Shared Stories: I Saw the Inside of Hell
Anthony Caldwell is one of the thousands who worked at the fabled Bethlehem Steel plant in Vernon. Anthony’s graphic description of the process of making steel highlights the powerful forces required for this product so necessary to our way of life. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns.
By Anthony Caldwell
There has to be a heaven because I saw the inside of hell.
In the 1970’s you could get a job doing anything. All you had to do was have the qualifications, or ‘lie’ about it. I got a job at ‘Big Beth’ – Bethlehem Steel in Vernon, California.
Bethlehem Steel recycled steel from scrap yards, junk yards, home products and the plant ran twenty-four hours a day.
On Vernon Avenue, cars waiting for trains or traffic lights to change had to roll up their windows to keep the heat out. The plant sat right next to the street and the heat came from red-hot ingot cars coming out of the melt-ladle department.
My job with the maintenance department was to lube the equipment while it was working. You had to be fast, unless all was locked-out (stopped).
We were on top of the red-hot heat ovens powered by natural gas and whose covers were made of bricks. If you had the bricks fail, well, goodbye! That didn’t scare me too bad.
But on top of the gantry crane, overlooking the electric, carbon-arc melting crucibles, the foreman called, “Hang on! We have to make a dump into the melt. So stay put!”
The 50-ft. gantry crane started moving down the hundred-yard long dark, dirty building. It picked up a dump container full of refrigerators, electric irons, pots, pans, and whatever junk steel was in it and went back to the electric melt-crucibles department.
I looked over the side and my hand brushed the black, gritty slag – dust – over the side. The top of the forty-foot wide lid raised up and moved with its hundreds of cables of copper wires and carbon arc electrodes swinging out of the way.
I looked down at the white-hot and red molten steel and slag. The dump container opened its bottom and the contents poured into the molten brew.
Then all hell broke loose. Explosions - red, green, purple, black, yellow - clouds like a storm enveloped us and the gantry crane!
Breathing the whirlwind of complete pollution was impossible! You had to cover your face and your dust mask with anything handy. I did my best with paper towels and felt my skin react to many poisonous types of chemicals.
Finally the gantry crane moved away from the big pot and the lid swung back and closed. Then the cables started dancing, and the electric power returned.
The next day I asked for a transfer, and being denied, I quit on the spot.