Tag Archives: Task Force

Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible

Originally posted May 23, 2014:

There were three times when I was an electrician at a coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when, according to others, I had done something that they labelled “impossible”.  One of those times began when a Plant Engineer Toby O’Brien came to me and asked me if I could find a way to connect to the Prime Computer down at Corporate Headquarters so that he could edit some Engineering drawings he had worked on when he was working at Oklahoma City.  That in itself wasn’t what was impossible.  That came later, but it pertained to a similar subject.

Somewhere in Corporate Headquarters stashed away in a room somewhere was a Prime Computer just waiting for Toby.

Prime Computer

Prime Computer

Toby knew that I had an account on the Honeywell Mainframe computer downtown, since I was always getting myself in trouble playing around on it.  Since I could connect to that, he wondered if it would be possible to connect to the Prime Computer where his Medusa CAD drawings were kept.  He gave me some information about how he used to log into it when he was working downtown…. before  he was banished to the Power Plant Palace 70 miles north out in the middle of the country.

Toby had a CAD tablet and a disk to install the driver on a computer.  This would allow him to work on his CAD drawings.  For those of you who don’t remember, or have never seen such a thing.  It is like a very fancy mouse…. or should I say, Mouse Pad.  Since you used a stylus to draw and point and click on a large pad called a tablet.  Not anything like the little tablets we have today.

CAD Drawing Tablet

CAD Drawing Tablet

At the time, the only connection we had to the Honeywell Mainframe from the power plant was through a router called a Memotec.  The bandwidth was a whopping 28,000 baud.  A Baud is like bytes per second, only it is measured over an audio line as an audio signal.  Like the sound that a Fax machine makes when it first connects.  Toby had talked to some guys down at IT and they had a copy of the same Honeywell emulator called “GLink” we were using at the plant, only it would connect at a super whopping 56,000 baud.  Twice as fast!  They wanted someone to “Beta Test” it.  They knew I liked doing that sort of stuff, so they were willing to give us a copy to try out.

 

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

Toby and I decided that the best place to try out our “Beta Testing” was in the Chemistry Lab.  The main reason was that it had one of the newer 386 desktop computers and it was in a room right next to the data closet where the Memotec was talking to the mainframe downtown.  So, if I had to run in there real quick and spit in the back and “whomp it a good ‘un”, I wouldn’t have too go far.  That was a trick I learned from watching “No Time for Sergeants” with Andy Griffith.  Here is the lesson:

If you have trouble viewing the video from the picture above, this this link:  “No Time For Sergeants Radio Operator“.

To make the rest of this part of the story a little shorter, I’ll just summarize it to say that by logging into the Honeywell Mainframe using my account, I was then able to connect to the Prime Computer using Toby’s account and he was able to edit his CAD drawings from the Chemistry Lab at the Power Plant 70 miles away from Corporate Headquarters.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, but in those days, this was “new technology” for us Power Plant guys anyway.

Before I continue with the “impossible” task, I need to explain a little about how electricians kept the Electrical Blueprints up-to-date at a Power Plant.  This was a task that I was given when Tom Gibson was the Electrical Supervisor.  I was supposed to take all the blueprints that had been revised because of some change that had happened at the plant, and make sure they were properly updated.  Then I had to go through a process to make sure they were permanently updated, not only on the three copies that we had at our plant, but also with the “System of Record” set of blueprints at Corporate Headquarters.

So, let me tell you the process, and I’m sure you will be able to relate this task to something you encounter in your job today.  Even if it is preparing the Salads at a Sirloin Stockade before opening time.

The first step happens when someone in the electric shop has to rewire some piece of equipment or something because the equipment was moved, removed, upgraded to something else, or someone thought it would work better if we did it a different way.  Then whoever made the change to the electric wiring would go to the prints that were kept in the electric shop and update them so that the new wiring job was reflected in the Blueprints.

This is important because if someone a week later had to go work on this equipment, they would need to be able to see how the equipment is now wired.  If they were working off of an old print, then they might blow something up, or injure or even kill someone…. most likely themselves, if it ever came down to it.

The other two copies of prints also needed to be updated.  One was in the Instrument and Controls shop, and the most important copy was in the “Print Room” right next to Tom Gibson’s office.

The second step was to send off a request to Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City for a copy of all the blueprints that were changed so that the change could be made on the copy and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The third step is when a fresh copy of the blueprints arrived at the plant from Oklahoma City a few weeks later.  These were updated with the changes and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The fourth step is when the blueprints are reviewed by an engineer downtown and the changes are made permanently by a drafter downtown.

Step five:  Then three copies of the permanently changed prints were sent back to plant where they replaced the three marked up copies.

This process generally took two to three months given that the drafter downtown had to take the Original drawing, scan it in the computer, make changes to it, and then save it, and send it to the printer to be printed.

Toby and I had “petitioned” our plant management to buy us a copy of AutoCAD so that we could make our own revisions right at the plant, and send the changes directly to Oklahoma City, all complete and ready to go.  The only problem with this was that AutoCAD software did not come cheap.  It was several thousand dollars for just one copy.

Even though this was before the World Wide Web, I knew where I could get a pirated copy of AutoCAD, but since neither Toby or I considered ourselves criminals, we never really considered that a viable alternative.  Tom Gibson was pitching for us to have a copy, but it was figured that if we had a copy, the company would have to buy a copy for all six main power plants, and they weren’t willing to dish out that much money.

Somewhere along the line, after Tom Gibson had kept pushing for the importance of having up-to-date Plant Electric Blueprints in a timely fashion, a task force was formed to address a faster way to make print revisions.  Because Toby and I (and Terry Blevins) had been pushing this at our plant, Tom asked Toby and I (actually, that should be “Toby and me”, but “Toby and I” makes me sound smarter than I am) to be on the Task Force with him.

So, one morning after arriving at the plant, we climbed into a company car and made the drive to Oklahoma City to the Corporate Headquarters.  When we arrived, we sat in a big conference room with members from the different power plants, and a number of engineers from downtown.  I was pretty excited that something was finally going to be done.

I don’t remember the name of the engineer that was the leader of the task force, I only remember that I had worked with him once or twice through the years on some small projects.  When the meeting began, I expected that we would have some kind of brainstorming activity.  I was all ready for it, since I had all sorts of ideas about how we could just edit the prints directly from the plant on the Prime Computer where the prints were stored, just like Toby had done.

When the meeting began there was no brainstorming session.  There wasn’t even a “What do you guys think about how this can be done?”  No.  The engineer instead went on to explain his solution to the problem.  I was a little disappointed.  Mainly because I was all fired up about being asked to be on a task force in Oklahoma City to work on…. well…. anything…. to tell you the truth.  And here we were listening to a conclusion.  — Sound familiar?  I knew it would.

This engineer had it all figured out.  Here was his solution:

Step 1:  A request was sent by company mail to downtown (same at the old second step) for some blueprints that need to be updated.

Step 2:  The prints are downloaded onto a floppy disk (3.5 inch High Density – which meant, 1.44 Megabyte disks).

Step 3:  The disks were mailed through company mail back to the Power Plant.

Step 4:  The Power Plant receives the disks and loads them onto their computer at the plant and they edit the blueprint using a pared down CAD program called “RedLine”.

Step 5:  The print revision is saved to the disk and the disk is mailed back to Corporate Headquarters using the Company Mail.

Step 6:  The print is reviewed by the engineers for accuracy and is loaded into the computer as the system of record.

Ok…. this sounded just like the previous method only we were using a “RedLine” program to edit the changes instead of using Red, Green and Gray pencils.

It was evident that the engineer in charge of the meeting was expecting us to all accept this solution and that the task force no longer had to meet anymore, and we could all go home and not ever return to consider this problem again.  — Well, this was when I said the “Impossible”.

I raised my hand as if I was in a classroom.  The guy knowing me to be a regular troublemaker asked me what I wanted.  I said, “Why mail the files?  Why not just put them in a folder and have the person at the plant go there and pick them up?”  — In today’s world the idea of a drop-box is about as easy to understand as “Google it”.  Back then… I guess not.  Especially for some engineers who had already decided on a solution.

So, the engineer responded, “Because that can’t be done.”  I said, “Why not?”  He said, “It’s impossible.  Someone in a power plant can’t just go into a computer at Corporate Headquarters and access a file.”

Well, that did it….. I told him that we were able to edit CAD drawings on the Prime computer from the power plant.  He said, “No you didn’t.  That’s impossible!”  I looked over at Toby who was sitting next to me with a big grin on his face.  So I said,  “Who is the IT guy in the room?  He can tell you that you can  get a file from the mainframe from the power plant.”

