Tag Archives: Main Power Transformer

Last Days as a Power Plant Labor Crew Hand

Originally posted December 14, 2012:

I have heard the relationship between Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick referred to as the “Punch and Judy Show”. Ok. I thought. Punch and Judy. Sounds like a show from the early 50’s. Must have been a comedy. I thought that for a long time until one day I ran across a brief history of the Punch and Judy Show. It turned out that Punch and Judy was a puppet show from the time of Queen Anne of England. She was queen of England from 1702 to 1714. I could only find a painting of Queen Anne. Didn’t anyone ever think about taking her photograph?

Queen Anne of England

Queen Anne of England

Anyway, once I learned more about Punch and Judy, I realized that this was probably a better description of the Rivers – Sonny relationship than those people realized. It turns out in the first version of the Punch and Judy show, Punch actually strangles his child and beats his wife Judy to death and beats up on other people as well. I suppose that was “entertainment” back then. Now we only have things like “The Terminator”!

Punch and Judy

Punch and Judy Puppet Show

I carpooled with Bill Rivers at this particular time when I was a janitor and while I was on labor crew (except during the summer when I carpooled with my summer help buddies). Each day Bill Rivers would explain about some trick he had played on Sonny that day. The one thing that amazed Bill the most was that every day he could play a joke on Sonny, and each day, Sonny would fall for it.

This reminded me of when I was in Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri and I used to borrow a pencil from my friend Bryan Treacy each day and each day I would chew it up to the point where it was practically useless. I had to come up with different diversionary tactics each day, but somehow I was able to coax a wooden pencil from my friend. Before he would realize what he had done, I had already chewed it up from one end to the next. I liked to think that I was tricking Bryan each day, but I also thought that it was odd that Bryan would have a new pencil every time, and he probably made sure that his mom kept a full stock of pencils just for my enjoyment in eating them (I also wondered if I was getting lead poisoning from all the yellow paint I was ingesting).

Bryan Treacy today is a doctor living in Moore Oklahoma (and now back in Columbia Missouri). I would like to drop by his office without seeing him some time just to see if he has any wooden pencils laying about that I could leave all chewed up. I wonder if he would realize I had been there. He might read this blog from time-to-time, so I may have just blown my cover.

I mentioned Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick because they were the first two electricians that I worked for before becoming an electrician. I worked on the precipitator while I was on the Labor Crew. See the Post:

Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door

I also mentioned before that I owe my decision to become a Power Plant Electrician to Charles Foster an Electrical B Foreman at the time. I was a janitor and cleaning the electric shop office and lab were part of my duty. How I came to be the janitor of the electric shop is explained further in the post:

Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement

I had found the floor scrubbing machine in ill repair. Charles helped me put it back in running condition. He explained how to take care of the batteries and to keep them properly charged.

We had a Clarke Floor scrubber similar to this one

We had a Clarke Floor scrubber similar to this one

When the electric shop had an opening they tried to recruit me while I was still a janitor, but the Evil Plant Manager had a rule at the time that when you were a janitor, the only place you could go from there was onto the Labor Crew. That was when Mike Rose was hired to become a backup for Jim Stevenson that worked on the air conditioning and freeze protection. I knew about the janitor ruling so I didn’t have my hopes up. Besides, at the time I didn’t have any electrical background.

Charles asked me to take the electrical courses that were offered by the company. The company offered correspondence courses, and in about 3 weeks, I had signed up for them, read the books, and taken the tests. While I was on the labor crew I signed up for a House wiring course at the Vo-Tech. I was taking that course when I learned that Larry Burns was moving from our electric shop to go to another plant. It was then that I applied for the job as a plant electrician.

The main power transformer for Unit 1 had been destroyed by the heat wave that summer (1983) when the plant had tested it’s durability on the hottest day. The unit was offline for a couple of months while GE created a new transformer and shipped it to us.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

After the main power transformer was destroyed and it took so long to ship in a new one, it was decided that we would keep a spare on hand. That way if it went bad again, we could swap them out quickly. That is probably the best assurance that we wouldn’t lose that transformer again. We had that spare transformer sitting around for years collecting taxes. I’m sure we must have paid for it a few times over again.

During the time that the unit was offline, and we weren’t shaking boiler tubes or cutting the ash out of the economizer tubes, I was working with Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick on the precipitator. The precipitator (by the way), is what takes the smoke (ash) out of the exhaust, so you don’t see smoke coming out of the smokestacks.

Bill and Sonny were pretty well sure that I was going to be selected to fill the opening in the Electric Shop, so they were already preparing me to work on the precipitator. Of all the jobs in the electric shop, this one had more to do with electronics than any of the others. That gave “being an electrician” a whole new dimension. I was even looking forward to taking an Electronics course at the Vo-Tech in the spring.

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

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

I was getting updates from Bill and Sonny about the progress of the job opening and they were telling me about the battle that was going on between the Evil Plant Manager and the Electrical Supervisor. Eldon Waugh, the plant manager at the time wanted Charles Peavler to be chosen as the electrician. He had an electrical background, because he had wired his barn once.

The ultimate reason why the plant manager wanted Charles Peavler to be the new electrician was because I had been placed on the blacklist due to the incident that took place earlier that I had described in the post:

Take a Note Jan Said the Manager of Power Production

Thanks to Larry Riley’s performance review, and his purposeful procrastination of the Plant Manager’s request to modify my performance review, and Charles Foster’s insistence that they follow the procedures that were laid out in the new Employee Application Program (known as the EAP), the argument stopped with Charles Foster’s statement: “Let’s just take whoever has the best performance rating as it is laid out in the company policy and leave it at that.” I was chosen to fill the position for the opening in the Electric Shop.

I was actually called to Eldon Waugh’s office while I was sandblasting the Sand Filter Tank. See Post:

Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love

When I arrived in Eldon’s office I was covered from head to toe in sandblast dust. My hair was all disheveled and my shirt was soaked with sweat. Jack Ballard (the head of HR) was sitting there along with Leroy Godfrey and Charles Foster. I knew what it was about because according to Bill Rivers on the way home the day before, they had already decided that they were going to accept me for the position.

Eldon Waugh explained that I was being offered the job that I had applied for in the electric shop. I felt really humbled at the time. Even though I was expecting it, I felt surprised that it was actually happening. To me, being an electrician was like the greatest job in the world. The electricians were like an elite team of super heroes.

I had the occasion to watch the electricians while I was a janitor in their shop and many of them were like these super intelligent beings that could quickly look at a blueprint and grab their tool bucket and head out to fix the world. I was very grateful for the opportunity, and at the same time apprehensive. I wasn’t sure if I had the quality of character and intelligence to become a part of this team. This was truly a dream come true for me.

Few times in my life has this happened to me. The day I was married. The day I became a Father. The day I drove to Dell to begin my first day as a Programmer Analyst. These were all major milestones in my life. The first major milestone was the day I became an electrician. Because of the way that I am (I don’t know…. maybe it’s because I’m half Italian), I just wanted to break out in tears and hug Eldon Waugh and cry on his shoulder. Instead, I just managed to crack a small smile.

I thanked them and started to leave. Then Jack Ballard said something interesting. As I was leaving he asked, “Uh…. Do you accept the offer?” Oh. In my surprise and elation, I hadn’t said anything but “Thank You”. Jack’s expression was that it wasn’t official until it was official. So, I replied, “Yes. I accept the offer”. “Ok then,” Jack replied. And I left to go crawl back in my hole and continue sandblasting the Sand Filter tank.

My last day on the Labor Crew was on November 4, 1983. I was leaving my Labor Crew Family behind and moving onto a new life in the electric shop. This was hard for me because I really did consider most of the people on the Labor Crew as family. Fred Crocker, Ron Luckey, Jim Kanelakos, and Ronnie Banks. Curtis Love and Chuck Moreland. Doretta Funkhouser and Charles Peavler. Jody Morse and Bob Lillibridge.

Most of all, I knew I was going to miss Larry Riley. I had worked with Larry from the day I had first arrived as a summer help in 1979. Now it was November, 1983. Larry was a hero to me. I love him dearly and if I had ever had an older brother I would have liked someone with the character and strength of Larry Riley. He remains in my prayers to this day.

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him

The last day on the labor crew I suspected foul play. Mainly because the last day that Bill Cook was on the Labor Crew, he had asked us if we would throw Larry in the intake as a going away gift. I had worked with Bill when we were summer help together and I felt like I owed him one, so I told him I would help.

As we were driving from the Coalyard Maintenance building (the home of the labor crew) to the plant maintenance shop that day, Bill Cook, who was driving, suddenly turned toward the intake pumps and stopped the truck. By the time Larry had figured out what was going on, we had dragged Larry out of the truck and I was carrying him over to the Intake and getting ready to throw him in.

Larry had worked with me long enough to know that once I had set my mind on something, there was no turning back. He had tried to escape from my grip, but I had him where he couldn’t escape. As I climbed with him over the guard rail and headed toward the edge of the water, Larry said the only possible thing that could make me stop in my tracks. He said, “Please Kevin. Don’t do this.”

I was paralyzed. Stuck between my word with Bill Cook that I would help him throw Larry in the brink, and a plea from someone who meant the world to me. There wasn’t but one choice to make. I set Larry down. I walked back to the truck and I told Bill, “I’m sorry. I can’t do it.” I returned to my seat in the back of the crew cab. Without my help, no one else had the resolve and strength to follow through with Bill’s wish. We drove on to the Maintenance Shop.

