1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 21

Ann nodded, was aware of Bauernfeld’s confused gape. He followed their eyes, but did not know what to look at. Which in this case was the swivel atop the spinning drill string. That had been the most problematic piece of machinery to make reliable and robust. Not the swivel itself — that was a fairly straightforward fabrication job — but where the flexible mud hose connected to it.

While the hose did not fully “spin” with the swivel, there was a lot of random and varying motion imparted to it as the drill string sped up, slowed down, encountered resistance, spun free. In short, the linkage between hose and swivel had to be both strong and flexible.

And that was a difficult requirement for 17th century materials. There was no rubber available, yet. That would involve tapping New World trees en masse or growing them elsewhere. And synthetics were a pipedream, an up-time reality that was now a distant fantasy. So they made do with leather. Layered with canvas. Stitched carefully. Reinforced by brass rivets and clamps, where feasible. And at the connecting collar, where the changes in pressure and torque were most intense, precious (which was to say ‘retooled up-time’) steel rings added extra reinforcement.

And so far, despite the rapid spin-up and overly-thick mud, the epicenter of their engineering headaches and operational worries was holding up. Ann felt a smile try to rise to her lips. Heh, progress at last —

But that impulse did not last longer than the eyeblink which refocused her on the very real dangers of continuing operations. So the mud hose’s linkage to the swivel was good: so what? The mud was too cold, meaning there were about a dozen other failure points that could be potentially —

The groan in the standpipe returned as a loud surging wail and the whole tube began shuddering, the oscillations racing up its gantry-ascending length.

Ann turned to the engine operator, prepared to talk him through the spin-down instructions —

But Bauernfeld had gone completely pale, discerning in the combination of her desperate motions and the quaking of the standpipe, that he was standing right next to an impending disaster. “Shut it off!” he screamed at the engine operator, “Turn the engine off! Stop the drill string!”

NO!” Ann and Ulrich howled together. But it was too late.

The disaster was already unleashing itself when Bauernfeld shouted his crude, and therefore counterproductive, orders. The standpipe, shaking mightily, now put pressure on a connection which had never been a major point of design concern: that point where it joined to the mud-hose, which hung free between the gantry leg and the swivel atop the drill string. However, since that hose was more rigidly affixed to its point of connection with the standpipe, the excessive pressure in the system now made it shudder violently. At the very fringe of where it met the pipe’s connecting collar, a brass rivet popped, a seam opened —

“Run!” Ann shouted. “Clear the rig!” And then she felt a blow on her back. The air was driven out of her, and she was flying — but being carried, too. The momentary disorientation became realization: Ulrich had tackled her off the platform. And a powerful emotion rose up to meet that realization. I love him. I do! I know that now. But this is going to hurt. And we could still die. Very easily. And yet, her eyes never left the rig.

With a screaming pop of suddenly released pressure, the mud hose stripped itself off the top of the standpipe, flinging the attachment collar high into the air. Freed, the hose’s sudden wild writhings resembled the overdose-death throes of a mud-vomiting anaconda. One worker, among the youngest, staring open-mouthed at the sudden spectacle before him, did not move in time. The hose spasmed through a vicious twist and cut him open from chest to navel, viscera flying in all directions. Almost bisected, he was dead before he hit the ground.

The wild whipping and slashing caught two more persons. Bauernfeld himself managed to dodge the hose, but his left hip and groin were caught in the spray pattern of the mud. Although quickly losing pressure, that viscous jet was still spewing with a force well above one hundred PSI. Bauernfeld went down with a warbling shriek of pain and surprise, white bone showing through a wash of blood and shattered intestines — less than two seconds after he had shouted his final orders.

Those orders now went into full, monstrous effect. The partially-trained rig operator not only cut the engine, but, hearing Bauernfeld’s “stop” order, had thrown the long lever which engaged a large, counter-weighted arresting gear.

The effect on the drill-string was dramatic. With many tons of pipe already spinning in the three hundred foot hole, there was simply no way to, as Ann’s mother used to say, “stand on the brakes.” Instead, the arrestor groaned, its cable snapped, and the counterweights were launched sideways, one smashing down a nearby utility shed, the other tracing a ballistic arc into the side of the ravine.

But, even though it was brief, that sudden, strong resistance at the head of the drill pipe forced a rapid drop in rotational speed of its uppermost lengths. However, the much weightier part of the entire drill string assembly was still turning deep in the ground, its massive inertia being what had quickly shattered the braking mechanism, which had only been designed to gradually slow, not immediately stop, the string.

Now, the differences in inertia and resistance at the two ends of the drill string simply tore it apart. The threaded ends which joined the top pipe in the hole with length that was still free-spinning above it screeched and gave way in a shower of sparks. The lower length of pipe, grinding shrilly against the sides of the bore-hole, slowed quickly, but its single sweep smashed everything it is path. The upper length, no longer anchored on the bottom, swung wide and fast, ripping free of the kelly and swivel. It spun away like a side-slung baton, clipping the northernmost leg of the derrick, and swatting three workers aside like so many inconsequential — and now quite shattered — flies. The combined kelly-and-swivel assembly swung around like a misshapen bolo, cracked through two gantry struts and spent the rest of its energy by slamming full on into yet another of the derrick’s legs.

Showered by the mud spewing up from the shattered standpipe, Ann swung to her feet, blinking — when Ulrich retightened his arm around her waist and started running away —

— Away from the groaning, tilting, unraveling derrick which pushed slowly down through the curtain of mud as it toppled toward them.

Ann got her own feet under her somehow and, with Ulrich now pulling her by the hand, they sprinted away. This time, Ann did not look back.

She heard the smash, felt the ground shiver a moment before the slight concussive wave of the impact buffeted her back. Splinters, whining like darts, bit into her right thigh and buttock. She only ran harder.

Which was just as well. More debris, ejected upward, came down in a lethal torrent where she had been running just two seconds before.

A pulley, rolling on its edge, wheeled past her briskly, lagged when it reached the gravel perimeter of the site, wobbled lazily and fell over. As if that was a signal to Ann and Ulrich that the danger was indeed past, they turned, still holding hands.

The rig was gone. Except for four feet of the drill pipe which had sheared off while partially in the bore hole and two feet of savaged standpipe that had not gone over with the derrick, nothing was left standing upright on the platform. The steam engine had been ruined by debris, its boiler knocked over and the firebox already flaring dangerously. Mud oozed outward and downward in all directions. Smoke — black, brown, and grey — fanned upward into the sky. The workers that had cleared the rig in time were already being joined by members of the sickly “first crew,” who, wan and haggard, spread out through the wreckage with them, searching for survivors.

Behind them, brakes screeched, gravel spattered, and a car door opened. A moment later, Dave Willcocks, looking haggard and pale, was standing alongside them, staring at the ruin which had been their grand experiment. “Jesus Christ,” he swore. But he didn’t stare at the wreckage for more than a few seconds before heading toward the disaster to assist in the rescue work, just a few steps behind Ann and Ulrich.