82nd General Meeting Speaker Presentation
BLOWBACK: BETWEEN THE LINES
By Paul Brennan
The following presentation was delivered at the 82nd General Meeting on May 13, by Paul Brennan. It has been edited for content and phrasing. To follow along with Mr. Brennan’s slide presentation, click here.
As Director of Public Affairs for the National Board, Mr. Paul Brennan is responsible for execution of the General Meeting as well as all communications, marketing, and governmental affairs functions. An award-winning writer, he began his career in communications at the age of 19. Before pursuing his professional interest in industrial public relations, he served as a broadcast journalist in northeast Ohio where he reported stories for all of the major news networks. He holds bachelor’s degrees in both journalism and English from Kent State University. During a career spanning 45 years, the Pittsburgh native has written a number of articles and lectured on the subjects of marketing and government affairs at universities and before professional groups and associations. Additionally, he is a former professional advisor to journalism students at The Ohio State University.
For the next 30 minutes I want to try to engage your imagination. Many of you have heard the phrase “reading between the lines.” Unfortunately, not enough of us are taking the time or effort to read between the lines; that is, more fully appreciate the true dynamic of the safety message.
To begin with, can I see a show of hands of those of you whose family members know specifically what it is you do for a living? Now, I'm talking about what it is you do day in and day out. I'm sure a number of family members know you do something with pressure equipment, but what about your neighbors? My point is that if those close to us don't know what we do, how can we expect the general public? And why should we care about the general public? Why should the general public care about what we do?
The answer is safety.
When it comes to safety, we are all stakeholders. Actions involving pressure-retaining items happen every day, but how many of us make the connection to the impact on daily life? Sometimes we fail to observe the subtlety of what goes on around us, the details. Let me give you an example. Any fans of Van Halen in the audience? Do you remember several years ago when it was revealed the band demanded that all of the brown M&Ms be removed from bowls of candy in their dressing room? Each band performance is covered by a contract and a rider that goes into minute detail as to how a show is to be set up. While taking out the brown M&Ms may have seemed a bit narcissistic even for a rock band, there was a perfectly logical reason.
When a rock show is being readied, there is a ton of equipment that needs to be set up, and a lot of that apparatus has to do with safety fixtures essential to the show. When the band's manager spotted brown M&Ms, he surmised the rider had not been fully read. And if these specifications were not fully read, there was good reason safe working conditions were not going to be a priority of the evening. That's a true story.
Every day we must confront a number of challenges that make our job tougher. One that I find particularly disturbing concerns the lack of urgency to educate new generations. Many young people look upon pressure equipment as something their grandparents had in what they used to call “cellars.” Few fully understand pressure-retaining items are as important today as ever before.
BLOWBACK addresses a number of what I call cultural associations, such as paintball games and beer kegs. The objective was to make young readers see there is reasonable cause to be vigilant around items many would never suspect as being dangerous. I cited numerous examples and varied examples with the goal of making the reader more aware of his surroundings, his contemporary surroundings.
Boys and girls, we are not playing a video game here. There is no reset button. And losers don't get a chance to go home and go to school the next day. Unless we venture to educate the younger generations, I'm afraid our industry will become both less understood and less connected to the people we protect.
Between the lines, that means taken for granted, nonrelevant, and failure to educate our young people will only aggravate the shortage of qualified pressure equipment professionals. BLOWBACK was written to connect the dots between industrial-sized pressure vessels and pressure-retaining items we are used to and exposed to every day. And that's why there are so many references in the book to everyday situations and items many people would not identify as retaining pressure. It's all about identity, and yet few could even describe a pressure vessel, let alone point to one.