The engineer replied that he didn’t invite any IT people, because there wasn’t any reason.  Everyone knows that you can’t copy files on a Corporate computer from a power plant.  So, I said, “Invite someone from the IT department to the next meeting.  I’m sure he will agree with me that this can be done.  — Shortly after that, the  meeting was adjourned (but at least I had managed to convince the team we needed a second meeting).

You should have heard me rant and rave all the way back to the power plant that afternoon.  How could he possibly be so naive to make definite statements about something and basically call me a liar when I said that we had already done it.  I’m sure Tom Gibson was glad when we arrived back at the plant and he was able to get out of the company car and into the silence of his own car for his drive back to Stillwater.  Toby on the other hand carpooled with me, so he had to hear me rant and rave to Scott Hubbard all the way back to Stillwater that day.

Needless to say, we had another Print Revision Task Force meeting a few weeks later.  Tom, Toby and I drove back to Oklahoma City.  I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen.

The meeting began with the engineer in charge of the task force saying, “The first thing we are going to address is Kevin Breazile’s statement about sending files to the power plant.  We have invited someone from IT to answer this question.”  Then he turned to a guy sitting at the table.  I don’t remember his name either, only that I had worked with him also through the years (oh yes I do.  It was Mike Russell).

The engineer turned to the IT guy and said (using a tone that indicated that I belonged in a mental institution or maybe kindergarten), “Kevin seems to think that he can somehow get on his computer at the power plant and access a folder on a server here at Corporate Headquarters and download a file.”  He stopped and with a big smirk on his face looked at the IT guy.  Mike just sat there for a moment looking at him.

The engineer just stood there with an evil grin on his face waiting…  Mike said, “So?  What do you want to know?”  The engineer said, “Well.  Is that even possible?”  Mike replied, “Of course!  It’s actually easier for him to do that than it is for someone on the 3rd floor of this building to access the mainframe on the fourth floor.”

The engineer’s jaw dropped and he eked out a meager little  “what?”  Mike asked if that was all.  When he was assured that this was the only question, he stood up and walked out the door.  As he was leaving he turned a side glance toward me and winked at me.  I was grinning ear-to-ear.  I could tell, I wasn’t the only one that had a beef with this particular engineer.

So, you would have thought that it would have been a quieter ride back to the plant that day, but leave it to me….  I kept on going on about how that guy was so sure of himself that he didn’t even bother to ask the IT guy before the meeting began just to check his own erroneous facts.  Geez!  That was the most surprising part of the day.  If he had only asked him before the meeting, he wouldn’t have made a fool out of himself with his snide comments just before he was put in his place.

So, Toby and I proved that doing the impossible isn’t all that impossible when what someone thinks is impossible really isn’t so.  This stemmed from a lesson my dad taught me growing up when he told me, “Don’t ever say “can’t”.  There is always a way.”

Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion May 24, 2014

    Ah, the good old days when the best computer was the new 386. Things weren’t impossible but you had to think about it and plan quite a bit. Great stories!

  2. Ruth May 24, 2014

    Always enjoy reading and thinking about a world I wouldn’t even know about if it weren’t for your unique blog!

    Ruth in Pittsburgh

  3. Ron May 24, 2014

    Great story! I heard a pastor once say “What you “know” can keep you from learning the truth.” I saw this principle in operation many times in my career.

    I had been at the WFEC Hugo Power Plant for a short time when the Plant Manager directed me (Maint. Supt.) to have the Mechanics “block the condenser” for a “hydro”. (Prior to a condenser hydro, several mechanics would work for about 4 hours dragging heavy timbers into the 3 foot tall space between the bottom of the hotwell and the concrete floor. They would space these timbers evenly across the entire condenser floor and use wedges to remove all clearance at each support beam. All this work was “required” to support the additional water weight (several feet higher than normal operating level)). I knew this “blocking” was never done at any OG&E plant but I didn’t want to make the Plant Manager look like an idiot. So I did what he asked. We “blocked” the condenser for a hydro. Then I got with just the Plant Engineer and asked him to get the Mechanical Prints for the condenser. I asked him if it was necessary to block the condenser for hydro. He said they had always done it because of the extra weight of the water. When we looked at the condenser drawings there was a note indicating it was designed to support a full hydro water level. He showed the print to the Plant Manager (one on one). Nobody was made to look foolish and for the next condenser hydro we didn’t “block” it – and the Mechanics were really happy!

    1. Plant Electrician May 24, 2014

      We used to have a saying that I picked up from Bob Kennedy. “We’ve been doing it this way for 35 years. “

  4. Dave Tarver May 24, 2014

    Well over the years there were a lot of engineers that way.  Not all.  We have had outstanding ones as well and the stinkers too.  Just hate the politics of people so evil and cruel.  Man is beyond ugly so often.

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Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting

Originally posted August 16, 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vacuum Truck

Vacuum Truck

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….

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

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

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

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

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

 

Comments from the original post

    1. Dan Antion August 16, 2014

      Too close.

       

    1. Ron Kilman August 16, 2014

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

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

       

    1. Garfield Hug August 16, 2014

      Thankfully glad you made it to safety *blessings*

    1. Donna Westhoff Collins August 16, 2014

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

    1. Anna Waldherr August 17, 2014

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

    1. T. Foster August 19, 2014

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

    1. createthinklive September 14, 2014

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

Tales of Power Plant Prowess by Ray Eberle

The first time I saw Ray Eberle was during my first summer as a summer help in 1979.  He was standing in the midst of a group of mechanics who sat around him as school children sit around the librarian as a story is being read.  Ray was telling a story to a group of mesmerized Power Plant Men.

Many years later I heard that Ray was invited to tell stories to hunters who were hunting elk in Montana around the campfires at night as an occupation.  I think he passed on that opportunity.  Who would think of leaving the comfort of a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to go sit around telling stories by campfires in Montana?

For many years I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Ray.  He had joined the Safety Task Force that we had created at the plant.  He had also become a member of the Confined Space Rescue Team, and was a HAZWOPER Emergency Rescue responder.  I was on all of these teams with Ray, but I really had never worked side-by-side with him.

I know that at times, I had disappointed Ray by not living up to his expectations of what a True Power Plant Man should be.  When we were on the Safety Task Force, after the reorganization, we had shifted gears to be more of an “Idea” task force instead of one that actually fixed safety issues.  I was pushing hard to have the company move to a “Behavior-Based Safety” approach.  It was a misunderstood process and if not implemented correctly would have the exact opposite effect (see the post “ABCs of Power Plant Safety“)

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process

I know this bothered Ray.  He let me know one day when I received an intra-company envelope with a memo in it.  It said that he was resigning from the team:

Ray's Memo

Ray’s Memo

I hang on to the oddest things.  Some things that lift me up and some things that break my heart.  I figure that there is a lesson for me in this memo.  That is why I have held onto it for the past 20 years.  I suppose this enforces my philosophy of trying to make a “Bad First Impression” (See the post:  “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“).

Ray Eberle told me once that he had always thought that I was a lazy stuck up electrician that didn’t like to get dirty and just sat around in the electric shop all the time. (read the post:  “Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“)  He said that he saw me as a “higher than thou” type of person that looked down on others.  Then one day I said something that totally changed his perception of me.  I said, “Don’t get twisted.”

It’s funny to learn sometimes what people actually think of you.  Then it’s even funnier to think what makes them change their mind.  You see… when Ray Eberle was sharing his thoughts about me, we had become very good friends.  He said that he felt that he finally understood me when I uttered those three words “Don’t get twisted.”

I remember the moment I had said that.  As members of the Confined Space Rescue Team, we were responsible for inspecting the SCBAs (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) each month.  We were standing in the control room and had a couple of the SCBAs sitting out while the instructor was showing us the proper way to inspect them.

Man wearing an SCBA

Man wearing an SCBA

Ray had asked a few “what-if” questions (like “What if the pressure is right at the minimum amount?”  or “What if we send a tank off to be refilled and we have an emergency?”) and his questions weren’t being answered.  He was getting a little hot under the collar, so I said, “Don’t get twisted.”

I remember Ray’s reaction.  He turned to me and said, “What did you say?”  I looked him straight in the eye with a grin on my face and repeated “Don’t get twisted.”

At that moment I didn’t know if Ray was going to haul off and belt me one, so I was mentally preparing my various responses…. like…. get ready to duck… just try to stand there as if nothing had happened… run and call a therapist because my ego had been shattered (no… wait… that wasn’t then)….  Anyway… instead Ray just smiled at me and said calmly, “I thought that was what you had said.”  I could see that he was in deep thought.

