Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.
|Mystery of the Whoosh
Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.
We worked in a strange enough place as it was. At an unnamed secret research facility in an unnamed Southwestern mountain region, we had a shop that provided exacting measurements in all ranges of energies and dynamics. This is to say we had standards that scientists referenced to so their work would be traceable back to national standards and ensured their work was repeatable no matter what part of the world they may be in. The biggest and most well-known disasters of not using traceability/standards were the cold fusion experiments performed by Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons. Their experiment could not be duplicated because the gentlemen did not use traceable, calibrated equipment and could not verify or repeat the test results! I’m sure their work was honest, but they were dismissed and discredited, losing any integrity within the scientific community.
Our shop was located in the rear part of the machine shop, which was no ordinary machining facility. These folks would take C5 (a rather potent form of plastic explosive) and freeze it with liquid nitrogen which turned the material into a metal-like substance. They could then machine it into a very precise shape charges that were used to implode a plutonium core and give us an atomic explosion. The problem with this stuff was after 30 minutes or so (yes, there’s a fudge factor) if you were still machining and it softened, it would explode! So, needless to say, every day walking thru the middle of this was always an adventure!
I had been working there for about 3 months and was just getting comfortable with going thru the machine shop area when I stepped on a drainage grate and whoosh! Air and derbies came flying up at me. I hit the ground making the lowest profile I could. I had heard of the “accidents” that had happened before and how people “disappeared” without hardly a trace to be found. After a few seconds, I looked around to find everyone staring at me and snickering as if some big joke had been played and I was the fall guy. “What the hell were you guys trying to prove!?” I shouted at them. “Don’t know what you’re talking about” was all one guy could say. “We don’t have any more idea than you do why that keeps happening, but it’s sure funny to see when it does.” Shaken, pissed off and humiliated I stumbled onward mumbling as I went. My boss saw I was still shaking when I entered the shop and of course the inevitable question of “What’s wrong?” came out. I told him what had happened on the machine shop floor and he said he had heard the same story from several other people and it was time to investigate what was going on.
Several weeks went by without incident and it finally happened! People were running around excitedly and I asked someone nearby what had transpired. “We found it! We found it!” was all he could say. “We just had a whoosh go off and we were recording it! Now, we’ll know!” and off he went. A day (or two) went by with me dying of curiosity when the boss finally came in and told me what they had found.
It seems about the time I had started coming thru the shop area was also the time they had hired a new janitor. The janitor’s job was to clean the machines of all the tailings or residue left on the surface (the machinists would carefully gather scraps or pieces in special containers to be reprocessed) by wiping it down with water and rags, then was to filter the water as he disposed of it down the drain. The only problem was someone had neglected to tell him about the filtering part so our man was pouring this waste directly down the drain.
Now, the problem as anyone who has lived in the mountains can tell you, they are mostly made of extinct volcanoes and if you dig more than 2 feet deep, you better have a jackhammer because it’s solid rock from there. This place was no different as the drains were not only cut into solid rock; they also extended several thousand feet before reaching any point of discharge! With a snake camera in hand, they had monitored the activity in the floor drains, not expecting anything except maybe a sudden change in air pressure to explain the whoosh they had been feeling as they went by the drain grates.
What they saw and found was by far more interesting. As the monitors were rolling they saw piles of materials in the pipe which was identified quickly as C5 that had separated from the waste water as it went down the pipes (2000 feet of pipe will do that, ya know). Even more amazing was seeing the sewer rats eating the stuff, and then they would get into fights and Blam! They would blow up and the whoosh would happen! I’m not saying this is the best way to get rid of rats, but what an idea! Anyway, the janitor was re-trained, the pipes cleaned (and checked at regular intervals) so no more mishaps and no more whooshes occurred from the drains after that. I still think of the exploding rats every time I hear a car backfire or a sudden pop and wonder “is it possible some of the rats made it out?”
It was still years after this I would always go the back way and not walk directly thru the machine shop for fear of another “whoosh” no matter where or what it may have been from.