By Brian M. Howle
President Bush, along with other administration and defense planners, has repeatedly asked the American public to help in the current war against the “Axis of Evil” by coming up with possible scenarios for even more horrendous attacks by the terrorists. He specifically asked the communities of creativity – writers, directors, producers, artists, and visionaries – to offer up some mind-bending possibilities, since those at the top of the food chain can’t seem to fathom how easy it is to come up with really cool but really evil ideas. As a loyal citizen, I offer the following vignette for you to ponder. But first, you need to envision that closing scene from A Time to Kill, where Matthew McConaughey’s lawyer character asks jurors and courtroom observers to “close their eyes and imagine,” as he weaves an emotional, visual tapestry of the little black girl’s horrific attack and rape in his memorable closing argument. So, with that in mind, close your eyes after each paragraph and imagine the scenes I’ve described as you go along:
In the mid 1970’s, General Dynamics was chugging along as the industrial/military complex giant that it was, expanding and building new facilities around the country. Their shipbuilding division, based in Wooster, Mass., was overwhelmed with orders for military and commercial needs. One of their most important sub-assembly plants was in South Carolina – the Charleston Facility, located on the inland waters of Bushy Park Industrial complex, between Charleston and Goose Creek.
This facility was originally sub-contracted by GD to construct monstrous aluminum tanks (shaped like balls), 120 feet in diameter at the equatorial ring, which would ultimately contain liquefied natural gas. The assembly building, at the time, was second only to the Houston Astrodome as the largest single structure east of the Rockies. It enclosed an area large enough for the assembly of six separate balls at one time, with a behemoth of an overhead track crane capable of lifting 200,000 tons. The tanks vary in thickness, from over 4 inches at the E-ring down to only 2 inches at the polar plates. When completed, the tanks were towed on barges up the East Coast via the inland waterways, to the shipyards in Massachusetts.
But the company failed miserably at complying with exacting specifications and rigid standards. So, GD simply booted them out, took a look at what they needed, and proceeded to build a fabricating plant on-site. There, they cut and shaped the massive aluminum panels and plates, as well as creating specialized alloys for joining the aluminum to the steel girders within the supertankers.
The problem now facing the huge conglomerate was a lack of trained, specialized, and skilled labor.
These were not “coon dog boxes” or “pig cookers on trailers” being built, kids. These were incomprehensibly, overwhelmingly massive structures – and they were subject to some of the most stringent guidelines and standards ever imposed on non-nuclear projects of this scale.
The need for hundreds of qualified welders created a partnership between the state’s Technical Education program and General Dynamics. With oversight by GD, Trident Technical College in Charleston provided an eight-week course for becoming fully qualified in MIG welding, as opposed to the more traditional TIG welding. TIG welding is where the welder uses individual, hand-fed rods as electrodes for filling metal; MIG is where the filler electrode is fed from a spool within a hose (which also fed inert gases to shield the process from oxygen in the atmosphere that would burn to form contaminants) to the welding surface, forming a continuous “bead”, as they are known.
Upon first blush, the uneducated observer may consider welding an “easy” job, one that any fool could perform – however, it was anything but. And the process of learning the trade was no picnic, either.
The welding school was housed in a large metal building, adjacent to the huge Ball Assembly building. For maximum production efficiency, the classes were held during third (Graveyard) shift, 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.
The students were required to learn the basics of metallurgy, welding and construction principles in written and oral classroom situations. They also learned how the welding torches (called “guns” because, well, they looked like pistols – complete with triggers) were built, and how they worked. They learned how to assemble, use, disassemble and troubleshoot problems with the guns – which were made in Switzerland; then began the arduous task of mastering the device in practical application – learning to weld stuff together.
Upon qualifying on the hand-held gun, you advanced to the machine-assisted welder. This was an amazing creation; something that looked like it came from a collaboration between Dr. Seuss and Tim Burton. A self-contained welding unit was attached to a remote-controlled arm, and the entire apparatus rode upon a set of small tracks (like a railroad), which attached to the surface of the metal with suction cups. The gun was mounted to a moveable arm, which was operated with a cabled control box that featured a joystick that directed the gun in, out, left, right, up, down; it also controlled the wire speed, the amperage used, and the shielding gas mix. One had to lean right up to the contact point while manipulating the controls, peering through thick, laminated protective welding glass, coaxing the flowing metal to “lay down” and “burn” into the surrounding base metals.