It was a couple of years later that I found out that at that moment Ray Eberle’s perception of who I was had done a 180.  Isn’t it funny what causes someone to change their mind sometimes?  Maybe he saw a spot of dirt on my tee shirt.

One day during the spring of 1998 my foreman, Alan Kramer told me that Jim Arnold wanted me to be assigned to create “Task Lists” in SAP.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

Task lists are instructions on how to perform jobs associated with trouble tickets.  Jim Arnold (probably to keep me out of trouble) had assigned me to write task lists and Ray Eberle to write Bill of Materials (or BOMs).  Thus began our three year journey together working side-by-side entering data into the computer.

Writing task lists didn’t mean that I just sat in front of the computer all day.  In order to create them, I had to find out what tools a person would use to fix something, and what procedure they would perform in order to do their job.  This meant that a lot of times, I would go up to a crew that was working on something and I would ask them to tell me all the tools they used and how they did their job while standing at the job site.

I will write another post later about how I actually did the task of writing task lists, so I won’t go into any more detail.  After a short while, Ray and I figured out that we needed to be in the front office close to the Master Prints and the room where the “X-Files” (or X-drawings) were kept.

X-Files didn’t have to do with “Aliens”.  X-Files were files in cabinets that had all the vendor information about every piece of equipment at the plant (just about).  They were called X Files because their filing numbers all began with an X.  Like X-160183.

About 50% of my time for the next three years was spent creating task lists.  The rest of the time, I was still doing my regular electrician job, and going to school.  After the first year, I moved into the Master Print Room and Ray and I set up shop working on the computers next to each other.

Ray was a collector of Habanero Sauce bottles.

Habenero Sauce comes in colorful bottles

Habanero Sauce comes in colorful bottles

He would travel the country looking for unique Habanero Sauce bottles.  Each day, Ray would bring a bottle of habanero sauce to work and pour some on his lunch.

I ate the same boring lunch every day.  It consisted of a ham sandwich with a slice of American cheese.  Then I had some kind of fruit, like an apple or an orange.  Since I was no longer eating lunch in the electric shop where Charles would give me peppers with my sandwich, when Ray asked me if I would like some hot sauce for my sandwich I was quick to give it a try.

There is something very addictive about habanero sauce.  After a few days of having this sauce on my sandwich, I went to the grocery store and bought some of my own bottles of habanero sauce and salsa.

Ok.  One side story…

I was sitting at home reading a school book at the dining room table, my 9 year old daughter Elizabeth walked up to the table and took a tortilla chip from my paper plate, dipped it in the (habanero) salsa in the bowl next to it, and began to put it in her mouth.  Without looking up from my book, I said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Thinking that I meant that she shouldn’t be stealing my chips, she went ahead and put it in her mouth.  Grinning because she had stolen my chip, she began to walk away.  Then she started to squeal a little.  Moments later she was hopping all over the kitchen trying to find some way to put out the fire.

I told her the best remedy is to eat more chips.  Don’t drink water.  It makes it worse.  Eat chips without salsa.

End of side story…

I mentioned above that Ray Eberle is a very good storyteller.  He told me a series of stories that I call the “Walt Oswalt Stories”.  These were real life stories about a Power Plant Man at our plant.  They were so funny that I would go home and share them with my wife and she would fold over laughing at them.  She said that Ray needs to write a book about Walt Oswalt.

Walt Oswalt

Walt Oswalt

I have shared some of these stories with various people in my later career and the reaction is always the same.  These stories belong in a book.  Later this year, I will share some of the Walt Oswalt stories in a post or two then you will see what I’m talking about.

One time in 2007 when I worked for Dell, I was meeting with the CEO of the world’s leading timekeeping company called Kronos.  His name is Aron Ain.

Aron Ain, Kronos CEO

Aron Ain, Kronos CEO

My director, Chris Enslin was with us in Massachusetts.

Chris Enslin

Chris Enslin

Aron  had taken us out to eat dinner, and Chris asked me to tell Aron some Walt Oswalt stories, so I shared a couple.

Then a couple of years later in 2009, Chris told me that he was at a meeting with CEOs from companies all over the United States, and there was Aron standing in the middle of a group of CEOs telling them a Walt Oswalt story.

Here is a picture of Ray Eberle sitting next to me at our computers in the master print room at the power plant:

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

Each day at lunch, after we had eaten our sandwiches, Ray would reach into his lunch box and pull out a worn black book and begin reading it.  He would spend about 10 to 15 minutes reading.  Sometimes he would stop and tell me something interesting about something he had just read.  When he was done, the book went back into his lunch box and we continued working.

I remember some of the interesting conversations we used to have about that worn black book in his lunch box.  One time we talked about a story in the book about how a hand just appeared out of nowhere and began writing on a wall when this guy named Belshazzar was having a party.  Then this guy named Daniel came and told him what it meant, and that night Belshazzar was killed.  Ray said,  “…. God sent the hand that wrote the inscription.”  What do you think about that?  My response was…. “Yeah.  God sure has class.  He could have just struck the guy down right there and then.  Instead he has a hand appear and write something on the wall.  That way we can now have the saying: The writing on the wall’.”

I always thought if you were going to pick a good friend to have, if you pick one that reads their Bible every day during lunch, they are bound to be trustworthy.  I could tell that I could trust Ray with anything.  So, I spent the three years with Ray telling him everything I knew about myself while Ray shared a good deal of his life story with me.  Of course… being nine and a half years older than I was, he had lived a lot more life than I had.

When I left the Power Plant in 2001 to work for Dell, one of the things I missed the most was sitting next to Ray talking about our lives, eating our lunch with Habanero Sauce, and listening to Ray’s stories about Prominent Power Plant Men!  I have considered Ray a very dear friend for many years and I am honored to have him take me into his confidence.  I only hope that I could be as much of a friend to Ray as he has been to me.

Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible

Originally posted May 23, 2014:

There were three times when I was an electrician at a coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when, according to others, I had done something that they labelled “impossible”.  One of those times began when a Plant Engineer Toby O’Brien came to me and asked me if I could find a way to connect to the Prime Computer down at Corporate Headquarters so that he could edit some Engineering drawings he had worked on when he was working at Oklahoma City.  That in itself wasn’t what was impossible.  That came later, but it pertained to a similar subject.

Somewhere in Corporate Headquarters stashed away in a room somewhere was a Prime Computer just waiting for Toby.

Prime Computer

Prime Computer

Toby knew that I had an account on the Honeywell Mainframe computer downtown, since I was always getting myself in trouble playing around on it.  Since I could connect to that, he wondered if it would be possible to connect to the Prime Computer where his Medusa CAD drawings were kept.  He gave me some information about how he used to log into it when he was working downtown…. before  he was banished to the Power Plant Palace 70 miles north out in the middle of the country.

Toby had a CAD tablet and a disk to install the driver on a computer.  This would allow him to work on his CAD drawings.  For those of you who don’t remember, or have never seen such a thing.  It is like a very fancy mouse…. or should I say, Mouse Pad.  Since you used a stylus to draw and point and click on a large pad called a tablet.  Not anything like the little tablets we have today.

CAD Drawing Tablet

CAD Drawing Tablet

At the time, the only connection we had to the Honeywell Mainframe from the power plant was through a router called a Memotec.  The bandwidth was a whopping 28,000 baud.  A Baud is like bytes per second, only it is measured over an audio line as an audio signal.  Like the sound that a Fax machine makes when it first connects.  Toby had talked to some guys down at IT and they had a copy of the same Honeywell emulator called “GLink” we were using at the plant, only it would connect at a super whopping 56,000 baud.  Twice as fast!  They wanted someone to “Beta Test” it.  They knew I liked doing that sort of stuff, so they were willing to give us a copy to try out.

 

This is GLink today.  Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

Toby and I decided that the best place to try out our “Beta Testing” was in the Chemistry Lab.  The main reason was that it had one of the newer 386 desktop computers and it was in a room right next to the data closet where the Memotec was talking to the mainframe downtown.  So, if I had to run in there real quick and spit in the back and “whomp it a good ‘un”, I wouldn’t have too go far.  That was a trick I learned from watching “No Time for Sergeants” with Andy Griffith.  Here is the lesson:

If you have trouble viewing the video from the picture above, this this link:  “No Time For Sergeants Radio Operator“.

To make the rest of this part of the story a little shorter, I’ll just summarize it to say that by logging into the Honeywell Mainframe using my account, I was then able to connect to the Prime Computer using Toby’s account and he was able to edit his CAD drawings from the Chemistry Lab at the Power Plant 70 miles away from Corporate Headquarters.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, but in those days, this was “new technology” for us Power Plant guys anyway.