So, on my last day on the Labor Crew, I thought that something similar might be planned for me. As soon as we left to go to work that morning, I headed up Belt 10 and 11. That is the long belt on the left side of the power Plant picture on the upper right side of this post…. Ok. I’ll post it here:

Power Plant view when looking through the wrong end of the binoculars

The long belts run from the coalyard to the plant. Oh. And this is the intake. Just across from here is where I was going to toss Larry in the lake

Once up 10 & 11 and 12 & 13, I was in the Surge bin tower. (The Surge Bin Tower is the white building you can see between the two boilers near the top that has the conveyor belt entering it from the left). From there, I roamed around looking for some coal to clean up. I figured I would stay far away from my labor crew buddies that day.

At the end of the day, I traveled back down belts 10 & 11 and headed into the office in the Coalyard Maintenance building to fill out my last timecard as a Laborer. Beginning next Monday on November 7, I would be an “Electrician.” Along with the empty feeling at the bottom of my heart was a feeling of excitement for the new adventure that awaited me.

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GE Geriatric Gentleman and Power Plant Transformers

Originally Posted May 17, 2013:

I remember the day when I walked into the Electric Shop office to begin the lunch break, and four guys from the T&D department (Transmission and Distribution) came in from the door leading to the Main Switchgear. They were obviously worn out, and were complaining. The first one said that he couldn’t believe that the guy from GE had made them work through morning break. The second guy called him a slave driver. The third guy replied that he couldn’t believe how that GE guy just kept on working from the crack of dawn without stopping all morning without even coming up for air. The fourth guy just collapsed on one of the chairs.

I remember the name of the last guy. His name was Foote. I remember him because he was real proud of his heritage. The first time I had met him, I asked him his name twice, because when he told me it was “Foote”, I wasn’t sure I heard correctly, so I asked him again. I guess that he must has guessed what was going through my mind because he must have had the same reaction from a thousand other people in the past. I figure that because my last name is Breazile (pronounced “Brazil”) and I have had many conversations with people explaining the origin of my name.

Anyway. I don’t remember Foote’s first name because I think he only had initials for his first name on his hard hat, and I’m more of a visual person when it comes to memories. I clearly remember his last. If I remember correctly, one of his ancestors was a naval officer in the Civil War, though, I don’t remember for which side. I guess it doesn’t really matter much now, since both sides were Americans, and both sides loved their country and the lives they knew — that they were fighting to hold onto or to change.

This reminds me of a side story that I must tell…. Years and years later in 1997, when I was on the Confined Space Rescue Team, one guy that was from North Dakota named Brent Kautzman was constantly being “harassed” for being a Yankee, because he came from a Northern State. This was kind of a mute (or is it “moot”) point to me, because I knew that North Dakota didn’t become a state until well after the Civil War.

Anyway, one day when Brent was trying to defend himself from the hardcore confederates of the group, he pointed out that the North won the Civil war. A couple of other members disagreed, claiming that the South was going to “rise again”. One of those that believed in the Confederate resurrection turned to me and asked me, as if I was the resident historian (well… I did have a college degree… and I did have a minor in History…. and I was known for telling the truth when it really came down to it), “Kevin…. Did the north win the Civil War?”

Not really wanting to hurt the feelings of my southern friends, and also wanting to stand by Brent who was really correct about the outcome of the Civil War, I replied with the following explanation: “Yes. The North must have won the war. Otherwise the South never would have let all the carpetbaggers from the North come down there and steal their property and their dignity.” Brent was satisfied, and the southerners had to agree with my logic. They still insisted that the South would rise again. I couldn’t argue with them about that…. It has never ceased to amaze me how bigotry can be passed down so easily.

With that said, I would say that the Power Plant Men that I worked with that believed that the “South would rise again!” didn’t really understand what that meant. I say that because they never would have given a thought that the men that they worked with that were African American such as Floyd Coburn, or Bill Bennett, were nothing less than members of their own families. I know that they each personally loved these men with all their hearts. I thought it was more of a nostalgic feeling than a desire to see the return of slavery or even the bigotry that crippled the southern states for decades after the Civil War.

End of the Side Story…. Back to the worn out T&D workers.

By the sound of it, I figured that this guy from GE (General Electric) that had come to work on one of the Main Auxiliary Transformers on Unit 2 that had a problem with the Tap Changing Mechanism, was some kind of slave driver. Some hard line guy that wanted to work our employees to the brink of exhaustion because he wanted to be done with the repairs as quickly as possible so that he could move on to some more important work. You see. For this job, GE had called on one of the top Main Power Transformer Geniuses in all the country to work on this transformer.

The T&D guys sat there for a while and then walked out into the shop to eat their lunch. Shortly after that, the slave driver from GE came in the back door…. In stepped a man that immediately reminded me of Arthur Fielder from the Boston Pops.

Arthur Fielder from Boston Pops

Arthur Fielder from Boston Pops

He sat down…. opened his brown paper bag. Pulled out his sandwich. Carefully unwrapped it and began to eat. Charles Foster and I were sitting there watching him. After hearing the horror stories from the T&D crew, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to engage this seemingly mad man in conversation, so I waited a while. I ate some cherry tomatoes and Banana peppers that Charles brought for me each day…. and with each bite, I took a bite out of my ham sandwich. Then I looked over at “Arthur Fielder….” (I don’t remember his real name).

Finally, I decided that this slave driver in sheep’s clothing (well, an old frail man costume really), might come up with some interesting conversation so I asked him…. “Say, old man…. how old are you anyway?” He looked up from the total enjoyment of his sandwich, and with food still un-swallowed said, “I’m 83.”

“83?” — Either I said that or Charles did… because we were both stunned by his answer….. “Yep… They called me out of retirement to work on this transformer. Seems I’m the only one that knows how to fix ’em. But I’m teachin’ your fellows how to do it so they don’t have to call me again.”

Charles and I were so flabbergasted by his reply that we couldn’t leave it alone. One of us (Charles and I were always on the same wavelength, so usually when one of us spoke, it was what we were both thinking)… So, one of us asked…. “You’re retired and they called you up to work on this transformer!?!? Are you such a Transformer guru that you were the only one they could send?” (hmm… must have been me…. I don’t think Charles would have used the word “Guru”. He would have used something like “expert” or “talented” or maybe “genius”). He said, “Yep. They paid me enough that I agreed to take a week away from my wife to come here to take care of business. It would have to take a lot to take me away from my Jenny.”

Then this feeble old man with the white moustache explained that he didn’t like to be away from home. Every night since when he was young he has played the piano for two hours. — Wait… I wasn’t sure if I heard that right, so I asked him…. “What? You play the piano for two hours… every night!?!?” (notice… already I have used “!?!?” twice in one post… just goes to show you how surprised I was to run across this man). He reaffirmed what he said, “Yeah. I had to find a hotel that had a piano, so I could sit in the lobby and play it before I go to bed. I can’t sleep well unless I have played the piano first.

After that, he began to tell us about his career in the Music Industry. He had played for many Big Band orchestras in the past. He talked about playing with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. Names that I had learned from my Aunt Pam Sorisso in Kansas City that gave me an Eight Track Tape of Big Band music when I was in College that I used to listen to often. I had become a fan of Big Band and had a great respect for these Big Band Leaders.

Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman

Tommy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey

Here sitting in front of me was one of the geniuses of the Big Band era in the electric shop at a Coal-fired Power Plant in the middle of North Central Oklahoma. All I could think of was, “Who woulda thought it?” Though I was impressed as all get out… I tried to act calm….. I wanted to jump up with a piece of paper and ask him for his autograph….

This old guy suddenly had all my respect. It cracked me up to think that this 83 year old man was out performing the younger T&D workers. He was running them ragged (pronounced “rag ed”). He explained that he didn’t like to stop for break. It made the day go a lot faster if he just kept working until he had to stop. He wouldn’t have stop for lunch if all the workers hadn’t just dropped all their tools and left.

It amazed me even more that this man who was a big band musician of the highest caliber had ended up working for GE Not only had he worked for GE, but he had become the ultimate authority in large transformer repair. I mean…. How cool is that?

I can’t tell you how much I instantly fell in love with this guy. He had talked and talked about his days as a big band piano player. What really came out of his conversation what just how much he loved his wife. The two things he loved in the entire world was his wife and to play the piano. He said there was nothing more soothing than playing the piano. As he walked off to go back to work at the end of lunch… the only thing I could think of was one of my Big Band favorites…. Louis Armstrong….

For those people who stopped to really think about it…. This truly is….. A Wonderful World!

Comment from the Original Post

Ron Kilman May 18, 2013:

  1. Great story. I met a lot of really neat guys at the Power Plant – experts in their fields – bladers, winders, crack-checkers, boiler gurus, balancers, . . . I remember making a factory “balance expert” really mad. He was sent to balance the Buffalo Forge FD fans at Seminole. He was the “lead” and I was just “checking” him. We used a modern IRD balance analyzer with a Teflon shaft rider and he used a pencil! When we both had taken our “readings” we shut the fan down. When it coasted to a stop, he began yelling “My marks – my marks – you wiped out my marks!” (with a German accent). On the next balance run, I took my readings first, then he put his pencil marks on the rotating fan shaft. We got the fan smooth. He was a cool guy, but used 19th century “technology”. I never asked him if he played the piano too.

Sky Climbing in the Dark with Power Plant Boiler Rats

Originally Posted July 26, 2013:

I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was well…. surreal.

This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.

As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.

At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.

David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.

During those times I knew that something was taking place in the superheat section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.

This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.

Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Or even a normal rat like this:

Normal looking rat

Normal looking rat

No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:

rat from kootation

rat picture taken from kootation.com

Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….

Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.

