Originally Posted July 26, 2013:
I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was well…. surreal.
This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.
As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.
At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.
Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.
David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.
During those times I knew that something was taking place in the superheat section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).
So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.
This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.
Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:
Or even a normal rat like this:
No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:
Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….
Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.
If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.
You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool.
So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.
Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.
There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where John Brien was staring back at him.
There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.
We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as I fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.
By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.
I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.
I took out my multimeter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connect where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.
I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”
That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.
I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.
There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.
I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.
Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.
Comment from previous post:
Originally posted September 13, 2013:
Of the 1,500 jokes played on Power Plant Men while I was working at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I can only remember a handful of the smaller ones. There are some I’m saving for later topics. Sometimes it was the smallest jokes that spoke the loudest. Especially when great care was taken to play the joke just right.
I think it was the idea that someone thought enough of you to spend a great deal of time setting up a joke just for the one little moment that the person finally realizes that they have been played. It’s when that smile comes across their face that all that work pays off. The realization that someone else would spend so much time just to make you smile was a good indication that they really did care about you.
In the post called, “Why Stanley Elmore and Other Power Plant Questions” I told a story about when I was a janitor in the electric shop and one of the electricians Andy Tubbs had been playing jokes on me while I was cleaning the bathroom. The funniest one was when I had turned around for a moment and when I went to go grab the dust mop, the handle to the mop was missing, while the dust mop was just sitting there on the floor. The handle was propped against the wall across the shop while Andy was innocently looking at a blueprint.
Charles Foster, my electric foremen had told me of a time when he played a joke on a welder in the welding shop that was welding away on something. The power to the welding machine was around the corner. Charles picked up the cord for the welder and kinked it like you would kink a water hose to stop the water from flowing. When he kinked it, the welding machine stopped working.
The welder looked at the machine to find that the power was off. Then he looked over and saw that Charles was standing about 40 feet away grinning at him holding the kinked cable. About that time, Charles straightened out the cable and the welding machine turned back on. The welder spun around to find the welding machine humming away. He looked back at Charles who kinked the cable again and the welding machine again shut off.
Amazed, the welder said something like, “I didn’t know you could do that!” Charles shrugged, dropped the cable and walked off. Unbeknownst to the welder, as Charles left, he met up with the other electrician that had been opening an closing the electric disconnect where the welding machine received its power. Leaving the welder unaware.
In the electric shop there is one bathroom. It is shared by all electricians, and therefore it has a lock on the door because Diana Lucas (Brien) had to use it. But sometimes someone might not realize that it was used jointly by both male and female members of the Power Plant family, and they might not lock the door. So, on occasion, Dee would go into the bathroom only to find that it was already occupied.
Once she entered the bathroom and found that someone was in the stall. She waited around for a while and asked me to go check it out because the guy was taking quite a long time and what at first was only a minor inconvenience was becoming higher priority. So, I entered there bathroom and sure enough. The stall was closed and there was a pair of boots easily visible under the stall where someone sat taking their own sweet time.
Dee finally figured that it wasn’t worth the wait and walked across the T-G floor to the maintenance shop to the nearest women’s restroom. After a while someone else remarked that someone was in the bathroom and had been in there a long time. At that point, it became obvious that either someone had died while sitting on his thinkin’ chair, or something else was definitely amiss.
So, one of the electricians decided to see if everything was all right. That was when they peered into the stall to find that there was only a pair of boots sitting all by themselves in the stall. It turned out that O D McGaha had put them there. He locked the stall, then climbed out under the stall and left them there. — It was a pretty good joke. It had half the shop concerned about the mysterious stranger in the stall.
Soon after this episode, a new sign was placed on the bathroom door:
Other little jokes like that were played on individuals throughout the 20 years that I worked at the plant. One small one that is a typical example of many was when Mickey Postman drove to work one morning with a brand new motorcycle. He was really proud of the new machine. Well. Mickey’s nickname at the time was “Pup”.
Mickey had two main reasons why he was a prime target for having jokes played on him. First, he took the jokes pretty well, because he would have a definite reaction. Sometimes good. Sometimes not so. The second reason was that he was red-headed. That meant that when he realized that a joke was being played on him, his face would turn as red as his hair. Everyone witnessing this couldn’t help but smile.
Mickey had worked his way into the maintenance shop from a janitor as I had, though he missed the labor crew (I believe) because it hadn’t been dreamed up by Ray Butler yet. He and I were practically the same age. He is 7 months older than I am. So, I always felt like, “but for the grace of God go I”. No. I don’t really mean it. I care a lot for Mickey and I never personally considered him as a candidate for jokes. I guess it was because he already had a cohort of Power Plant Men willing to play that part.
So, anyway. Mickey had this shiny new motorcycle parked out in the parking lot all day, so it was inevitable that at least one of the many Power Plant Men that had been assigned to the “Play a Joke on Mickey” detail, would happen to pass by the motorcycle in the parking lot. One of them would have felt obligated to reach down and turn the gas valve off.
The word had gone out throughout the plant that the valve had been closed on Mickey’s motorcycle so that we were all to expect that about the time that Mickey hit the bridge over the discharge on the way out the gate, his motorcycle would run out of fuel and die. It’s times like this that you never forget. A simple joke. A couple hundred Power Plant men all chuckling as they drove across the discharge bridge grinning at Mickey trying to restart his brand new motorcycle that had died perfectly positioned midway across the bridge. His face beaming as red as his hair!
I won’t go into the Wedding present that was given to Mickey Postman the day before his wedding. I intended this post to be only about petty or “minor” jokes. That one was a doozy. Actually. I will never post anything about it, other than to say that I wouldn’t ever say anything about how the machinist’s blue dye was applied.
Machinist’s Blue Dye, or Layout fluid is used when honing down a surface to make sure it is flat. There are other uses for it, but that is the one I am most familiar with. I wonder how that blue color looked along with Mickey’s red face…
Here are examples of two small jokes that took a lot of preparation.
The first one involved Howard Chumbley’s chair. Howard was a foreman in the electric shop. One of the nicest Power Plant Men in all of God’s creation. He was shorter than most taller people. And he was particular about how high his chair was adjusted. Being particular about anything automatically meant that you were a prime target for a joke dealing with whatever you were particular about.
Back then (1984), the height of an office chair was adjusted by turning it upside down and spinning the wheel bracket around to screw in or out the shaft.
So, Charles and I would rotate the bottom of the wheels around 1/4 turn each day. That meant just moving the wheels around to one set of wheels. Not very much. Every week the bracket would only be turned about 1 time, especially given that we wouldn’t remember to do it every day.
Eventually, after 5 or 6 weeks, Howard would go to sit down in his chair and realize that it was lower than he would like it to be. So, he would turn it over and lay the seat on his desk and spin the wheel bracket around a few times. Then test it and do it again until it was just the right height. Howard probably never thought about why every month and a half or so, his chair would be too short and he would end up turning it over and adjusting it back up.
This was a joke that Howard never knew was being played, but every time that chair went upside down, you can bet that Charles and I were grinning from ear-to-ear to have been there to watch it.
Ok. the last story has to be about Gene Day. After all. There was no one that I loved playing jokes on more than Gene Day. Actually, half of them, Gene probably never knew had been jokes. I have written two posts about playing jokes on Gene Day. One of them was just about one joke. See “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator” and “Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day“.
So, this particular week, I noticed that Gene Day was the auxiliary operator for Unit 1 Boiler. That meant that at least once each shift he was going to walk through the Unit 1 Precipitator Control Room that housed the controls for the 84 transformers on the precipitator roof.
So, I decided, this was a perfect opportunity to play a petty joke on Gene Day. I took an Eeprom chip that was used to hold the control program for a Precipitator control cabinet, and proceeded to rewrite the program.
I found the code in the assembly language code that sent the message to the display when there was an overcurrent trip. That is, when the cabinet trips, the little LCD display would say: “Overcurrent Trip”. I rewrote the code to say: “Gene Day Trip”. This meant finding the code string: 4F:76:65:72:63:75:72:72:65:6E:74:20:54:72:69:70 and replacing it with: 47:65:6E:65:20:44:61:79:20:54:72:69:70:20:20:20. I wrote the program for a specific cabinet in the middle of the precipitator that I could trip without causing an issue in the general operation of the precipitator.
Then I took the chip to the Precipitator Control room and replaced the control chip for that cabinet and left it running. I had seen Gene Day on his way to the Precipitator Control room the day before, so I had a pretty good idea what time he would be passing through. Because no matter how lazy Gene Day was, he was always consistent. (Gene you know I’m kidding…. right?)
Anyway. I spied Gene leaving the control room around the time I expected, so I made haste to the Precip. Control Room and with my screwdriver, after opening the cabinet, I reached down to the tripping mechanism for an overcurrent trip and I tripped the cabinet. Then leaving from the opposite direction that Gene would be arriving, I slipped out of the Precip Control Room and headed for the plant control room to see Gene’s reaction when he arrived.
About the time I was going around the corner in the breezeway toward the Unit 1 elevator, I saw that Gene had already exited the precip. area, so when I entered the T-G basement I quickly called Gene on the gray phone. Gene turned around and went back in the Precip switchgear (which was just below the control cabinets).
When Gene answered the phone I told him that I was looking at the Precipitator controls in the control room and I saw that one of the cabinets had tripped and I was wondering if he had just been out there because the error indicated something very strange. He said he had just been in there and hadn’t noticed that a cabinet had tripped.
