I’ve Never Really Been Afraid Of Heights, But…….
In the hustle bustle of being in the construction business you hire people and trust that they know what they are doing. If a business stays small you can keep your thumb on it and watch every move. But as you expand and grow you have to allow decisions to be made that you are responsible for but you didn’t exactly make.
This really applied in the following story. I had a guy, Tom, that was a very smart fellow working for me in a project management roll. Tom was an A&M Engineering graduate. He was far smarter than me, in a book learning sense. Not real long on common sense, but that seems to make the world go around.
He was in a position to seek out projects that would fit our abilities and our needs. One time he bid a project that on paper looked great. He had visited the site and assured me that even though we had never done this exact thing, we were perfect for the task. The reason we had never done a project like this, neither had anyone else in the country.
He nailed down the agreement and we mobilized our guys to go get started. This had all happened over a several month period of time. I was busy and had left it totally in Tom’s hands. About two days into the project I received a call from the general contractor that we were working for. They were requesting that Tom be removed for the project and to never return. They needed me to attend a meeting.
When I arrived at the meeting that was being held onsite in an office trailer there was a conference room full of people. The general contractor had two or three people, there were several engineers and representatives for the LRCA’s division called WaterCo, somewhere around ten of them. Then there was me.
What was I going to do, to move this project forward?
I was bombarded with questions about this and then that. A deer in the headlights moment. I answered the questions as best that I could. Finally I suggested that they give me a few days to organize and then I’d be happy to bring a game plan to them.
That seemed to please them. I then went out on the site and walked around a bit, just to get a feel for the lay of the land then headed back to our office to start reading the contract.
Our project was to go along the top of Inks Dam, made of very hard concrete and excavate a level spot about 10′ wide (drawing below to explain) then excavate another 4′ deep trench that was 4′ wide in that area. This was going to extend all the way across the dam, some 1,000′.
The only problem was the dam is 10 stories from the top to the bottom, on the side where the backwaters of Lake LBJ are. On the Inks Lake side the water was about 4′ down to the surface and 100′ deep. The top ridge of the dam is maybe 4′ wide, but it’s not flat. It’s rounded.
We were suppose to do all this, completely protecting the environment and the existing structure of the dam.
Now that I knew what needed to be done I went back to the site to see if there was any possible way to make it happen. I walked out onto the top of the dam and started feeling queasy. The further I went out across it the higher the dam got. I started to envision what needed to happen, all the same while seeing every possible bad thing that could go wrong.
I wrote up a plan of attack, had a meeting with about the same group of people as before and then we started to work. The first thing that happened when we started bringing equipment to the job was, “you’ll need to drain all the hydraulic oil out of the machines and refill them with vegetable oil”. That way if there was a leak, the damage would be minimal. I started looking into this and there were going to be several machines involving the vegetable based oil. While it was available, it was unbelievably expensive. It was mostly a concept and wasn’t actually being used in those applications. It was being used where a small reservoir of oil was used in a food processing facility or in a clean room environment. But their assumption was I could figure out some way to make it happen.
I found some research where using vegetable oil in construction machinery could possibly cause the machine hydraulics to become unstable. Bingo, after 2 weeks of running in circles, I prepared a document that asked them to sign taking responsibility if a machine malfunctioned and caused a man to be knocked 10 stories to his death. They decided vegetable oil wasn’t needed after all.
I was soon to find out that knocking the top of the dam off and then replacing it was going to be the easy part. The hard part was dealing with all the BS.
The real problem was finding machines that would fit out on the dam but would be large enough to actually get the job done.
A Rocksaw like this one was used to cut the concrete. The cutting chain was able to slide across the width of the machine (most machines like this has the cutting chain in the center)
Also as we did the work, we had to contain all the broken concrete and not let even a peddle go off of either side.
Oh, talk about over the top of ridiculous. The dam has cracks all the way through it and leaks water continually. It always has, as with most or all concrete dams. Any clear water that collected in our excavated area and needed to be pump had to be piped back to land and disposed of from there. But our trench as it overfilled at night would simply run down the side of the dam and go into Lake LBJ.
Over a few weeks time our first phase of work was completed. That was the excavation part. The general contractor came in and drill holes all the way through the dam and into the granite rock below. After that they threaded huge cables down into the holes and cemented them into. This was to allow the dam to safely remain there for many centuries to come regardless of the size of a flood.
After that work was down, we then replaced the concrete and put the dam back to its original state.
That all went fairly well, except the huge pieces of reinforcing steel all had to be carried out by had. So it was very labor intensive. All the concrete had to be pumped. To reach the lengths it took to go all the way across we brought in a company from San Antonio.
The mobilization alone was very expensive. The pump trucks were huge and cost a lot per hour.
On a day when one of our large pours was to take place, we got the pumps there, set up and ready to go early. We kept waiting for the first dozen or so ready mix trucks to arrive. When they didn’t arrive, I went to investigate.
On a long wide open stretch of highway a Dollar General truck had made a wrong turn so had decided to turn around and became hung up, high centered in the middle of the highway and was blocking the entire road. The ready mix trucks all set waiting. To go around through Burnet would take far too long, the acceptable time would run out on the batches. We had to scrap the whole day and all the loads of concrete.
That seemed like just another typical day for the Inks Dam project. But we survived it and can lay claim to doing a job like no other.
In the second picture you’ll see the whiter concrete – that was the area we removed and replaced.
The Story of the Link Belt Crane
I wrote a few days ago about the Inks Dam Project that we did a few years ago. Madeline reminded me of the story or stories of me and the crane. All of my guys that worked on that job made sure that Madeline was kept up to date with the happenings out on that project, when it came to me and the crane, Big Jim Palmer being the main one. He made a trip by the office in Bertram as often as possible to keep her nervous. She, being in the office all the time and never coming to the job, must have thought that any day may be my last.
This was an unusual project with my complexities. We had to construct a 36″ gravity flow pipeline that went through the side of the dam and zigzagging over the huge granite rocks and extended down a few thousand feet to the US Fish Hatchery. This allowed them to have fresh water without pumping it to raise the fish.
The rock formations that are below the dam consist of massive domes of granite, all shoved together. You couldn’t see far enough to find a level spot on that project. The only way to construct that line above ground was with a crane.
Crane operators are a very meticulous breed. They have to be. Everything has to be exactly so-so before they will make a pick. There usually are no second chances once a crane starts to fall over. A rough terrain crane by nature are very top heavy. In the down and tucked away position everything is still up high.
Finding a crane operator to come out to that site and put a machine in the situations that were required, was going to be impossible. The only solution was having someone within the ranks of the company to run it. We don’t have any prima donna operators in our company. Everyone pretty well does everything. Only problem we didn’t have a crane operator within the ranks. This wasn’t where you wanted to break someone in either. I was it. The only one that had crane experience.
We didn’t own a crane, because our work seldom ever calls for the need. We leased one. Because it isn’t within our normal scope of equipment usage, we finally obtained coverage through Lloyds of London. The high risk insurance people of the world.
I knew what the limitations were and took the necessary precautions, but every move, every foot that machine moved appeared that it would be at the bottom of Lake LBJ in minute. Many times the guys, mostly lead by Big Jim would run and scurry out of the way in fear of being crushed to death.
The job was completed without ever an incident. I was in control at all times, but I can see where someone on the ground may have been concerned.
I was happy the day we set our final pipe in place and were able to send the crane back to its home. If I had turned that machine over I would have been dead or embarrassed. Neither was an option.
Below will give some idea of what the terrain looked like and the machine that we used.