If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.

A sky climber

A sky climber

You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool.

So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.

Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.

There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where John Brien was staring back at him.

There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.

We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as I fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.

By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.

I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.

I took out my multimeter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connect where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.

I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”

That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.

I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.

There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.

I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.

Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.

Comment from previous post:

  1. A.D. Everard August 3, 2014

    You tell a wonderful story and keep the reader spellbound. I love this sort of inside information!
    Coming to your blog has given me the same rush of excitement I get when I’m researching something and find a gem! Now I want to write about boiler rats! 🙂

Prolonged Power Plant Pause Before the Panic

Originally posted September 6, 2013:

Today when I attend meetings while on the job at Dell (and now at GM) and the discussion is about something new, and the manager is looking for input from the team, I usually sit there quietly while the others share their thoughts. This is not my usual behavior in other settings as I am usually quick to respond with a quip or something sarcastic.

Later, after everyone else has given their two cents, then if asked, I will wade in with both feet. This hasn’t always been the course of action I would have taken. Actually, I used to be pretty hot-headed. I was usually the first person to respond when someone asked a question. I already had my mind made up about just about everything.

My wife began noticing a change in my behavior a few years after we were married. She would ask me a simple question, like, “Would you like a piece of gum.” I would suddenly go into a momentary comatose state where I would stare off into space and think about it. She would say something like, “The answer doesn’t need a lot of thought. It is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

After careful analysis, I finally figured out what happened. The transformation began the day I entered the electric shop at the coal-fired power plant as an electrician. I described that first day in the post “New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop“. In that post I described my first job as an electrician when I went to the coalyard with my foreman Charles Foster to fix a room heater that wasn’t working.

The first time I used my new tools, Charles told me to remove a screw from a fuse block so that we could lift a wire in order to replace the fuse block.

A small fuse block like this.

A small fuse block like this.

When I was removing the wire (with one hand, as Charles had warned me that an electrician never uses two hands to do this), the screwdriver slipped and shorted out on the mounting screw which caused a brief flash. In the millisecond that the flash occurred, it cut a notch in the tip of my new Stanley screwdriver.

A Stanley screwdriver used by electgricians because of the rubber on the handle

A Stanley screwdriver used by electricians because of the rubber on the handle

This was the beginning of my 18 year career of various minor electrocutions and small explosions. We did things to minimize the chances of shorting out your screwdriver when working on a hot circuit (that means a circuit that has the electricity still turned on). One thing we would do is wrap rubber tape up the metal shank so that if it leaned against something metal with it while the tip was touching something hot, it wouldn’t short out the circuit.

Inevitably, something would happen every now and then and something was going to explode. So you just had to be prepared for that. This is where the “Prolonged Pause” comes in.

Sometimes there is nothing you can do. Let me give you a “For Instance”. One time when we had an overhaul on Unit 1 (we had 2 units at our Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma), Richard Moravek was visiting from the Power Plant in Muskogee, Oklahoma. I have written about him in the Post “Lap o’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant“. Each morning at Muskogee, he and Jay Harris would sing the song, “Nestle’s makes the very best Chocolate”, with Richard whistling as he sang like the Nestle’s rabbit with a whistle in his voice.

The Nestle's Rabbit

The Nestle’s Rabbit

On one particular day, Richard and I were sent to perform a “quick and dirty” elevator inspection on the Unit 1 elevator. It received a lot of wear and tear during overhaul with everyone riding up and down from the 9th floor where you could reach the upper echelons of the boiler. If things didn’t work perfectly every time, then the work would be slowed, and schedules wouldn’t be met.

During our elevator inspection we decided that we needed to change out some lights on the push buttons, because…. well… because some of them were burned out. Which caused them to not light up when they were supposed to, causing some Power Plant workers to become confused because they would forget which button they had pushed when they entered the elevator, thus, allowing them to forget which floor they were supposed to get off (working long hours will do that to you).

Anyway, Richard had taken the screws out of the push button panel and had swung the door on the panel open so that the wiring inside was all exposed. He reached in to pulled out one of the push button assemblies so that he could remove the bulb (oh… electricians call bulbs, Lamps… I mentioned that in the post “Place On Light Duty at the Power Plant“, if you recall).

I had reached down into my tool bucket and pulled out a box of special elevator lamps….. Actually, I think it was a standard 6S6 lamp, but it looked like a bulb to me:

A 12 Volt 6S6 bulb

A 12 Volt 6S6 bulb (or is it a lamp?)

Richard had put his hand out to receive the bulb I had in my hand, so I handed it to him. At that point, a funny thing happened. You see, my other hand was on the elevator scissor gate.

An Elevator Scissor Gate

An Elevator Scissor Gate

As I placed the lamp into Richard’s hand, he suddenly twitched and sort of jumped at the same time. When he did, he pushed into me and he began doing a jig. My legs were twitching and I was sort of doing a jig myself, or maybe a jog.

It became apparent right away what had happened. While Richard’s one hand was in the elevator push button panel taking out the bulb, he had come in contact with the electric circuit. This was fine as long as he wasn’t grounded. That is, he wasn’t touching anything else metal, like the front of the panel.

Being a good electrician, Richard had kept his other hand at his side like Charles Foster had taught me my first day as an electrician. That is, until he raised that hand for me to give him a lamp. When my fingers touched his palm, and my other hand was holding the elevator gate, we suddenly made a circuit to ground. From Richard, to me, to the gate, to the ground, and back to the the main power generator through various grounds and circuits and transformers….

About the time that I realized what was happening, we had separated from each other, and were no longer dancing. It cracked us up and we stood there laughing about it for a minute because both of us had just been dancing in the elevator.

As I explained in the post about being on light duty that I mentioned above, when you went to work on the stack lights, you carried metal prod with you that you used to ground the large capacitors before you worked on the circuit. When you did this, there would be a bright flash and a loud explosion.

If a noise or a flash like that made you jump, you may end up going over the handrail and falling 500 feet to the ground. So, you learned that in the event of a flash, your first reaction is to freeze. Then assess the situation, and then if necessary, Panic.

Many years later (like 16), I became very aware of how well trained we were when something like this happened when I was once again working with Charles Foster in a junction box on the 11 landing of Unit 1 on the west side. We were standing side-by-side and we were working on something hot.

Suddenly there was a bright flash and a loud boom as something shorted out. By that time in our history, we had learned all about wearing fire resistant clothing, so that even though what we were wearing wasn’t fire proof, it also wasn’t going to melt to our skin.

What amazed me about this moment was that we both stood there still for a moment before we panicked. There was about a one second pause where we both restrained ourselves from jumping back. I chalked this up to our years of being around explosive situations. Jumping back as the first reaction can often lead to other injuries.

I took this resistance to panic with me into other situations. Before 1994 when OSHA added a bunch of new laws protecting people in confined spaces, I was crawling inside the main generator bus that goes out to the main power transformer. No hole watch. No one watching me outside that could grab me and pull me out if something went wrong.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer. The bus piping are those three pipes going into the building at the top in the back

I had squeezed myself into one of these pipes to clean the insulators that held the bus in place in the middle of the pipe. This meant that I was crammed into the pipe under the bus bar that ran through the middle of the pipe.

I had made it to the insulator that I needed to clean and wiped it down with the rag I had taken with me. Then I decided I couldn’t go forward anymore to look at any more of the insulators because it was too tight of a fit. So, I started to back myself out.

As I went to push myself back I suddenly realized that I was stuck. It was easy moving forward because I was using the soles of my sneakers to push on the pipe, but as soon as I wanted to go back, there didn’t seem to be anyway to maneuver my body in a way that would back myself out. My arms were stretched out in front of me.  This was one of a few times when I began to feel the panicky feeling of claustrophobia.

I had seen claustrophobia in others and I knew that when you are gripped with it, you can hurt yourself, or even Bob Lillibridge if he happened to be the one grabbing your legs at the time (see the post: Bob Lillibridge Meets the Power Plant Ghost for an explanation.

Here it came… I felt myself swelling up tight in the pipe as the panic was gripping me. I knew I had to do something quickly or it wasn’t going to be pretty…. Well, either way… nothing about this was pretty. So, I forced myself to calm down. I told myself to breathe out, and slowly back in.

Then I decided to use the palms of my hands that were stretched out straight in front of me to push against the pipe to move me back. With that effort, I could see (in the darkness) that I had moved myself back about 1/2 inch. I thought. “Ok, 1/2 inch is something. If I did that 100 more times, that would be more than 4 feet. 200 times and I would be out of this pipe.”

Realizing I could move myself at least a little bit allowed me to calm down and quell the panic. I did nothing but concentrate on pushing with my palms 1/2 inch at a time and eventually, I did climb out of that pipe (What?  You expected me to say I was still in there?).

I don’t know how many times over the years I have woken up in the middle of the night and swung my feet over the side of the bed and taken a few large breaths because I had been dreaming about being in that pipe again. I will discuss the topic of claustrophobia in a later post, but this example fit the topic of training yourself not to panic so I thought I would use it here.

If you ever end up talking to someone that doesn’t quite look at you when they look like they are trying to look at you, then you may think that they are a welder. There are some welders that seem to look at you from the corner of their eye. I suppose it was because the middle of their vision has been burned out because they have looked at the welding arc too many times without their visor down.  Or maybe they had just learned to look away from whatever they are seeing just as a safety habit.

Similarly, if you ever encounter someone that momentarily goes into a comatose state for a few moments when you ask them a simple question, you may now think that maybe this person was a Power Plant Electrician that has learned to have a Prolonged Pause before they Panic… or… respond to your question. If they aren’t from a power plant, then they probably were just trying to ignore you.