So, I asked him if he could look again, it was 1D8. I needed to know what the cabinet display said had happened because it looked like Gene had done something to it. He told me he hadn’t touched anything, but he would go look. — of course, when went to look at it, the display showed: “Gene Day Trip”.
So, I was sitting at the precipitator computer for Unit 1 when Gene Day arrived in the Control room. As was typical with Gene Day, my head began to waiver and my eyes began to blur as Gene had grabbed me by the throat and was shaking me back and forth. My eyes may have been blurry, and I know that I was acting totally surprised as if I didn’t know what had happened, but you can believe that inside I was grinning ear-to-ear!
Comment from original post:
September 21, 2013:
More comments from the last repost:
Originally posted May 17, 2014:
Don’t believe it when the Electric Company tells you that the reason your town lost electricity for an hour was because a squirrel climbed onto a transformer and shorted it out. The real reason just may be more bizarre than that and the company doesn’t want you to know all the different creative ways that power can be shut off. This is a tale of just one of those ways. So, get out your pencil and paper and take notes.
One spring day in 1993 while sitting at the Precipitator computer for Unit one at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, while I was checking the controls to make sure all the cabinets were operating correctly, suddenly there was a distant boom, and the lights in the control room went out. The computer stayed on because it was connected to an electric panel called the VSP or Vital Services Panel, which in turn was supplied by the UPS system (Uninterruptible Power Supply). That was one of those moments where you may pause for a moment to make sure you aren’t still at home dreaming before you fly into a panic.
The Precipitator cabinets all indicated on the computer that they had just shutdown. I rose from the chair and walked around to the front of the Alarm Panel for Unit one, and found that the fluorescent lights were only out on Unit 1. The lights were still on for Unit 2. The Control Panel was lit up like a Christmas Tree with Green, Red, Blue and Yellow Lights. The Alarm Printer was spewing out paper at high speed. As the large sheets of paper were pouring out onto the floor, I watched as Pat Quiring and other brave Power Plant Control Room operators were scurrying back and forth turning switch handles, pushing buttons, and checking pressure gauges.
Just this site alone gave me confidence that everything was going to be all right. These Control Room operators were all well trained for emergencies just like this, and each person knew what their job was. No one was panicking. Everyone was concentrating on the task at hand.
Someone told me that we lost Unit 1, and the Auxiliary Power to Unit 1 at the same time. So, Unit 1 was dead in the water. This meant, no fans, no pumps, no lights, no vending machines, no cold water at the water fountain and most importantly, no hot coffee!!! I could hear steam valves on the T-G floor banging open and the loud sound of steam escaping.
I turned quickly to go to the electric shop to see what I could do there in case I was needed. I bolted out the door and down the six flights of stairs to the Turbine-Generator (T-G) basement. Exiting the stairway, and entering the T-G basement the sound was deafening. I grabbed the earplugs that were dangling around my neck and crammed them into my ears. Steam was pouring out of various pop-off valves. I ducked into the electric shop where across the room Andy Tubbs, one of the electric foreman was pulling large sheets of electric blueprints from the print cabinet and laying them across the work table that doubled as the lunch table.
When I asked Andy what happened, I learned that somehow when a crew was flushing out a fire hydrant the water somehow shot up and into the bus work in the Auxiliary Substation (that supplies backup power to the Power Plant) and it shorted out the 189,000 volt substation directly to ground. When that happened it tripped unit 1 and the auxiliary substation at the same time leaving it without power.
I will explain how a fire hydrant could possibly spray the bus work in a substation in a little while, but first let me tell you what this meant at the moment to not have any power for a Power Plant Boiler and Turbine Generator that has just tripped when it was at full load which was around 515 Megawatts of power at the time.
Normally when a unit trips, the boiler cools down as the large Force Draft (FD) Fans blow air through the boiler while the even larger Induced Draft (ID) fans suck the air from the boiler on the other end and blow the hot air up the smoke stack. This causes the steam in the boiler tubes to condense back into water. Steam valves open on the boiler that allow excessive steam to escape.
When the boiler is running there is a large orange fireball hovering in space in the middle of the boiler. The boiler water is being circulated through the boiler and the Boiler Feed Pump Turbines are pumping steam back and forth between the turbine generator and the boiler reheating the steam until every bit of heat from the boiler that can be safely harnessed is used.
When all this stop suddenly, then it is important that the large fans keep running to cool down the steam, since it is no longer losing energy in the generator as it was when it was busy supplying electricity to 1/2 million people in Oklahoma City. The power is fed to the fans from the Auxiliary substation located right outside the Main Switchgear where all the breakers reside that supply the power to the fans. Unfortunately, in this case, the Auxiliary substation was shutdown as well, leaving the boiler without any fans.
Without fans for cooling, and pumps to circulate the water, the walls of the boiler began heating up to dangerous temperatures. Steam was whistling out of pop off valves, but if the steam drum on the top of the boiler were to run dry, then the entire boiler structure could be compromised and begin melting down. — So, this was serious. Something had to be done right away. It wouldn’t be as bad as the China Syndrome since we were burning coal instead of nuclear power, but it would have caused a lot of damage nonetheless.
I have a side story about this picture, but I think I’ll save it for another post because I don’t want to digress from the main story at this point (Ok. Let me just say “Jack Maloy and Merl Wright” for those who can’t wait) See the post: “Power Plant Conspiracy Theory“.
With the prospect that the boiler might melt to the ground in a pile of rubble, it would seem that the main priority was to turn the Auxiliary Substation back on so the fans could be turned back on and prevent the boiler from collapsing. So, we walked out to the substation and looked at the switches that would have to be operated in order to first power up the main bus and then to close to supply power to the two big transformers and the six smaller transformers that supplied the Unit 1 Main Switchgear.
While inspecting the switches where the electricity had gone to ground we found that one of the main insulators was cracked.
Since this insulator was cracked, we didn’t really want to operate the switch to test if another 189,000 volts would go straight to ground again, especially since one of us would be standing right underneath it cranking the switch. So, we went back to the shop to find an alternative.
By this time the Plant Manager, Ron Kilman arrived in the shop, and understanding the urgency to find a solution asked us what were the alternatives. He was relying on our expertise to make the decision.
The other solution would be to cut the power over from Unit 2 which was still humming away pushing electricity to Oklahoma City out of the 345,000 volt substation. The cut over would be very simple because the switchgear was designed with this in mind. We analyzed the power rating on the auxiliary transformers on Unit 2 and thought that we might be cutting it close to have them running both sets of fans at the same time, especially since the full load amps of a huge fan starting up was about 10 times the normal rate.
The transformer was rated to handle the load, but consider this. What if this caused Unit 2 to trip as well. With the Auxiliary substation offline, if Unit 2 tripped, we would be in twice the amount of trouble we were currently in. What a day it would have been if that had happened and two 250 foot boilers had come crashing to the ground in a pile of rubble. After reading the power ratings on the auxiliary transformers I was thinking, “Yeah, let’s do it! These transformers can handle it.” Andy was not so eager.
So, we were left with one alternative. That was to shut the switch in the Auxiliary substation that had the cracked insulator and take our chances that it wasn’t going to short to ground and blow up over our heads. I think I was eager to close the switch for Andy, but if I remember correctly, he didn’t want me to be the one to suffer the consequences and decided to close the switch himself. Needless to say. Andy closed the switch, and nothing blew up.
As soon as the power was restored to the switchgear, the fans were powered up and the temperature in the boiler was quickly reduced. The coffee pot in the Electric Shop began heating the coffee again. The power plant was saved from a major catastrophe. That was delayed for another day… of which I will talk about later (see the post “Destruction of a Power Plant God).”
So, how exactly does a fire hydrant shoot water up into the bus work of a substation like the picture of the switch directly above? The culprit fire hydrant wasn’t in the substation, it sat alongside it outside the fence a good 50 feet from the high voltage switch. No hose was attached to the fire hydrant. It was only being flushed out as part of a yearly activity to go around and make sure the fire hydrants are all operating correctly.
Here is the story about how the squirrel climbed into the transformer this time….
George Alley, Dale Mitchell and Mickey Postman were going around to the 30,000 fire hydrants on the plant ground (ok. maybe not that many, but we did have a lot of them), and they were opening up the valves and flushing them out. That means, they were letting them run for a while to clear them out from any contaminates that may have built up over the year of not being used.
Throughout their adventure they had opened a multitude of Hydrants situated out in the fields along the long belt conveyor from the coalyard and around the two one-million gallon #2 Diesel tanks.
The brave Power Plant Men, learned that when opening a fire hydrant wide open in the middle of field had unintended consequences. It tended to wash out the ground in front of the flow of the water shooting out of the hydrant. So the team of experts devised a plan to place a board in front of the hydrant when it would be in danger of tearing a hole in the terrain. The board would divert the water into the air where it would fan out and not cause damage to the surrounding area.
This was working fine, and when they arrived at the fire hydrant next to the substation, since the stream from the hydrant was pointing directly into the substation (hmm. a design flaw, I think), they decided to prop the board up against the fence to keep from washing away the gravel in the substation. Well. When a fire hydrant is opened that hasn’t been used for a year, the first flow of water to shoot out is dark brown.