Here are some elementary examples. How many of you would call a Coke bottle a pressure-retaining item? Technically it's just that, and it's the most iconic symbol in the world, and it is one of the very few packages granted a trademark by the U.S. Patent Office. Here is another iconic pressure vessel shape. What kind of pressure does a ketchup bottle contain? At a warehouse in New Jersey last October, authorities discovered a counterfeit ketchup operation. Apparently the counterfeiters decided to fill Heinz plastic ketchup containers with an inferior brand with the hope of cashing in on the difference. What authorities found were boxes of the refilled bottles, many of which had exploded. What these counterfeit geniuses failed to do was their research. Storing ketchup that has been opened in a hot environment or direct sunlight initiates a fermentation process that can cause the container to explode. Even the simple transfer of ketchup from one bottle to another allows introduction of microbes that begin consuming the condiment and emitting gas. This creates pressure that can only be released through the removal of the cap. Think about that the next time you request ketchup with that side of fries.
Let's discuss one more example. I'm sure all of us in this room are familiar with the champagne bottle, but it's not this type of pressure vessel that is considered dangerous. It's this cork-constructed stopper that concerns the Academy of Ophthalmology. The academy was so concerned that it produced a video and even issued a news release preceding New Year's Eve on the dangers of eye-related injuries caused by champagne corks. Back in 1974, a study in a British journal said 32,000 people in the U.S. were treated for bottle-related trauma. According to the academy, champagne bottles contain pressure as high as 90 pounds per square inch, and that's considerably more pressure than is found in a typical commercial truck tire. As the cork leaves the bottle, it can achieve speeds approaching 50 miles an hour.
Now, maybe a Coke bottle and a ketchup bottle and a champagne bottle are a little too pedestrian, I agree, but it underscores my premise that pressure-containing items are found everywhere. So why isn't the public more vigilant? Because the public needs everyday examples.
About a dozen years ago, John Hoh and I were assigned to man a National Board exhibit at the Conference of State Legislatures. This is a conference attended mainly by state legislators and elected officials from all over the U.S. I'm sure you can imagine talking to state officials about pressure equipment is tantamount to discussing the physics of nuclear particles. But our first challenge was getting their attention. In his infinite wisdom, John pulled out a small mechanism that instantly became a traffic stopper. A number of people wanted to talk about it because they knew what it was, or perhaps because they knew that they had seen one in their homes. The fact it was related to their own personal safety compounded the interest.
That mechanism was this water heater safety valve. A lot of people we spoke to during that conference walked away a little wiser when they came to understand the potential dangers associated with the water heaters in their homes. They didn't want to discuss massive industrial pressure vessels. They wanted to discuss something they could relate to. And that is the secret of spreading our message of safety.
I am not being sarcastic when I tell you that if you can get the attention of politicians, how hard can it be to reason with children? History is a very important part of our industry's context. Early years of the pressure equipment business were distinguished by hundreds of years of death and destruction. But it took just one accident in the early 1900s to provoke a jurisdiction to take preventative action and pass what is to this very day one of the most stringent pressure equipment laws that exists in North America.
That incident was the Grover Shoe Factory in Brockton, Massachusetts. While BLOWBACK provided the reader with one spectacular photo taken after the explosion, there were two photographs we just couldn't fit in. Ironically, these two communicated volumes on what happened that day on March 20, 1905. That was the day a total of 58 lives were taken when an unattended boiler overheated and exploded. The unspeakable blast launched the boiler through the roof of the four-story factory with such force that it leveled the entire building.
This was the home of engineer David Rockwell who lived just 112 feet from the factory. As you can see, the boiler passed through his house at 80 Denton Street. His wife and three children were home at the time of the explosion; they were not injured. In the upper left corner of this photo, you can see the smokestack, which was the only part of the factory left standing. This is the front of Mary Pratt's home at 72 Denton Street. Fortunately for Mary, as the explosion occurred, she was walking from the front of her house to the rear. Her home was 200 feet from the Grover plant.
As all of you know, boiler explosions onboard steam ships in the 1800s were quite common. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, in 1823 alone, 14 percent of all steam vessels in the United States were destroyed by boiler explosions resulting in more than 1,000 fatalities. Back in the mid-1800s, and for obvious reasons, there were a number of skeptics uncomfortable with boiler technology.