Comments from previous repost:

    1. Dan Antion September 11, 2014

      Good advice for anyone in similar situations.

    1. Slowmoto September 11, 2014

      Pause before panic is my response to most stressors perceived by a presenter or an emerging reality. You hit the mark!

  1. Monty Hansen November 26, 2014

    Excellent writing! I felt myself getting panicky with you! As a control room operator I had an electrician drop a screwdriver & blow the unit out from under me at full load + 5% overpressure (2520#)-(It caused a false boiler feedpump saturation temp trip). The power plant has trained me not to startle as well, inside I may be screaming like a schoolgirl, but outside I am calm and handling emergencies as though routine.

Solving the Selection of a Power Plant Solvent

A year after I joined the electricians in the electric shop, Howard Chumbley became my foreman. One day when we were talking about going to the old Osage Plant up the road to clean up a PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) spill, he explained that “In His Day” they used to clean their tools in a vat of transformer oil that was full of PCBs. I remember him telling us that it was normal for him to be up to his elbows in the stuff. They never thought it might be harmful. Now we were getting ready to go up to the old plant to clean up a small spill and I was going to have to suit up in a special hazardous waste suit. I wrote about our experience in the post: “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace“.

Now we know about the hazard of developing cancer by having PCBs in your system. Today we know a lot of things we didn’t know back then. We know that Asbestos causes Mesothelioma. We know that Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) destroy the ozone layer. We know that Twinkies are one of the few foods that will be around after a nuclear holocaust.

Years before I became an electrician, the Electric Company had stopped using oil with PCBs. There was still an effort to clean it up from the older plants. At the new coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma, we didn’t have a problem with PCBs. We had other problems. Some of which we didn’t know about (well, we knew something, just not so much) at the time.

A very prominent responsibility of mechanics and electricians was to clean oily equipment. Pumps and motors, breakers, fans, mills. All kinds of equipment. Almost everything was lubricated one way or another with oil. Solvent was used to remove the oil when the equipment needed to be cleaned.

We had a standard kind of solvent at our plant. I believe it was called “Standard Solvent 350”. See…. It was a Standard solvent. Even had the word Standard in the name. One of the key ingredients of this standard solvent is a solvent known as “Stoddard Solvent”. This solvent worked real good when cleaning up equipment like motors and pumps and other oily equipment. Many times we were “Up to our elbows” in this solvent.

We had a barrel in the corner of the electric shop close to the door to the main switchgear where we could put a motor and scrub it clean while solvent poured out of a flexible nozzle on the motor, your shirt, your pants, your work boots, and the floor. Some days during overhauls when we would work cleaning motors for 10 hours each day, I would come home from work drenched in solvent. My wife would make me take my clothes off in the utility room where I could put them directly into the washing machine where Oxydol could go to work on it right away.

When Ted Riddle and I were working for Willard Stark on an overhaul at the gas plant outside Mustang Oklahoma during the spring of 1986, Willard said one day that he wanted to show us something. I explained Willard’s situation at the plant in a post called “Working Power Plant Wonders with Willard Stark“.

He was a good example of what I would call a “Contrarian.” That is, he seemed to buck the system often. He thought outside the box a lot. I realized this right way when we would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio during lunch. Every time Paul Harvey would say, “…Noon News and Comment” Willard would always finish the sentence by saying, “Mostly Comment.” I figured then that he had to be a contrarian, because who would ever think that Paul Harvey wasn’t the best person in the world to bring the News to our private little power plant world.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality. No one will ever fill his shoes.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality. No one will ever fill his shoes.

So, when Willard said he was wanted us to see something “with our own eyes”, I figured this was going to be something good. Probably some kind of secret place where you could hide and take a nap if the day wore on too long, or something like that. Well… It didn’t turn out to be that kind of “something”, but it was something.

Willard took a small metal pan and put some Stoddard Solvent in it. The old gas plant used straight Stoddard Solvent, unlike the more sophisticated Coal-fired plant where Ted Riddle and I normally worked. We walked out into the turbine-generator (T-G) floor. He placed the pan of solvent on the floor, took a WypAll (which is a strong paper rag) and dropped it into the pan:

A package of an Important Power Plant Staple: WypAlls!

A package of an Important Power Plant Staple: WypAlls!

Then he bent down and with his lighter, he lit the WypAll on fire. We watched as the flames grew higher and higher. Willard watched our expressions. We had been under the understanding that Solvent was not flammable. He explained that technically, Stoddard Solvent is not considered “Flammable”, but it is considered “Combustible”. Combustible means that it burns.

A bucket of Stoddard Solvent

A bucket of Stoddard Solvent. Notice this bucket clearly says “Combustible”

Stoddard Solvent doesn’t ignite fast enough to be considered “Flammable”. At least that’s the way Willard explained it to us. Willard said he wanted us to be aware of this fact when we have our bodies all soaked in solvent, that if we were to catch on fire for some reason, we were going to go up in flames just like that WypAll. We both appreciated the advice.

I didn’t begin this post expecting to say that much about Stoddard Solvent, but just in case you were really wondering what it is, maybe this picture will explain it to you:

A Chemist-eye view of Stoddard Solvent

A Chemist-eye view of Stoddard Solvent

I hope that cleared it up for you.  You have to wonder why they put that “Oh Oh” down there at the bottom.  Almost as if something is supposed to go wrong.

The solvent I really wanted to talk about was one that was used more exclusively in the electric shop. It is called Trichloroethylene 1.1.1. You see, a lot of equipment that we cleaned in the electric shop needed to be cleaned spotless. Solvent 350 would leave a film when it dried. So, in the electric shop when we needed to clean something with electric contacts we would use something called “Electro Contact Cleaner”:

Spray Can of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner - Only the cans we used didn't say CFC Free

Spray Can of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner – Only the cans we used didn’t say CFC Free

This was very expensive compared to the regular solvent. So, I was surprised when Ben Davis and I first went on an overhaul in Muskogee, and they had this exact same contact cleaner in 55 gallon barrels:

Barrel of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner

Barrel of LPS Electro Contact Cleaner

I remember John Manning showing us a few of these barrels that they had ordered for the overhaul. I think my jaw dropped. By my calculation, one barrel like this would cost over $3,000.00. I figured if it was in cans, it would have cost three times that amount. The advantage of using Contact cleaner was that it dried clean. It didn’t leave a residue.

Trichloroethylene 1.1.1 was like that. It didn’t leave a residue when it dried. I think this will become obvious to you when you see what it really is:

Chemical Composition of Trichoroethylene

Chemical Composition of Trichoroethylene

You can see right off the bat that this is going to dry clean… I mean…. it’s obvious… right?  I think the CLs on three of the corners indicate that it “Cleans” 3 times better than other solvents.

Anyway. This stuff evaporated quickly so when you were up to your elbows in this solvent, it felt cool because it would evaporate causing a cooling effect. It had a very peculiar smell. It also made you feel a little dizzy when you were using it. Especially when you had to breathe in a lot of it in a confined area. Having fans blowing on you seemed to make it worse, because it would increase the evaporation rate filling the air with more solvent.

It was known at the time that Trichloroethylene would destroy your liver when it gets into your blood stream. There was no quicker way of injecting the solvent into your blood stream than by inhaling it. Finally OSHA decided that this solvent was no longer safe to be used in a plant setting. It could only be used in small quantities like “White Out”.

Gee… Who remembers White Out?

A bottle of White Out. Oh look. A New Formula!

A bottle of White Out. Oh look. A New Formula!

The last time I heard about white out was in a blonde joke about someone using white out on the computer monitor. Who types anymore on a typewriter? I think anyone today that would choose to type on a typewriter would be the type of person that would prefer a typewriter eraser over white out.

I take that back. The last time I heard about White Out was on a show like 60 Minutes where they were showing young kids in Panama or another Central American country being hooked on tubs of White Out. They would sit around all day taking quick whiffs from a tub of White Out. — Why? Because it contained Trichloroethylene and it would give you a buzz.

My dad, a Veterinary professor at Oklahoma State University had told me about the dangers of Trichloroethylene around the time I told him about Bill McAlister using WD-40 on his elbows to ease the pain of his arthritis. Sonny Karcher had asked me to talk to my dad about it to see if he knew why WD-40 would help Arthritis.

My father (I’ll call him Father in this paragraph, because in this paragraph, he’s being more “sophisticated”) told me that WD-40 had the same chemical in it that Veterinarians used on horses to help their joints when they hurt. Then he warned me that the solvent in WD-40 soaks right into your skin and when it does it carries other toxic chemicals into your body than just the arthritis lineament. So, he told me to tell Sonny not to use it often.

A can of WD40

A can of Power Plant WD40

So, anyway, we had to find a replacement for Trichloroethylene. Tom Gibson and Bill Bennett went to work ordering samples of other kinds of solvents that salesmen were saying would be a good replacement. One of the first that we tried was called Orange Solvent. It had a real nice Orange smell. Sort of like drinking Tang.

Bottle of Orange Solvent

Bottle of Orange Solvent

It had a couple of problems. First, I would be more inclined to drink it since it smelled so good, and I was a fan of Tang at the time.

Tang - Used by the Astronauts on the Apollo missions

Tang – Used by the Astronauts on the Apollo missions

The second problem with the Orange Solvent was that it didn’t seem to clean very well. We were used to something cutting the oil and contact grease quickly. the Orange Solvent didn’t cut the mustard (so to speak).

