Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Keeping the Kilns Turning

In 1968, we averted disaster and saved 150 jobs
by Ronald M.

On a summer day, disaster was averted. At risk were 150 jobs, disappointed customers, millions of dollars in lost revenue and millions in additional capital expense. This is my story.

On Tuesday, June 25, 1968, I worked at the Dragon Cement plant (then a division of Martin Marietta) located in the small town of Northampton, Pennsylvania. I was the first-class electrician on the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift. My duties were to monitor, maintain and repair the plant's electrical and production equipment. This are my memories of that Tuesday evening, so many years ago.

In the early evening hours, an ominous storm was upon the Lehigh Valley, including the Northampton area. I watched the storm approach. There was lighting, thunder, heavy winds and rain. As the storm grew more intense, I proceeded to take up residence at the plant’s electrical center substation. I was confident that I knew what to do should an emergency arise. I began to think about the process of disconnecting the entire electrical load. This was a major decision because the plant was operating at 100 percent full capacity with all of the materials in the systems, on the conveyors, in the grinding mills and clinkers burning at 2600 degrees Fahrenheit in the kilns. If the kilns are not turning, the 2,600-degree heat will warp the kiln and render it useless. What challenged my abilities to perform my duties were the dire consequences that might come with closing down the entire plant. Abruptly halting production (when all systems are on full capacity) would cause catastrophic results. I had to consider millions of dollars lost in revenues and millions of dollars for new capital equipment. My actions would not only cost me my job, but the jobs of 150 other employees working at the plant. Employee safety was a major concern, and I needed to reconcile the decision to shut down the plant.

The storm became more intense and vicious; employee safety was now the only concern on my mind. I could no longer wait, and I made a bold decision. It was time to act, and the decision was made—I would disconnect the entire plant. I felt confident in my decision-making abilities from my training at the plant and back in the United States Navy when I was aboard the U.S.S. Baltimore CA68 heavy cruiser back in 1952 to 1956.

Just as I opened the main oil circuit breaker to disconnect the entire plant’s electrical system, lightning struck the substation! The incoming 69,000-volt line blew out the 2,300-volt transformer, destroying many 6-foot high insulators and sending debris that gouged out of the substation’s walls. (These building gouges are still visible today.) As the strike hit the main 2,300-volt transformer, the pressure built up,blowing out the top safety hatch and spilling oil and flames over the transformer and the substation. I felt the explosion and fire. My only protection from the 69,000 volts, the fire and the explosion was a concrete wall! I was lucky that I was not injured! As the only person in the substation, and although there was equipment chaos going on around me, I proceeded to fight the oil fires.

A disaster like this had never happened at the plant either before or since. My work dedication, attention to detail and training gave me the foundation to perform during a disaster. I never could have imagined a disaster of this magnitude.

The plant was dark, the fire was successfully extinguished and I was able to stabilize the situation. Chief Electrician Steven A. Lizak arrived at the scene. Once he was there, we performed an electrical assessment and began to restore power. We needed to get the kilns turning, or risk unrepairable damage.

Working around the clock, we replaced the oil in the main oil circuit breaker switch gear, replaced the destroyed insulators, cleaned up the substation, switched over to the spare 2,300 volt transformer and cleaned up all of the 69,000-volt knife switches. Electrical supply was back on line within 24 hours. We proceeded to restore power to the production departments’ one system at a time. This ensured employee and equipment safety. During operation capacity, the approximate power consumption per month of the plant was 4,400,000  kilowatt-hour, producing 420,000 tons of cement per year.

I was very proud my actions that night were able to potentially save millions of dollars and 150 jobs. I also assisted the plant management team to restore the employee’s faith in the safety of the plant and to put the plant back on-line. It was a lot of excitement and I will never forget that day. I received a letter of commendation from the plant manager.

My Letter of Commendation