Max The Magnificent is back again in this Disaster Story. Only this time, his schedule isn't the only thing suffering.
In my previous story, I related how I managed to be three hours late and a day early for the same interview. As I mentioned, this interview was for a co-op position as part of my BSc course in control engineering. The position in question was at the research-and-development facility for a glass-making company. Well, a couple of months into the job, I was informed that I was to be part of a team that was going onsite at a glass foundry.
Imagine a huge factory. In the middle of the factory, two floors above ground level, is a massive brick furnace. When it is running, this furnace is full of liquid glass, which exits through a number of brick gullies from whence it pours off the edge and drops down into the mouths of monstrous glass-forming machines that form it into bottles, jars, drinking glasses, or whatever is required.
Every seven years or so the furnace starts to fail -- it's an extreme environment and the brick structure can only take so much. At this time, the factory is closed down for about six weeks while the furnace is turned off, cooled down, dismantled, rebuilt, and fired up again. As part of this process, all of the instrumentation and control systems are completely replaced and upgraded.
Now, picture the scene: There are hundreds of workers beavering around -- bricklayers, carpenters, metalworkers, electricians, plumbers, etc. Most of them work for private contractors, so the only safety gear they wear comes in the form of boots and hard hats. Apart from these two items, they wear only jeans and t-shirts.
Now try to visualize yours truly as a 21-year old student. I work for the main company. I have to wear every piece of safety gear going. So, in addition to my safety boots and hard hat, I'm walking around in overalls that look like a HazMat suit sporting a hairnet (goodness only knows why) and safety goggles. Around my waist is a massive tool belt laden with tools of every description, and my pockets are stuffed with diagrams and plans showing every inch of the factory and every system therein. When I moved around, it was in slow motion as though I was walking on the moon.
And then my problems really started...
One day, my boss informed me that he was going away on a week's holiday (which he'd planned before they knew the factory was going to need work) and that he was leaving me in charge of the control systems. "Oh dear," I said to myself (or words to that effect).
Now, before we proceed, I need to explain a few more things. As I mentioned earlier, when you entered the factory, you saw the furnace sitting two floors above you. Most people would assume that the furnace was mounted on the floor, but nothing could be further from the truth. If you removed all of the surrounding structure, you would see that the furnace (which was a massively heavy structure) was in fact sitting on top of concrete pillars, and that these pillars were at least six stories tall. Thus, since the furnace was mounted two floors above ground level, the supporting pillars headed down at least four floors below ground.
Speaking of which, the basement area of the factory -- at the bottom of a ginormous pit four stories deep -- was filled with about four-and-a-half feet of cold, dark, dank water. Oh yes, just to add to the joy, there were no lights down there. The only source of illumination was an electronic flashlight (like a miner's light) attached to one's hard hat. It was like a different world down there -- any noise from the factory was heavily muffled; all you could really hear was dripping water accompanied by creaks, groans, other strange sounds, and the occasional splash indicating that something was in the water.
Of course, all of this was hidden from most eyes by the factory structure. The only reason I became aware of it was when I had to insert the one-meter-long thermocouples into the underside of the furnace, which had been rebuilt by this time and which was in the process of being fired-up. Access to the holes for the thermocouples was via flat metal gantries about two feet wide without any sides. I would call them walkways, but this would be something of an exaggeration since they were located only about 24 inches below the furnace.
Workmen had already laid the electric cables that would connect to the thermocouples under the furnace, but I had to make sure that there weren't any breaks or anything. So, at the factory end of the cable I had attached a signal generator, and at my end I had a small (very expensive) oscilloscope. To provide power, the oscilloscope was connected to a wall socket by about 100 feet of power cord.