Monday, October 19, 2009

A Near Disaster Down a French Coal Mine !



Also click on this link & watch the video :
http://culturebox.france3.fr/all/2254/

Ok, so here it is ,, that story referred to in my previous Blog. ( with photo & video update above )
A work colleague, Malcolm Marshall, & myself were sent off on a MISSION to France for the Company back in the winter of 1993 or '94 .. ish or maybe even earlier ?
A coal mine, Freyming, in the Alsace Lorraine district, south east France, on the German border was having serious problems with a huge batch of our world famous underground Methane detectors, a semi portable combustible gas detector specifically designed for underground work.
( although to this day ,, you just try getting a real miner to leave the canary top side ! )
Malcolm was to be the technical Whiz since this was a “Safety Division“ portable product.
I was to be the overseer, both technically and commercially ,,, the customer contact man and prime negotiator ,, ( not Malcolm’s forte ! )
Ronald Scott, our MD at the time, had advised me that this would be a huge challenge, since if these instruments had to be returned for full credit we would lose a fortune, and also lose all follow up sales in Europe to boot !!
Och no problem then, thinks me ,.,. gulp !!
Anyway off we set ( with barely a word of French between us I might add ! )
We arrived and were ensconced in a wee French hotel in the middle of nowhere, somewhat akin to a poor Travel Lodge type of thing !!
( Ronald was obviously treating his top men well ! Big Bugger ,, he later got an MBE for his services to industry while we did the work ! ,, but a good guy really on reflection )
Next morning we were up with the lark and off to the Pit .,,. Introductions were made between us & the Mine Management personnel ( English speakers thank God ! ,, no need for our school boy French or translators ,, above ground at least ! ) We also met all the appropriate technical engineers who would be working with us, some of the miners using the equipment and of course the pit’s Lamp Man ! .,., he who dishes out safety helmet, Davy lamp, gas detectors etc, to the guys going underground for their 7-hour shift.
We were then taken to the Pit changing area to get kitted out for our first trip underground ( in France that is ,,, we had been down many other UK pits before this )
The sun was just coming up now for we’d set off very early to try catching the 6-am shift going down ,,, It was a typical late autumn, early winter morning in France ,, slightly misty, with the sun breaking through with great shafts of light coming in the windows.
I had expected a British style worker’s changing room with bench seats and lockers round the walls for our clothes etc ,,, but what I saw when I entered this ENORMOUS ( football stadium sized ) room was a sight that will never leave me ,,, it took my breath away ,, mine and Malcolm’s .,,. I looked around at eye level ,, body height ,,, no benches, no lockers ,,, ( we were alone in this room, the miners having already passed through ) then something drew our eyes upwards ,,,, a movement above us, the roof was a multitude of glass panels some 50-feet up ,, the sun was streaming in, in great wide shafts ,,, it took us a moment or two to focus ,,, then .,., all of a sudden, there they were ,,,
Bodies seemingly, dozens of them, swaying, ever so slowly turning, arms hanging limply by their sides, legs quite still, hanging 20-30 feet up in the air ,, on chains !! I couldn’t help myself ,,, “ Jesus Christ ! ” I shouted, “ what the hell is that “,,, then it all became clear ,,, These were the French Miner’s lockers in the sky .,.,., we quickly learned how to use this most ingenious but bloody scary contraption. The “body holder” ( in reality a fancy coat hanger with places for trousers, jackets, and even hats ,, ) was lowered on a long chain ,, you then proceeded to undress yourself ( standing up ! ) and dress the dumb waiter ,,, once you had donned your dungarees, boots etc, all your clothes & valuables were then hoisted up to whatever height you considered “safe”, where you then fastened a padlock through the chain, pocketing the key in a safe place in your dungarees, leaving your stuff dangling in the air till your return.
This is a sight I will truly never forget ! Oh that I had had my camera that week .,.,
I have now learned they call this room "Salle des Pendus" ,,, or "Room of the Hanged Men" ,, how very apt ! ?
