1634: THE BALTIC WAR – snippet 7:
Within a few seconds, two thick streams of water began arching into the air and falling into the smokestacks. A thick cloud of steam flashed instantly into the air, as the water contacted the hot brick. Fortunately, the smokestacks were ten feet high, and the steam flashed above them, so the firemen weren’t cooked where they stood. Courageously, they continued pumping water into the smokestacks.
Then disaster struck. The incredibly hot firebrick in the reverbatory furnace had some resistance to water at room temperature, but none at 900C. It dissolved under the impact of the water, collapsing and blocking both smokestacks, trapping high temperature steam within. The main furnace chamber, containing the retorts, held.
“My God!” the chief reacted. He looked at the foreman and the other two plant workers, who were staring, mouth open, at the damage.
“Stop the pump! Get the wagon back! Everyone get back!” he directed. He stared at the furnace. It was a ruin, obviously enough. But at least the smoke had stopped. The fire was probably out.
“Hell’s bells,” Mike hissed, when he heard the bricks collapse. “We could use Jerry Trainer right now,” he said to no one in particular.
“What’s happening, sir?” the sergeant asked.
“No idea,” he replied. “We’ll keep the men here, though, just in case we’re needed.”
By now, they were in the middle of a large crowd, standing behind a very sturdy-looking waist-high brick wall that surrounded the plant everywhere except along the river. The men at the plant had ignited torches to replace the gas lamps, and the faint light and drifting snow gave the scene an eerie look.
“Do you see flames there?” One of the sailors pointed to the location where the gas main entered the furnace room.
Mike squinted, trying to see through the snowfall. It was very faint, but something did seem to be burning. And the flames were blue.
Chief Kruz and his men were also watching the furnace. “Look!” one of them yelled. From closer up, very faint blue flames were apparent where the gas main entered the furnace, and also around the doors of the retorts.
“Get the men back! Back!” Kruz had never seen flames like that, and he didn’t like it.
The flames were indeed blue, the color of burning hydrogen gas. When water was pumped into the furnace, besides destroying the firebrick, it reacted with the red-hot coal in the furnace to make hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The hydrogen, being very light, pushed the coal gas down as it sought the highest elevation. It then began leaking out between the firebrick and the gas main, as well as around the retorts. When the hydrogen reached the air it burned, creating high temperature steam, which began to eat through the firebrick. The structure holding the gas main in the furnace dissolved, and the pipe shifted. When that happened, all the remaining hydrogen rushed out, and air rushed in to fill the gap, where it mixed with coal gas into an explosive mixture.
The fire chief was not positioned to see the gas main shift, but one of his men was. He saw a flash as the hydrogen escaped and exploded, and yelled “down!” A split second later, the coal gas-oxygen mixture exploded.
The gas main pipe went flying end-over-end, spewing smaller pieces of red-hot iron and crashing into a large metal distilling vat. Some of the retorts also split, blasting out of the furnace like cannon fire. The thin walls of the furnace rooms came off, as did large sections of the roof.
One of the retorts smashed into Stiteler and slammed him into the column behind him, killing him instantly. The shovel flew from his hand and Engler and Krenz ducked to avoid being hit by it. Luckily for them, as it happened, because a second piece of wreckage hurtled right through the air where they’d been standing a second earlier.
Another piece of a retort went through the thin wall as if it weren’t there and landed on the barge holding the coal for the plant. Another, much bigger one, did the same thing to a different wall—and then shattered the wall of an adjacent factory as it struck, instantly killing two workers and starting the structure on fire.
Stone, iron and coal sprayed in all directions from the impact site. In other cases, only the doors to the retorts flew out, red hot frisbees delivering death and destruction. One of these struck the fireman holding the hose by the river, cutting him in half and throwing what was left of him into the waters of the Elbe. Another flew across the street into an apartment building, starting yet another fire. Fortunately, no one was killed outright, although a young mother was badly hurt and the baby she’d been feeding would wind up losing his arm below the elbow.
The last one flew unerringly into the vats of coal tar products, badly damaging the support structure for one of the vats. At the same time, pieces of burning coal from the retorts flew into the air, bombarding those passersby not lucky or smart enough to be crouching behind the wall or under shelter.
Mike rose from behind the wall, and briefly looked at his escort to make sure they were unharmed. Some of the sailors and Marines were purposefully moving to put out flames and administer first aid to bystanders who had been hit by flying coal. The coal plant itself seemed to be fairly free of flames, now. There were a few piles of flaming coal but little other damage beyond the explosion. As he watched, he saw two people come stumbling to the wall.
“What happened to the plant?” the sergeant asked them.
Now leaning with both hands on the wall, one of the men shook his head. “I don’t know. Robert…” He shook his head again. “Robert Stiteler. He was killed. I don’t believe this.”
“Do you work here?” Mike asked.
“Yes. I am the night shift foreman. Thorsten Engler.” He nodded to the man next to him. “This is Eric Krenz, the crane operator.”
Hearing a new sound, of collapsing metal, Engler and Krenz turned their heads around to look back. As they and Mike watched, the damaged vat began to shift, finally falling on its side. It impacted with a loud crack, and gallons of thick pitch began to ooze out.
By now, the fire chief had reorganized his men, and moved to put out the fires in the adjacent factory and the apartment buildings across the street. Only one other structure was aflame, the roof of a shed near the river, away from both the coal tar and the machinery.
“What’s in that shed?” Mike asked.
Engler looked over. “Nothing much,” he said. “Just fertilizer. For growing plants.”
Mike frowned. “Why do you have fertilizer at the coal gas plant?”
“It’s very new. They call it… ‘ammonium nitrate,’ I think. Supposed to be the best fertilizer ever. We make it from some of the waste from the coal tar.”
Mike would swear he could literally feel the blood draining from his face. Ammonium nitrate, for the love of God!
Bituminous coal mining operations rarely used explosives much, any longer, but he’d been around enough blasting operations to know what the stuff was used for besides farming.
The sergeant was staring at him. “Is it dangerous, sir?”
“Hell, yes, it’s dangerous,” Mike replied. “There was a cargo ship full of it in Texas City that blew up once and took out most of the town—not to mention that it was the stuff that provided most of the force for the Oklahoma City bombing.”