One day during overhaul at our plant, Bill Bennett gave us a barrel of some new kind of solvent. It was supposed to be comparable in it’s cleaning ability to Trichloroethylene (could you imagine Red Skelton trying to say that word?)

This Picture of Red Skelton reminds me of Pat Braden

Red Skelton saying “Trichloroethylene”

Bill wanted Andy Tubbs and me (I know!  It seems as if it should be “Andy Tubbs and I”, but “me” is the correct way to say it) to use the new solvent on the main power transformer main bus connectors. They are normally covered with No-Ox Grease so this would be a good test.

A jar of No-Ox Grease (No-Ox means No Oxide)

A jar of No-Ox Grease (No-Ox means No Oxide)

So, Andy and I carried the large extension ladder out to the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer and leaned it up against the back side (the transformer’s backside, not ours). We climbed up to the open hatchways and crawled in. We hung a small yellow blower in the doorway to blow fresh air on us.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

Andy and I had everything setup and we were ready to work. We both just fit in the small area with the large bus work between us. We began using our rags soaked in the new solvent on the silver plated bus. I don’t remember how well the solvent cleaned the bus. I just remember thinking that this solvent sure did evaporate quickly. Especially with the blower fan right next to us.

I also remember looking over at Andy crouched across from me. He was looking down at the bus. Then his entire body seemed to swivel around as if he was on some kind of swing which caused him to tilt up the side of the enclosure. I watched his face, and he seemed to be saying something to me, only I couldn’t make it out.

I think I said something like “Huh?” Then about that time all kinds of brightly lit flowers were circling around my head and my arms seemed to be floating in front of me. I heard Andy say with a slur, “We butter git outta here…” His voice sounded like it was in a pipe…. Well, we sort of were sitting in a pipe… He started to move toward the hatchway.

I remember briefly thinking that I was just fine enjoying the interesting scenery. By now there were bright lights streaming toward me from all sides. Then I thought. “No. I better leave.” So, I struggled to pull myself into the hatchway. It was big enough that we could both pull ourselves out together.

I began climbing down the ladder head first. It was about 15 feet to the ground. I was completely out of the hatch with my body completely upside down on the ladder before I decided that it would be better if I turned over and went down feet first. Somehow I managed to swing my feet down and around without falling off the ladder. I think Andy was pretty much in the same predicament as I was.

Once we were on the ground, we hobbled into the electric shop and sat down. We told Bill Bennett that this was not a good solvent to use. I don’t even want to remember what the name of the solvent was. If I mentioned it, someone may put it in some tubs of white out and sell it to kids in Panama, because Trichloroethylene had nothing on this.

I suppose we finally found a replacement solvent. Though, I don’t remember what it was. All I do know is that it was quite an adventure trying to find one. Maybe we just used a lot of Electro contact cleaner after that.

Like Howard Chumbley, who told stories about being up to his elbows in transformer oil made with PCBs, I can now tell my fellow teammates at work, “Yeah. I remember the days when we were up to our elbows in Trichloroethylene. Never gave it a second thought.” Only, their reaction would be a little different than ours were in the electric shop office. They might raise their eyes up from their computer monitors and look across the cubicle at me for a moment. Then give me a look like “there goes that crazy old guy that used to work in a power plant again. Hasn’t he told us that story about 50 times already?” Well…. That solvent and stuff. It makes you forget things…. I can’t remember what I have already said.

Comments from the original Post:

    1. jerrychicken February 22, 2014:

      When I was in my early 20’s my company shipped me up north to a different branch office and so began eight years of living in contractors guest house accommodation in a run down once-holiday-resort town. For about a year we had eight guys who were working on a local power station stay at the guest house, they were “lagging strippers” which wasn’t some night club job for brazen hussy’s but a job where the power station authorities had recognized that the asbestos that clad every single inch of their pipework was dangerous enough to get rid of, but not so dangerous that it had yet been legislated against when treating or handling the stuff (this was 1978/1980-ish).

      The team of eight spent several years travelling the UK chipping off asbestos cement by hand wearing nothing more complicated that a thin paper face mask over their nose and mouth, their work clothing was jeans and tee shirt because as you’ll know, the inside of a power station can be warm work.

      Their rate of pay was at least four times what our “normal” contracting electricians were being paid and our electricians were craftsmen and so on what was considered a “good wage”, the asbestos guys accepted with a shrug of the shoulders that theirs was a dangerous job, it was known that asbestos was dangerous but there was no H&S law to protect them and so they took the money and hoped they wouldn’t die young – I have no doubt at all that most of them will be dead now as they used to come back to the guest house covered in white dust on the nights when they’d been in a hurry to leave site and not bothered getting changed, hell they probably exposed me to lots of asbestos dust too.

      On one public holiday weekend we’d all gone back to our home towns and returned after the break, except this time there were only seven of them, the other had been to his doctor for a chest infection and an x-ray had revealed a shadow on his lung, the atmosphere was pretty down that week as they all knew what it could be, he never returned to the job.

      As a sign off let me add that theses guys were not stupid or fearless or uncaring about their own mortality, they all had wives and some had young children, but they were mainly unskilled and how much persuasion do you need when you are unskilled and unemployed other than to offer you four times the skilled man rates – I saw lots of our electricians take up the golden wage packets on the oil rigs during the 1970s UK rush for North Sea oil – now there was a dangerous occupation…

  1. Ron February 22, 2014:

    If that Trichloroethylene caused you to have some memory loss today, I can’t even begin to imagine what your memory was like before the exposure. I don’t know of anyone with a memory like yours! I mean – who else can remember the shoe size of his cub scout leader’s nephew’s neighbor?

    I have a bottle of White-out in my desk today and use it regularly. I play an Eb Contra Bass Clarinet. Most of the music we play is not scored for my instrument so I’ll use Tuba, String Bass, Cello, Bassoon, etc. music (all in “C”) and transpose it to Eb. It takes a little White-out sometimes.

    I love Saturday mornings!

Runaway Fire Hydrant Leaves Power Plant in the Dark

Originally posted May 17, 2014:

Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.

A notepad like this

Power Plant Notepad

One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.

The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.

Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.

Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.

I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.

 

Andy Tubbs - True Power Plant Electrician

Andy Tubbs – True Power Plant Electrician

When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.

 

An example of part of an Auxiliary Substation

An example of part of an Auxiliary Substation

I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.

Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.

When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.

When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.

Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.

 

From the movie "The China Syndrome" where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

From the movie “The China Syndrome” where a similar emergency existed only in the movie, it was a Nuclear Plant

I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait)  See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“.

With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.

While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.

A High Voltage Insulator like this

A High Voltage Insulator like this

Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.

By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.

Ron Kilman

Ron Kilman is the one on the left in the plaid shirt

The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.

The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.

So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

High Voltage Switch similar to the one we were closing

As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”

So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.

Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….

George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.

Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

Large Oil Tank about the size of the two that are at the Power Plant

The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.

This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.

You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).

Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.

Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….

Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.

I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….

A ROLM Phone Computer

A ROLM Phone Computer

In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.

Telephone Grounding Panel

Telephone Grounding Panel

In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically all “mechanical”.

Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.

Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.

 

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode "Night Call"

Gladys Cooper in the Twilight Zone Episode “Night Call”

I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.

It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.

He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?

The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.

When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.

That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…

I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.

 

Mickey Postman

Mickey Postman

Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.

Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.

Comments from the Original post

    1. Ron May 17, 2015

      That was an exciting day! Another great story. Thanks for the memories.

    1. Dan Antion May  17, 2014

      I like the mix of storytelling and information sharing you deliver here. Thanks again

    1. Dave Tarver May 17, 2014

      Aug 8, 2011 I lost all reserve in and lost both units in 2 separate storms and A1 would not start for a few minutes and A2 was leaking antifreeze terribly not a scratch and back online in 34 hours both units and no one ever asked me one question even with a Safety Dept not one question asked of me the SS on duty. Not many men on the planet have ever experienced an uncontrolled total plant outage- you would of thought a learning opportunity would of took place. Feb 2011 worst winter temps in years 50 Units or more tripped in Texas let alone the trusty units of Redbud and McClain were fighting Sooner rolled right along with storm warnings for two weeks ahead – the ICS still went to Detroit for just tours of other facilities once again the fall guy Tarver McArthur stood alone. I had authored a Freeze Protection Plan for the plant and that seemed to save the day and explain to the regulatory bodies how we were online and everyone else in Texas was off and enjoying rolling blackouts in a terrible winter weather situation not to mention our powers that be were all stranded in Detroit and very few people could get to the plant without getting stuck trying to get there as well – but a few health heart issues later I am still here to tell about it all you would think folks would want to take advantage of someone that had went through the fire and Ice but thats ok I want them someday distant to get all the credit they deserve when the trumpets sound as that is truly what matters most. DT

  1. NEO May 17, 2014

    Great story, and yes, you took exactly the proper lesson from it, and it is too bad that many of our bosses haven’t learned it.

    And yup, I’ve buried a lot of electrocuted squirrels over the years.

 

Last Days as a Power Plant Labor Crew Hand

Originally posted December 14, 2012:

I have heard the relationship between Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick referred to as the “Punch and Judy Show”. Ok. I thought. Punch and Judy. Sounds like a show from the early 50’s. Must have been a comedy. I thought that for a long time until one day I ran across a brief history of the Punch and Judy Show. It turned out that Punch and Judy was a puppet show from the time of Queen Anne of England. She was queen of England from 1702 to 1714. I could only find a painting of Queen Anne. Didn’t anyone ever think about taking her photograph?

