Home > 2011 Posts, About Dave > I Came, I Saw, I Was Nearly Killed

I Came, I Saw, I Was Nearly Killed

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

The mill from hell, was pretty quiet that day. I thought there might even be a chance to eat my lunch in the Maintenance Shop at actual lunchtime. But, no.

After my partner and I had finished the first halves of our sandwiches and figured out how to create world peace—if people would just listen to us!—a trivial little call came in over the radio from the treatment pond. A gauge needle was sticking again. My partner put down his own sandwich, slung his leather tool belt over his shoulder and said, “My turn,” before heading out toward Fragrant Acres.

A few bites later, another call came in. The temperature reading for the main flow out of the pulp mill had crapped out. Keeping the temperature right was vital. In fact, it was one of maybe two or three instruments that could soon shut the whole site down if it failed. With a forlorn look at our abandoned lunches on the bench, I slung my own tool belt over my shoulder and headed out as well.

My first stop was Pulp Mill Control to get details from the operator who’d made the call. He said that the reading had just dropped to zero a few minutes before and wouldn’t come back up, even after the usual restorative measure of rapping the gauge with an empty coffee cup.

I checked for a signal to the gauge and found none. Then, I stepped my way through the control loop, and, finally, back toward the sensor. In any other mill, I would have just taken a couple readings and soon isolated the problem. Here, in this massively corroded and thoroughly neglected industrial abomination, spawned from Beelzebub himself, anything could be wrong, not just The Likely Suspects.

After a few minutes’ work, all that was left to be checked was the heat sensor itself. I made my way through the debris-floored, rusty, metal jungle under the Bleach Plant to stand below my target, amidst the thunderous noise and bone-jarring vibrations of thousand-horsepower pumps. Corroded metal and dripping chemicals were all around me, except for a few bright, clean spots where our new crews had begun to put in proper, stainless steel components during emergency repairs.

Immediately above and below the sensor, two, bright steel bands circled the big, four-foot diameter, fiberglass transfer pipe. Hmmm, I thought. Maybe that’s the problem. In a hectic, high-pressure production environment, it’s common for one quick repair to set up another impending failure in the next component—like fixing an old chain with many weak links. I wondered what I would find when I climbed up on the pump housing to check.

Standing on the massive casing, my boots were maybe five feet off the crud-covered concrete floor, and the thermo-well containing my errant sensor was chest-high in front of me. I saw now that not too long ago the fiberglass had been patched  around the sensor’s thermo-well. And, the new steel straps that had caught my eye from below were extra insurance to hold it in place.

They were obviously intended as a temporary measure. Up close, I could see that each one was made up of a head-to-tail series of big screw-clamps, giant versions of the ones often used on a car’s radiator hoses. Hmmmm, I thought again. Curiouser and curiouser. But, things looked in order. Mostly. A bit quirky, but in order.

The thermo-well, a heavy piece of stainless steel, intruded into the warm flow of chlorinated pulp. The well was heavy so it wouldn’t react to herky-jerky small temperature changes that really didn’t mean anything. A hollow space inside the well held the actual bi-metalic sensor that could be checked or replaced from outside the pipe.

The well was brand new, but the sensor cap was not. Under a thin, spiffy, fresh coat of white enamel spray paint, crumbly mounds of corrosion covered its surface. Given how recent the fiberglass repair seemed to be, I thought to myself that if the cap didn’t come loose when I tried to unscrew it by hand, I’d go back for my partner. Then, he could hold the thermo-well still while I reefed on the corroded cap.

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I remember a thump as the ten-pound steel assembly hit me in the chest after I touched the cap. It was a solid shot. 150 PSI pressure inside the big pipe drove the 5-inch diameter missile at me with that small sensor cap as its arrowhead.

The impact must have knocked the air out of me as it and the blast of chlorinated pulp behind threw me back ten feet or so into a stanchion, where my hard hat flew off and I fell like a coverall-encased rag doll nearly to the ground. But, luckily, my shoulder-slung tool belt hung up on an old angle-iron stub welded to the column, suspending my mouth and nose a couple feet off the concrete.

When I came to, my autonomic nervous system was hacking up mouthfuls of pulp from my throat. And, in the few seconds it took me to sort of start functioning again, my head was already two feet deep in the bright, white stuff. I was quickly being buried by the massive flow from what had now become a two-foot diameter hole.

I couldn’t hold my breath to avoid further chlorine gas exposure because it had already burned my throat too much. So, I struggled up and swam-walked to the edge of the fast-growing Mount Fuji replica as fast as I could.

Fortunately, the Maintenance Shop was only about a hundred feet away; I stumbled toward it, squinting my burning eyes and dry-coughing like a dozen cats hacking up razorblade fur balls.

At this point, I should mention that pulp is funny stuff in some ways. Besides being a non-Newtonian fluid, it’s amazingly sticky.

I didn’t encounter anyone on that very long short walk. But I did have time to regain a tiny bit of self-respect. When I got close to the shop, I didn’t want to look any more lame than I had to walking through the big, open service entrance. So, I stood up as straight as I could, squared my shoulders, brushed some of the crud off my face and then groggily coughed and weaved my way inside.

My friend, Art, a master welder capable of joining two Prince Albert tobacco tins together without a visible seam, saw me first. Instantly, his jaw dropped and his face lit up. A series of giant guffaws burst from his barrel chest and he pointed at me in sheer delight. At that, my other compadres on the crew turned and took up his glee.

Until I passed out again half-way to the showers. Don’t scowl like that. They did what most anyone would have done.

A few hours later, when I was moderately functional again, each one even came by the nurse’s station to check on me, wish me well … and snicker a bit more.

I quickly decided—and still think—that my brush that day with the Reaper assigned to collect souls from industrial operations wasn’t as bad as the ribbing I got for the next four months.

How would you like to be greeted all day, every day, with “It’s the Chicken Man!”?

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