You may think that this is because the water has somehow become dirty over the past year, but that isn’t quite the case. What has happened is that the pipe has been rusting little by little and the water has become saturated with the rust. So, the water shooting out of the hydrant was full of rust (hence the need to flush them out).
Well. Rust is made of metal. Metal is conductive, especially when it is mixed with water. When the water hit the board, it was deflected into the air and happened to direct itself directly into the high voltage switch in the substation. This caused a circuit to the ground which, once it created an arc pumped all the electricity directly into the ground.
Normally when something like this happens it doesn’t trip the Main Power Transformer to a Power Plant.
This time it did. I know there was a few heads scratching trying to figure it out. I think I figured out what happened a little while later. You see… here is the rest of the story….
Once the unit was back online and the emergency was over, someone finally noticed that the telephone system couldn’t call outside of the plant. Well. I was the main telephone person at the time, so the control room called me and asked me to look into the problem.
I checked the telephone computer and it was up and running just fine. Internal calls could be made. Only any call outside just concluded with a funny humming sound. After checking the circuit in the Logic Room next to the Rolm Telephone Computer I headed for…. guess where….. the Main Switchgear….
In the middle of the main switchgear in the back of the room right next to the Auxiliary Substation beyond the back wall, the outside telephone line came into the plant. The first thing it did was go through a special Telephone Surge Protector.
In this picture above, the silver circular buttons on the left side are really an old style surge protector. whenever there was a power surge, the carbon connection in the surge protector would quickly melt causing the circuit to go straight to ground. Thus protecting the rest of the telephone circuit. So, if some kid in their house decides to connect the 120 volts circuit to the telephone for fun to see what would happen, this circuit would protect the rest of the phone circuits. Keep in mind that this was during the early 1990 when “Surge Protection” still was basically all “mechanical”.
Anyway, when I arrived at this panel and I checked the surge protector to the main line going out of the plant, guess what I found…. Yep. Shorted to ground. Luckily there were some spares that were not wired to anything in the panel and I was able to swap them out for the ones that had been destroyed. — These were a one time use. Which meant, if they ever had to short to ground, they had to be replaced.
Ok. Fine. After a little while, we were able to call back out of the plant, though there was still some residual noise on the line. It was like this… when you called out of the plant, the person on the other end sounded like they were buried in a grave somewhere and they were trying to talk to someone living just like in an episode of the Twilight Episode where a phone line landed on a grave and the dead person tried to call his long lost love from the past.
I didn’t give it much thought other than that I figured the 189,000 volt arc to ground must have shorted out the telephone line since the phone line ran directly under the auxiliary substation ground grid.
It wasn’t until the next morning when the Southwestern Bell repairman showed up at the plant. I knew him well, since he had been working on our phone lines since before the AT&T breakup in 1984. When I met him in the front of the electric shop, he said that he needed to check our telephone circuits. I told him that I knew that we had a problem because we had a high voltage short to ground yesterday and I found our surge protectors melted away.
He explained to me that not only was our circuit affected, but that every relay house from here to Ponca City was blown out. That’s when I realized that the problem was the reverse of the usual situation. What had happened was that the Ground Grid in the substation and the surrounding area (including the Unit 1 Main Power Transformer) had become hot. What do you do when the ground grid becomes charged?
The Ground Grid is what is supposed to protect you when a surge happens, but what happens when the ground grid itself is the problem? In this case, when the high voltage line about 60 feet from the telephone cable surge protector, arced to ground, it fed a tremendous amount of power back through the ground grid. when equipment detected the surge in voltage, they automatically defaulted their circuits to ground. That’s why the telephone circuit died. That’s what tripped the Main Power Transformer.
When the telephone circuit detected the high voltage surge, it shorted to ground (which was the problem), causing the high voltage to feed directly into the phone line and down the line to the next Southwestern Bell relay switch, which also defaulted to ground, trying to bleed off the surge as it went from relay switch to switch until enough of the power was able to be diverted to ground.
That day sure turned out to be a learning experience. I learned that when all the lights go out in the control room, that it is almost assured that the coffee pot in the electric shop is going to stop working. I also learned that in order to coax the plant manager to the electric shop, a major electrical tragedy is one good way. I learned that when shooting rusty water into the air don’t point it at a high voltage auxiliary substation switch. — I’m sure Mickey Postman learned that lesson too. I also learned that just like in Star Trek… whenever there is a dangerous job to do, the Captain is always the one that wants to do it. Does that make sense? Send a Peon like me in there…
I also learned something else about Power Plant Men…. You see…. People like Dale Mitchell, George Alley and Mickey Postman all are examples of incredibly wonderful Power Plant Men. When they were out there doing their duty and something tragic like this, all the Power Plant Men felt their pain. They knew that they all felt guilty for tripping the unit. It didn’t matter that a million dollars every so many minutes was walking out the door in revenue. The only thing that mattered was that these three men were safe.
Since I have left the Power Plant, I have found that the idea that the employee is the greatest asset that a company can possess is not a universal idea. You see, there was never the thought that any of these people should be fired for their mistake. On the contrary. The true Power Plant Men did whatever they could to let them know that they knew exactly how they felt. It could have happened to any of them.
Besides the friendship between Power Plant Men, one of the things I miss most about working at the Power Plant is that the employees are held in high esteem as a real asset to the company. Many could learn from their example.
Comments from the Original post
Originally posted May 30, 2014:
Unlike the story I told a few weeks ago about Jim Padgett, this is not a story about being called to work in the middle of the night by a true Power Plant Man (See post: “Making A Friends from Foes – A Tale of Power Plant Woes“) or even like the story that explained the “Power Plant Black Time and the Six Hour Rule“. No. This is a quick story about a sobering slap in the face I encountered when walking into the electric shop one morning at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
I think this must have been when I was on someone’s short list for a “Power Plant Joke”, or maybe I just hadn’t been paying attention a month earlier when Bill Bennett may have informed me that this morning was coming. Either way, I was totally taken off guard when I entered the shop that morning with Scott Hubbard, my Carpooling buddy.
The first indication that something was up was that there were three contract hands standing there dressed in their worn clothing indicating that they had been hired to do some kind of “manual” activity. Yep. Worn jeans with holes. Shirts slightly ripped. One guy missing the sleeves on his shirt. I think one of them had accidentally taken a shower before he showed up. He may have mixed up his Mondays and Saturdays and woke up grumpy on Saturday and took a shower on Monday.
None of the contract hands had thought about shaving for the past week or so. So, they definitely looked out of place in the shop usually occupied by professional Power Plant Electricians, who liked to keep themselves clean and generally followed good hygiene practices.
My first thought was, “Hmm…. Looks like there is some dirty job someone has to do in the shop today. I wonder what it is.” I walked into the electric shop to wait until 8:00 to come around. Bill Bennett was leaning against one of the desks talking to Charles Foster. I asked Bill, “What’s up with the Contractors?”
Bill replied, “They are here to help you.” “What am I going to be doing?” I asked curiously. “You know. Pulling wire from the Vital Service Panel to the Telephone Room in the main office.” “Oh. That.” I replied trying to remember if I could recall ever being told that I was supposed to be inheriting this particular job.
The last time I had felt like this was when I was in High School and our American History teacher told us that the semester class projects were due tomorrow and he continued to explain that we would be presenting the projects in alphabetical order. “Which means that Kevin Breazile. You will be going first.”
Side Story Time:
Class Project? Oh No! I had forgotten all about it! I was supposed to write a paper about the Roadway system in the United States, including how we were preparing to go to the Metric System.” (Like that ever happened… This was in 1976).
So, after school I went straight home and told my mom that I needed to go to the Public Library to prepare for a class project that needed to be done tomorrow. At the library I quickly grabbed a bunch of facts out of encyclopedias. I made up a few statistics about how many miles of roads there were in the United States.
Then once I was back at home, I thought about the roads in the U.S. Well, there were dirt roads, gravel roads, asphalt roads, and roads made of concrete. So. I filled a jar with dirt. One with some rocks I found out in the street. I found a piece of asphalt that had worked itself loose at the intersection by my house. I also found a chunk of concrete under our deck in the backyard where we had busted up our patio once to pour a new one…. These were my props for my presentation.
I remembered that on the way from Kansas City To Columbia Missouri along Highway 70, there was a sign that said, 100 Miles or 160 Kilometers to Columbia. There was also one just outside Saint Louis going to Columbia that said the same thing. So, I added that to my presentation. This met the requirement of how the roadways were moving to the metric system.
When the presentation began, I began handing the jars to someone in the front row to pass around the class….. Yeah. A jar of dirt. A jar of rocks, and a piece of asphalt and the chunk of concrete. I remember our teacher, Mr. Wright grabbed the chunk of Concrete when I gave it to the guy in the front row and looking it over, then pointing to a spot on it and saying, “I can see the skid marks here where I almost hit you!”
Anyway. I ended the presentation by taking the chunk of concrete after it had been passed around the class and holding it up and saying that if we continued to create roads at the same pace that we have over the last 60 years, by the year 2076 the world will look like this…. And I held up the chunk of concrete. — Of course.. I had totally made that statistic up out of thin air. — I got an A+ for that project which was worth 1/3 of our grade for the semester.
End of side story.
So, here I was again, fourteen years later, and I was being told that I had a crew of guys standing out in the shop waiting for directions on how to pull cable from the Logic room just below the control room, across the T-G building and into the middle of the Office building on the top floor. Even though the Office was on the 3rd floor, it was equivalent to the 6th floor of an office building.
