To feed the four Blast Furnaces at its Weirton facility, National Steel Corporation had a Coke producing facility in Weirton.

But…before I go any further with this column, I have to disclose that I have a personal interest here. I had no family member injured or killed in the explosion. My involvement was professional not personal. I have confessed to being a lawyer. Well on December 15, 1972 I was just finishing my third semester in law school at the University of Pittsburgh. I was living with my Mom and Dad and commuting to school every day a grand distance of about seven and one-half miles each way. That day I was lying on the family room couch waiting for my father to come home.  Dinner would immediately follow his entrance. The news was playing and the lead story on KDKA was “Coke Plant explosion in Weirton results in numerous casualties.”

At the time I had acquired some knowledge of the Steel Industry, especially coke plants and their attendant By-Products plants. Many of my family members had worked at J&L Steel in Pittsburgh. The company was later known as LTV Steel. My father was a WWII veteran. He served as a Navy fighter pilot in the South Pacific. After the war he was a flight instructor for a year or more in Corpus Christi Texas. Then he came home to Pittsburgh and got an hourly position at J&L. While he worked, he went to College at Duquesne, graduating in June 1950. He originally worked in the Open Hearths, but when he got his degree he ended up in a supervisory position in the J&L Coke Plant in Pittsburgh. In December, 1972 he was in charge of all heating operations at the J&L Coke Plant. He retired from J&L with 30 years of service in 1977, and went to work for a company that built, rebuilt and repaired Coke Ovens. He continued that work for that Company until he was 80 years old. By the way J&L, just like Weirton Steel had summer jobs for college students. Mostly they went to someone like me whose father worked there. I spent three summers and two winters working in the Pittsburgh By-Products and Coal handling facilities.

When I graduated from Law School I was fortunate to find a job with the Weirton law firm of Martin Bogarad & David Robertson. The firm did a good amount of litigation work. Much of it was referred to the firm by out of state attorneys. Among the work that was waiting for me after I got hired were four cases sent to the firm by firms in Pennsylvania and Ohio involving construction workers injured in the December 1972 explosion. I got involved in the cases and eventually tried one of them in 1979. As a result I got an “after the fact” view of what happened that December day in 1972.

Before I move onto what I learned and what I think happened, I need to bore you with a little more about steel making, because making coke is a separate industry from making steel.

In the late 1960’s Weirton Steel was running several coke oven batteries near the north end of the plant, along the bank of the Ohio River. These Batteries were groups of ovens, maybe 60 to 75 individual ovens maybe 13 feet tall, (“4 meter batteries”) perhaps 2 feet wide and 40-50 feet deep. (Dimensions varied across the industry to some extent.) Unlike J&L Pittsburgh and USS Clairton which tended to link their batteries in straight lines, each Weirton battery was its own structure. This lack of connection at Weirton, meant that each battery had to have its own equipment for putting coal in the top; ramming the finished coke out and catching the red hot coke in a quench car to take to a quenching station… In a straight line J&L Pittsburgh had nearly 400 0vens in five batteries built in two different designs, and used two or three loaders known as “Larry Cars”, 2 Pushers and two quench cars, all of which equipment ran on rails. Weirton’s lay out called for one of each for each battery. USS Clairton on the other hand had a layout not unlike J&L’s.

Simply put coke is coal baked in these ovens, usually in the range of 1600-1800 degrees Fahrenheit. Less can be produced at lower temperatures and longer coking cycles. Greater production can be achieved by raising the temperature a few hundred degrees and shortening the cycle. However, much deviation from the ideal temperature range and/or 16-18 hour coking cycles causes quality problems as well as exhaustion of the plants. Oh by the way, the coke ovens are fully lined with special brick designed to resist the high heat of operation  and the pressure generated by the gases escaping the baking coal. During construction they have to be gradually heated to operating temperature, a process which can take weeks. Once heated they can never be left to completely cool, that would likewise destroy the bricks.

The coke itself is placed into blast furnaces by the skip hoists which lift it to the top of the blast furnace. Once dumped in and covered with iron ore pellets it acts as a fuel, is involved in the chemical process that occurs and is also the burden which keeps the iron ore pellets from immediately crashing to the floor of the furnace. It acts as a floor. The pellets which are little balls about one-half inch in diameter are very heavy and have about 70% iron content. The other 30% is silica and other good stuff that holds the ball together as well as just impurities in the ore. Any way in the Blast Furnace process air is superheated to over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit and blown into the furnace. Chemical reactions occur and the product which emerges has an extremely high iron content. It moves from the blast furnace to the BOP shop where it is combined with scrap and some other metals (perhaps Ferro-manganese, or aluminum, etc. depending on the end use of the Steel being made.