Queen Anne of England

Queen Anne of England

Anyway, once I learned more about Punch and Judy, I realized that this was probably a better description of the Rivers – Sonny relationship than those people realized. It turns out in the first version of the Punch and Judy show, Punch actually strangles his child and beats his wife Judy to death and beats up on other people as well. I suppose that was “entertainment” back then. Now we only have things like “The Terminator”!

Punch and Judy

Punch and Judy Puppet Show

I carpooled with Bill Rivers at this particular time when I was a janitor and while I was on labor crew (except during the summer when I carpooled with my summer help buddies). Each day Bill Rivers would explain about some trick he had played on Sonny that day. The one thing that amazed Bill the most was that every day he could play a joke on Sonny, and each day, Sonny would fall for it.

This reminded me of when I was in Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri and I used to borrow a pencil from my friend Bryan Treacy each day and each day I would chew it up to the point where it was practically useless. I had to come up with different diversionary tactics each day, but somehow I was able to coax a wooden pencil from my friend. Before he would realize what he had done, I had already chewed it up from one end to the next. I liked to think that I was tricking Bryan each day, but I also thought that it was odd that Bryan would have a new pencil every time, and he probably made sure that his mom kept a full stock of pencils just for my enjoyment in eating them (I also wondered if I was getting lead poisoning from all the yellow paint I was ingesting).

Bryan Treacy today is a doctor living in Moore Oklahoma. I would like to drop by his office without seeing him some time just to see if he has any wooden pencils laying about that I could leave all chewed up. I wonder if he would realize I had been there. He might read this blog from time-to-time, so I may have just blown my cover.

I mentioned Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick because they were the first two electricians that I worked for before becoming an electrician. I worked on the precipitator while I was on the Labor Crew. See the Post:

Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door

I also mentioned before that I owe my decision to become a Power Plant Electrician to Charles Foster an Electrical B Foreman at the time. I was a janitor and cleaning the electric shop office and lab were part of my duty. How I came to be the janitor of the electric shop is explained further in the post:

Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement

I had found the floor scrubbing machine in ill repair. Charles helped me put it back in running condition. He explained how to take care of the batteries and to keep them properly charged.

We had a Clarke Floor scrubber similar to this one

We had a Clarke Floor scrubber similar to this one

When the electric shop had an opening they tried to recruit me while I was still a janitor, but the Evil Plant Manager had a rule at the time that when you were a janitor, the only place you could go from there was onto the Labor Crew. That was when Mike Rose was hired to become a backup for Jim Stevenson that worked on the air conditioning and freeze protection. I knew about the janitor ruling so I didn’t have my hopes up. Besides, at the time I didn’t have any electrical background.

Charles asked me to take the electrical courses that were offered by the company. The company offered correspondence courses, and in about 3 weeks, I had signed up for them, read the books, and taken the tests. While I was on the labor crew I signed up for a House wiring course at the Vo-Tech. I was taking that course when I learned that Larry Burns was moving from our electric shop to go to another plant. It was then that I applied for the job as a plant electrician.

The main power transformer for Unit 1 had been destroyed by the heat wave that summer (1983) when the plant had tested it’s durability on the hottest day. The unit was offline for a couple of months while GE created a new transformer and shipped it to us.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

After the main power transformer was destroyed and it took so long to ship in a new one, it was decided that we would keep a spare on hand. That way if it went bad again, we could swap them out quickly. That is probably the best assurance that we wouldn’t lose that transformer again. We had that spare transformer sitting around for years collecting taxes. I’m sure we must have paid for it a few times over again.

During the time that the unit was offline, and we weren’t shaking boiler tubes or cutting the ash out of the economizer tubes, I was working with Bill Rivers and Sonny Kendrick on the precipitator. The precipitator (by the way), is what takes the smoke (ash) out of the exhaust, so you don’t see smoke coming out of the smokestacks.

Bill and Sonny were pretty well sure that I was going to be selected to fill the opening in the Electric Shop, so they were already preparing me to work on the precipitator. Of all the jobs in the electric shop, this one had more to do with electronics than any of the others. That gave “being an electrician” a whole new dimension. I was even looking forward to taking an Electronics course at the Vo-Tech in the spring.

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

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

I was getting updates from Bill and Sonny about the progress of the job opening and they were telling me about the battle that was going on between the Evil Plant Manager and the Electrical Supervisor. Eldon Waugh, the plant manager at the time wanted Charles Peavler to be chosen as the electrician. He had an electrical background, because he had wired his barn once.

The ultimate reason why the plant manager wanted Charles Peavler to be the new electrician was because I had been placed on the blacklist due to the incident that took place earlier that I had described in the post:

Take a Note Jan Said the Manager of Power Production

Thanks to Larry Riley’s performance review, and his purposeful procrastination of the Plant Manager’s request to modify my performance review, and Charles Foster’s insistence that they follow the procedures that were laid out in the new Employee Application Program (known as the EAP), the argument stopped with Charles Foster’s statement: “Let’s just take whoever has the best performance rating as it is laid out in the company policy and leave it at that.” I was chosen to fill the position for the opening in the Electric Shop.

I was actually called to Eldon Waugh’s office while I was sandblasting the Sand Filter Tank. See Post:

Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love

When I arrived in Eldon’s office I was covered from head to toe in sandblast dust. My hair was all disheveled and my shirt was soaked with sweat. Jack Ballard (the head of HR) was sitting there along with Leroy Godfrey and Charles Foster. I knew what it was about because according to Bill Rivers on the way home the day before, they had already decided that they were going to accept me for the position.

Eldon Waugh explained that I was being offered the job that I had applied for in the electric shop. I felt really humbled at the time. Even though I was expecting it, I felt surprised that it was actually happening. To me, being an electrician was like the greatest job in the world. The electricians were like an elite team of super heroes.

I had the occasion to watch the electricians while I was a janitor in their shop and many of them were like these super intelligent beings that could quickly look at a blueprint and grab their tool bucket and head out to fix the world. I was very grateful for the opportunity, and at the same time apprehensive. I wasn’t sure if I had the quality of character and intelligence to become a part of this team. This was truly a dream come true for me.

Few times in my life has this happened to me. The day I was married. The day I became a Father. The day I drove to Dell to begin my first day as a Programmer Analyst. These were all major milestones in my life. The first major milestone was the day I became an electrician. Because of the way that I am (I don’t know…. maybe it’s because I’m half Italian), I just wanted to break out in tears and hug Eldon Waugh and cry on his shoulder. Instead, I just managed to crack a small smile.

I thanked them and started to leave. Then Jack Ballard said something interesting. As I was leaving he asked, “Uh…. Do you accept the offer?” Oh. In my surprise and elation, I hadn’t said anything but “Thank You”. Jack’s expression was that it wasn’t official until it was official. So, I replied, “Yes. I accept the offer”. “Ok then,” Jack replied. And I left to go crawl back in my hole and continue sandblasting the Sand Filter tank.

My last day on the Labor Crew was on November 4, 1983. I was leaving my Labor Crew Family behind and moving onto a new life in the electric shop. This was hard for me because I really did consider most of the people on the Labor Crew as family. Fred Crocker, Ron Luckey, Jim Kanelakos, and Ronnie Banks. Curtis Love and Chuck Moreland. Doretta Funkhouser and Charles Peavler. Jody Morse and Bob Lillibridge.

Most of all, I knew I was going to miss Larry Riley. I had worked with Larry from the day I had first arrived as a summer help in 1979. Now it was November, 1983. Larry was a hero to me. I love him dearly and if I had ever had an older brother I would have liked someone with the character and strength of Larry Riley. He remains in my prayers to this day.

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him

The last day on the labor crew I suspected foul play. Mainly because the last day that Bill Cook was on the Labor Crew, he had asked us if we would throw Larry in the intake as a going away gift. I had worked with Bill when we were summer help together and I felt like I owed him one, so I told him I would help.

As we were driving from the Coalyard Maintenance building (the home of the labor crew) to the plant maintenance shop that day, Bill Cook, who was driving, suddenly turned toward the intake pumps and stopped the truck. By the time Larry had figured out what was going on, we had dragged Larry out of the truck and I was carrying him over to the Intake and getting ready to throw him in.

Larry had worked with me long enough to know that once I had set my mind on something, there was no turning back. He had tried to escape from my grip, but I had him where he couldn’t escape. As I climbed with him over the guard rail and headed toward the edge of the water, Larry said the only possible thing that could make me stop in my tracks. He said, “Please Kevin. Don’t do this.”

I was paralyzed. Stuck between my word with Bill Cook that I would help him throw Larry in the brink, and a plea from someone who meant the world to me. There wasn’t but one choice to make. I set Larry down. I walked back to the truck and I told Bill, “I’m sorry. I can’t do it.” I returned to my seat in the back of the crew cab. Without my help, no one else had the resolve and strength to follow through with Bill’s wish. We drove on to the Maintenance Shop.

So, on my last day on the Labor Crew, I thought that something similar might be planned for me. As soon as we left to go to work that morning, I headed up Belt 10 and 11. That is the long belt on the left side of the power Plant picture on the upper right side of this post…. Ok. I’ll post it here:

Power Plant view when looking through the wrong end of the binoculars

The long belts run from the coalyard to the plant. Oh. And this is the intake. Just across from here is where I was going to toss Larry in the lake

Once up 10 & 11 and 12 & 13, I was in the Surge bin tower. (The Surge Bin Tower is the white building you can see between the two boilers near the top that has the conveyor belt entering it from the left). From there, I roamed around looking for some coal to clean up. I figured I would stay far away from my labor crew buddies that day.