Before I continue with the “impossible” task, I need to explain a little about how electricians kept the Electrical Blueprints up-to-date at a Power Plant.  This was a task that I was given when Tom Gibson was the Electrical Supervisor.  I was supposed to take all the blueprints that had been revised because of some change that had happened at the plant, and make sure they were properly updated.  Then I had to go through a process to make sure they were permanently updated, not only on the three copies that we had at our plant, but also with the “System of Record” set of blueprints at Corporate Headquarters.

So, let me tell you the process, and I’m sure you will be able to relate this task to something you encounter in your job today.  Even if it is preparing the Salads at a Sirloin Stockade before opening time.

The first step happens when someone in the electric shop has to rewire some piece of equipment or something because the equipment was moved, removed, upgraded to something else, or someone thought it would work better if we did it a different way.  Then whoever made the change to the electric wiring would go to the prints that were kept in the electric shop and update them so that the new wiring job was reflected in the Blueprints.

This is important because if someone a week later had to go work on this equipment, they would need to be able to see how the equipment is now wired.  If they were working off of an old print, then they might blow something up, or injure or even kill someone…. most likely themselves, if it ever came down to it.

The other two copies of prints also needed to be updated.  One was in the Instrument and Controls shop, and the most important copy was in the “Print Room” right next to Tom Gibson’s office.

The second step was to send off a request to Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City for a copy of all the blueprints that were changed so that the change could be made on the copy and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The third step is when a fresh copy of the blueprints arrived at the plant from Oklahoma City a few weeks later.  These were updated with the changes and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The fourth step is when the blueprints are reviewed by an engineer downtown and the changes are made permanently by a drafter downtown.

Step five:  Then three copies of the permanently changed prints were sent back to plant where they replaced the three marked up copies.

This process generally took two to three months given that the drafter downtown had to take the Original drawing, scan it in the computer, make changes to it, and then save it, and send it to the printer to be printed.

Toby and I had “petitioned” our plant management to buy us a copy of AutoCAD so that we could make our own revisions right at the plant, and send the changes directly to Oklahoma City, all complete and ready to go.  The only problem with this was that AutoCAD software did not come cheap.  It was several thousand dollars for just one copy.

Even though this was before the World Wide Web, I knew where I could get a pirated copy of AutoCAD, but since neither Toby or I considered ourselves criminals, we never really considered that a viable alternative.  Tom Gibson was pitching for us to have a copy, but it was figured that if we had a copy, the company would have to buy a copy for all six main power plants, and they weren’t willing to dish out that much money.

Somewhere along the line, after Tom Gibson had kept pushing for the importance of having up-to-date Plant Electric Blueprints in a timely fashion, a task force was formed to address a faster way to make print revisions.  Because Toby and I (and Terry Blevins) had been pushing this at our plant, Tom asked Toby and I (actually, that should be “Toby and me”, but “Toby and I” makes me sound smarter than I am) to be on the Task Force with him.

So, one morning after arriving at the plant, we climbed into a company car and made the drive to Oklahoma City to the Corporate Headquarters.  When we arrived, we sat in a big conference room with members from the different power plants, and a number of engineers from downtown.  I was pretty excited that something was finally going to be done.

I don’t remember the name of the engineer that was the leader of the task force, I only remember that I had worked with him once or twice through the years on some small projects.  When the meeting began, I expected that we would have some kind of brainstorming activity.  I was all ready for it, since I had all sorts of ideas about how we could just edit the prints directly from the plant on the Prime Computer where the prints were stored, just like Toby had done.

When the meeting began there was no brainstorming session.  There wasn’t even a “What do you guys think about how this can be done?”  No.  The engineer instead went on to explain his solution to the problem.  I was a little disappointed.  Mainly because I was all fired up about being asked to be on a task force in Oklahoma City to work on…. well…. anything…. to tell you the truth.  And here we were listening to a conclusion.  — Sound familiar?  I knew it would.

This engineer had it all figured out.  Here was his solution:

Step 1:  A request was sent by company mail to downtown (same at the old second step) for some blueprints that need to be updated.

Step 2:  The prints are downloaded onto a floppy disk (3.5 inch High Density – which meant, 1.44 Megabyte disks).

Step 3:  The disks were mailed through company mail back to the Power Plant.

Step 4:  The Power Plant receives the disks and loads them onto their computer at the plant and they edit the blueprint using a pared down CAD program called “RedLine”.

Step 5:  The print revision is saved to the disk and the disk is mailed back to Corporate Headquarters using the Company Mail.

Step 6:  The print is reviewed by the engineers for accuracy and is loaded into the computer as the system of record.

Ok…. this sounded just like the previous method only we were using a “RedLine” program to edit the changes instead of using Red, Green and Gray pencils.

It was evident that the engineer in charge of the meeting was expecting us to all accept this solution and that the task force no longer had to meet anymore, and we could all go home and not ever return to consider this problem again.  — Well, this was when I said the “Impossible”.

I raised my hand as if I was in a classroom.  The guy knowing me to be a regular troublemaker asked me what I wanted.  I said, “Why mail the files?  Why not just put them in a folder and have the person at the plant go there and pick them up?”  — In today’s world the idea of a drop-box is about as easy to understand as “Google it”.  Back then… I guess not.  Especially for some engineers who had already decided on a solution.

So, the engineer responded, “Because that can’t be done.”  I said, “Why not?”  He said, “It’s impossible.  Someone in a power plant can’t just go into a computer at Corporate Headquarters and access a file.”

Well, that did it….. I told him that we were able to edit CAD drawings on the Prime computer from the power plant.  He said, “No you didn’t.  That’s impossible!”  I looked over at Toby who was sitting next to me with a big grin on his face.  So I said,  “Who is the IT guy in the room?  He can tell you that you can  get a file from the mainframe from the power plant.”

The engineer replied that he didn’t invite any IT people, because there wasn’t any reason.  Everyone knows that you can’t copy files on a Corporate computer from a power plant.  So, I said, “Invite someone from the IT department to the next meeting.  I’m sure he will agree with me that this can be done.  — Shortly after that, the  meeting was adjourned (but at least I had managed to convince the team we needed a second meeting).

You should have heard me rant and rave all the way back to the power plant that afternoon.  How could he possibly be so naive to make definite statements about something and basically call me a liar when I said that we had already done it.  I’m sure Tom Gibson was glad when we arrived back at the plant and he was able to get out of the company car and into the silence of his own car for his drive back to Stillwater.  Toby on the other hand carpooled with me, so he had to hear me rant and rave to Scott Hubbard all the way back to Stillwater that day.

Needless to say, we had another Print Revision Task Force meeting a few weeks later.  Tom, Toby and I drove back to Oklahoma City.  I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen.

The meeting began with the engineer in charge of the task force saying, “The first thing we are going to address is Kevin Breazile’s statement about sending files to the power plant.  We have invited someone from IT to answer this question.”  Then he turned to a guy sitting at the table.  I don’t remember his name either, only that I had worked with him also through the years (oh yes I do.  It was Mike Russell).

The engineer turned to the IT guy and said (using a tone that indicated that I belonged in a mental institution or maybe kindergarten), “Kevin seems to think that he can somehow get on his computer at the power plant and access a folder on a server here at Corporate Headquarters and download a file.”  He stopped and with a big smirk on his face looked at the IT guy.  Mike just sat there for a moment looking at him.

The engineer just stood there with an evil grin on his face waiting…  Mike said, “So?  What do you want to know?”  The engineer said, “Well.  Is that even possible?”  Mike replied, “Of course!  It’s actually easier for him to do that than it is for someone on the 3rd floor of this building to access the mainframe on the fourth floor.”

The engineer’s jaw dropped and he eked out a meager little  “what?”  Mike asked if that was all.  When he was assured that this was the only question, he stood up and walked out the door.  As he was leaving he turned a side glance toward me and winked at me.  I was grinning ear-to-ear.  I could tell, I wasn’t the only one that had a beef with this particular engineer.

So, you would have thought that it would have been a quieter ride back to the plant that day, but leave it to me….  I kept on going on about how that guy was so sure of himself that he didn’t even bother to ask the IT guy before the meeting began just to check his own erroneous facts.  Geez!  That was the most surprising part of the day.  If he had only asked him before the meeting, he wouldn’t have made a fool out of himself with his snide comments just before he was put in his place.

So, Toby and I proved that doing the impossible isn’t all that impossible when what someone thinks is impossible really isn’t so.  This stemmed from a lesson my dad taught me growing up when he told me, “Don’t ever say “can’t”.  There is always a way.”

Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion May 24, 2014

    Ah, the good old days when the best computer was the new 386. Things weren’t impossible but you had to think about it and plan quite a bit. Great stories!

