THE DAY THE HOSE BROKE

Ray Jones

 

From 1954 through 1959, as Plant Manager of Pillsbury's Western Region Consumer Goods Mix Plant located at Third and Garey Streets in downtown Los Angeles, it was all too apparent that some days progressed more smoothly than others.

 

As my go-to-work-car, I drove a 1951 Hudson Pacemaker until the odometer registered over 93,000 miles and upholstery was coming loose. The Plant Superintendent, Herb Davis, drove a Hudson Hornet even older. We used to kid each other about our cars. One morning he phoned that he would be late for work as his car had been stolen. I said: "How did you arrange that?" To my surprise, he was hurt that I would say something so cruel about his car

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And there were some exciting times. I used to maintain that Los Angeles received its fourteen inches of annual rainfall in two seven inch storms in February. It is not entirely accurate, but you get the idea. One day it rained so hard the drains wouldn't carry off the water and the rain was seeping down the walls and onto the warehouse floor. The forklifts couldn't get traction and we had to shut down. One forklift actually slid off the dock onto the hood of the Plant Accountant's car parked at the unused end of the dock. The operator was able to jump free and was not hurt. The car, unfortunately, didnít fare as well.

 

I sent all non-essential personnel home while the roads were still open and kept a skeleton crew to help put tarps over critical equipment and otherwise protect against major loss. After several tries I got a phone call through to my wife, Bobbie, and asked her to keep the radio on and notify me when there was just one more road open between me and home, 17 miles away. Most were being closed down by flooding.

 

When only Beverly Boulevard was open, and that threatened by mud-slides, I finished shutting the plant down, sent the last few men home, and headed out. I reached home, the storm subsided, and we were able to resume operations the following morning.

 

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Our last major expansion was installation of an Angel Food Cake Mix line. The only space available was to take 1,600 square feet of the plant end of the warehouse and convert it into a manufacturing room. We waited until August, "when it never rains", to cut an open hole in the roof in order to install a two-story-high room. Well, we cut the hole, and, yes, it rained, and rained, and rained.

 

The plant foreman called me in the middle of the night and I promptly drove to the plant; the seventeen miles taking not much over twenty minutes on deserted roads in that deluge and at that hour. The night crew was constructing a temporary "tarp" room and sand "dam" to contain the water. We successfully labored with squeegees and brooms until the storm quit, to keep the water from inundating the warehouse.

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When no personal injuries are involved, industrial accidents can be amusing. There was "good old" Line 3. On the day shift we used our best qualified, most mature, respected and faithful mixer man. But once in a while he would feel faint, leave his post and rush to the window to get a breath of fresh air. It wasn't until we called in an outside air-testing lab to check for the source, or the reason for his sudden illness, that we discovered his problem.

 

We found that when the pie crust mix line was working on the second floor in the adjacent building, the mixer man on the first floor of Line 3 had his problems. Because solid CO2 was used to cool the pie crust mix, when it was converted into gas the heavier-than-air CO2 gas would travel to the lower level via the connecting staircase, depriving the Line 3 mixing area of its oxygen. The solution was to discontinue scheduling the two lines to run at the same time. That wasn't the only fun we had with Line 3.

 

We used Line 3 for the most difficult task: the switching over from the manufacture of Chocolate Cake Mix to that of Yellow or White Cake. Cleanout of each and every square inch of the 2,000 pound mixer and all of the conveying lines and packers had to be so meticulously done that not one speck of chocolate cake mix would appear in a single box of white cake, for example.

That burdensome responsibility weighed heavily upon the poor dust collection system and, in spite of its noble efforts, it would cough once every two or three years (it happened to me twice during my tenure). I don't mean the type of genteel, lady-like cough behind a fine linen lace hankie; I mean a pent-up, unavoidable, deep, muffled, decongestive cough clear through the roof vents.

 

The second time I witnessed that cough, seated at my desk with Line 3 outside my office to my right and Third Street located alongside the window at my left, I observed the huge brown cloud traveling toward downtown at a speed of about fifteen miles per hour. Experience had taught me to immediately summon the Plant Superintendent from his rounds in the otherwise smooth-running facility, look at my watch, and inform him that in precisely seven minutes the Air Pollution Control District Officer would appear at our main entrance, citation book in hand, demanding an explanation.