At the end of the day, I traveled back down belts 10 & 11 and headed into the office in the Coalyard Maintenance building to fill out my last timecard as a Laborer. Beginning next Monday on November 7, I would be an “Electrician.” Along with the empty feeling at the bottom of my heart was a feeling of excitement for the new adventure that awaited me.

GE Geriatric Gentleman and Power Plant Transformers

Originally Posted May 17, 2013:

I remember the day when I walked into the Electric Shop office to begin the lunch break, and four guys from the T&D department (Transmission and Distribution) came in from the door leading to the Main Switchgear. They were obviously worn out, and were complaining. The first one said that he couldn’t believe that the guy from GE had made them work through morning break. The second guy called him a slave driver. The third guy replied that he couldn’t believe how that GE guy just kept on working from the crack of dawn without stopping all morning without even coming up for air. The fourth guy just collapsed on one of the chairs.

I remember the name of the last guy. His name was Foote. I remember him because he was real proud of his heritage. The first time I had met him, I asked him his name twice, because when he told me it was “Foote”, I wasn’t sure I heard correctly, so I asked him again. I guess that he must has guessed what was going through my mind because he must have had the same reaction from a thousand other people in the past. I figure that because my last name is Breazile (pronounced “Brazil”) and I have had many conversations with people explaining the origin of my name.

Anyway. I don’t remember Foote’s first name because I think he only had initials for his first name on his hard hat, and I’m more of a visual person when it comes to memories. I clearly remember his last. If I remember correctly, one of his ancestors was a naval officer in the Civil War, though, I don’t remember for which side. I guess it doesn’t really matter much now, since both sides were Americans, and both sides loved their country and the lives they knew — that they were fighting to hold onto or to change.

This reminds me of a side story that I must tell…. Years and years later in 1997, when I was on the Confined Space Rescue Team, one guy that was from North Dakota named Brent Kautzman was constantly being “harassed” for being a Yankee, because he came from a Northern State. This was kind of a mute (or is it “moot”) point to me, because I knew that North Dakota didn’t become a state until well after the Civil War.

Anyway, one day when Brent was trying to defend himself from the hardcore confederates of the group, he pointed out that the North won the Civil war. A couple of other members disagreed, claiming that the South was going to “rise again”. One of those that believed in the Confederate resurrection turned to me and asked me, as if I was the resident historian (well… I did have a college degree… and I did have a minor in History…. and I was known for telling the truth when it really came down to it), “Kevin…. Did the north win the Civil War?”

Not really wanting to hurt the feelings of my southern friends, and also wanting to stand by Brent who was really correct about the outcome of the Civil War, I replied with the following explanation: “Yes. The North must have won the war. Otherwise the South never would have let all the carpetbaggers from the North come down there and steal their property and their dignity.” Brent was satisfied, and the southerners had to agree with my logic. They still insisted that the South would rise again. I couldn’t argue with them about that…. It has never ceased to amaze me how bigotry can be passed down so easily.

With that said, I would say that the Power Plant Men that I worked with that believed that the “South would rise again!” didn’t really understand what that meant. I say that because they never would have given a thought that the men that they worked with that were African American such as Floyd Coburn, or Bill Bennett, were nothing less than members of their own families. I know that they each personally loved these men with all their hearts. I thought it was more of a nostalgic feeling than a desire to see the return of slavery or even the bigotry that crippled the southern states for decades after the Civil War.

End of the Side Story…. Back to the worn out T&D workers.

By the sound of it, I figured that this guy from GE (General Electric) that had come to work on one of the Main Auxiliary Transformers on Unit 2 that had a problem with the Tap Changing Mechanism, was some kind of slave driver. Some hard line guy that wanted to work our employees to the brink of exhaustion because he wanted to be done with the repairs as quickly as possible so that he could move on to some more important work. You see. For this job, GE had called on one of the top Main Power Transformer Geniuses in all the country to work on this transformer.

The T&D guys sat there for a while and then walked out into the shop to eat their lunch. Shortly after that, the slave driver from GE came in the back door…. In stepped a man that immediately reminded me of Arthur Fielder from the Boston Pops.

Arthur Fielder from Boston Pops

Arthur Fielder from Boston Pops

He sat down…. opened his brown paper bag. Pulled out his sandwich. Carefully unwrapped it and began to eat. Charles Foster and I were sitting there watching him. After hearing the horror stories from the T&D crew, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to engage this seemingly mad man in conversation, so I waited a while. I ate some cherry tomatoes and Banana peppers that Charles brought for me each day…. and with each bite, I took a bite out of my ham sandwich. Then I looked over at “Arthur Fielder….” (I don’t remember his real name).

Finally, I decided that this slave driver in sheep’s clothing (well, an old frail man costume really), might come up with some interesting conversation so I asked him…. “Say, old man…. how old are you anyway?” He looked up from the total enjoyment of his sandwich, and with food still un-swallowed said, “I’m 83.”

“83?” — Either I said that or Charles did… because we were both stunned by his answer….. “Yep… They called me out of retirement to work on this transformer. Seems I’m the only one that knows how to fix ’em. But I’m teachin’ your fellows how to do it so they don’t have to call me again.”

Charles and I were so flabbergasted by his reply that we couldn’t leave it alone. One of us (Charles and I were always on the same wavelength, so usually when one of us spoke, it was what we were both thinking)… So, one of us asked…. “You’re retired and they called you up to work on this transformer!?!? Are you such a Transformer guru that you were the only one they could send?” (hmm… must have been me…. I don’t think Charles would have used the word “Guru”. He would have used something like “expert” or “talented” or maybe “genius”). He said, “Yep. They paid me enough that I agreed to take a week away from my wife to come here to take care of business. It would have to take a lot to take me away from my Jenny.”

Then this feeble old man with the white moustache explained that he didn’t like to be away from home. Every night since when he was young he has played the piano for two hours. — Wait… I wasn’t sure if I heard that right, so I asked him…. “What? You play the piano for two hours… every night!?!?” (notice… already I have used “!?!?” twice in one post… just goes to show you how surprised I was to run across this man). He reaffirmed what he said, “Yeah. I had to find a hotel that had a piano, so I could sit in the lobby and play it before I go to bed. I can’t sleep well unless I have played the piano first.

After that, he began to tell us about his career in the Music Industry. He had played for many Big Band orchestras in the past. He talked about playing with Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. Names that I had learned from my Aunt Pam Sorisso in Kansas City that gave me an Eight Track Tape of Big Band music when I was in College that I used to listen to often. I had become a fan of Big Band and had a great respect for these Big Band Leaders.

Benny Goodman

Benny Goodman

Tommy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey

Here sitting in front of me was one of the geniuses of the Big Band era in the electric shop at a Coal-fired Power Plant in the middle of North Central Oklahoma. All I could think of was, “Who woulda thought it?” Though I was impressed as all get out… I tried to act calm….. I wanted to jump up with a piece of paper and ask him for his autograph….

This old guy suddenly had all my respect. It cracked me up to think that this 83 year old man was out performing the younger T&D workers. He was running them ragged. He explained that he didn’t like to stop for break. It made the day go a lot faster if he just kept working until he had to stop. He wouldn’t have stop for lunch if all the workers hadn’t just dropped all their tools and left.

It amazed me even more that this man who was a big band musician of the highest caliber had ended up working for GE Not only had he worked for GE, but he had become the ultimate authority in large transformer repair. I mean…. How cool is that?

I can’t tell you how much I instantly fell in love with this guy. He had talked and talked about his days as a big band piano player. What really came out of his conversation what just how much he loved his wife. The two things he loved in the entire world was his wife and to play the piano. He said there was nothing more soothing than playing the piano. As he walked off to go back to work at the end of lunch… the only thing I could think of was one of my Big Band favorites…. Louis Armstrong….

For those people who stopped to really think about it…. This truly is….. A Wonderful World!

Comment from the Original Post

Ron Kilman May 18, 2013:

  1. Great story. I met a lot of really neat guys at the Power Plant – experts in their fields – bladers, winders, crack-checkers, boiler gurus, balancers, . . . I remember making a factory “balance expert” really mad. He was sent to balance the Buffalo Forge FD fans at Seminole. He was the “lead” and I was just “checking” him. We used a modern IRD balance analyzer with a Teflon shaft rider and he used a pencil! When we both had taken our “readings” we shut the fan down. When it coasted to a stop, he began yelling “My marks – my marks – you wiped out my marks!” (with a German accent). On the next balance run, I took my readings first, then he put his pencil marks on the rotating fan shaft. We got the fan smooth. He was a cool guy, but used 19th century “technology”. I never asked him if he played the piano too.

Sky Climbing in the Dark with Power Plant Boiler Rats

Originally Posted July 26, 2013:

I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was well…. surreal.

This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.

As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.

At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.

David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.

During those times I knew that something was taking place in the superheat section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.

This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.

Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Or even a normal rat like this:

Normal looking rat

Normal looking rat

No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:

rat from kootation

rat picture taken from kootation.com

Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….

Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.

If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.

A sky climber

A sky climber

You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool.

So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.

Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.

There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where john Brien was staring back at him.

There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.

We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as i fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.

By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.

I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.

I took out my multimeter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connect where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.

I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”

That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.

I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.

There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.

I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.

Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.

Comment from previous post:

  1. A.D. Everard August 3, 2014

    You tell a wonderful story and keep the reader spellbound. I love this sort of inside information!
    Coming to your blog has given me the same rush of excitement I get when I’m researching something and find a gem! Now I want to write about boiler rats! 🙂

Prolonged Power Plant Pause Before the Panic

Originally posted September 6, 2013:

Today when I attend meetings while on the job at Dell (and now at GM) and the discussion is about something new, and the manager is looking for input from the team, I usually sit there quietly while the others share their thoughts. This is not my usual behavior in other settings as I am usually quick to respond with a quip or something sarcastic.

