National Steel Corporation as developed by E.T. Weir, J.C. Williams, Tom Millsop and other executives, was a little different in scope than some of the other major steel producers. Oh, it was pretty big in the early 1970’s. It was the number four U.S. producer, in terms of tonnage, falling behind USS, Bethlehem and J&L. While those ahead of National usually had larger and more numerous facilities, National just had a different structure. The larger companies came out of the 19th century. USS largely created by Carnegie and Frick was scattered from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to Alabama to Provo, Utah. Bethlehem was largely eastern Pennsylvania, Baltimore and Buffalo in regard to basic steelmaking. J&L was Pittsburgh, Aliquippa, and a host of acquired mills running in a line between Pittsburgh and Cleveland with a dream of building a new modern mill in Hennepin, Illinois. USS had a similar dream for Conneaught Ohio. In the nature of their formation, these giants acquired functions as they acquired facilities. Not only did they have large headquarters in Pittsburgh, Bethlehem and Cleveland respectively. They had plant headquarters much like the MAB and G.O. in Weirton. Just about all of them had engineering functions at those plants. But the companies larger than National usually had the capacity present at their headquarters as well.
Now USS was renowned for its technical expertise. It was headquartered in Pittsburgh. It competed with Westinghouse, Alcoa and other Pittsburgh industrial giants for the best young engineers and metallurgists graduating from places like the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the University of Pittsburgh. Bethlehem did the same with the Universities which surrounded its headquarters, Lehigh, Lafayette and Bucknell; not to mention the numerous schools in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Buffalo. Unlike these steel producers National in 1972 with its three facilities located in Weirton, WV; Ecorse, Michigan; and Granite City, Illinois had engineers at each plant, but headquarters staff at National was really lean. While US Steel had a 58 story building at 600 Grant Street in Pittsburgh, National’s Headquarters were located at the other end of Grant Street and occupied two or three floors in the Grant Building. When U.S. Steel decided it needed to add to or to rebuild one of its coke oven batteries at Clairton in could throw a huge team of engineers, analysts and production people on the project. A company like National without a lot of those types hanging around hired a consultant to figure it out. National Steel gave Koppers Company the problem which was “we have this much land in Weirton and we need to use the land and facilities to produce X tons of coke per year, what do you suggest?” Not surprisingly Koppers suggested that National needed to build a new coke oven battery meeting certain specifications, as to coal, fuel, capacity etc. A bidding competition was held and again not surprisingly Koppers was the low bidder on the project for which it had developed the specs.
Keep in mind the project was a big one for National/Weirton. We, in the valley are most familiar with the Coke Plant at Follansbee. It has always been in our sight at we traverse Route 2. The Weirton Coke Batteries were hidden from public view. They were on the riverbank hidden from Route 2 travelers by the blast furnaces, ore yards, tin mill and what not. The Brown’s Island Plant would be visible from Ohio Route 7 somewhat; but it would be more visible from the club house at Williams Country Club which was owned by National Steel and only admitted members of whom the company’s management approved. So not too many people would be aware of its existence up there, 2000-3000 feet from the facility. In comparison US Steel had consolidated its coking facilities in Clairton, Pa on the Monongahela River about 20 miles upstream from Pittsburgh. Even today that facility makes the Weirton Coke Plant seem puny. There are still about ten batteries there. Each day the Clairton Plant consumes 16,000 tons of coal turning it into about 10,000 tons of coke and 250,000 mcf of coke oven gas.
How did the Brown’s Island project start? Like most any other construction project. After a contract between National Steel and Koppers was signed, a team from Koppers visited the site and surveyed it, evaluated existing assets, and started to figure out how the new facility was going to fit on the site and how will it be protected from the river, etc. Then site work was performed. At the same time a group of draftsmen and engineers from Koppers and also National’s Weirton Engineering Department would work on the thousands of engineering drawings necessary to guide the workmen and contractors who would eventually come on the site to build the new Battery, the bridges, the gas lines, the coal handling and storages facilities, the new by-products plant etc.
The process was that each time a drawing was generated, it was reviewed and approved by the creator’s supervisor, and then by the supervisor’s supervisor, until it had gone all the way up the chain to be approved at Koppers. Once that highest approval was obtained it was then transferred to National Steel by giving it to the engineering team in the MAB in Weirton who would perform the same process. The final approval would come from the Weirton VP of engineering or his designee, usually a senior engineer of a director. The plant was then built according to the approved drawings. BUT to be sure not every bit of equipment at the new plant was of Koppers design. Keep in mind that National Steel, and in 1970 that meant Weirton Steel, as the owner was entitled to demand that its own ideas be used.
In the case of the Brown’s Island coke plant one of National Steel’s demands was the major cause of the disaster. The National Steel design change was simplicity itself. Coke Oven gas is “dirty”. Hence one of the needs for the By-Products plant in the first place. Even though the gas coming to the coke ovens as fuel had been cleaned, the company still desired to “pre-heat” it prior to its being burned. The pre-heater device was a type of boiler through which the gas lines ran, which used steam to raise the gas temperature. If there were any tars or sludge remaining in the gas it was thought that the pre-heater would cause such to drop out of the heated gas and lay in the bottom of the pre-heater. As such the pre-heater would require periodic cleaning. This would be accomplished by flushing its tubes with water at pressure. Where would the water and those substances which it removed go? It would exit the pre-heater through two drain lines at its base, each of which was four inches in diameter. A line that big is a little bigger than a fast pitch softball. It would allow a lot of water to pass. If it was open it could also allow a lot of gas to pass once the water had emptied.
At the trial of the matter everyone focused on these four inch drain lines as the source of the gas leak which caused the explosion. I believe that focus was correct.