 

Would the Plant Superintendent, I continued, please politely receive the Officer, explain our procedures, good intentions, and desire to be the best of corporate citizens, trying to talk the officer into foregoing a citation and fine in this unfortunate instance.

 

After escorting the placated officer to the door following his inspection, still grumbling on the way out, our final act of the episode was to send our best goodwill ambassador through the neighborhood; distributing offers of a free car wash to all those unfortunate individuals who happened to have parked their cars in our vicinity that day. 

 

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But those events paled by comparison with The Day The Hose Broke.

 

Our eclectic plant was not designed. It grew-into eleven contiguous buildings covering an entire city block, increasing as business grew and the number and types of products expanded over the preceding period. As such, modern time and motion design studies did not play a part in its design.

 

Almost all of our baking mixes used solidified shortening, rotated out of storage, but not Pie Crust Mix. For that, due to our unique processing method, we used hot, liquid shortening, kept in an interim holding tank

as the mixing process was underway. The nature of the ingredient required delivery by tank truck.

 

The configuration of the receiving point was such that the truck had to park on the street for the unloading operation. Shortly after 0800 one routine morning the delivery arrived on schedule with its 36,000 pound load of the  liquid. The delivery point was about 150 feet behind me, down Third Street from my office window.

 

The delivery driver dutifully hooked up the hoses and pump to transfer the load into the holding tank exterior receptacle. As he and the plant foreman were carefully monitoring the transfer, the hose at the outlet end of the pump suddenly burst, spewing about 2,600  pounds of hot, liquid shortening onto Third Street, oozing slowly toward downtown.

 

I'm sure a slow motion camera could never properly reconstruct the sequence of activity that instantaneously followed. The driver shut off the pump as soon as he could return to reach it. I hollered to an office employee to call the police as I bolted out the door. The plant superintendent and I took opposite sides of the flood to attempt to stop traffic. The foreman, the industrial neighborhood now being alerted, began receiving anything anyone had to offer to absorb the flood and slow its movement.

 

A harried-looking businessman-type in a big Buick approached.  I tried to stop him, but with a disdainful look down his nose as if to say: "I'm in a hurry and no water puddle is going to stop me," he gunned his engine, hit the "puddle," spun in a perfect 360Ŗ pirouette, shot out the far end, and sped on his way, miraculously unscathed (probably wondering: "Wha' hoppen?").

 

Then the worst of my fears materialized. The closest fire station was on the opposite side of the next block, toward downtown from our Third and Garey intersection. A call came in to the station, the alarm sounded, the sirens began to wail and the engines were underway.

 

My first prayer was that they would turn toward town. No such luck. Around the corner they came, onto Third Street, headed directly toward us.  My second prayer was that they would not attempt a turn at our corner.

I had visions, like the Keystone Kops, of the engines reaching our position and trying to make a turn. My mind could see the swirling engines crashing into our building and onto my secretary's lap with the firemen being hurled through the air like the tail of a kid's crack-the-whip game. This time the gods were with us. The engines went straight through the intersection, heavy enough to overcome the lack of traction for that next few dozen feet. They didn't know the fate they escaped and we didn't have another, more disastrous, mess to clean up.

 

The police arrived amazingly fast to shut down the traffic and promptly radioed for the street maintenance crew to barricade the street.  I have neither before nor since seen more efficient city workers.  They brought in a dump truck load of sand and a skip-loader, spread the sand to sop up the now-cooling shortening, scooped up the mess and shoveled up the gutters, re-filling the dump truck. They swept up the remaining residue on the street, picked up their barricades, and in under three hours were on their way.

 

(Yes, the city billed us for their costs; yes, we paid the bill without hesitation; and, yes, the supplier reimbursed us; with apologies for their faulty equipment-and, I might add, with a few shared laughs now that it was over and no one was hurt).

 

When I called my boss in Western Region Headquarters to report the incident at the conclusion of our ordeal , he merely said: "Ray, doesn't anything usual ever happen to you down there?"

 

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