  2. Ruth May 24, 2014

    Always enjoy reading and thinking about a world I wouldn’t even know about if it weren’t for your unique blog!

    Ruth in Pittsburgh

  3. Ron May 24, 2014

    Great story! I heard a pastor once say “What you “know” can keep you from learning the truth.” I saw this principle in operation many times in my career.

    I had been at the WFEC Hugo Power Plant for a short time when the Plant Manager directed me (Maint. Supt.) to have the Mechanics “block the condenser” for a “hydro”. (Prior to a condenser hydro, several mechanics would work for about 4 hours dragging heavy timbers into the 3 foot tall space between the bottom of the hotwell and the concrete floor. They would space these timbers evenly across the entire condenser floor and use wedges to remove all clearance at each support beam. All this work was “required” to support the additional water weight (several feet higher than normal operating level)). I knew this “blocking” was never done at any OG&E plant but I didn’t want to make the Plant Manager look like an idiot. So I did what he asked. We “blocked” the condenser for a hydro. Then I got with just the Plant Engineer and asked him to get the Mechanical Prints for the condenser. I asked him if it was necessary to block the condenser for hydro. He said they had always done it because of the extra weight of the water. When we looked at the condenser drawings there was a note indicating it was designed to support a full hydro water level. He showed the print to the Plant Manager (one on one). Nobody was made to look foolish and for the next condenser hydro we didn’t “block” it – and the Mechanics were really happy!

    1. Plant Electrician May 24, 2014

      We used to have a saying that I picked up from Bob Kennedy. “We’ve been doing it this way for 35 years. “

  4. Dave Tarver May 24, 2014

    Well over the years there were a lot of engineers that way.  Not all.  We have had outstanding ones as well and the stinkers too.  Just hate the politics of people so evil and cruel.  Man is beyond ugly so often.

Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting

Originally posted August 16, 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vacuum Truck

Vacuum Truck

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….

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

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

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

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

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

 

Comments from the original post

    1. Dan Antion August 16, 2014

      Too close.

       

    1. Ron Kilman August 16, 2014

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

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

       

    1. Garfield Hug August 16, 2014

      Thankfully glad you made it to safety *blessings*

    1. Donna Westhoff Collins August 16, 2014

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

    1. Anna Waldherr August 17, 2014

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

    1. T. Foster August 19, 2014

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

    1. createthinklive September 14, 2014

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

Tales of Power Plant Prowess by Ray Eberle

The first time I saw Ray Eberle was during my first summer as a summer help in 1979.  He was standing in the midst of a group of mechanics who sat around him as school children sit around the librarian as a story is being read.  Ray was telling a story to a group of mesmerized Power Plant Men.

Many years later I heard that Ray was invited to tell stories to hunters who were hunting elk in Montana around the campfires at night as an occupation.  I think he passed on that opportunity.  Who would think of leaving the comfort of a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to go sit around telling stories by campfires in Montana?

For many years I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Ray.  He had joined the Safety Task Force that we had created at the plant.  He had also become a member of the Confined Space Rescue Team, and was a HAZWOPER Emergency Rescue responder.  I was on all of these teams with Ray, but I really had never worked side-by-side with him.

I know that at times, I had disappointed Ray by not living up to his expectations of what a True Power Plant Man should be.  When we were on the Safety Task Force, after the reorganization, we had shifted gears to be more of an “Idea” task force instead of one that actually fixed safety issues.  I was pushing hard to have the company move to a “Behavior-Based Safety” approach.  It was a misunderstood process and if not implemented correctly would have the exact opposite effect (see the post “ABCs of Power Plant Safety“)

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process

I know this bothered Ray.  He let me know one day when I received an intra-company envelope with a memo in it.  It said that he was resigning from the team:

Ray's Memo

Ray’s Memo

I hang on to the oddest things.  Some things that lift me up and some things that break my heart.  I figure that there is a lesson for me in this memo.  That is why I have held onto it for the past 20 years.  I suppose this enforces my philosophy of trying to make a “Bad First Impression” (See the post:  “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“).

Ray Eberle told me once that he had always thought that I was a lazy stuck up electrician that didn’t like to get dirty and just sat around in the electric shop all the time. (read the post:  “Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“)  He said that he saw me as a “higher than thou” type of person that looked down on others.  Then one day I said something that totally changed his perception of me.  I said, “Don’t get twisted.”

It’s funny to learn sometimes what people actually think of you.  Then it’s even funnier to think what makes them change their mind.  You see… when Ray Eberle was sharing his thoughts about me, we had become very good friends.  He said that he felt that he finally understood me when I uttered those three words “Don’t get twisted.”

I remember the moment I had said that.  As members of the Confined Space Rescue Team, we were responsible for inspecting the SCBAs (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) each month.  We were standing in the control room and had a couple of the SCBAs sitting out while the instructor was showing us the proper way to inspect them.

Man wearing an SCBA

Man wearing an SCBA

Ray had asked a few “what-if” questions (like “What if the pressure is right at the minimum amount?”  or “What if we send a tank off to be refilled and we have an emergency?”) and his questions weren’t being answered.  He was getting a little hot under the collar, so I said, “Don’t get twisted.”

I remember Ray’s reaction.  He turned to me and said, “What did you say?”  I looked him straight in the eye with a grin on my face and repeated “Don’t get twisted.”

At that moment I didn’t know if Ray was going to haul off and belt me one, so I was mentally preparing my various responses…. like…. get ready to duck… just try to stand there as if nothing had happened… run and call a therapist because my ego had been shattered (no… wait… that wasn’t then)….  Anyway… instead Ray just smiled at me and said calmly, “I thought that was what you had said.”  I could see that he was in deep thought.

It was a couple of years later that I found out that at that moment Ray Eberle’s perception of who I was had done a 180.  Isn’t it funny what causes someone to change their mind sometimes?  Maybe he saw a spot of dirt on my tee shirt.

One day during the spring of 1998 my foreman, Alan Kramer told me that Jim Arnold wanted me to be assigned to create “Task Lists” in SAP.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

Task lists are instructions on how to perform jobs associated with trouble tickets.  Jim Arnold (probably to keep me out of trouble) had assigned me to write task lists and Ray Eberle to write Bill of Materials (or BOMs).  Thus began our three year journey together working side-by-side entering data into the computer.

Writing task lists didn’t mean that I just sat in front of the computer all day.  In order to create them, I had to find out what tools a person would use to fix something, and what procedure they would perform in order to do their job.  This meant that a lot of times, I would go up to a crew that was working on something and I would ask them to tell me all the tools they used and how they did their job while standing at the job site.

I will write another post later about how I actually did the task of writing task lists, so I won’t go into any more detail.  After a short while, Ray and I figured out that we needed to be in the front office close to the Master Prints and the room where the “X-Files” (or X-drawings) were kept.

X-Files didn’t have to do with “Aliens”.  X-Files were files in cabinets that had all the vendor information about every piece of equipment at the plant (just about).  They were called X Files because their filing numbers all began with an X.  Like X-160183.

About 50% of my time for the next three years was spent creating task lists.  The rest of the time, I was still doing my regular electrician job, and going to school.  After the first year, I moved into the Master Print Room and Ray and I set up shop working on the computers next to each other.

Ray was a collector of Habanero Sauce bottles.

Habenero Sauce comes in colorful bottles

Habanero Sauce comes in colorful bottles

He would travel the country looking for unique Habanero Sauce bottles.  Each day, Ray would bring a bottle of habanero sauce to work and pour some on his lunch.

I ate the same boring lunch every day.  It consisted of a ham sandwich with a slice of American cheese.  Then I had some kind of fruit, like an apple or an orange.  Since I was no longer eating lunch in the electric shop where Charles would give me peppers with my sandwich, when Ray asked me if I would like some hot sauce for my sandwich I was quick to give it a try.

There is something very addictive about habanero sauce.  After a few days of having this sauce on my sandwich, I went to the grocery store and bought some of my own bottles of habanero sauce and salsa.

Ok.  One side story…

I was sitting at home reading a school book at the dining room table, my 9 year old daughter Elizabeth walked up to the table and took a tortilla chip from my paper plate, dipped it in the (habanero) salsa in the bowl next to it, and began to put it in her mouth.  Without looking up from my book, I said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Thinking that I meant that she shouldn’t be stealing my chips, she went ahead and put it in her mouth.  Grinning because she had stolen my chip, she began to walk away.  Then she started to squeal a little.  Moments later she was hopping all over the kitchen trying to find some way to put out the fire.

I told her the best remedy is to eat more chips.  Don’t drink water.  It makes it worse.  Eat chips without salsa.