All student work was inspected at the beginning and end of each class. All work had to earn the approval of the American Bureau of Shipping, the U.S. Coast Guard, the S.C. Technical Education system, and General Dynamics. Each piece was x-rayed for quality control – each weld had to be free of contaminants or porosity (a condition where small air bubbles are trapped in the weld, creating structural failure and future cracks). Failure to pass x-ray tests on all modes of welding – hand held vertical, horizontal, and overhead; plus machine assisted vertical, horizontal, and overhead – meant immediate termination from the program.
Did I mention that the eight-week course was without pay? Being in school did not mean that you had the job. This tended to cut down on the slackers who invariably showed up at the beginning of each “semester” – only about half of the starting class finished the certification training. After completion of the eight-week course, graduates immediately obtained official employment from General Dynamics – and the starting pay was two to three times that of comparable employment.
In the field, newbies quickly fell prey to the indoctrination pranks of veteran welders, especially the poor souls of recent immigration to America (“Huang, run down to the supply shed and get me 50 feet of fallopian tube!”). It was yet another version of job bonding, because supervisors did not allow any horseplay beyond that first-week-on-the-job hazing. And whether on hand-held torches or track machines, each welder was required to “sign” their work with an identification imprint. Each employee had a coded bit issued to them containing an alphabetical/numerical signature (Example: If you last name ended with “H”, and you were the 51st person to work there, your code was “H-51”). A simple bang of the hammer scored the symbols on the plate, and if someone needed to know who worked on a particular seam, they needed only to look up the employee ID.
The mammoth building looked like a production set for the movie Alien 4, with intricate, arching “jigs” perched around the balls. The jigs – placed around the balls like a stand for a desk globe – were banana shaped, following the contour of the ball from polar plate to E-ring, allowing the automated welders to make 40 foot passes in joining the huge, curved plates together. Another set of jigs sat along the upper plates, and reverse-curved jigs mirrored the process inside the balls.
The most exacting task on site was the E-ring. This huge “belt” encircled the entire structure, and was subject to the greatest loads and stresses when the tank was filled. Each and every weld completed received a visit from the radiology department, when the entire area was roped off and subjected to time-consuming x-rays of the lengthy 40-foot seams. If any defect was found in the x-rays, the error was gouged and ground clean, then re-welded and re-x-rayed. (Remember the discrepancy in the Quality Control x-rays in The China Syndrome? Hmmmmmm?)
When all seams were completed, the big overhead cranes lowered the “joiner” ring radiuses – a steel-based alloy that had been coated with a plastique-type explosive along its upper surface. As it was pulled up against the matching aluminum ring from the ball, the plastique squeezed out the sides like an overdose of Poligrip on the ol’ dentures. After the excess was wiped away, the area was cleared of human life, and the plastique detonated, fusing the steel alloy and the aluminum into one seamless piece.
Interior piping was completed, and the finishing touch was the installing of the intake/outlet cap valve. Cleaned and prepped one final time, the finished ball was hoisted onto the barge for the long trip back to Massachusetts.
In the Wooster Shipyard, the balls were lifted from the barge and placed inside the gigantic hulls of half-finished supertankers, five to a ship. The joiner rings were bolted and welded to the mounting template of the ship’s hold; then decking skin, multi-tap valve assemblies, and a river of routing pipes were installed to complete the project. The ships were christened and launched in elaborate ceremonies, with bands playing and champagne spraying amid smiles and congratulations. Deep inside a weld on one of the balls, a small wave of bubbled air pockets and cracks – only 6 inches in total length – begins to splinter and break in microscopic lines. But it is deep inside a weld, and for now, no concern for the world outside.
Some 25 years later, those now aging supertankers labor across the Atlantic every day. Taking on a full load of liquefied natural gas in distribution ports along Nigeria’s coast, the lumbering giants sail quietly on the high seas for weeks on their way to America.