On March 6th, 1860, the Alfred Thomas steamboat was launched on the Delaware River in Easton, Pennsylvania. To celebrate this social holiday, citizens of the Lehigh Valley gathered as the steamboat's two owners and Alfred Thomas himself climbed aboard for a first excursion. There were about 30 people on board when at 1:17 that afternoon, a horrendous explosion occurred that destroyed the Alfred Thomas's entire front end. Twelve people died including the two owners. Curiously, Alfred Thomas himself survived. Of all the celebrities on board the Alfred Thomas that day was one conspicuous by his absence. That person was the boat's builder, Thomas Bishop. Bishop was uncomfortable with chief engineer Sam Schaeff's installation of the boiler. And so on this day of the launch, he refused to board the steamboat and be part of the celebratory activities. But chief engineer Schaeff did. His body was found after the explosion and could only be identified by the uniform he was wearing.
The ferry boat has long been considered ideal for transporting large numbers of people across bodies of water. But back in the mid-to-late 1800s, ferry boats also had a problem: boiler explosions. On July 30, 1871, 200 persons boarded the Westfield Ferry on a hot Sunday afternoon. Shortly after departure, a boiler under the front deck exploded. The cause of the accident was never identified; however, it was explained, carrying steam above the pressure allowed by the inspector's certificate was not uncommon. Interestingly, the Westfield's engineer was illiterate and couldn't read the certificate. Original estimates from the explosion stated there were 40 fatalities. The final tally: 125 deaths. And there you have it, the worst accident in the history of the New York Staten Island Ferry.
Although BLOWBACK addresses a number of ways pressure equipment can accidentally explode, I didn't go into the one method of blowing up boilers on purpose. One suspected reason given for the Sultana explosion was that a confederate sympathizer planted what was called a coal torpedo in the steamship's coal pile. That torpedo allegedly contained gun powder that would ignite once fed into the boiler firebox. Although that theory was disproven, the use of coal torpedoes, or as they were also called coal shells, were believed to be a common method of compromising the Union's naval capability. The torpedoes were hollowed iron castings filled with explosives and covered in coal dust. In order for the torpedo to work, it had to be secretly placed in a coal pile on board a Union steamship. While the coal bomb itself was generally insufficient in its capability to sink a vessel, the potential to provoke a secondary explosion by blowing up the steam boiler was considerable.
Because the papers of the Confederate Secret Service were destroyed at the end of the Civil War, there is no record as to the effectiveness of the coal torpedoes. Today coal torpedoes could be considered a forerunner of improvised explosive devices that include land mines and naval mines. An Irish nationalist organization considered placing coal torpedoes in the furnaces of New York City hotels in the late 1860s and early 1870s. English transatlantic steamships were also thought to be targets. Both the American and the British Secret Services reportedly used exploding coal during World War II. German operatives in 1943 planned to use coal explosives to damage coal-fired electric generating plants on Long Island. It is believed as recently as the Vietnam War, coal torpedoes were used to sabotage North Vietnamese railways.
And speaking of the Sultana, many believe it was the most horrible accident in navigation history. It may surprise you that it was not. The worst accident in the history of navigation did not involve a boiler explosion per se, but it did involve two steamships. The date is December 6, 1917, and the occasion is World War I. The place is Halifax Harbor in Canada. As the French vessel S.S. Mont Blanc headed north into the harbor, the Belgium relief ship S.S. Imo made its way south. But the Imo was on the wrong side of the channel and headed directly into the path of the oncoming Mont Blanc.