End of side story…

I mentioned above that Ray Eberle is a very good storyteller.  He told me a series of stories that I call the “Walt Oswalt Stories”.  These were real life stories about a Power Plant Man at our plant.  They were so funny that I would go home and share them with my wife and she would fold over laughing at them.  She said that Ray needs to write a book about Walt Oswalt.

Walt Oswalt

Walt Oswalt

I have shared some of these stories with various people in my later career and the reaction is always the same.  These stories belong in a book.  Later this year, I will share some of the Walt Oswalt stories in a post or two then you will see what I’m talking about.

One time in 2007 when I worked for Dell, I was meeting with the CEO of the world’s leading timekeeping company called Kronos.  His name is Aron Ain.

Aron Ain, Kronos CEO

Aron Ain, Kronos CEO

My director, Chris Enslin was with us in Massachusetts.

Chris Enslin

Chris Enslin

Aron  had taken us out to eat dinner, and Chris asked me to tell Aron some Walt Oswalt stories, so I shared a couple.

Then a couple of years later in 2009, Chris told me that he was at a meeting with CEOs from companies all over the United States, and there was Aron standing in the middle of a group of CEOs telling them a Walt Oswalt story.

Here is a picture of Ray Eberle sitting next to me at our computers in the master print room at the power plant:

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

Each day at lunch, after we had eaten our sandwiches, Ray would reach into his lunch box and pull out a worn black book and begin reading it.  He would spend about 10 to 15 minutes reading.  Sometimes he would stop and tell me something interesting about something he had just read.  When he was done, the book went back into his lunch box and we continued working.

I remember some of the interesting conversations we used to have about that worn black book in his lunch box.  One time we talked about a story in the book about how a hand just appeared out of nowhere and began writing on a wall when this guy named Belshazzar was having a party.  Then this guy named Daniel came and told him what it meant, and that night Belshazzar was killed.  Ray said,  “…. God sent the hand that wrote the inscription.”  What do you think about that?  My response was…. “Yeah.  God sure has class.  He could have just struck the guy down right there and then.  Instead he has a hand appear and write something on the wall.  That way we can now have the saying: The writing on the wall’.”

I always thought if you were going to pick a good friend to have, if you pick one that reads their Bible every day during lunch, they are bound to be trustworthy.  I could tell that I could trust Ray with anything.  So, I spent the three years with Ray telling him everything I knew about myself while Ray shared a good deal of his life story with me.  Of course… being nine and a half years older than I was, he had lived a lot more life than I had.

When I left the Power Plant in 2001 to work for Dell, one of the things I missed the most was sitting next to Ray talking about our lives, eating our lunch with Habanero Sauce, and listening to Ray’s stories about Prominent Power Plant Men!  I have considered Ray a very dear friend for many years and I am honored to have him take me into his confidence.  I only hope that I could be as much of a friend to Ray as he has been to me.

Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting

Originally posted August 16, 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vacuum Truck

Vacuum Truck

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….

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

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

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

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

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

 

Comments from the original post

    1. Dan Antion August 16, 2014

      Too close.

       

    1. Ron Kilman August 16, 2014

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

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

       

    1. Garfield Hug August 16, 2014

      Thankfully glad you made it to safety *blessings*

    1. Donna Westhoff Collins August 16, 2014

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

    1. Anna Waldherr August 17, 2014

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

    1. T. Foster August 19, 2014

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

    1. createthinklive September 14, 2014

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

Tales of Power Plant Prowess by Ray Eberle

The first time I saw Ray Eberle was during my first summer as a summer help in 1979.  He was standing in the midst of a group of mechanics who sat around him as school children sit around the librarian as a story is being read.  Ray was telling a story to a group of mesmerized Power Plant Men.

Many years later I heard that Ray was invited to tell stories to hunters who were hunting elk in Montana around the campfires at night as an occupation.  I think he passed on that opportunity.  Who would think of leaving the comfort of a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to go sit around telling stories by campfires in Montana?

For many years I didn’t have the opportunity to work with Ray.  He had joined the Safety Task Force that we had created at the plant.  He had also become a member of the Confined Space Rescue Team, and was a HAZWOPER Emergency Rescue responder.  I was on all of these teams with Ray, but I really had never worked side-by-side with him.

I know that at times, I had disappointed Ray by not living up to his expectations of what a True Power Plant Man should be.  When we were on the Safety Task Force, after the reorganization, we had shifted gears to be more of an “Idea” task force instead of one that actually fixed safety issues.  I was pushing hard to have the company move to a “Behavior-Based Safety” approach.  It was a misunderstood process and if not implemented correctly would have the exact opposite effect (see the post “ABCs of Power Plant Safety“)

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process

Book about the Behavior-Based Safety Process

I know this bothered Ray.  He let me know one day when I received an intra-company envelope with a memo in it.  It said that he was resigning from the team:

Ray's Memo

Ray’s Memo

I hang on to the oddest things.  Some things that lift me up and some things that break my heart.  I figure that there is a lesson for me in this memo.  That is why I have held onto it for the past 20 years.  I suppose this enforces my philosophy of trying to make a “Bad First Impression” (See the post:  “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“).

Ray Eberle told me once that he had always thought that I was a lazy stuck up electrician that didn’t like to get dirty and just sat around in the electric shop all the time. (read the post:  “Power Plant Man Becomes an Unlikely Saint“)  He said that he saw me as a “higher than thou” type of person that looked down on others.  Then one day I said something that totally changed his perception of me.  I said, “Don’t get twisted.”

It’s funny to learn sometimes what people actually think of you.  Then it’s even funnier to think what makes them change their mind.  You see… when Ray Eberle was sharing his thoughts about me, we had become very good friends.  He said that he felt that he finally understood me when I uttered those three words “Don’t get twisted.”

I remember the moment I had said that.  As members of the Confined Space Rescue Team, we were responsible for inspecting the SCBAs (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) each month.  We were standing in the control room and had a couple of the SCBAs sitting out while the instructor was showing us the proper way to inspect them.

Man wearing an SCBA

Man wearing an SCBA

Ray had asked a few “what-if” questions (like “What if the pressure is right at the minimum amount?”  or “What if we send a tank off to be refilled and we have an emergency?”) and his questions weren’t being answered.  He was getting a little hot under the collar, so I said, “Don’t get twisted.”

I remember Ray’s reaction.  He turned to me and said, “What did you say?”  I looked him straight in the eye with a grin on my face and repeated “Don’t get twisted.”

At that moment I didn’t know if Ray was going to haul off and belt me one, so I was mentally preparing my various responses…. like…. get ready to duck… just try to stand there as if nothing had happened… run and call a therapist because my ego had been shattered (no… wait… that wasn’t then)….  Anyway… instead Ray just smiled at me and said calmly, “I thought that was what you had said.”  I could see that he was in deep thought.

It was a couple of years later that I found out that at that moment Ray Eberle’s perception of who I was had done a 180.  Isn’t it funny what causes someone to change their mind sometimes?  Maybe he saw a spot of dirt on my tee shirt.

One day during the spring of 1998 my foreman, Alan Kramer told me that I had been assigned to create “Task Lists” in SAP.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

Task lists are instructions on how to perform jobs associated with trouble tickets.  Jim Arnold (probably to keep me out of trouble) had assigned me to write task lists and Ray Eberle to write Bill of Materials (or BOMs).  Thus began our three year journey together working side-by-side entering data into the computer.

Writing task lists didn’t mean that I just sat in front of the computer all day.  In order to create them, I had to find out what tools a person would use to fix something, and what procedure they would perform in order to do their job.  This meant that a lot of times, I would go up to a crew that was working on something and I would ask them to tell me all the tools they used and how they did their job while standing at the job site.

I will write another post later about how I actually did the task of writing task lists, so I won’t go into any more detail.  After a short while, Ray and I figured out that we needed to be in the front office close to the Master Prints and the room where the “X-Files” (or X-drawings) were kept.

X-Files didn’t have to do with “Aliens”.  X-Files were files in cabinets that had all the vendor information about every piece of equipment at the plant (just about).  They were called X Files because their filing numbers all began with an X.  Like X-160183.

About 50% of my time for the next three years was spent creating task lists.  The rest of the time, I was still doing my regular electrician job, and going to school.  After the first year, I moved into the Master Print Room and Ray and I set up shop working on the computers next to each other.

Ray was a collector of Habanero Sauce bottles.

Habenero Sauce comes in colorful bottles

Habanero Sauce comes in colorful bottles

He would travel the country looking for unique Habanero Sauce bottles.  Each day, Ray would bring a bottle of habanero sauce to work and pour some on his lunch.

