Friday, May 27, 2005

NAFCON, Onne: My Ordeal

The NPK Plant had acquired a reputation for incessant breakdowns. This was as a result of aged and ill maintained machinery and equipment. The management wouldn’t commit funds for proper and adequate maintenance routines, but insisted on having results/products. This meant managing the neglected equipment as much as co-ordinated efforts would permit. The Plant was run with most fingers crossed! Sometime after 2100 hrs, I’d gone from the Raw Materials storage bay to the NPK Control Room for a drink of cold water. Jude, my colleague, was on The Board, and he was training to take over from Abraham who was on leave, and who normally handled this function. Jude said to me, “BJ, any quantity of materials you send into this plant this evening, I will consume it". This was his way of telling me that the plant was cruising fine, and thus exhorted to work harder I took up Jude’s challenge.

I decided to go back and inform the others, but first I needed to go through the RMDC discharge end, to be sure it was doing alright and equal to the task. It wasn’t. The belt was playing. It was out of alignment as the drum was wobbling. I stopped to make the necessary adjustments as the equipment was already discharging materials along its length.

Now the NPK plant was designed to run as a dry plant, but with so many changes made to the original design, everything became a challenge! Of course the machines and equipment had in-built safety devices but most of these were no more in place. Complaints and recommendations for repairs were never honoured. Emergency and makeshift arrangements were devised to handle some of these problems. It was to these that I turned to at this time. Anyway, I wasn’t about to lose out on Jude’s challenge.

First, I checked the metal pipe we kept tied to the far side of the belt to help align it. The pipe was free, meaning that the belt had shifted towards where I stood with the continuous wobbling of the head drum. This happened from the wetness under the belt resulting from the belt carrying wet or delicassent materials. This wetness got very bad when we handled off-spec Urea. The wetness got under the belt causing friction loss on the drum. The belt would then tend to slip. To keep the drum dry we kept a bag of dry sand handy. I located this bag and began to throw the sand unto the drum.

Suddenly, my coverall sleeve, folded at the cuff, caught in the moving belt. Then, being that close to the head drum, it immediately seized my hand! It was so fast I didn’t believe it was actually happening. Then it began to pull my hand. Trapped between the belt and the rotating drum I tried to pull my hand free; but the 40hp electric motor-driven drum was too much for me. I was in trouble! It suddenly swallowed my whole arm, twisted and wrapped it around itself and began to grind away!! I became alarmed!!!

In my current state I saw that I could reach the local control panel of this equipment with my left foot, but I could not depress the button to switch it off because I wore rubber boots.

Unable to help myself, I started screaming for help. How would anyone hear my screams amidst the cacophony of noise that was the NPK Plant? It dawned on me that I could die just as easily. I was really scared. Ages later someone heard me (I later learnt it was Anderson) and came over, saw my trouble, and ran to get help. I was now screaming like mad. The machine was grinding away steadily. Then the drum suddenly stopped rotating. It had been switched off. But my hand remained trapped in there. In between screaming, fainting and coming to, I noticed that quite a large crowd had gathered and was frantically trying to free me from the equipment. The rusted bolts wouldn’t give easily! The crowd felt my pain. I prayed gibberish!

It took well over 50 minutes to free me from the machine. I had bled a lot. I’d lost all the tissues from my palm through to my elbow and triceps. Nerves, tendons, veins, arteries, everything! All the bones in my hand were exposed, and what remained of the tissues were falling off! I could hardly notice this at this time. People were crying and screaming on my behalf. I never realised how much trouble I was really in. Such was the relief to be free of that machine trap. I just managed to climb down the flights, ten storeys down, to a waiting pickup vehicle - not an ambulance! The car took me to the site clinic where I finally passed out.

I was later taken to Pamo Clinic in Port Harcourt in a Nafcon ambulance wrapped in bloody white bedsheets. I spent drowsy moments there while the company management debated my problem. The doctors here refused me any active medication, allowing only supervised quantities of water and the drip, I guess. Convinced that I would lose my arm or die if something wasn’t done fast, the doctors at Pamo recommended that I be taken straight away to the National Orthopaedic Hospital in Enugu, some 200km by road. Thus began my battle to live!

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