.  I remember Ron Kilman sitting across from me and about 2 seats down.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman

We waited and we waited….. 10:00 came and went, and no one came.  We quietly discussed whether this was to make us more nervous by keeping us waiting.  Then someone came to the door and apologized.  They said that Robert B. Reich, the U.S. Secretary of Labor was in the office that day and that had thrown off everyone’s schedule.

 

Robet B. Reich as he looked in 1994

Robet B. Reich as he looked in 1994

This was quite a coincidence, and we wondered if Robert B. Reich (it seems like you need to put the B in his name in order to say it right) would be attending our meeting.  That would sort of throw a whole new importance of me keeping my mouth shut to make sure I wasn’t putting my foot in it.

It seemed as if Mr. Reich had shown up unexpectedly.  Or at least on short notice.  Almost as if it was a surprise visit to check up on the place.  He didn’t end up coming to our meeting.  Now that I think about it.  This was one day shy of being one year to the date that the Branch Davidians had burned themselves alive in Waco, which was one year and one day before the Murrah Building Bombing three blocks away from where we were sitting that morning.  Aren’t coincidences interesting?  Just saying…

The Siege of the Branch Davidian Compound outside Waco Texas

The Siege of the Branch Davidian Compound outside Waco Texas

More about why Robert B. Reich was there further below.

Around 10:30 four or five OSHA lawyers (I assume they were lawyers, they talked like they were), came in the room along with the Jack that had interviewed me a few weeks earlier.  They apologized again for being late due to the arrival of their “supreme” boss.  They sort of sat at one end of the room and the people from our company was more on the other end.  Jack, the OSHA man, sat next to me in the middle.

I was saying a mantra to myself…. “Don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen…. don’t say anything… just keep quiet and listen.

The meeting began by the Lady at the end of the table reading off the violations to us.  I don’t remember all 10.   I remember the most important violations.  They mainly centered around the new Confined Space section of 1910.  It was 1910.146 that dealt with confined spaces and it had gone into affect April 1, 1993, almost one year before the accident happened.  Generally, OSHA gives companies about a year to comply to the new regulations, which kind of put us right on the edge since the accident at our plant had occurred on March 3, 1994.

Because of this, some of the violations were quickly removed.  That lowered the number down to 6 violations right away.  That was good.  No one from our company had said a word yet, and already the OSHA lawyers seemed to be on our side.  Then they read off a violation that said that our company had not implemented the required Confined Space Program as outlined in CFR 1910.146.

This was when our Safety Department leader, Jack Cox. said that we would like to contest that violation, because here is the company policy manual that shows that we implemented the Confined Space Program before the end of the year.

One of the OSHA lawyers responded by saying that we had not fully implemented it because we had not trained the employees how to follow the policy.  When he made that statement, Ron Kilman contested it.  He had a stack of papers that showed that each of the employees at the plant had taken the training and had signed a paper saying they had read the policy.  Not only that, but the person that was hurt was not a company employee, they were an outside vendor who was hired by the company to vacuum out the hoppers.

The OSHA man said that just because they took the course did not mean that they were properly trained.  Ron asked how do you know they weren’t properly trained.  The OSHA man replied, “Because they didn’t follow all the rules.  If they had, no one would have been hurt.” —  What do you say to that?  You can tell we weren’t properly trained because someone was hurt?  I suppose that the OSHA rules were written in such a way that if you followed them to the letter, no matter what kind of mechanical failure happens, no one will be hurt.  I could see the frustration on Ron’s face.

I was a little amused by Ron’s statement though because Jack Cox had told us to just let them answer all the questions and the first seemingly absurd thing the OSHA man had said, Ron had addressed. —  I smiled and said to myself….  “Don’t say anything…  just keep quiet and listen…”

One of the violations was that we didn’t have a Confined Space Rescue Team.  That was true, we didn’t.  There was something in the regulations that said, if a rescue team could arrive in a reasonable time from somewhere else, we didn’t have to have our own rescue team…. Well, we lived 20 miles from the nearest fire station equipped with a Confined Space Rescue team.  So, there was that….  That was a legitimate violation.

The next violation was that we didn’t have a rescue plan for every confined space in the plant and each confined space was not clearly marked with a Confined Space sign.  This was a legitimate violation.

The next violation was that we hadn’t coordinated efforts between different work groups working in confined spaces together.  This was clearly stated in the regulations…. — Oh oh.  that was me…  I think I was mid-mantra when I heard that one.  I had just said to myself…  “…anything….just keep….” when I heard this violation.  I stopped muttering to myself and immediately forgot that I was supposed to keep quiet.

I said, “But wait a minute.  We did coordinate between the three groups that were working in the confined spaces.  I was coordinating that.  I had posted a sheet on a beam in the middle of the hopper area where the accident occurred where the Brown and Root contractors, and the vacuum truck contractors knew what hoppers were still full and which were safe to enter.  I kept the sheet updated each day and so did the vacuum truck workers.  They indicated when they had finished vacuuming out a hopper, and I would inspect it from above.  When I deemed it safe, the Brown and Root contractors could enter the space. The accident occurred because one of the vacuum truck workers entered the confined space while still cleaning it out and before I had inspected it to make sure it was safe.”

Jack (the OSHA man that had interviewed me turned and said, “Oh.  I didn’t know that.  Do you still have that piece of paper?”  —  Incredibly, I did.  About a week after all the vacuuming had finished and all the hoppers were safe, I was walking through the hopper area under the precipitator when I found the paper with the duct tape still on it laying on the grating.  Without realizing the importance, I picked it up and brought it back to the janitor closet behind the electric shop that we now used as a “Precipitator Fly Ash Cleanup Room”.  I had laid it on a shelf there.  The lawyers said, “Send us the original sheet and we will drop this violation.

Here is a copy of the piece of paper.  The big black splotch at the top is what duct tape looks like when you make a copy of it.

A copy of The Hopper Tracking Sheet

A copy of The Hopper Tracking Sheet

Well, that worked out good.  I had stepped out of line by opening my mouth before I had been asked a question, but everything worked out all right.

The final verdict was that we had four violations.  We had to re-train our employees on Confined Spaces.  We had to create a Confined Space Rescue Team.  We had to put the correct signs on all of the confined spaces and we had to develop rescue plans for all of the confined spaces on the plant grounds.  If we did that by August 1, 1994, the four remaining violations which amounted to a $40,000 fine would all be dropped.  So, we had our work cut out for us.  This not only impacted our plant, but all the Power Plants.  The meeting was adjourned.

I already told you what I did after the meeting (I went and ate lunch with my brother).  But I haven’t mentioned yet why Robert B. Reich had made a surprise visit to the Department of Labor building in Oklahoma City on April 18.

As it turned out, that morning, Labor Secretary Reich had come to Oklahoma City to hand deliver a $7.5 million fine to Dayton Tire Company.  This was due to an accident that had resulted in a man, Bob L. Jullian, being crushed by a piece of machinery in the tire plant. He died a week and a half later at the age of 53.

Robert B. Reich had become so angry when he had studied the case on Friday that he wanted to hand deliver the citation himself the following Monday.   That is how we ended up in the building at the same time on Monday, April 18, 1994.  We resolved our dispute with OSHA on a congenial note and the citations were dropped on August 1.  Dayton, however, was still fighting the conviction 18 years later, eventually paying around a $2 million penalty.

Now you know the rest of the story.  Well, almost.  Like I said, we had a lot of work to do in the next three and a half months.

Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vacuum Truck

Vacuum Truck

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….

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

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

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

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

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