From experience, I knew that the cable would have to be pulled from the logic room down to the cable spreading room below the main Switchgear, through two manholes, then up through conduit to the office area above the break room kitchen and over to the Telephone room.
I had done nothing to prepare for this. I hadn’t looked through the blueprints to find the best route. I hadn’t even seen the large spool of wire on the pallet in the Main Switchgear waiting to be used. I hadn’t even prepared myself by looking confident like I knew what I was doing….
Bill walked out the door leaving me in the office with Charles. I wasn’t sure if Charles could tell that I was completely blind-sided by this job or not. But he did give me a quick “leg up”. He said, “Seems to me that there is already power going from the VSP (for Vital Services Panel) to the Telephone room.”
Well. I already knew that I was really lucky. Especially when I asked Saint Anthony to help me find a solution to a problem. So, I quickly glanced over in the corner where Saint Anthony liked to lean against the wall while he waited for me to come to my senses and have some faith. In my mind I could see Anthony shrug like, “sounds like you might give it a try.”
So, I walked… no… I strolled out into the shop like I belonged there….. — Oh… yeah. I did. But at that particular moment I didn’t feel like it, so I thought maybe if I walked like I felt like I did, it would help me feel that way.
I asked Scott Hubbard if he could help me check to see if we had power in the Telephone Room from the Vital Services Panel. He said he would be glad to help (this was Scott’s usual response. — A True Power Plant Man Response).
I asked him to go the Telephone room while I went to the Vital Service Panel for Unit 1 in the Logic Room. Scott took his handy Dandy Voltage Checking Tool and headed off toward the Office area.
I headed for the Logic Room with a pair of Fuse Pullers:
The Vital Service Panel is mounted on the wall next to the UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply). I opened it and read the labels inside of the cover. After scanning the list of locations that were fed from this panel I found one that could have been the one circuit I was looking for.
It was cryptically labelled in pencil “Telephone Room”. Hmmm…. I wonder if this is it… My mind had quick as a snap decrypted this entry and came up with “Telephone room”. — That sure sounds like this would provide power to the Telephone room. Let’s just hope that it is labelled correctly.
I waited until Scott called me on the gray phone to tell me that he was in place by the Telephone room. He had checked all of the receptacles (plug ins) in the room, and they all had power on them.
I told him that I would remove the fuse to the circuit that looked like it provided power to the telephone room, so in about 15 seconds, he could check to see if any of the receptacles was dead. So, we did just that. I removed the fuse….. — My first thought was…. Good. I didn’t trip the unit. I would have known that right away. — You never know… pulling a fuse out of a panel labelled “Vital Services Panel” kind of leaves you to believe that the stuff in this panel is really really important.
I went back to the gray phone and waited for Scott to get back on the phone. About 15 more seconds and Scott returned. He told me that the power had turned off on one of the receptacles on the wall. I told him I was going to put the fuse back in and head up to the telephone room so that he could show me where it was.
Literally 20 minutes after I had been jolted awake by the revelation that I was supposed to lead a crew of contractors on a wire pull that I had not prepared for, I had found out that the wire was already there. No wire pull was necessary.
Scott showed me where the receptacle was, and we walked back to the electric shop. Bill Bennett was standing in the shop wondering where I had disappeared to (oops. ended the sentence with a preposition. I should know better than that. I should have said, “….where I went.”). I was still wondering in the back of my head if I had just completely forgot that Bill had ever told me about this, or maybe he had forgotten to mention it in the first place, or he had not told me on purpose just to see how I would react to the sudden revelation that I had a semi-difficult job with no time to prepare for it.
I waited for Bill to follow me into the electric shop office. Which he did. Standing there with as straight of a face as I could muster, I looked at Bill as he asked me when I was going to start pulling the wire. The Contractors are just standing around doing nothing.
I said, “The job is already done. The wire has already been pulled.” “What do you mean? It’s still in the switchgear on the pallet.” Bill responded. I shrugged and said, “We don’t need to pull wire from the Vital Services Panel. There is already a circuit from that panel to the telephone room.” I looked over at Charles and smiled. Charles smiled back. Bill said something like, “Oh… Then I wonder what we are going to do with these contractors. We have them for three days.” Then he left the office.
I thought that somehow Charles knew something about my being “setup for some kind of failure” and had this up his sleeve all along so that it would backfire. — Just my luck. With three of my best friends standing there, how could I fail…. Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and Saint Anthony.
We had the contractors sweep out switchgears for the next 3 days.
Comment from the original Post
Originally posted July 18, 2014
Given that a large Coal-fired Power Plant is like a small city complete with a water treatment system to supply drinking water to thirsty Power Plant Men, and it’s own complete sewage system to handle the volumes of human waste and toxic run-off, when I ask, “What is that strange smell?” You may expect the answer to be something like “Honeysuckle?” If you thought, rotten fish, diesel oil, ozone or sweaty arm pits, you would, of course, be wrong. Those are all the usual smells found in a Power Plant. Every so often, a smell would come by that would make you stop in your tracks and wonder…. “What’s that strange smell?”
Over the course of the 20 years I worked in the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, there were times when a new smell would just come out of no where. There were other times when they would sneak up on me gradually, so that I wouldn’t even notice them until they were gone…. Then I would wonder why it was that I didn’t notice them when they were there.
One such smell that stung me like a bee would happen when I was on overhaul and I was walking out to the precipitator all covered in a fly ash suit from head-to-toe wearing a full face respirator with duct tape around all of the seams.
I was walking in the breezeway between the two boilers when I suddenly smelled a sharp sort of smell. It was a strange chemical I hadn’t ever noticed before. I looked around to see where it was coming from. There wasn’t anyone around, and I didn’t see anything chemical spill in the area that would account for it.
As I walked toward the precipitator, I looked up as I walked under the surge bin tower in time to see an operator coming down the stairs. He was smoking a cigarette. Besides that, everything else looked normal, except that the smell was almost overwhelming me at that point.
I went and climbed in the precipitator where I worked until break. When I came out, I blew the dust off of myself with a tiny instrument air hose that we kept on either side of the precipitator for just such an occasion. After the fly ash had been blown off of my suit, I leaned forward and pulled my respirator off of my face and breathed the fresh air.
Later that week, when I was heading back out to the precipitator and had just left the electric shop all dressed up in my suit, I had a whiff of that same smell. I couldn’t mistake it. It was a unique chemical smell. looking around, there wasn’t anyone or anything near me that would have been emitting such a toxic smell.
As I walked around the condenser to head toward the boiler, I saw that a couple of mechanics were carrying some planks of wood and laying them by the condenser in order to build a scaffold once they opened the condenser. One of the guys was smoking a cigarette. I wondered… Could it be a cigarette that smells so rancid? It didn’t seem likely, since I began detecting the smell when I was more than 40 yards away from the operator when he was descending from the Surge bin tower. I shouldn’t be able to smell a cigarette from that distance.
After a few more instances, I realized that it was cigarettes that I was smelling. I was amazed by how far away I could detect a cigarette when I was wearing my respirator. I figured that after it had filtered out all the particles bigger than 2 microns, the only particles and odors that were entering my respirator were easily detectable by my nose. And they didn’t smell anything like a cigarette.
I became so astute at detecting smokers, that one time I was walking through the breezeway with an unfortunate contract worker that had been commandeered to work with me, I was dressed in my fly ash suit and respirator. My helper wasn’t because he was going to be my hole watch while I was inside. I suddenly smelled that, now familiar, scent. I spun around once and then turned to the guy walking with me, who hardly knew who I was, and said, “Someone is smoking a cigarette!”
He looked around and no one was in sight. He said, “There isn’t anyone here.” I said, “Oh, there’s someone with a cigarette all right.” About that time a truck pulled around the end of the precipitator about 50 yards away with a couple of welders pulling a welding machine behind. Their windows were open, and hanging out of the driver side window was an arm, with a hand on the end holding a cigarette. As it drove by us, I pointed to the cigarette and said, “See. Cigarette.” He kept insisting I couldn’t have smelled that cigarette that far away… But with my respirator on, I could easily smell it.
One of the other strange Power Plant smell that I encountered during my tenure at the Power Plant was also while I was wearing my respirator and working in the precipitator. Only, I didn’t pay much attention to it until it was gone. Then I did everything I could to find the source of that smell, because to me, it was a sweet smell of success, even though it smelled more like a sweaty arm pit, or maybe even something worse.
I mentioned this smell in the post: “Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator“. The precipitator is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust from the boiler, and collects it in hoppers and then blows it a half mile through a pipe to a silo on a hill by the coal pile, where it is trucked away to be made into concrete.
It was my job during an outage to repair the inside of the precipitator, and I was always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of the ash gathering abilities of this large piece of equipment.
I knew at certain times during an outage that the ash that had built up on the plates would all of the sudden decide to cake up and fall off in chunks leaving a perfectly clean plate. When that happened, then the odds of the precipitator running real well when we came back online was a lot better.
I also knew that after working long hours in the precipitator for a couple of weeks, I would feel all worn out like I had a flu. I would have to drag myself out of bed in the morning and I would even catch myself falling asleep on my feet inside the precipitator while I was inspecting it. I always figured it was just because we were working 10 or 12 hour days and I was getting older. Yeah…. 30 years old, and I was feeling every bit of it.