At 8:45, the Imo collided with the Mont Blanc by impaling itself nine feet into the Mont Blanc's hull. To extricate itself, the Imo reversed engines. The metal-on-metal friction generated enough sparks to prompt the Mont Blanc's captain to issue an abandon ship order to all the crew members. A fire at the forward section of the ship generated oily black smoke that drew the attention of Halifax citizens who gathered onshore to watch this disaster-in-the-making. Mont Blanc crew members were literally rowing to shore for their lives, and as they passed the rescue boats headed toward the Mont Blanc, the crew members attempted to dissuade the rescuers rowing toward the French steamship. The warnings, however, fell on deaf ears since the Mont Blanc crew members only spoke French. The abandoned ship, now adrift and ablaze, started to drift toward Halifax's Richmond neighborhood. Halifax's fire department, with its one motorized truck and a dozen horse-drawn wagons, moved toward the flaming ship. And then all hell broke loose.
The Mont Blanc emitted a blast stronger than any man-made explosion in the history of the world previous to the atomic age. What was not known by the captain of the Imo and the townspeople of Halifax was that the Mont Blanc was carrying munitions and explosives destined for France. Because the French were afraid the Germans would target the Mont Blanc, the steamship headed to Halifax to meet a convoy of French ships that would in turn escort the Mont Blanc across the Atlantic.
In an effort to keep its mission a secret, the Mont Blanc carried no identifying signs or flags. On board the Mont Blanc were 228,000 kilos of TNT, two kilos of wet and dry picric acid used in the manufacture of munitions and explosives, and 223,000 kilos of highly-flammable benzol, and the equally flammable guncotton used in firearms. When the Imo hull ruptured the hull of the Mont Blanc, the sparks ignited a lethal cocktail of picric acid and fumes from the damaged barrels of benzol. What those French crewmen knew that no one else in Halifax knew that day was that something very bad was going to happen, and they couldn't get far enough away. And something very bad did happen.
The Mont Blanc was blown nearly 1,000 feet in the air. Every home and apartment and business within a 10-mile radius was either completely destroyed or damaged instantly. A ball of fire climbed 6,000 feet over the harbor. Smoke extended a distance of 20,000 feet. Such was the concussion that items fell off shelves 80 miles away. The shock wave was felt as far as 200 miles from the explosion. Everything within 400 acres of the explosion was incinerated. A 1,100-pound piece of Mont Blanc's anchor was tossed over two miles. The ship's gun barrel was launched over three miles. The Imo was blown ashore, killing its captain and bridge crew. Over 1,500 people died instantly. More than 9,000 were injured.
The blast blinded 38 and caused severe eye injuries to about 600. Those were people who were watching the explosion from their windows. The water immediately surrounding the Mont Blanc evaporated to the degree that the harbor floor became momentarily exposed. A tidal wave as high as 60 feet washed along both shores. Firefighting efforts were stifled because most of the city's firefighters had been killed. More fatalities occurred the following day when 16 inches of snow fell and further compromised efforts to free those trapped in the rubble and in collapsed structures.
In 1994, a study by scientists and historians concluded the Halifax explosion was unchallenged in overall magnitude. The final toll: 1,950 people dead, 1,630 homes destroyed, and 6,000 people made homeless. All businesses and industry were essentially eliminated. Unbelievably, only one crew member from the Mont Blanc was killed.
Now I want to share with you one of the most recognized and enduring pictures in transportation history. How many of you have seen this photo taken in a Paris train station? How many of you know that it involved a pressure vessel? Most people have seen this photo on posters with a caption summarizing the ruination of a perfectly fine day. So without being too graphic, let me just give you the French translation: Merde!
Now, those laughing know French. Please whisper it to those who don't. Yes, this is literally a train leaving the station, but for all the wrong reasons. The year was 1895 and the day was October 22. The Granville-to-Paris Express left Granville precisely at its 8:45 departure time. On board were the crew and 131 passengers. Several minutes behind the seven-hour schedule, the engineer approached the Paris station at cruising speed with the thought of using the air brake to safely bring the train to a stop. But the air brake failed. Application of the locomotive brakes also proved inadequate. Overrunning the buffer stop, the express train traversed across almost 100 feet of the station concourse. It then crashed through a 24-inch wall, continued across a terrace, and was launched out of the station to the street 33 feet below.
