The Coke Plant explosion on Brown’s Island resulted in tremendous loss of life and on top of the fatalities, another forty to sixty people suffered serious injuries. At the time of the blast, the coke oven battery itself was relatively complete and was in heat-up phase.  Koppers’ operators were in charge of the heat-up and National/Weirton hourly and supervisory personnel where on-site learning the operations of the battery. Also, there were many workers still on the Island engaged in the completion of the adjacent by-products plant, and other ancillary items.

 In August, 1972 the battery of coke ovens was sufficiently complete that the task of heating the ovens began. This is a slow process, because the silica brick in the ovens has to be heated from ambient temperature, say eighty degrees Fahrenheit on an August day, to an operating temperature of 1650 to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit on the first day of coke production. In order not to crack the brick and ruin the ovens the heat-up process is slow. It begins with putting heating boxes in each oven and eventually progresses to turning on the gas and heating the individual ovens on an empty basis. By December 15, 1972 this heat up process was nearly complete. 

The contract between National Steel and Koppers, Inc., was what is known in construction language as a “turnkey” contract. In essence that meant that the builder, in this case Koppers, Inc., was responsible for the project until such time as the owner, National/Weirton Steel, could take over the completed project. The analogy is an owner turning the key to unlock the door of a project and just taking over as everything is running, ship-shape and broom clean, perfect. That turnover had not occurred on December 15, 1972.

In 1972, Koppers, Inc., a Fortune 500 company was not the only designer-builder of these plants in the US. Their main competitor was an entity called Wilputte Company. It was a subsidiary of Allied Chemical Corp, (today named Honeywell) another Fortune 500 company. In my view one advantage that Koppers had in obtaining the bid was that its street address was much closer to National Steel than was the address of Allied Chemical.  The latter was addressed in New York City and Morristown New Jersey. Koppers Inc. owned a thirty-four story headquarters building at 7th Avenue and Grant Street in Pittsburgh. It was virtually across the street from US Steel and four blocks from the National Steel Headquarters. I suspect that to the extent that they did not eat in private corporate dining rooms, the executives of Koppers dined frequently at the Duquesne Club in downtown Pittsburgh as did executives of National Steel, US Steel and the rest of the Pittsburgh industrial leaders. Believe me, it is much easier to do a business deal with someone that you see frequently, than it is to do the same deal with a stranger. That is not unethical, illegal or anything else, just as fact of life. It is why there are sales people.

Koppers was eminently qualified to design and build coke plants. However, unlike Allied Chemical/Wilputte they did not generally operate their own coke ovens. I believe both companies were familiar with pre-heaters. What was unusual in this case was the National/Weirton Steel operating practice of using a pressure washing device of their making to clean the Preheater. The washing operation  was simplicity itself: (1) Take the preheater off line; (2) Run high pressure water through it to wash it; (3) Open the drain lines to let the water and any condensate run out; (4) Close drain lines; (5) Put preheater back on line. On the morning of December 15, 1972 all this was done, except for step Four. Someone failed to close the drain lines. As a result when the preheater went on line some of the heating gas went out of the four inch drain lines filling the basement with deadly, explosive coke oven gas. The explosion was a natural result. 

After the explosion. Because of the deaths and injuries, there were going to be investigations and lawsuits. Anticipating this fact of life, Koppers, in charge of the site conducted an investigation, or more likely its insurance carrier did so.  Why? Because there was millions of dollars in property damage plus all the deaths and injuries. Koppers was the most likely responsible party, and it had insurance. On top of that the turn key contract provided that Koppers had to indemnify National/Weirton for any damages due to third parties which were caused by accidents on the site. 

At that time, as today, it was a Plaintiff’s burden in a legal claim to establish evidence that they were hurt, and that some party caused that hurt, as a result of a negligent or unlawful act. There are Rules of Civil Procedure in force in each state permitting a Plaintiff in a suit to ask his opposing party, to produce documents and other information in its possession, necessary to establish that proof. Then, a Judge had great power to restrict these requests if the jurist perceives them to be burdensome. This is not so much the case today.

Although many people know me as the General Counsel of Weirton Steel Corporation from 1985 to 2004 or for almost all of its existence, before that I was in private practice for over ten years and did a fair amount of Plaintiff’s litigation, including cases on behalf of persons injured in the explosion.  In our cases much of what we requested was denied as either not in existence, privileged, or burdensome. In the end we received only about 150-200 of the thousands of drawings produced for the project, but we did get a number of the one’s concerning the pre-heater. To understand the pre-heater we requested an operating manual and were told than none existed that was relevant to the case. 

GLORY BE TO THE POWER OF THE INTERNET. While to this day, I have never found a Koppers coke oven operating manual, I have found one published in the 1970’s by their prime competitor the Wilputte Corporation. Here is what Wilputte had to say about preheaters:

“Accurate (operation) requires a constant temperature gas free of any condensates. A fuel gas preheater is provided which automatically raises the temperature of incoming gas to well above the dew point, usually 115-135 degrees Fahrenheit, such that no condensate occurs in the metering devices in the small piping downstream. This unit delivers a constant temperature flow of gas through a seal pot.

Operators should open the drain once per shift to assure there is no buildup of condensates to the preheater due to a blocked line to the seal pot.” (Source: Operating Instructions for Wilputte Coke Ovens, Wilputte Bulletin 7871, July 15, 1977.)

Looking back on the evidence and exhibits that we had, it was obvious that at the time of the explosion the drain lines on the pre-heater were in an open position. Indeed, the preheater had been washed down. The wash water and any condensates were drained out and the drain lines were left open. 

The Wilputte instruction manual makes reference to preheater drain lines ending in a seal pot. The engineering drawings showed seal pots all over the Browns Island Battery. 

Now for this to make sense I must introduce a science lesson. Gas is moved through pipes to a burner tip. Gas is under pressure. At any point where gas can escape having a reservoir of water against that opening keeps the gas from escaping. A seal pot accomplishes this purpose. It is nothing more than a water barrel that is enclosed, and into which the drain lines should have run, with the lines going beneath the level of the water. The beauty is that the barrel has a continuous feed of water on one side say at 20 inches above the ground. On the other side the barrel has a drain at say 18 inches above the ground. As long as water is running out of the drain side that means that 18 inches of water pressure is holding back the escape of gas. I think that the engineering drawings showed a line-up of 20-25 boxes labeled “seal pots” lined up in the area. All of them had gas lines entering. It was easy to trace gas lines to a “seal pot” on the drawing; EXCEPT that, on maybe my 500th review of the drawings I finally noticed that one box was not labeled “seal pot.” Rather that one box to where the drain lines from the preheater emptied was labeled “SEAL PIT.” That one letter made all the difference in the world. There was no POT just an open PIT and since it was an open pit, there was no seal. Having looked at the drawings hundreds of times before I saw it, I am sure that all of the other approvers of the drawing in their monotonous checkouts missed it. 

That miss in the drawings led to the construction of lines ending in a pit, when all of the engineers and designers believed that the lines ended in a pot. Testimony indicated that the pit was just a rubbish pit full of coffee cups, lunch bags and the other plant detritus.