Then one day when I went to the tool room to get a couple of boxes of respirator filters Bud Schoonover told me that he couldn’t give me the regular hepa filter that I was used to using. I already knew that the regular filters weren’t good enough, so I asked him what else he had. He said, “Well…… I have some of these here…” I have mentioned that if Bud had been African American and a little bit skinnier and shorter, he would have been the spittin’ image of Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son’s. He would make this same expression:
Bud handed me a box of filters labeled: Organic Vapor Filter:
It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t have much choice. I could see that it had a carbon filter on it as well as the regular filter, so I thought it would be all right.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped into the precipitator wearing the Organic Vapor filter was that the air inside the precipitator didn’t smell any different than the air outside. I wasn’t used to that. I was used to smelling a “boiler” sort of smell. After a couple of weeks that smell would turn more rancid. Sort of a sour smell. When I noticed that I wasn’t smelling the sour smell I quickly broke the seal on my filter and sniffed the air to verify that the filter was really blocking the stench that built up in the precipitator the past few weeks. Sure enough.
Then I noticed that I was no longer feeling tired in the morning. I was able to work all day without feeling fatigued. I came to the conclusion that whatever that smell was that was being blocked by this respirator had been causing me to feel ill. Now that it was gone I was beginning to believe that 30 years old wasn’t that old after all.
I was already curious about the smell in the precipitator because I had noticed that after a day or so after it showed up, the ash would just flake off of the plates in the precipitator. If we could find out what it was, maybe we could inject something in the inlet of the precipitator when it was online and needed to be cleaned after a bad start-up or after it had been running a while to make it run more efficiently.
So, I went to our resident Doctor of Chemistry, George Pepple. I wrote a post about him, see “Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid“. I explained to him about the smell and about how this particular filter filtered it out when a Hepa filter didn’t. And the effect it had on the ash on the plates. He listened intensely and I could tell that I had made him excited. There are only so many chemicals a plant chemist deals with on a normal basis, so when Dr. Pepple had an opportunity to explore something new, he jumped at the opportunity.
When I took him to the precipitator, he could smell the odor even before we began climbing the stairs up to the open hatchways. He described it as a sewage type of odor. Which I hadn’t really thought of before, but come to think of it, that would explain why an organic vapor filter would work on it. I suggested that the sulfur in the ash might be giving it that.
I had analyzed the chemicals that made up the coal that we received at our plant from Wyoming and I had tried to figure out how it might combine with moisture to create a new chemical. George explained that when the coal burns under such a high temperature, a lot of the chemicals are sort of encapsulated in ways that are not easily predictable.
George suggested that we approach this as a Safety issue and contact the Safety Department in Oklahoma City and have them see if they can put an analyzer in the precipitator to detect the chemical. When I contacted them, I talked with a lady called Julia Bevers (thanks Fred for reminding me of her last name). She told me to call her when the odor was strong during the next outage and she would bring some chemical detectors to the plant and I could place them in there and let them run overnight to collect samples.
Julia had said that she had heard that I was known as “Mr. Safety” at the plant. I don’t know why. Maybe it was because I was in the habit of complaining. And a number of the things I would complain about were safety issues.
Anyway, during the next outage as soon as I smelled the smell emanating from the precipitator I gave her a call and the next morning I received a call from Toby O’Brien, the Plant Engineer Extraordinaire. He called me and told me that Julia the Safety Lady was there in his office looking for me.
So, I went to Toby’s office and met “The Safety Lady.” I know I didn’t look at all like she expected. I was in a worn tee-shirt, not tucked in (on purpose) and worn out steal-toed boots. When I took her out to the Precipitator, I decided to take her across the Turbine Generator room and out the Third floor to the boiler where we walked through the boiler and over to the precipitator up and down ladders.
When we walked across the Turbine Floor, I didn’t have my usual pair of ear plugs hanging around my neck (they were in my pocket). As it was rather loud, Julia turned and said, “Shouldn’t we be wearing earplugs?” I replied, “Huh?” As if I couldn’t hear her. — I just love playing Power Plant Jokes on people that don’t even know what you’re up to… I’m sure when we were done, she went straight back to Toby and told him how shocked she was to find out how unsafe I was. — Me trying to keep a straight face the entire time.
To shorten a longer story, Julia gave me some indicators that would detect two different types of chemicals that she thought may be the culprit. I left the detectors in the precipitator overnight and then sent them back to Oklahoma City for analysis. They both came back negative leaving us with a mystery chemical.
Anyway, I never did find out what was causing that strange smell….
There was another strange smell that used to pop up in the Electric Shop when I had first become an electrician, but that just turned out to be one of our fellow electricians that liked to walk up to a group of electricians standing around talking, and then let loose a “silent but deadly” and then walk away and stand from a distance to see our reaction.
I won’t mention who that was, unless someone would like to leave a comment about that below….. Anyway. we all knew who it was when that happened as the electricians would yell out his name as the crowd quickly dispersed.
I decided to take a different approach. I would stand there thinking, trying to analyze the odor to see if I could tell what exactly this person had for supper the night before. I could tell one day when I said “Beef Stroganoff” and his face turned red that I had guessed pretty close to the mark….. That was the last time this noble Power Plant Man did that to a crowd of electricians….. at least when I was standing there… I can’t attest to any other time…. as I wasn’t there.
But I suppose that is proof that even early in my career I was interested in finding the source of that “strange smell”.
Originally posted September 20, 2014.
I remember the moment when it dawned on me that I may be witnessing an incredible Coal-fired Power Plant Conspiracy! I had just walked into the Control Room one morning in 1990 at the plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw the Shift Supervisor Jack Maloy and Merl Wright in a state of high concentration.
I always knew something was up when Jack Maloy was standing behind the large blue monitors near the Unit 1 Main Electric Board watching the big picture while the Control Room Operator Merl Wright was at the Main Control Panel turning knobs, tapping indicators to make sure they had the correct readings, twisting switches, holding them until red lights turned green…
Where had I seen this before? Something was telling me that everything wasn’t as it seemed. Sure… there was an emergency going on. There was no doubt about that. I knew that between Jack Maloy and Merl Wright, the current problem of the main boiler drum losing water was quickly going to be solved. I knew that Oklahoma City wasn’t going to experience any blackouts that day. This was a Cracker Jack team! But I couldn’t help thinking I had seen this somewhere before, and it was gnawing at my common sense.
Here is a picture of Jack Maloy’s team at the time:
I backed off in a corner to observe the situation while a crowd of operators began to grow to watch the master Shift Supervisor and his faithful Control Room Operator divert a disaster. Merl picked up the walkie talkie from the desk and called Larry Tapp ( Larry is the man in the light blue shirt in the front row in the middle. He’s the only one in the front row that is actually standing, while the rest are down on their knees while the picture is being taken).
Larry was on the boiler opening and closing valves. John Belusko, the Unit Supervisor was out there with him. I can’t tell you what magic they were performing, since I think that’s top secret. I figured that, because the operators seemed to be talking in code. Merl would key the microphone on the walkie talkie and say something like, “Larry, 45”. Larry would reply with something like “Quarter Turn”. “Position?”, “18 as far as I can tell”.
I translated the coded words to say: “….crawling under the path of the boom, whipped hold of a rope, secured one end to the bulwarks and then flinging the other like a lasso, caught it around the boom as it swept over his head, and at the next jerk, the spar was that way trapped and all was safe.” (Something I had read in Moby Dick, by Herman Melville).
Jack paced back and forth behind the counter with the monitors. Then he stopped and read the paper that was streaming out of the alarm printer as it continued humming as the paper piled up on the floor in front of him. Jack was a heavy smoker, and I could tell that right then he would rather be standing out on the T-G floor having a smoke at that moment. Before cigarettes were banned in the control room, Jack would have been pointing at that board with the cigarette.
When the water level began rising in the Boiler Drum, I could see the relieve on everyone’s face. I supposed it meant that a major catastrophe had been avoided due to the intricate knowledge that each operator possessed and their ability to quickly respond to any situation. This made the uneasy feeling I was having even worse. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this before. Just like Deja Vu.
It wasn’t till about a week later when my mom asked me if I knew someone at work named Jack Maloy. She had been talking to a friend of hers from Church named Louise and she mentioned that her husband worked at the Power Plant north of town. I replied by saying that I knew Jack Maloy well. He is a Shift Supervisor. She said that his wife Louise told her that Jack was a real nice person, but she wished that he would go to Church more. She hoped he would come around to that some day.
Then my mom mentioned something that brought back that feeling of uneasiness again. She said that the Maloys had moved to Oklahoma in 1979 from California. I thought that was odd that Jack had only arrived in Oklahoma in 1979, as he was a Shift Supervisor for as long as I could remember. Maybe even as far back as 1979 when I first worked at the plant as a summer help.
In that case, he would have been hired as a Shift Supervisor straight from California. — That seemed odd, since the majority of Shift Supervisors had worked their way up from Auxiliary Operator to Control Room Operator to Unit Supervisor, then finally to Shift Supervisor. Why would Jack be hired fresh from California? And how did Jack know so much about being a Shift Supervisor at our plant so quickly?
Then it dawned on me. You see…. It all went back to a lunch break about a year earlier when Charles Foster, an Electric Foreman and I were eating lunch in the Electric Shop office. When we didn’t know what to talk about, our favorite past time was to talk about movies and TV shows we had watched. We would describe the movie in detail to each other. On this particular day, Charles was doing the talking, and he was telling me about a movie that had to do with a Power Plant in California (yeah. California).