I ate the same boring lunch every day.  It consisted of a ham sandwich with a slice of American cheese.  Then I had some kind of fruit, like an apple or an orange.  Since I was no longer eating lunch in the electric shop where Charles would give me peppers with my sandwich, when Ray asked me if I would like some hot sauce for my sandwich I was quick to give it a try.

There is something very addictive about habanero sauce.  After a few days of having this sauce on my sandwich, I went to the grocery store and bought some of my own bottles of habanero sauce and salsa.

Ok.  One side story…

I was sitting at home reading a school book at the dining room table, my 9 year old daughter Elizabeth walked up to the table and took a tortilla chip from my paper plate, dipped it in the (habanero) salsa in the bowl next to it, and began to put it in her mouth.  Without looking up from my book, I said, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Thinking that I meant that she shouldn’t be stealing my chips, she went ahead and put it in her mouth.  Grinning because she had stolen my chip, she began to walk away.  Then she started to squeal a little.  Moments later she was hopping all over the kitchen trying to find some way to put out the fire.

I told her the best remedy is to eat more chips.  Don’t drink water.  It makes it worse.  Eat chips without salsa.

End of side story…

I mentioned above that Ray Eberle is a very good storyteller.  He told me a series of stories that I call the “Walt Oswalt Stories”.  These were real life stories about a Power Plant Man at our plant.  They were so funny that I would go home and share them with my wife and she would fold over laughing at them.  She said that Ray needs to write a book about Walt Oswalt.

Walt Oswalt

Walt Oswalt

I have shared some of these stories with various people in my later career and the reaction is always the same.  These stories belong in a book.  Later this year, I will share some of the Walt Oswalt stories in a post or two then you will see what I’m talking about.

One time in 2007 when I worked for Dell, I was meeting with the CEO of the world’s leading timekeeping company called Kronos.  His name is Aron Ain.

Aron Ain, Kronos CEO

Aron Ain, Kronos CEO

My director, Chris Enslin was with us in Massachusetts.

Chris Enslin

Chris Enslin

Aron  had taken us out to eat dinner, and Chris asked me to tell Aron some Walt Oswalt stories, so I shared a couple.

Then a couple of years later in 2009, Chris told me that he was at a meeting with CEOs from companies all over the United States, and there was Aron standing in the middle of a group of CEOs telling them a Walt Oswalt story.

Here is a picture of Ray Eberle sitting next to me at our computers in the master print room at the power plant:

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

Each day at lunch, after we had eaten our sandwiches, Ray would reach into his lunch box and pull out a worn black book and begin reading it.  He would spend about 10 to 15 minutes reading.  Sometimes he would stop and tell me something interesting about something he had just read.  When he was done, the book went back into his lunch box and we continued working.

I remember some of the interesting conversations we used to have about that worn black book in his lunch box.  One time we talked about a story in the book about how a hand just appeared out of nowhere and began writing on a wall when this guy named Belshazzar was having a party.  Then this guy named Daniel came and told him what it meant, and that night Belshazzar was killed.  Ray said,  “…. God sent the hand that wrote the inscription.”  What do you think about that?  My response was…. “Yeah.  God sure has class.  He could have just struck the guy down right there and then.  Instead he has a hand appear and write something on the wall.  That way we can now have the saying: The writing on the wall’.”

I always thought if you were going to pick a good friend to have, if you pick one that reads their Bible every day during lunch, they are bound to be trustworthy.  I could tell that I could trust Ray with anything.  So, I spent the three years with Ray telling him everything I knew about myself while Ray shared a good deal of his life story with me.  Of course… being nine and a half years older than I was, he had lived a lot more life than I had.

When I left the Power Plant in 2001 to work for Dell, one of the things I missed the most was sitting next to Ray talking about our lives, eating our lunch with Habanero Sauce, and listening to Ray’s stories about Prominent Power Plant Men!  I have considered Ray a very dear friend for many years and I am honored to have him take me into his confidence.  I only hope that I could be as much of a friend to Ray as he has been to me.

Toby O’Brien and Doing the Impossible

Originally posted May 23, 2014:

There were three times when I was an electrician at a coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma when, according to others, I had done something that they labelled “impossible”.  One of those times began when a Plant Engineer Toby O’Brien came to me and asked me if I could find a way to connect to the Prime Computer down at Corporate Headquarters so that he could edit some Engineering drawings he had worked on when he was working at Oklahoma City.  That in itself wasn’t what was impossible.  That came later, but it pertained to a similar subject.

Somewhere in Corporate Headquarters stashed away in a room somewhere was a Prime Computer just waiting for Toby.

Prime Computer

Prime Computer

Toby knew that I had an account on the Honeywell Mainframe computer downtown, since I was always getting myself in trouble playing around on it.  Since I could connect to that, he wondered if it would be possible to connect to the Prime Computer where his Medusa CAD drawings were kept.  He gave me some information about how he used to log into it when he was working downtown…. before  he was banished to the Power Plant Palace 70 miles north out in the middle of the country.

Toby had a CAD tablet and a disk to install the driver on a computer.  This would allow him to work on his CAD drawings.  For those of you who don’t remember, or have never seen such a thing.  It is like a very fancy mouse…. or should I say, Mouse Pad.  Since you used a stylus to draw and point and click on a large pad called a tablet.  Not anything like the little tablets we have today.

CAD Drawing Tablet

CAD Drawing Tablet

At the time, the only connection we had to the Honeywell Mainframe from the power plant was through a router called a Memotec.  The bandwidth was a whopping 28,000 baud.  A Baud is like bytes per second, only it is measured over an audio line as an audio signal.  Like the sound that a Fax machine makes when it first connects.  Toby had talked to some guys down at IT and they had a copy of the same Honeywell emulator called “GLink” we were using at the plant, only it would connect at a super whopping 56,000 baud.  Twice as fast!  They wanted someone to “Beta Test” it.  They knew I liked doing that sort of stuff, so they were willing to give us a copy to try out.

 

This is GLink today.  Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

Toby and I decided that the best place to try out our “Beta Testing” was in the Chemistry Lab.  The main reason was that it had one of the newer 386 desktop computers and it was in a room right next to the data closet where the Memotec was talking to the mainframe downtown.  So, if I had to run in there real quick and spit in the back and “whomp it a good ‘un”, I wouldn’t have to go far.  That was a trick I learned from watching “No Time for Sergeants” with Andy Griffith.  He is the lesson:

If you have trouble viewing the video from the picture above, this this link:  “No Time For Sergeants Radio Operator“.

To make the rest of this part of the story a little shorter, I’ll just summarize it to say that by logging into the Honeywell Mainframe using my account, I was then able to connect to the Prime Computer using Toby’s account and he was able to edit his CAD drawings from the Chemistry Lab at the Power Plant 70 miles away from Corporate Headquarters.  I know that doesn’t sound like much, but in those days, this was “new technology” for us Power Plant guys anyway.

Before I continue with the “impossible” task, I need to explain a little about how electricians kept the Electrical Blueprints up-to-date at a Power Plant.  This was a task that I was given when Tom Gibson was the Electrical Supervisor.  I was supposed to take all the blueprints that had been revised because of some change that had happened at the plant, and make sure they were properly updated.  Then I had to go through a process to make sure they were permanently updated, not only on the three copies that we had at our plant, but also with the “System of Record” set of blueprints at Corporate Headquarters.

So, let me tell you the process, and I’m sure you will be able to relate this task to something you encounter in your job today.  Even if it is preparing the Salads at a Sirloin Stockade before opening time.

The first step happens when someone in the electric shop has to rewire some piece of equipment or something because the equipment was moved, removed, upgraded to something else, or someone thought it would work better if we did it a different way.  Then whoever made the change to the electric wiring would go to the prints that were kept in the electric shop and update them so that the new wiring job was reflected in the Blueprints.

This is important because if someone a week later had to go work on this equipment, they would need to be able to see how the equipment is now wired.  If they were working off of an old print, then they might blow something up, or injure or even kill someone…. most likely themselves, if it ever came down to it.

The other two copies of prints also needed to be updated.  One was in the Instrument and Controls shop, and the most important copy was in the “Print Room” right next to Tom Gibson’s office.

The second step was to send off a request to Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City for a copy of all the blueprints that were changed so that the change could be made on the copy and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The third step is when the copy of the blueprints arrived at the plant a few weeks later, they were updated with the changes and sent back to Oklahoma City.

The fourth step is when the blueprints are reviewed by an engineer downtown and the changes are made permanently by a drafter downtown.

Step five:  Then three copies of the permanently changed prints were sent back to plant where they replaced the three marked up copies.

