Anecdotes of a Chartered Chemical Engineer - has anyone seen my cooling tower?

ICI had a sister plant at Ardeer in Scotland, which just like the plant at Wilton had a large cooling tower.

It was so large it showed up on the approach radar at Glasgow airport.

One night the plant received a telephone call from the airport saying their cooling tower has disappeared from the radar, this was probably not treated too seriously by the plant controllers at that moment. After all huge concrete cooling towers do not just disappear.

However, one of the plant workers was dispatched along with his radio to go and inspect the tower. It was a typical design, several hundred feet tall and several hundred feet wide. On arriving at the location the operator incredulously found just a pile of rubble in the middle of the pond where it had collapsed in on itself.

Radioing this shocking discovery to the control room, just about at the same time as every cooling alarm was going off. An emergency shutdown ensued with no major damage or incident.

Of course this resulted in lots of knock-on work, requiring immediate inspection of every cooling tower in the ICI Empire especially at our plant which had been built at around the same time. 

After much work, reviewing photographs and construction records it was determined that the tower had not been made completely circular and that there was a flat spot in what should have been a continually curved complex surface.

All ICI towers were photographically checked and none had this issue.

However it is difficult not to see the funny side of this incident. imagine any plant getting a call saying “are you all OK, one of your towers is missing”.

During a strike of the fire teams at the Wilton complex, a request was made to professional staff to provide emergency fire cover. Those of us who volunteered were split into small teams and sent to the fire station for appropriate training.

Maybe surprisingly the training was carried out by the striking fire teams. 

There was no rancour as it was accepted that fire cover was clearly essential and that in the event of a serious need the fire staff would have attended, probably one of the most “gentlemanly” strikes in industrial history.

Map showing Imperial Chemical Industries sales regions, offices and factories in the United Kingdom in May 1955. Source Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Zoony

After a a couple of years, I was transferred to the Olefins V complex as the Butadiene 2 Plant Manager. 

This new role bought two “perks”.

Firstly, everyone from the highest to the lowest working on the plant was issued a warm donkey jacket and the second was the exciting news that I would have my own company vehicle. If you have ever been to that part of the UK you would understand the need for such protection from the freezing cold winter environment.

Very disappointing was the discovery that the vehicle was just a bicycle (old butcher's style). However, it still needed securely locking up, or else it would have been borrowed by anybody needing to get around the complex!