Along the way, a small tropical depression intersects the ship’s path, throwing up huge waves for the captain to navigate in the dark of night. The captain does a fine job, but one wave manages to catch the ship on apex at the mid-point of the keel for just a second. The overwhelming weight shift lasts even less, but in that nanosecond of stress, a small crack in the seam of the middle ball – from a line of imperfections that was missed in the extensive x-raying and porosity testing back in Charleston – makes its first visual appearance to the outside world. Unfortunately, the outside world is located underneath a supporting bulkhead, and out of visual inspection or notice.
After weeks at sea and the tedious encounter with the tropical storm, the crew is pumped for shore leave. This trip, they’re set for a week of carousing in Boston, while the liquefied natural gas is pumped from the tanker into the similarly massive storage tanks on shore.
After the harbor pilot guides the tanker to its docking pier, a covey of tugboats nudge the big ship against the mooring piers. In a moment of miscommunication between pilots, one tug pushes the nose in towards the pier; another tug pushes out on the stern. The bubbling, rolling whitewater angrily tells the pilots of the mistake, and they cut power.
But in that brief moment of countering pressures, the keel flexes a mere inch from bow to center. Enough to make the small crack in the weld to enlarge and open up enough to allow the thinnest liquid molecules of gas to escape from within. Still a small, unseen crack, it barely oozes a small droplet of vaporizing liquid gas. The droplet becomes heavy and drips to the hull below, where it splatters into a puff of changing, expanding gas.
A skeleton unloading crew is now on board. Assigned to reading, maintaining and recording pressures and levels, theirs is a boring, monotonous chore. Safely moored to the dock, they are impervious to any danger that may be lurking in the dark. The routine inspection of the ship’s interior compartments – and the balls – is done without much close attention to difficult, out-of-the-way crevices.
The small pool of liquid gas continues to slowly heat up and expand in the hull, as bilge pumps hum through the New England night. The low layer of fog creeps along the keel, looking for escape, when it finds the bilge outlet. There, it continues to hug the surface of the water, spreading along the seawall underneath the docks. The light, northerly breeze slowly pushes it up the bank, to an area where workers are making repairs to a merchant freighter.
It is invisible. It is silent. And before it rises to the level where it would reach the nose of the nearest steelworker, it is undetectable by smell. Most unfortunate for him, as he reaches for his flint-stick to ignite his cutting torch. Adjusting the oxygen and acetylene valves, he strikes the lighter to his torch, like he’s done a million times before.
Before he ever sees the wall of flame explode around him, he is engulfed. Before he can scream or turn to run for help, the whooshing sound of igniting gas rushes back along the water to the tanker, slurping through the bilge outlet. Before he can beg his God for his life, his life is ended – in a flash.
The welder is vaporized – along with every other life form within 2 miles of the tanker. The ensuing explosion is the equivalent of 100 Hiroshimas or Nagasakis, totally leveling downtown Boston in a circular radius of 2-5 miles from the tanker. Buildings and homes are burning – at various degrees of intensity – for another 5 miles from the center of the blast. Casualties are in the hundreds of thousands, with immediate fatalities in the tens of thousands. The business and cultural center of New England is gone – and a huge piece of cherished, original American history has ceased to exist.
Still got your eyes closed, right? Can you see it? Can you see the destruction, the pain, the suffering, the death? Can you?
Now imagine that crack was caused by a lone fanatic – with a chisel, a five-pound hammer and a will to die for his cause; at any port where such tankers make their berths. Like, say, Charleston – or Wilmington. Can you? Can you see it?
I have. I’ve imagined it a thousand times, since my year-long employment with General Dynamics at the Charleston Facility between 1975-76.
And I can imagine a thousand other folks who can envision similar scenarios – where normal, everyday workplaces can easily be transformed into massive killing fields by those with evil agendas.
Well, that’s all for now, Pres. Bush. Let me know if I can be of any further help. Or you can choose to ignore pleas like mine, like you did that Summer 2001 security briefing titled, “Bin Laden determined to strike within the U.S.” But if you do, be prepared for the horrors that you can’t seem to imagine; those that will eviscerate even more innocent Americans.
In a flash.
The previous column was originally published March 28, 2002.