This process generally took two to three months given that the drafter downtown had to take the Original drawing, scan it in the computer, make changes to it, and then save it, and send it to the printer to be printed.

Toby and I had “petitioned” our plant management to buy us a copy of AutoCAD so that we could make our own revisions right at the plant, and send the changes directly to Oklahoma City, all complete and ready to go.  The only problem with this was that AutoCAD software did not come cheap.  It was several thousand dollars for just one copy.

Even though this was before the World Wide Web, I knew where I could get a pirated copy of AutoCAD, but since neither Toby or I considered ourselves criminals, we never really considered that a viable alternative.  Tom Gibson was pitching for us to have a copy, but it was figured that if we had a copy, the company would have to buy a copy for all six main power plants, and they weren’t willing to dish out that much money.

Somewhere along the line, after Tom Gibson had kept pushing for the importance of having up-to-date Plant Electric Blueprints in a timely fashion, a task force was formed to address a faster way to make print revisions.  Because Toby and I (and Terry Blevins) had been pushing this at our plant, Tom asked Toby and I to be on the Task Force with him.

So, one morning after arriving at the plant, we climbed into a company car and made the drive to Oklahoma City to the Corporate Headquarters.  When we arrived, we sat in a big conference room with members from the different power plants, and a number of engineers from downtown.  I was pretty excited that something was finally going to be done.

I forget the name of the engineer that was the leader of the task force, I only remember that I had worked with him once or twice through the years on some small projects.  When the meeting began, I expected that we would have some kind of brainstorming activity.  I was all ready for it, since I had all sorts of ideas about how we could just edit the prints directly from the plant on the Prime Computer where the prints were stored, just like Toby had done.

When the meeting began there was no brainstorming session.  There wasn’t even a “What do you guys think about how this can be done?”  No.  The engineer instead went on to explain his solution to the problem.  I was a little disappointed.  Mainly because I was all fired up about being asked to be on a task force in Oklahoma City to work on…. well…. anything…. to tell you the truth.  And here we were listening to a conclusion.  — Sound familiar?  I knew it would.

This engineer had it all figured out.  Here was his solution:

Step 1:  A request was sent by company mail to downtown (same at the old second step) for some blueprints that need to be updated.

Step 2:  The prints are downloaded onto a floppy disk (3.5 inch High Density – which meant, 1.44 Megabyte disks).

Step 3:  The disks were mailed through company mail back to the Power Plant.

Step 4:  The Power Plant receives the disks and loads them onto their computer at the plant and they edit the blueprint using a pared down CAD program called “RedLine”.

Step 5:  The print revision is saved to the disk and the disk is mailed back to Corporate Headquarters using the Company Mail.

Step 6:  The print is reviewed by the engineers for accuracy and is loaded into the computer as the system of record.

Ok…. this sounded just like the previous method only we were using a “RedLine” program to edit the changes instead of using Red, Green and Gray pencils.

It was evident that the engineer in charge of the meeting was expecting us to all accept this solution and that the task force no longer had to meet anymore, and we could all go home and not ever return to consider this problem again.  — Well, this was when I said the “Impossible”.

I raised my hand as if I was in a classroom.  The guy knowing me to be a regular troublemaker asked me what I wanted.  I said, “Why mail the files?  Why not just put them in a folder and have the person at the plant go there and pick them up?”  — In today’s world the idea of a drop-box is about as easy to understand as “Google it”.  Back then… I guess not.  Especially for some engineers who had already decided on a solution.

So, the engineer responded, “Because that can’t be done.”  I said, “Why not?”  He said, “It’s impossible.  Someone in a power plant can’t just go into a computer at Corporate Headquarters and access a file.”

Well, that did it….. I told him that we were able to edit CAD drawings on the Prime computer from the power plant.  He said, “No you didn’t.  That’s impossible!”  I looked over at Toby who was sitting next to me with a big grin on his face.  So I said,  “Who is the IT guy in the room?  He can tell you that you can  get a file from the mainframe from the power plant.”

The engineer replied that he didn’t invite any IT people, because there wasn’t any reason.  Everyone knows that you can’t copy files on a Corporate computer from a power plant.  So, I said, “Invite someone from the IT department to the next meeting.  I’m sure he will agree with me that this can be done.  — Shortly after that, the  meeting was adjourned.

You should have heard me rant and rave all the way back to the power plant that afternoon.  How could he possibly be so naive to make definite statements about something and basically call me a liar when I said that we had already done it.  I’m sure Tom Gibson was glad when we arrived back at the plant and he was able to get out of the company car and into the silence of his own car for his drive back to Stillwater.  Toby on the other hand carpooled with me, so he had to hear me rant and rave to Scott Hubbard all the way back to Stillwater that day.

Needless to say, we had another Print Revision Task Force meeting a few weeks later.  Tom, Toby and I drove back to Oklahoma City.  I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen.

The meeting began with the engineer in charge of the task force saying, “The first thing we are going to address is Kevin Breazile’s statement about sending files to the power plant.  We have invited someone from IT to answer this question.”  Then he turned to a guy sitting at the table.  I don’t remember his name either, only that I had worked with him also through the years.

The engineer turned to the IT guy and said, “Kevin seems to think that he can somehow get on his computer at the power plant and access a folder on a server here at Corporate Headquarters and download a file.”  He stopped and looked at the IT guy (Ed, I think is his name).  Ed just sat there for a moment looking at him.

The engineer just stood there with an evil grin on his face waiting…  Ed said, “So?  What do you want to know?”  The engineer said, “Well.  Is that even possible?”  Ed replied, “Of course!  It’s actually easier for him to do that than it is for someone on the 3rd floor of this building to access the mainframe on the fourth floor.”

The engineer’s jaw dropped and he eked out a meager little  “what?”  Ed asked if that was all.  When he was assured that this was the only question, he stood up and walked out the door.  As he was leaving he turned a side glance toward me and winked at me.  I was grinning ear-to-ear.  I could tell, I wasn’t the only one that had a beef with this particular engineer.

So, you would have thought that it would have been a quieter ride back to the plant that day, but leave it to me….  I kept on going on about how that guy was so sure of himself that he didn’t even bother to ask the IT guy before the meeting began just to check his own erroneous facts.  Geez!  That was the most surprising part of the day.  If he had only asked him before the meeting, he wouldn’t have made a fool out of himself with his snide comments just before he was put in his place.

So, Toby and I proved that doing the impossible isn’t all that impossible when what someone thinks is impossible really isn’t so.  This stemmed from a lesson my dad taught me growing up when he told me, “Don’t every say “can’t”.  There is always a way.”

Comments from the original post:

  1. Dan Antion May 24, 2014

    Ah, the good old days when the best computer was the new 386. Things weren’t impossible but you had to think about it and plan quite a bit. Great stories!

  2. Ruth May 24, 2014

    ALways enjoy reading and thinking about a world I wouldn’t even know about if it weren’t for your unique blog!

    Ruth in Pittsburgh

  3. Ron May 24, 2014

    Great story! I heard a pastor once say “What you “know” can keep you from learning the truth.” I saw this principle in operation many times in my career.

    I had been at the WFEC Hugo Power Plant for a short time when the Plant Manager directed me (Maint. Supt.) to have the Mechanics “block the condenser” for a “hydro”. (Prior to a condenser hydro, several mechanics would work for about 4 hours dragging heavy timbers into the 3 foot tall space between the bottom of the hotwell and the concrete floor. They would space these timbers evenly across the entire condenser floor and use wedges to remove all clearance at each support beam. All this work was “required” to support the additional water weight (several feet higher than normal operating level)). I knew this “blocking” was never done at any OG&E plant but I didn’t want to make the Plant Manager look like an idiot. So I did what he asked. We “blocked” the condenser for a hydro. Then I got with just the Plant Engineer and asked him to get the Mechanical Prints for the condenser. I asked him if it was necessary to block the condenser for hydro. He said they had always done it because of the extra weight of the water. When we looked at the condenser drawings there was a note indicating it was designed to support a full hydro water level. He showed the print to the Plant Manager (one on one). Nobody was made to look foolish and for the next condenser hydro we didn’t “block” it – and the Mechanics were really happy!

    1. Plant Electrician May 24, 2014

      We used to have a saying that I picked up from Bob Kennedy. “We’ve been doing it this way for 35 years. “

  4. Dave Tarver May 24, 2014

    Well over the years there were a lot of engineers that way.  Not all.  We have had outstanding ones as well and the stinkers too.  Just hate the politics of people so evil and cruel.  Man is beyond ugly so often.

Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vacuum Truck

Vacuum Truck

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Cosby trying to look like Bill Bennett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City….

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

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

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

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

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