As Charles described the story, he told me that there was this Shift Supervisor named Jack (yeah… like our Shift Supervisor… Jack Maloy), and he was such a good Shift Supervisor that he could tell that there was something wrong with the Boiler Feed Pumps just by the way the coffee in his coffee cup would vibrate. Yeah. He was that good.
Charles went on to tell me about how at one part of the movie the water level was dropping in a tank and it was imperative that they raise the water level or some big disaster was going to happen. — Now you see where I’m going with this? Yeah. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? At that time, the incident in the Control Room hadn’t happened yet with Jack Maloy.
The movie sounded interesting so, when I had the opportunity, we rented the VHS tape from the video store and I watched it. Sure enough. This is what I saw….
Here is Jack Maloy and Merl Wright from the team picture above:
Very similar don’t you think? Two Shift Supervisors named Jack from California with the exact same hairstyle. Two Control Room Operators that look like Wilford Brimley. Coincidence?
Even Wilford Brimley’s hairline is the same as Merl Wright’s hairline!
For those of you who don’t know yet. The name of the movie is: The China Syndrome. It is about a nuclear Power Plant that has a near meltdown:
Need more? Ok. — hey this is fun….. So…. This movie came out in 1979. The same year that Jack Maloy shows up in Oklahoma from California. Obviously an experienced Power Plant Shift Supervisor. Merl Wright went to work 10 months earlier in 1978 at an older power plant just down the road (The old Osage plant), and then shortly after, was transferred to the same plant with Jack Maloy, only to end up working for Jack.
Need more? The China Syndrome Movie came out on March 16, 1979. Jack Maloy began working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma February 26, 1979, just two and a half weeks earlier.
I mentioned this coincidence to Charles Foster one day, but as far as I know, I never mentioned it again to anyone else… Maybe Scott Hubbard, since he was my best friend as well…
So, here are my thoughts about this….
What if Jack Maloy was the Shift Supervisor being portrayed in the movie “The China Syndrome”? He needed to move out of California just before the movie came out just in case someone found out his true identity. Being a Shift Supervisor at a Nuclear Power Plant, he would surely be in high demand at any Electric Company. Our particular Power Plant was in an out-of-the-way location. Sort of like a “witness protection program”.
I don’t know Merl’s earlier background, so I can still think that he moved to Oklahoma from California and began working for the Electric Company on April 24, 1978 just two weeks before I moved to Oklahoma from Columbia, Missouri. Since I don’t know any better, I can continue thinking this. It makes it more fun that way. — Of course, Merl, who may on occasion read this blog, may correct me in the comment section below…
So, what was it that I was experiencing that morning when I walked in the control room? I mean… What was I “really” experiencing? If, suppose, Jack and Merl really are the two that were in the control room when the “China Syndrome” almost occurred? Was it just an innocent crisis where the water level somehow decided to drop to a dangerously low level all by itself because of a faulty valve that was supposed to be closed, but was really open?
Was Jack and Merl trying to relive the excitement they had felt years earlier when they worked in a nuclear plant and they almost melted a hole all the way from there to China? Was this what experienced bored Power Plant Heroes do during downtime? I suppose it’s possible. It could have been a drill drummed up to test the acuity of the operators. To keep them on their toes. All “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion” just like on the Pequod in Moby Dick.
Something to think about.
Today Merl still lives in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Jack Maloy has moved to Cape Carol, Florida with his wife Louise. I suppose now that he has more time on his hand, hopefully he has given up smoking and is now making his wife happy by attending Church regularly. We can only hope he is at peace, on the opposite side of the United States from California so he doesn’t accidentally run into his old cohorts.
We are all glad that on his way to Florida from California that Jack decided to stop for 25 or so years in Oklahoma to Supervise the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the middle of the countryside…. As Charles Champlin from the Los Angeles Times said of the movie “The China Syndrome” — “Stunning and Skillfully Executed!” — Yeah. That describes Merl and Jack. Either way… Conspiracy or not. These two men are my heroes!
I wish Merl and Jack the best rest of their lives!
Comments from the original post: (one of my most commented posts)
I don’t know if they called them “Black Ops” in 1994, but when the control room operator David Evans answered the phone that day in October, I don’t think he ever expected to have the person on the other end of the line tell him that a military special forces unit was going to stage a mock raid on the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma some time that night. I’m sure Jack Maloy, the shift supervisor, was equally surprised when David told him about the phone call. I heard later that Jack was pretty upset to find out that a military force was going to be attacking our plant in the middle of the night without his permission!
The first we heard about the call was when Jasper Christensen called a meeting of the entire maintenance department on the spur of the moment in the main break room. He told us about the phone call. He said we didn’t have any more information than that. Though the maintenance department shouldn’t be working that night, Jasper said that just in case we were called out for something, we should know that a group of commandos were going to be performing some sort of mock raid on our plant. If we encountered any soldiers sneaking around the plant in the middle of the night in full military gear, not to be alarmed. Just go on doing what you’re doing and don’t bother them.
Now that it is 21 years later (well, almost) the truth can finally come out…. Isn’t that how it goes? When we are sworn to secrecy, isn’t it 21 years before we can finally speak out? (That’s what Shadow Warriors always told me). I don’t remember us taking an oath or anything, but that’s the way it is with Power Plant Men. They just assume that if the military is staging a mock raid on our plant, it is a matter of national security. It seemed as if our plant sort of matched the layout of a power plant somewhere in Central America where the real raid was going to take place.
The main difference between our Power Plant and the one in Honduras, or wherever it was, is that our plant had recently gone through a downsizing. So, our operators at night now had to perform the duties that had before been done by the labor crew. They had to do coal cleanup throughout the conveyor system.
This meant that if one of our auxiliary operators happened to run across someone dressed in the outfit above, they would have naturally handed him either a water hose or a shovel and pointed to the nearest conveyor and said something like, “I’ll start on this end, and you can start over there.” After all. He would already be wearing his respirator.
That day on the way home, Scott Hubbard and I discussed the significance of such a raid on our Power Plant. A year and a half earlier, Janet Reno had really messed up the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Texas when it burned down and burned everyone to death including women and children. So, it would be good to go into a situation like this more prepared.
I had often thought about the steps that could covertly be taken to single-handed destroy the power plant without using any kind of explosives. Those who understood how all the systems worked together could do it if they really wanted to. Of course, that was just how I might occupy my mind when I was doing a repetitive job, like sweeping out the main switchgear. What better place for those thoughts to drift into your mind.
Actually, now that I think about it, instead of sending in the Special Forces, just send in a few Plant Operators, Electricians and Instrument and Controls guys and they could totally destroy the plant in a matter of hours if that was their intent. The same thing could be said about putting a few incompetent people in upper management even if it isn’t their intent, only it takes longer than a couple of hours to destroy the plant in that case.
The next morning when we arrived at the plant, our foreman Alan Kramer told us the stories about the raid that happened the night before. This is what I can remember about it (if any Power Plant Men want to correct me, or add some more stories, please do in the comments below).
First he said that it appeared as if the commandos had landed in some kind of stealth helicopter out on the north side of the intake because later when the power plant men had investigated the site they could see where two wheels on the helicopter had left an impression in the mud. Dan Landes had been keeping a lookout from the top of the Unit 1 boiler, and he thought for a moment that he saw the flash of a red light…. which… thinking about it now, could have been one of those laser sites taking aim at him and mock assassinating him by shooting him in the eye from about 1/2 mile. You know how good American Snipers can be (my plug for the new movie). Good thing he was wearing his auto-tinting safety glasses.
We also heard that one of the operators, Maybe Charles Peavler (Charles is standing next to Dan wearing the pink shirt and carrying something in his lower lip) had stepped out of the office elevator on the ground floor only to come face-to-face with a soldier. When the soldier was seen by the operator, he just turned around and walked out of the door… he evidently was considered a casualty if he was seen by anyone. Either that, or he had to go do coal cleanup the rest of the night.
I think it was Jeff Meyers (front row, left in the picture above) who told us later that the Special Ops forces had left a present for the operators on the Turbine-Generator Room floor. Tracked across the clean shiny red T-G floor were muddy boot prints leading from the Unit 1 boiler entrance to the door to the control room. The tracks ended at the control room door.
The tracks were extra muddy as if someone had intentionally wanted us to see that someone had walked right up to the control room door. The tracks did not lead away from the door. They just ended right there.
So, we did have proof that the commandos had actually visited our plant that night, only because one of the operators had come face-to-face with one in the main lobby. If that hadn’t happened, then they would have come and gone and we would have been none-the-wiser… other than wondering about the strange muddy footprints and the impression left in the mud by the stealth helicopter.
I suppose it was easy for the Power Plant operators to ignore the commandos since for the most part, they never saw them coming or going. The Power Plant Men were happy to play their part in the mock raid. Of all that has been asked of these Power Plant Men over the years, this was one of the more “unique” events. How many Power Plant Men across the country can say that they took part in a Special Ops Commando Raid on their Power Plant?
All I can say is that the commandos sure picked a great bunch of Power Plant Men and Women to attack. We were all honored (even those of us who were at home in bed asleep at the time) to be able to help out the military any way we could.
