The original Wolf plant sign

The day they blew B2 

I shall never forget the day they commissioned B2.

This all happened at BOC's Maydown plant, where they extracted 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 even 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 a dive!
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, oily 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 Tommy Grumleyaudible 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 finally 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, glittering 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 quieter life.   For 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 Pollock  (above and below) were called upon to wire the place - but finally the new boiler was ready and waiting to be commissioned ... which is industrial talk for turning the damned thing on if it turns out to work.
Tom Pollock
At that 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 to 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 concentrate on my work.

Tense moments passed until finally a tiny whiff of white smoke 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.
Three hard workers
B2 lay 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 ago. 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 breath. Nothing 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.

It must have taken more than five minutes - I seem to recall that one lucky soul 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 could hardly see the dim escaping figures who had caused this impressive spectacle. I was full of anticipation - clinging to my precarious hold, expecting the crowd of white-clad engineers to exit their place of work just like they 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 go.

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