Anyway, to cut a long story somewhat short ,,, Malcolm & I worked diligently for days on end down in the bowels of this pit, the deepest, muddiest and furthest train ride then walk to the lowest coal face I’ve ever seen, ( we were on our backs at some points at a 2-foot face ) trying to figure out the problem of these faulty instruments ,,, ( this was one of the Company’s most successful lines in preventing underground explosions so it was baffling that this French company ,,, one of the first to use them on the continent ,, was having such problems.
We monitored every unit going underground, checked it on it’s return, saw them being calibrated in the lab ,, everything ,,, and still the faults came ( instability, odd alarms ,,, ! )
We were beginning to suffer from sleep deprivation trying to cover all shifts during the day’s 24-hours.
Then came the long awaited breakthrough .,.,., first, we were very close to Hombourg Haut, my son-in-law’s ( at the time ! ) family home so I decided to take Malcolm for an evening visit to meet my French in-laws.
Secondly, AndrĂ©’s dad, wee Roland, was a very congenial host and plied us with the family's “Home Made Schnapps” as well as tales of when he himself worked in the very Mine we were investigating !! ( he had actually been Freyming's Lamp man years before ! ) Wow, What a small world I thought ,,,
Anyway, Annie & Roland fed us a splendid meal and home we eventually toddled to our sumptuous hotel ! ( NOT )
A few days later, about 10-days now into our visit, much more technical data taken and analysed, and more and more distraught calls from our home based MD, Ronald Scott, bemoaning our progress or lack of ,,, we hit the Mine for the mid morning shift changeover and were in the calibration lab when elevenses happened !
In comes the old Pit Lamp Man carrying a tray of drinks !! Eh ? Whit ?? The guys all have their little glass of “hooch” with their morning croissant ,, including me of course !! but not the dedicated Malcolm ,,, who carries on calibrating instrument after instrument ,,,
Shit, I suddenly think ,,, this is what my son-in-law's old man Roland had told us and we didn’t twig ,,, the Lamp man, with absolutely bugger all to do for the whole shift time the miners are underground, becomes the pit Schnapps Maker !! They have their own illegal distillery in practically every pit in France apparently ! .,., but I didn’t for a moment consider they might actually drink the stuff whilst calibrating their life saving instruments ( or prior to going underground !! )
Even yet it still hadn’t percolated through my sleep deprived brain ,, but as I swigged my drink and calibrated my next instrument it suddenly dawned ,, like a shaft of that great sunlight it hit me ,,, Malcolm missed it because he remained tee-total on the job !
For the non-technically minded among you , methane ( the potential underground danger gas ) is a simple hydrocarbon .,., alcohol is similarly a simple hydrocarbon ,,,, the instruments being zeroed on pure nitrogen of course, and then spanned ( calibrated to correctly read explosive levels of methane gas ) were being confused and incorrectly zeroed because of the hydrocarbon gas on the lab technician’s breath ! ( and similarly later underground on the miners breath ! )
Ipsofacto the calibrations were all over the place giving spurious / false alarms. Problem solved !
I proved this to myself by simply breathing up close to the instrument sensor and then called out to Malcolm “ Pack your suitcase ,.,. We’re going home my son “
An afternoon of discussions with the Mine Management, a call to Ronald ( who practically kissed me thro’ the phone and was forever after grateful ) and we were on our way ,,, but not before the very grateful and relieved Mine Manager ( for it was he who had specified using the MSA instruments and not a local alternative !! ) presented Malcolm and I with very special gifts. Mine was a hand painted Japanese water / Sake jug with 6-little drinking glasses ,,,, ( how appropriate was that !! ) .,., each glass with a different naked woman on the inside base who only shows when there is Sake or clear liquid in the glass ,,,
I still have it to this day ! I don’t remember what he gave Malcolm .,., something different but equally unique !!
I rather think however, we were not quite as popular in the Lab or down the pit because a stop was immediately put on their mid morn hooch habit !!

5 comments:

Alan on the Sooside said...

Fantastic post. Best I have read in a long time. Chuckled away at it.

Cheers Alan

The Scudder said...

Thanks Alan ,,

The Scudder said...

If you happen to be looking again Alan ,, I've now found & added a picture of the Hanged Men !

Alan on the Sooside said...

I did happen to look i again. Finally managed to reset my password to log on. The photo is everything I imagined it to be. It is like a Stage Set from some obscure Modern Opera Production.

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