Sometimes we unknowingly end up worshiping things we never intend. It isn’t until those things are destroyed before we realize what has happened. We have a natural tendency to worship something. It’s built into our DNA to worship God just as sure as the God Particle converts energy into matter and subsequently atoms into earth and water. I’m not sure when my obsession began, but I definitely know the day when it was destroyed. August 5, 1996.
The day of realization began as a normal day, as Scott Hubbard and I were driving to the plant. It seemed like an extra dark morning considering it was the middle of the summer. Perhaps it was because by this time we were working four tens, which meant we arrived at the plant before 7:00 am so we left Stillwater, Oklahoma at 6:15 to drive to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
When we topped the overpass to the turnpike at 6:32 we thought we could see something strange at the Power Plant off in the distance. The sun was going to rise in the next few minutes (at 6:42), yet, the sky seemed darker than usual. It must have been a cloudy morning.
We thought we could see red and blue flashing lights coming from one end of the plant. It was only momentary, because once over the overpass, we were too low to see that section of the plant. We weren’t really sure what we had seen. It became even more confusing as we approached the entrance to the plant.
There seemed to be a little more activity happening at the front gate than usual. there was a guard or an operator standing out there. He waved us through the gate. about 300 yards past the main gate, we had a clear view of the plant grounds laying before us as we made our way to the parking lot. It was here that the significance of the flashing lights suddenly caused us to gasp. We were stunned into silence.
The area around the Unit 1 main power transformer was flashing with the red and blue lights of several fire trucks. They seemed to be pulling away just about that time. Some of the siding on the Turbine-Generator room was missing, some was blackened from smoke as it had poured out of the windows along the turbine room floor. The real shock to me came as we approached the parking lot and I looked up through where a window used to be and I could see the sky. I could see the sky where the T-G roof should have been.
We were directed to go into the maintenance garage to avoid the fire trucks who that were backing away. We met with our team and Alan Kramer told us that there had been an explosion during the night when an overspeed test was being performed on the Unit 1 Boiler Feed Pump Turbine (BFPT). The number one question we all wanted answered was quickly given to us…. No one was hurt in the explosion.
Alan mentioned that in our recent fire fighter training, we had learned that a large percentage of companies that have a major fire (such as ours) goes out of business within the next year. That was not going to happen to us even though the damage was extensive. Our job was to put everything back to the way it was before the fire.
Here is the story as it happened, as much as I know:
The explosion occurred when an operator (I’ll let one of the operators remind me who it was) was running an overspeed test on the BFPT. Suddenly he heard a loud pop and then the turbine winding up out of control. He took off running and was around the corner of a concrete pillar when the turbine exploded. The turning gear shot out like a top and flew across the mezzanine floor, hit the corner of the north stairway, and still spinning like a top, tore up the stairway as it made the turn halfway down and ended up in middle of the the T-G basement where it finally came to rest. This turning gear weighs somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand pounds (I’m guessing).
At this point steam was shooting out of the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine. The oil pumps that keep the bearings lubricated were spraying oil into the steam which burst into flames. The flames shot up to the concrete floor 40 feet above. The fire was so hot that it melted the metal structure holding up the floor and the rebar in the concrete. The Turbine Room Floor literally melted away as the oil fire shot the flames up toward the roof another 80 feet above the turbine room floor melting the roof as if it was butter. The asbestos siding on the T-G floor was falling off because the bolts that held them to the brackets literally melted away.
The same reservoir that feeds the oil to the the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine bearings also fed the Main Turbine Generator. This is the same generator that makes the electricity that causes the light bulb to glow in your house when you turn it on. The Main Turbine Generator tripped when the explosion occurred, as it should. As it slowed down to a stop, the oil for the bearings was all gone. It had been creating the large fire ball that was melting down the T-G floor.
Normally, when the Turbine-Generator comes to a stop, it is put on a turning gear while the shaft cools down otherwise the shaft will become warped under it’s own weight. The Turning gear slowing rotates the turbine for a day or so while it cools. Without bearing oil, the turning gear would not be able to turn the turbine generator. The bearings require a layer of oil to function properly.
Charles Patton, one of the Maintenance foremen was called out, and he took cans of STP Oil Treatment and for hours poured them onto the bearings and manually rotated the 50 ton turbine generator (Ray, help me out with the actual weights). Through the heroic efforts of Charles and others that were there to help, the Turbine Generator was spared from even more damage.
By the time we arrived that morning, the fire was out, things were cooling down. Unit 2 was still running, and it was our job to keep it going.
As I walked out onto the T-G floor everything went into slow motion. I don’t know if that has ever happened to you before. There have been a few times in my life when I was in a near death situation where my surroundings all seem to switch into a slow motion mode. I think it happens because your brain kicks into high gear in order to process what is happening and to put as much effort forward as possible to avoid danger.
The first time I think that happened to me was when I was with some friends climbing around on some cliffs by the Missouri River. One boy was falling back after the ledge he was on gave way and was going to fall most likely to his death when everything switched into slow motion even before I realized what was wrong. I was able to make quick decisions that allowed me to push him back onto the ledge and grab onto a branch that luckily kept me from the same fate.
When I walked onto the T-G floor and saw the devastation, I think my mind was trying to take everything in all at once. The Turbine Generator was covered in soot and debris. I flashed back to the days when I was a janitor and used to keep the turbines waxed so that they would shine. It was at this moment that I realized I actually worshiped the Turbine Generators in a way similar to the way the religious cult worshiped the alpha-omega doomsday bomb in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”.
The near destruction of the Turbine Generator made me realize the importance I had placed on it. I felt as if I had almost lost my close friend like the boy climbing on the cliff. I used to stand on the sides of the Turbines when I was a janitor with my dust mop and after spraying furniture polish on the mop, I would caress the turbines as if I was running my fingers through someone’s hair.
We began the clean up by taking fire hoses and washing down the siding on the Unit 2 side to try to bring some normalcy back to a surreal situation. The soot didn’t just wash off. Not long after we had dragged out the fire hoses and were blasting away at the siding, Alan Kramer asked Charles Foster and I to look at the air duct to the Instrument room on the north side of the Turbine room. The room was getting too hot and the air conditioner seemed to have frozen.
We climbed into the air duct on the roof of the instrument room and replaced the filters that were packed with soot stopping the air flow for the Air Conditioner. This seemed like one task in 100,000 that would need to be done to put this puzzle back together again. All the electric cables that ran through the Unit 1 Mezzanine had melted away, everything had been utterly destroyed.
The thought was too overwhelming. I felt like Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” when she said, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
With everything on the T-G floor covered in soot, everyone was quickly black from head to toe. Are clothes were now black. We looked like Johnny Cash impersonators
literally with Al Jolsen Black Face as the soot was pitch black.
We had just climbed out of the air duct and were making our way to the electric shop when Glenn Rowland approached me and said, “You Lucky Dog!” I thought he must be making a comment about my appearance seeing how I was covered in soot. Then he explained. “For the next 10 weeks you have to report to Oklahoma City to work on an SAP project. You’re a lucky dog because you are going to miss all the fun of cleaning up this mess.”
Did I ever mention that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world? Well. I am. I had just come to grips with my false God, and now I had been rescued from two and a half months of working in soot and grime to go work in an air conditioned office building in Oklahoma City.
Here is a post about how lucky I am: Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck.
Now for the hard part of the story to write about:
So, why did the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine fail the overspeed test? What happened to cause the explosion?
The first attempt to place the blame where it didn’t belong was to blame Sonny Kendrick who had worked on the controls during the last outage. The same person that would accuse me of purposely causing any little opacity problem on the precipitator even when I was on vacation, was now blaming Sonny Kendrick for the multi-million dollar destruction of the Turbine Room Floor.
Sonny Kendrick must have looked like an easy target. A soft-spoken man that works alone most of the time. No one really understands some of the things he works on. Maybe they thought he wouldn’t be able to explain the changes he had made to the controls in enough detail in order to blame him for the explosion. I use the word “target” because someone else had to be “blamed” for the explosion instead of the person responsible. The person they picked as the “fall guy” was Sonny Kendrick:
You see… someone was directly responsible for the explosion. Someone who continuously used “Risk Management” as an excuse to cut corners. I wonder if everything was completely on the unconscious level, or did this person ever realize the impact of his decisions. You see, I haven’t completely decided.
There appears to have been a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the explosion that took three months to recover. The first clue was to try to blame Sonny Kendrick without any proof. I don’t know if Sonny was eventually cleared as the fall guy because he was able to clearly show how all of his wiring changes had no impact on an overspeed test, or someone who knew about the actual cause threatened to come out with the truth if they continued to pursue Sonny as the fall guy. You see… there was more to this equipment failure than met the eye.
The turbine exploded because the coupling to the pump shattered. That’s the part that connects the steam turbine to the boiler feed pump. When the coupling broke the turbine, no longer having any resistance, began to rotate at a rate much faster than it was ever designed to rotate until it flew apart.
It was known at the end of the last outage that the coupling was damaged. It would have delayed bringing the unit online another 2 or 3 days in order change out the coupling. In the name of “Risk Management” it was decided to “risk it” until the next outage. The decision was made without using any type of risk assessment tool… obviously.
I know about the conversations that took place because one of the people involved confided in me. The person that told me the details of the conversations said that even under oath he would never tell anyone else the truth. This is the second clue that made me think that a concerted effort was made to cover up the knowledge that it was known that a faulty coupling was operating on the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine and it had been decided to leave it in place. You see… everyone who was on the team that found the damage knew about it.