Later, after everyone else has given their two cents, then if asked, I will wade in with both feet. This hasn’t always been the course of action I would have taken. Actually, I used to be pretty hot-headed. I was usually the first person to respond when someone asked a question. I already had my mind made up about just about everything.

My wife began noticing a change in my behavior a few years after we were married. She would ask me a simple question, like, “Would you like a piece of gum.” I would suddenly go into a momentary comatose state where I would stare off into space and think about it. She would say something like, “The answer doesn’t need a lot of thought. It is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”

After careful analysis, I finally figured out what happened. The transformation began the day I entered the electric shop at the coal-fired power plant as an electrician. I described that first day in the post “New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop“. In that post I described my first job as an electrician when I went to the coalyard with my foreman Charles Foster to fix a room heater that wasn’t working.

The first time I used my new tools, Charles told me to remove a screw from a fuse block so that we could lift a wire in order to replace the fuse block.

A small fuse block like this.

A small fuse block like this.

When I was removing the wire (with one hand, as Charles had warned me that an electrician never uses two hands to do this), the screwdriver slipped and shorted out on the mounting screw which caused a brief flash. In the millisecond that the flash occurred, it cut a notch in the tip of my new Stanley screwdriver.

A Stanley screwdriver used by electgricians because of the rubber on the handle

A Stanley screwdriver used by electricians because of the rubber on the handle

This was the beginning of my 18 year career of various minor electrocutions and small explosions. We did things to minimize the chances of shorting out your screwdriver when working on a hot circuit (that means a circuit that has the electricity still turned on). One thing we would do is wrap rubber tape up the metal shank so that if it leaned against something metal with it while the tip was touching something hot, it wouldn’t short out the circuit.

Inevitably, something would happen every now and then and something was going to explode. So you just had to be prepared for that. This is where the “Prolonged Pause” comes in.

Sometimes there is nothing you can do. Let me give you a “For Instance”. One time when we had an overhaul on Unit 1 (we had 2 units at our Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma), Richard Moravek was visiting from the Power Plant in Muskogee, Oklahoma. I have written about him in the Post “Lap o’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant“. Each morning at Muskogee, he and Jay Harris would sing the song, “Nestle’s makes the very best Chocolate”, with Richard whistling as he sang like the Nestle’s rabbit with a whistle in his voice.

The Nestle's Rabbit

The Nestle’s Rabbit

On one particular day, Richard and I were sent to perform a “quick and dirty” elevator inspection on the Unit 1 elevator. It received a lot of wear and tear during overhaul with everyone riding up and down from the 9th floor where you could reach the upper echelons of the boiler. If things didn’t work perfectly every time, then the work would be slowed, and schedules wouldn’t be met.

During our elevator inspection we decided that we needed to change out some lights on the push buttons, because…. well… because some of them were burned out. Which caused them to not light up when they were supposed to, causing some Power Plant workers to become confused because they would forget which button they had pushed when they entered the elevator, thus, allowing them to forget which floor they were supposed to get off (working long hours will do that to you).

Anyway, Richard had taken the screws out of the push button panel and had swung the door on the panel open so that the wiring inside was all exposed. He reached in to pulled out one of the push button assemblies so that he could remove the bulb (oh… electricians call bulbs, Lamps… I mentioned that in the post “Place On Light Duty at the Power Plant“, if you recall).

I had reached down into my tool bucket and pulled out a box of special elevator lamps….. Actually, I think it was a standard 6S6 lamp, but it looked like a bulb to me:

A 12 Volt 6S6 bulb

A 12 Volt 6S6 bulb (or is it a lamp?)

Richard had put his hand out to receive the bulb I had in my hand, so I handed it to him. At that point, a funny thing happened. You see, my other hand was on the elevator scissor gate.

An Elevator Scissor Gate

An Elevator Scissor Gate

As I placed the lamp into Richard’s hand, he suddenly twitched and sort of jumped at the same time. When he did, he pushed into me and he began doing a jig. My legs were twitching and I was sort of doing a jig myself, or maybe a jog.

It became apparent right away what had happened. While Richard’s one hand was in the elevator push button panel taking out the bulb, he had come in contact with the electric circuit. This was fine as long as he wasn’t grounded. That is, he wasn’t touching anything else metal, like the front of the panel.

Being a good electrician, Richard had kept his other hand at his side like Charles Foster had taught me my first day as an electrician. That is, until he raised that hand for me to give him a lamp. When my fingers touched his palm, and my other hand was holding the elevator gate, we suddenly made a circuit to ground. From Richard, to me, to the gate, to the ground, and back to the the main power generator through various grounds and circuits and transformers….

About the time that I realized what was happening, we had separated from each other, and were no longer dancing. It cracked us up and we stood there laughing about it for a minute because both of us had just been dancing in the elevator.

As I explained in the post about being on light duty that I mentioned above, when you went to work on the stack lights, you carried metal prod with you that you used to ground the large capacitors before you worked on the circuit. When you did this, there would be a bright flash and a loud explosion.

If a noise or a flash like that made you jump, you may end up going over the handrail and falling 500 feet to the ground. So, you learned that in the event of a flash, your first reaction is to freeze. Then assess the situation, and then if necessary, Panic.

Many years later (like 16), I became very aware of how well trained we were when something like this happened when I was once again working with Charles Foster in a junction box on the 11 landing of Unit 1 on the west side. We were standing side-by-side and we were working on something hot.

Suddenly there was a bright flash and a loud boom as something shorted out. By that time in our history, we had learned all about wearing fire resistant clothing, so that even though what we were wearing wasn’t fire proof, it also wasn’t going to melt to our skin.

What amazed me about this moment was that we both stood there still for a moment before we panicked. There was about a one second pause where we both restrained ourselves from jumping back. I chalked this up to our years of being around explosive situations. Jumping back as the first reaction can often lead to other injuries.

I took this resistance to panic with me into other situations. Before 1994 when OSHA added a bunch of new laws protecting people in confined spaces, I was crawling inside the main generator bus that goes out to the main power transformer. No hole watch. No one watching me outside that could grab me and pull me out if something went wrong.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer. The bus piping are those three pipes going into the building at the top in the back

I had squeezed myself into one of these pipes to clean the insulators that held the bus in place in the middle of the pipe. This meant that I was crammed into the pipe under the bus bar that ran through the middle of the pipe.

I had made it to the insulator that I needed to clean and wiped it down with the rag I had taken with me. Then I decided I couldn’t go forward anymore to look at any more of the insulators because it was too tight of a fit. So, I started to back myself out.

As I went to push myself back I suddenly realized that I was stuck. It was easy moving forward because I was using the soles of my sneakers to push on the pipe, but as soon as I wanted to go back, there didn’t seem to be anyway to maneuver my body in a way that would back myself out. My arms were stretched out in front of me.  This was one of a few times when I began to feel the panicky feeling of claustrophobia.

I had seen claustrophobia in others and I knew that when you are gripped with it, you can hurt yourself, or even Bob Lillibridge if he happened to be the one grabbing your legs at the time (see the post: Bob Lillibridge Meets the Power Plant Ghost for an explanation.

Here it came… I felt myself swelling up tight in the pipe as the panic was gripping me. I knew I had to do something quickly or it wasn’t going to be pretty…. Well, either way… nothing about this was pretty. So, I forced myself to calm down. I told myself to breathe out, and slowly back in.

Then I decided to use the palms of my hands that were stretched out straight in front of me to push against the pipe to move me back. With that effort, I could see (in the darkness) that I had moved myself back about 1/2 inch. I thought. “Ok, 1/2 inch is something. If I did that 100 more times, that would be more than 4 feet. 200 times and I would be out of this pipe.”

Realizing I could move myself at least a little bit allowed me to calm down and quell the panic. I did nothing but concentrate on pushing with my palms 1/2 inch at a time and eventually, I did climb out of that pipe (What?  You expected me to say I was still in there?).

I don’t know how many times over the years I have woken up in the middle of the night and swung my feet over the side of the bed and taken a few large breaths because I had been dreaming about being in that pipe again. I will discuss the topic of claustrophobia in a later post, but this example fit the topic of training yourself not to panic so I thought I would use it here.

If you ever end up talking to someone that doesn’t quite look at you when they look like they are trying to look at you, then you may think that they are a welder. There are some welders that seem to look at you from the corner of their eye. I suppose it was because the middle of their vision has been burned out because they have looked at the welding arc too many times without their visor down.  Or maybe they had just learned to look away from whatever they are seeing just as a safety habit.

Similarly, if you ever encounter someone that momentarily goes into a comatose state for a few moments when you ask them a simple question, you may now think that maybe this person was a Power Plant Electrician that has learned to have a Prolonged Pause before they Panic… or… respond to your question. If they aren’t from a power plant, then they probably were just trying to ignore you.

Comments from previous repost:

    1. Dan Antion September 11, 2014

      Good advice for anyone in similar situations.

    1. Slowmoto September 11, 2014

      Pause before panic is my response to most stressors perceived by a presenter or an emerging reality. You hit the mark!

  1. Monty Hansen November 26, 2014

    Excellent writing! I felt myself getting panicky with you! As a control room operator I had an electrician drop a screwdriver & blow the unit out from under me at full load + 5% overpressure (2520#)-(It caused a false boiler feedpump saturation temp trip). The power plant has trained me not to startle as well, inside I may be screaming like a schoolgirl, but outside I am calm and handling emergencies as though routine.