Miraculously, no one was seriously injured, but there was one death. A woman was killed on the street by falling masonry from the station. Back in the late 1800s, direct air brake systems used air compressors to feed air into brake pipes and then into air tanks or pressure vessels on each car. As the engineer applied the brakes, the pipe would fill with air and squeeze the brakes. Authorities blamed the accident on a faulty air brake and the engineer's attempt to make up lost time.
One of the most popular chapters in BLOWBACK concerned beer kegs. Since that chapter was written, there has been another beer keg death. It took place on April 24, 2012, at a brewery while a worker was cleaning out a keg pressurized with air for Redhook Ale Brewery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It is believed this accident is the only work-related keg explosion to ever have taken place at a brewery.
Now, while most of us can envision what a stainless steel keg would look like after a rupture, the accident at Redhook involved an American-made plastic keg that came apart at the seams. Twenty-six-year-old Ben Harris was killed when the exploding keg struck him in the head and chest. Given a second chance, I'm sure Mr. Harris would have chosen his life over what is in hindsight a terrible price to pay for immortality. In his memory, Redhook has released a beer in his name. The brewery is currently planning to make Ben Harris Draft Beer available nationwide.
I think everyone here agrees death by steam or pressure vessel explosion is a terrible way to die. One of the most frightening examples of death by steam occurred on a Friday night back in August of 1938. The place was the Philadelphia County Prison at Holmesburg. In an effort to isolate the ringleaders of a hunger strike, the prison sent 24 men to an isolation building called the Klondike. The Klondike was a one-story, 50-by-12-foot red brick structure with iron bars containing twelve 5-by-5-foot cells. Those cells barely accommodated enough room for a toilet and faucet.
Outside the cells on the opposite wall was a bank of six huge radiators, each with fifty coils, enough Btu's to heat an entire stadium. In what was believed to be an effort to punish the ringleaders, the prison guards turned on the radiators and sealed the windows and the ventilation ducts. In the August heat, temperatures in the cells approached 200 degrees, just twelve degrees below the boiling point. On the second day of their isolation, prisoners were gasping for air and water. One prisoner pleaded to be shot to end his misery. Another began banging his head against his cell wall in an attempt to commit suicide. Other delirious men called for their mothers.
Bars on the cells had become red hot. In a desperate attempt for relief, the convicts began using their toilets for drinking water. It was later learned that the cell faucets had been removed to cut off the convicts' access to water. The moaning and screaming continued until Monday morning. It was then guards found four men dead and others on the verge of death. According to the coroner's office, the four prisoners died of heat stroke. The coroner explained that the prisoners' respiratory and circulatory systems were taxed to the limit in an effort to keep their bodies cool. Because the blood was deprived of enough oxygen, asphyxiation resulted. It was believed body temperatures reached 110 degrees high, and that was certainly enough to coagulate the blood and for the blood to turn black and be poisoned by its own waste products.
When discovered, the prisoners were naked and wet, with dark swollen faces, hands, and feet. Each of the bodies was blue in appearance as if they had drowned, and each of their hearts had shrunk to one half the original size as a result of dehydration. Relatives of the deceased were shocked when they observed their loved ones. One prisoner had an eye three to four times its normal size. Another's eyeballs hung out onto his cheeks. Pennsylvania's governor said that the men were cooked alive slowly.
The true story of that horrendous weekend at the Philadelphia County Prison was revealed by the 21 prisoners who had survived the ordeal. Over the next nine months, 14 prison staffers were brought before the courts, and in the end, only one guard and a deputy warden were convicted. Over time, this long forgotten example of man's cruelty to man became known as the "Bake-oven deaths" and the "Klondike killings." If you want to learn more, I direct you to Tennessee Williams and his play Not About Nightengales which was inspired by the events of the "Klondike killings."