The third clue this was a “conspiracy to cover up the truth” was that when an investigation was performed to look into the cause of the explosion, the person responsible for keeping the bad coupling in place played a major role in the investigation. Like the Fox guarding the Hen House.
Because the truth about the coupling never came to light, the insurance company ended up paying the entire bill for the outage. It was ruled as “equipment failure”. Our plant manager Bill Green remarked one day that we actually came out ahead when the insurance company paid for the outage, because they paid our lost revenue without taking all the operating costs into account.
I know sometimes that things just happen and sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes when everything is done correctly, something still goes wrong. I know that. That is why when this explosion first happened it made me step back and think twice about the dangers lurking around a Power Plant. A tremendously large amount of energy is being converted from coal into electricity. Somewhere, some time, something is going to go wrong and someone is going to be hurt or killed.
That is also why when this explosion happened, it never occurred to me to place the blame on anyone. To me it was just one of those things that happens every now and then. My bubble of innocence was burst the day I heard about the decision to keep a defective coupling in place on such an important piece of equipment.
On one hand I was angry that someone would make a decision that could have ended with the death of an operator, on the other hand, I was relieved to know that accidents like this don’t just happen. It was only when someone decided to cut corners that this explosion occurred. It gave me a little of my faith back in the system. When things are done right, we can work safely without the fear that something is likely to explode in our face.
All right, so I never really worshiped the Turbine Generator. I just exaggerated that part a bit. But let me ask this question… Who in this story did? Who was it that was willing to sacrifice the life of an operator to keep from delaying the “go-live”? Who thought that having the Generator produce electricity two or three days sooner than it should have been was more important? That is the person that really needs to re-evaluate their priorities and take another look at which God they worship.
The question is never, “Is there a God?” The real question is “Which God do you worship?”
originally posted on June 30, 2012:
Somewhere today there is a young man named Cameron Powell whose grandmother has recently died and who has a Great Grandmother named Dolores. A kind and gentle lady. If this young man were able to ask his great grandmother about his great grandfather he would hear the tale about a peaceful and kind man that made those who worked with him smile and enjoy their day. He lived his life in love with Dolores and his daughter and the very people that he worked with each day. All you had to do was walk in the same room as Howard Chumbley and a smile would come across your face instantly.
You see. While I was in my first years as a summer help at the Coal Fired Power Plant learning from the True Power Plant men of my day, 15 miles north of the plant along the Arkansas River was another plant. This plant was being operated by the Power Plant Pioneers of an earlier time. While we had the latest technological advancements that were available in 1974 when our plant was designed, the Osage plant was using old mechanical instruments that measured actual pressures and temperatures. What this meant was that when the pressure gauge registered 1000 pounds of pressure, it was because the pipe that was connected to the back or bottom of the gauge had 1000 lbs of pressure on it. I don’t know. They may have had a regulator on there that cut the pressure down to a safer range. That would seem crazy to anyone today to think that behind the Control Panel in the Control Room were pipes that ran from different steam pipes all over the plant to the gauges on the Control board, so that the Control Room operators could operate the plant correctly.
The Power Plant Men that worked in these early Generating Stations were subjected to dangerous chemicals and conditions though it was the best they knew at the time. Asbestos insulation covered the steam pipes. Turbine oil with PCBs were used to clean their tools. Howard Chumbley explained to me one day that they used to wash their tools in Turbine oil up to their elbows in what was now known to contain the dangerous chemical PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyls). A funny fact I found out later was that there was a temperature probe in the river just downstream from the plant taking the temperature of the water just like Sooner Plant (See the Post about Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River).
When the old Osage Plant closed in the early 1980s, that was when I first learned about it. This was because some of the pioneer power plant men came to work at our plant. Howard Chumbley became an Electical foreman and Gilbert Schwarz came to our plant as the superintendent of operations. Two gray haired men, both with a kind of slow peaceful look on their face. Howard had a smaller build with soft wavy gray hair. He could have been a professor at Harvard if you put a pipe in his mouth and a turtleneck sweater. Of course, that would not have been fitting for Howard. Gilbert was tall and had the look of a cowboy or a farm hand. I understand that he enjoyed working on the farm.
One year after I became an electrician in November 1984, Howard Chumbley became my foreman. It was less than a year after that when Howard retired. During the short time he was my foreman we took a trip up to the Osage Plant. It was named Osage because the Osage Indian Nation Territorial boundary is directly across the river from the plant. The plant itself actually sat adjacent to the Ponca Indian Tribe just outside of Ponca City. The day we went to the plant, Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien). a Power Plant Electrician and I loaded a special hazardous material containment barrel into the truck and I was given a special suit that I was to wear that would cover me from head to toe while I cleaned up a PCB spill. A smaller plant transformer had been removed from the old plant and there had been a slow leak under it that left a tar like substance on the concrete where the transformer had stood. As Howard, Diana and I approached the plant and I spied it for the first time. This is what I saw:
As we drove closer I had a better look at the plant as we drove around the other side:
It was definitely an old abandoned power plant. We took the barrel out of the back of the truck and hauled it inside on a two wheel dolly (or two-wheel hand truck, as it is often called). When we entered the abandoned plant we walked across the turbine room floor:
I could see where equipment used to stand that had been sold for scrap or stolen by vandals.
When we arrived at the oil spill I was surprised by how small of a spot it was. It couldn’t have been more than one square foot. I put on the rubber suit with it’s rubber hat, rubber boots and a full face respirator and rubber gloves. I took a putty knife and scraped up the tar-like substance and placed it in special bag that had a special seal on it.
When I had scraped up the thick stuff, I poured trichloroethane 1.1.1 solvent (which is no longer used due to the dangerous fumes that damages your liver) on the spot and scrubbed it with a wire brush. Then I took a Scotch Brite pad and scrubbed the floor until the spot was much cleaner than the concrete around it. Everything I had used went into the special barrel. The bags of tar, the Scotch Brite pad, the wire brush the putty knife and the rags I had used to wipe everything up. Then as I took off my suit, every piece of the rubber suit including the full face respirator went into the barrel. Once everything was in the barrel, the special lid was placed on top and it was bolted shut. A Hazardous Waste sticker was placed on the barrel and the time and date and what was in the container was written on it.
We took the barrel back to the plant and it was placed in a hazardous waste Conex Box that was later buried when it was full of different types of hazardous waste from all over Oklahoma.
A few years after Howard Chumbley retired, so did Gilbert Schwartz. Gilbert was the Superintendent over the Operators so I didn’t work around Gilbert and I knew very little about him. However, later when I was married and living in Ponca City, I would see him at the Catholic Church in Ponca City where he was a member of the Knights of Columbus. He would nod and say hi whenever he saw me.
Both Howard and Gilbert were in the military. I know that Howard Chumbley was in the Navy during World War II and that Gilbert Schwarz was in the Korean War. Growing up I noticed that older men that had served in the armed forces seemed to have light gray hair. Especially if they had been in the Navy. I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence. Aubrey Cargill was that way also (See the post about Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill).
In 1998, Howard Chumbley died unexpectedly when he was admitted to the hospital in Ponca City with a broken arm. The hospital in Ponca City had a bad reputation (or Mortality Rate, as some might say). People didn’t want to go there if there was anyway to avoid it. The hospital in Stillwater was the preferred hospital in this area of Oklahoma.
I only met Dolores Chumbley on two occasions and they were both at Christmas or Award banquets. She seemed the perfect spouse for Howard as she appeared kind and peaceful as well. I’m sure they had a happy life together. I do not have a picture of Howard. I wish I did. His demeanor reminds me of my Mother-In-Law. We have a picture of her in our hallway and the words below the picture says: “Be Kind”. I would say that this is what Howard was all about. Everything about Howard was kindness. I was glad to have known him.
This past week on June 24, 2012 Gilbert Schwarz died at the age of 83. He lived a long and happy life as did Howard. There was something about these Power Plant Pioneers that gave them a strange sort of peace.
I never found the source of this peace for sure. I suppose it was their long and happy marriages with their loving and supportive wives. Howard had a daughter that he was always very proud to discuss. She was a teacher somewhere close to Tulsa. She recently died of Cancer on January 4. That was 2 days after I wrote my first Power Plant Man post (Why Santa Visits Power Plant Men) at the beginning of this year.
Gilbert never had a child of his own, but his nieces and nephews meant a lot to him throughout his life and he was active in their lives as they grew up. I suppose if the Power Plant Pioneers were anything like the True Power Plant Men of my day, then they found a lot of peace in the friendships that they had with their fellow Power Plant Men locked away behind the Main Gate that they had to drive through each day on the way to work. Once you drive through that gate and enter into the Power Plant Kingdom, there is a certain peace that you feel knowing that what you will do that day will directly affect the lives of millions of people in the state of Oklahoma.
These Pioneers of the early days willingly put themselves at risk working around equipment that did not have the safeties and guards that we have today to supply the electricity to the State. I don’t know if there are a few of these brave Pioneers left from the Osage Plant. Gilbert was the last of the older men that I knew about. If you happen to find one of these men some day, don’t miss the opportunity to talk to him. I am sure they would be proud to tell you of the days that they spent being Pioneers of the Power Plant World. You should be able to recognize them. You can pick them out in a crowd. They are the mild peaceful looking old men treating the people around them with respect.