I Was Sealed Alive in an Oil Tank
By ‘Charles Howes’
As told to Harry Harrison
When I first heard that B-146 was slated for crude oil, I knew there might be trouble. B-146 is a real antique, one of the oldest tanks at the Port Arthur, Texas refinery. She must have been built twenty, thirty years ago, before we knew much about tank construction, and she lies, right on the ground without foundation. I had just finished sand-blasting and repainting her for the eleventh time, and sent in a report that she was too contaminated to be used. I guess I was hoping they would tear her down, but no such luck. Crude oil it was going to be, and B-146 had to be cleaned out before the stuff arrived.
I got my day maintenance gang together and we started hammering loose the rusted nuts and bolts that held the plate which sealed the ground level entry port. Inside, it was like an oven. I stood there in the black muck, gasping for air, in the middle of an enormous echoing chamber. The top of the tank was forty feet over my head and the floor was 110 feet across. We had to go over every foot of those walls with scrapers, load the gunk into disposal hoppers and drag it out. After this, the whole tank would be hosed down and the water sucked away.
When the job was underway, I crawled out of the rank and called the machine shop. In a minute the shop truck pulled up and we unloaded the mixers and the other equipment they’d need for the tank once the crude was in. Most of this machinery was standard stuff, but the mixers were a new idea the engineers had dreamed up to keep sludge from forming. There were two of them, each with a two-foot propeller which would keep the oil stirred up.
Meanwhile, my crew was scraping down the walls and washing them with high pressure hoses. When the water was drained and the ladders carried out. I told my assistant, Santiago, to get new bolts to replace the old, worn ones and then bolt the access plate back on. And then thought of something. Cursing under my breath, I crawled into the tank and flashed my light toward the mixer. I was right — those fumble-fingered boys from the machine shop had been in such a hurry that they had forgotten to attach one of the propellers. It was lying right there on the floor where they had dropped it. I picked it up and slipped it over the end of the shaft. I had a little trouble lining up the keyway, but it finally slipped into place and I tightened it down. When I turned to leave, I realized for the first time that something was wrong.
There was no light coming through the access port. I walked toward it, then suddenly started to run as the meaning hit home. Santiago had gone to get the new bolts, returned, and, thinking I had gone, he had bolted the cover into place.
I slammed into the plate and pounded against it but it didn’t budge. Perhaps Santiago was still outside. I banged on the plate with my screwdriver, then pressed my ear against it. Nothing. He had gone and this part of the tank farm would be deserted now.
At that moment I realized for the first time just how serious my condition had become. I was sealed inside the tank and not a soul in the world knew I was there. It was time for some sober thinking to figure a way out – or die in that tank.
The ground level access plate was sealed and the other entrance to the tank was a port on top. This was forty feet above my head and sealed too. The only other opening in this tank, besides the floor drain, was the entry pipe about halfway up the wall. I flashed my light on the pipe as I was thinking about it. It was out of reach and too small: there was no hope there.
There was a soft soughing of air from the pipe and a sudden black stream shot out of it. Santiago must have reported the tank cleaned and sealed — they had turned on the oil.
I don’t think I have ever felt so alone as I did that minute. The oil gushed down into an ever widening pool on the floor, the high ceiling and walls gave back a rumbling echo. Even as I watched the first sluggish wave rolled out and licked at my shoes.
I had to let someone know I was here or that oil would keep flowing in until it was over my head! There had to be someone operating the big valve that let oil into the tank, but this was about fifty yards away and I doubted if he would hear anything at that distance. However, I had to try. The spot beneath the oil spout was closest to him, and I stood there and banged on the wall plate as hard as I could with the screwdriver. The plate was thick and the sound of the pouring oil almost drowned out the banging. Even so, I hoped it would be heard outside, but apparently it wasn’t. After twenty minutes my arm gave out and nothing was changed. The valve operator must be gone by now I decided — and the oil was still coming in.
Then the nightmare began in earnest. The heavy fumes from the crude oil filled my nostrils and bit into my lungs. My head felt fuzzy and the heat made everything twice as bad. Slowly and steadily the oil level crept higher. I sat down to see if it would mop my head from spinning, but I must have passed out. I came to with a mouthful of oil; gasping and spitting I climbed to my feet. The oil was almost to my waist.
I must have lost the flashlight about this time, for I remember reaching for it and finding it gone. Lt was all I could do to just stand. When the light flashed in my eyes it took me second to realize what it was.
The hatch on top of the tank was open, something long and silvery was coming down from it. It was a hand gauge — they were testing the depth of the oil. It hit the surface of the oil and I moved toward it as fast as could through the thick muck. I was just reaching for the tape when it jerked upwards and vanished above me. I shouted as it went up slowly; my voice must have been drowned out by the gushing oil because a moment later the hatch was closed.
I could have died then except for one elusive thought that skirted the edge of my foggy mind. The fumes and the heat made it almost impossible to think — but I had to. It had something to do with hand gauge. Why were they testing the level in the tank? This usually isn’t done until the tank is almost full. Then I had it — the new mixers. They would probably turn them on as soon as the oil rose high enough to cover the blade. The mixer shaft was a yard above the bottom of the tank, which would put the top of the blade at about four and a half feet. A little under my thin. If they checked again when the oil was at this level, I stood a chance — and just the thought of that chance made me feel better.
My biggest fear was that I would pass out again. I didn’t dare move from my spot in the center of the tank. I couldn’t be sure of getting back in time. It must have been six hours since I entered the rank. My legs were shaking and there was nothing to lean against. I tried sitting on the floor but this brought my face too close to the oil; the dizziness began to come back and I knew I had to stand up again.
When the port opened again I was out on my feet. I saw the light but it took me valuable seconds to think what to do. They were sending down a thief this time, a sampling bottle on the end of the steel tape. It plopped into the oil and sank beneath the surface, I had trouble focusing my eyes — my hands wouldn’t work the way I wanted them to. I made a desperate grab and my fingers closed around the tape.
The tape jerked upwards but I held fast. It stopped moving after a moment, then a bright light suddenly burned down into my eyes.
My hands were locked on the tape, all I could do was look dumbly up at the port. They must have seen me, because the tape stayed down, but the light moved away and the tank was dark again.
It couldn’t have taken them more than ten minutes but it could have been ten years. The light returned and a dark figure swung into the beam. Austin Coulter, the night foreman, landed in the oil next to me … the last
thing I remember before I blacked out is his tieing the rope under my arms.
Once the effects of the fumes wore off I was all right. In fact I went back to work a week later. The smell of crude made me sick, but I got over this in time. I still work in the tanks and they don’t seem to bother me at all –believe it or not.
One change has been made though: I have standing orders that I seal all tanks myself — and I take a long lock inside with a light before I do it.
First published in Cavalier, (vol.4, no.32), February 1956