I want you now to meet Genghis Khan. This beautiful little Chow Chow puppy was one of 17 dogs killed last March during a propane explosion at the Pizzazz Pet Boarding Kennel in the Pocono Mountains. Officials speculated a spark of static electricity ignited a propane tank as it was being delivered to the kennel. In addition to the dogs killed, the delivery man was critically burned. Genghis Khan's owner said she was deeply saddened by her puppy's death, and as we all know, pressure equipment comes in all shapes and sizes, but so do victims. No one is immune, even celebrities. And while this story received little mention in the media, it would have been more newsworthy if Genghis Kahn's owner had in some way been physically affected by the explosion. His mistress? Home products entrepreneur Martha Stewart.
In December of last year, there was another pressure vessel accident involving a celebrity. And listen carefully, because the details of this accident may someday save your life. Those of you who follow sports on TV have undoubtedly watched ESPN Sports Anchor Hannah Storm. In an effort to get dinner on the table one evening, Ms. Storm suffered second and third degree burns when gas from the propane grill she was using exploded into a wall of fire. The night began when she went outside on this cold wintery evening to ignite the grill. Briefly returning to her kitchen, she went back outside to find the grill's flames extinguished by gusty winds. As many would do under similar circumstances, she turned off the gas before turning it back on to reignite the grill. The first spark provoked an explosion that Ms. Storm describes as something you see in a movie. A wall of flames consumed the ESPN reporter, instantly setting her on fire. The explosion was such that it also set her hair on fire and blew off the grill doors. If it wasn't for the fast action of her daughter, Ms. Storm's obituary might have led the next day's sports report. After being released from the hospital, she spent weeks recovering at home.
The outcome of this story is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is how this accident happened. Propane, as some of you know, is heavier than air, especially in the winter. Consequently, the wind simply doesn't blow it away. It just sort of resides around the grill. Anyone finding themselves in a similar situation should wait at least 15 minutes before attempting to reignite an extinguished propane flame. Fortunately, Hannah Storm is expected to make a full recovery. Now, some of you are probably thinking to yourselves, that's why there are warnings on gas grills. But as I mention in BLOWBACK, warning signs are meant for people who don't read warning signs.
In conclusion, I would like to point out that it's imperative that our industry communicate to its publics that codes and regulations and inspections do work. If someone challenges you, have them Google “boiler explosions.” Ninety-nine percent of what is listed comes from Third World countries where laws are nonexistent, casually enforced, or of low priority. This is what North America faces if it forsakes its own codes, standards, and regulations. And make no mistake, there are companies and organizations, as well as legislative agendas, that are seeking to curtail our safety processes.
When safety efforts are relaxed, it brings out a variety of opportunists who think they can make some money misrepresenting themselves. In Britain, a man who falsely claimed he was a registered gas engineer was sentenced to two years in prison when it was discovered by authorities he performed six home installations. Officials said residents could have been killed or seriously injured from either a gas explosion or carbon monoxide poisoning.
According to the Gas Safe Register, unregistered gas fitters are estimated to perform over a quarter million illegal jobs every year. Now, let me repeat that: A quarter of a million illegal jobs each year. All of us can do a much better job of communicating the dangers of pressure equipment if we approach the challenge with vigor and dedication, the same dedication and vigor of our predecessors.
Imagine what they had to go through just to create and pass legislation that is still in place to this very day. If there is one thing I would like the industry to do is remove the limits that prevent our jurisdictions from doing their jobs. I think that can be achieved by honest dialogue on the nuances of pressure equipment danger. The past month has seen a number of terrifying explosions in the U.S. It should never be our industry's objective to exploit these tragedies of human misery to promote our own safety messages, but I do believe we can all agree that safety demands personal diligence on the part of everyone. In this regard we speak with one voice.
To those of you who purchased or received a copy to BLOWBACK, we say thank you. If you don't have a copy, get one, read it, and then pass it along to a family member or professional associates. And if they ask you what it's all about, just tell them to read between the lines.