day they blew B2
I shall never forget the day they commissioned B2.
This all happened at BOC's Maydown plant, where they
acetylene from naphtha, a process which produces an amazing amount of
vicious, viscous, sticky, smelly and 'orrible tar which clings to
everything and everyone - and can be used for nothing - not
roads. At the time I worked there the environmental laws were very lax
and the firm got rid of most of the tar by digging large pits and
tipping the stuff into them. The area is still full of tar pits, that
look like pretty little lakes, because rain water has covered the
poison - but woe betide any hapless person who risks a plunge or indeed
When the firm had dumped as much tar as they
were allowed to, they started to burn the stuff - not for heat, but
simply to get rid of it. This was done in B1 - boiler number one. The
contraption was a mad engineer's dream: primitive, ugly and eminently
functional. The only parts that weren't covered with rust were the bits
clarried in tar. The structure had a tall chimney at one end of a round
furnace which made it look like a design discarded by Stevenson before
he finally built his famous Rocket.
The chimney usually belched huge amounts of black,
smoke. Below it was a massive hinged flap, weighed down with concrete
slabs. It wasn't immediately clear what this was for, but if you
watched the boiler in operation for long enough, the purpose became
painfully obvious: B1 had a nasty habit of exploding - too many tar
fumes would accumulate in the combustion chamber and it would suddenly
erupt like a particularly noxious volcano. This would start with a loud
bang, the flap would fly open belching flames, smoke and sulphur, the
hounds of hell would bay, the flap would shut again as if nothing had
happened and the noise of the rest of the plant would suddenly be audible
again. No matter how often this happened, the performance always had a
certain star quality and the sound effects were pure James Bond:
"Boooom ..... booooom ..... whooosh .... clonck! ...... clack?".
Stirred, but not overly shaken!
The routine got so popular - and embarrassing - it was
decided that B1 had to go. The old burner only burned tar - the new one
would not just burn the stuff, it would produce some steam as well,
thereby increasing the efficiency of the plant and give the engineering
staff something to boast about over an evening drink with their
colleagues from the neighbouring DuPont plant, which used our acetylene
to make Neoprene. For historical reasons B1 was left where it was and
B2 was built right beside it.
Sometimes I think they left B1 standing, because someone would have had
to touch it in order to tear it down.
B2 grew into a gleaming streamlined structure,
with stainless steel by the ton and boasting a control room so full of
enticing instruments, it would have made the above-mentioned spy reach
for his sabotage kit out of pure joy for the job.
The new design was
well thought out: in order to keep explosions to a minimum the tar
wouldn't just burn - but it would combust in a
complicated envelope of steam. This, in theory, reduced the explosive
potential (and the entertainment value) of the show, but - in theory - would make for a much
weeks the place was busy with clever people in sparkling white coats
and even whiter helmets - some of them bestuck with the odd plastic
beaker - giving orders to an army of toiling boiler-suited men - until
finally B2 stood tall and gleaming. It looked somewhat
like a huge stainless steel locomotive without wheels. There was a
flurry of further activity - Tommy Grumley and even Tom
(above and below) were called upon to wire the place - but finally the
was ready and waiting to be commissioned ... which is industrial talk
for turning the damned thing on if it turns out to work.
time I was employed by BOC as a maintenance
electrician and as I had only recently started, I was given all
the horrible jobs that nobody else liked to do. That particular day
found me clinging to the top of a ten metre high floodlight pole,
trying to change a light bulb. Heavy work, what with the tar clogging
up all the screws. As it happened, I had the ideal grandstand to watch
the developing drama. For a while I amused myself
by watching some men operating a nearby crane.
"Lower the jib"
yelled the mechanic on the ground.
From high up above came the faint reply:
"Up or down?"
Some people get all the best jobs! As I glanced across
the new boiler I noticed a troop of white clad men - gleaming coats,
white helmets - not a beaker in sight - heading towards the shining
control room. Each carried his clipboard tightly clamped beneath a
freshly washed armpit. I watched in awe as the polished crew entered
B2's gleaming control room - too fascinated by the spectacle to
Tense moments passed until finally a tiny whiff of
accompanied by the banshee-like sounds of starting motors indicated
that B2 had been stirred into life. I had just about decided that all
this was taking far too long and that I might just as well get on with
my work, when a huge explosion rocked the structure. Pitch black smoke
belched from the chimney and - to my great delight - also out of the
control room door. I waited with baited breath and - just as expected -
the cloud of noxious black fumes was followed by a panicky crowd of
commissioneers - not white and clean any more, but just as black and
smelly as the fumes that had driven them out. Their coats, their
helmets, their faces, their hands - all were the colour of freshly
shined black boots - even the clipboards were black, though it is
possible that the armpits were still all right.
The startled crowd performed a confused war-dance-like
management ritual which involved a lot of cursing and sneezing
and then disappeared in the direction of the admin block, discarding
clipboards as they went.
silent for two or more weeks - though repair crews fixed the
worst of the damage. Obviously some furious design work had been taking
place, because two weeks later the second act of this industrial drama
was about to be enacted. By some quirk of fate I was hanging onto the
same pole as the last time - the other bulb had gone - when the
gleaming white platoon re-appeared - looking somewhat less optimistic
but still full of puppy confidence - and just as clean as two weeks
However, this time 'round one or two white beakers, cheekily stuck to
executive helmets, were in evidence - and
B2 showed obvious signs of tear, if not wear.
I watched them enter the control room with bated
much happened for a while - black smoke rose out of the chimney - the
blower started - then all was peace and quiet. I waited -
optimistically confident that the performance was not yet over.
have taken more than five minutes - I seem to recall that one lucky
actually managed to leave the place to deliver a message - when
suddenly there was another great big eruption. Windows shattered, my
pole shook and made me drop my tools onto rattled passers by, who
promptly turned into passers out. I looked towards the
control room just in time to
see the door fly open yet again.
This time it belched a great big cloud
of sulphurous smelling yellow smoke. It billowed into the sky and one
hardly see the dim escaping figures who had caused this impressive
spectacle. I was full of anticipation - clinging to my precarious hold,
crowd of white-clad engineers to exit their place of work just like
felt - yellow from head to toe.
I was wrong though. When they finally staggered into sight they
looked scared all right, but they were just as black as after the first