My Moment in the Light
It was another normal day at the million square foot facility. A bit removed from the somewhat dangerous tasks I normally performed as an industrial electrician; I was working with Lee to clean up the main electrical room in Building “A”. The room stood at the back corner of the building and was often used by many of the company’s tradesman as a work area. It took Lee and I most of the morning, and a good portion of the afternoon, to get things back in order.
While we were cleaning; Lee commented that we should re-install the metal trim-ring on the large power panel in the corner. The trim-ring had been removed during a previous maintenance evolution, and had been sitting in the corner of the room for almost a year. I told Lee we would think about it after we finished cleaning the room. Lee mentioned the trim-ring a few more times, saying it would only take a few minutes to put it on, so we might as well just do it. I kind of agreed, but again recommended we finish cleaning up the room, and then take a look at it.
As we were finishing our clean-up, I was sweeping up the last pile of dust and trash on the floor, and not really paying a lot of attention to Lee, who had now opened the three-foot by seven-foot hinged panel cover on the large 1200 Amp 480 Volt electrical panel. As I put the last of the trash in a barrel, I looked up to see Lee holding the trim-ring in place. He said “come on, it will only take a second”.
The trim-ring was made of eighth inch steel about four inches wide; which was formed into a rectangular frame about two-feet wide and five-feet high. When installed, it closed up the space between the panel’s large circuit breakers and the door in the hinged cover. Trim-rings are usually fairly uniform, and don’t have a right side up, or an upside down, but unbeknownst to me and Lee, this was not the case in this particular instant.
Almost all accidents occur as the result of a “Chain of Events”. Long before the electrical panel we were working on was installed; an engineer had decided to place an oversized breaker inside of it. During construction, it was determined that the trim-ring would not fit, so the installers took a saw and cut a section of it out. This allowed space for the large copper wires which were connected to the breaker. During the period of time that the trim-ring had been left off of the panel, it had been moved around the room several times. As a result, it had also been flipped upside down. The cut-out that would normally have gone around the copper conductors, was now at the top of the panel.
As Lee was already holding the trim ring in place, I never really looked at it. I just quickly located the screws that secured it to the panel, and got the lower and upper screws on my side of the ring fastened. Lee was standing to my right; in the corner of the room; so I really couldn’t see the other side of the trim-ring. From where I was squatting, I did notice the trim-ring wasn’t seated properly around the breaker. Lee was focused on holding the ring steadily in place, so he really wasn’t able to look down to see what was holding it out of position. As the ring wasn’t quite making it around the right front corner of the large breaker at the bottom of the panel, I pushed it open a bit, and it slid around the face of the breaker.
The world suddenly turned white. It was a very strange sensation; kind of like when the film stops on and old projector, and the film burns away until nothing is left on the screen but white. I was suddenly only aware of light. It was the brightest, whitest light I have ever seen; although seen is probably not the correct word. I experienced the light. It was rather peaceful inside of the light, and I actually had the time to think about what had just happened. I assumed there had been an electrical explosion, and that I quite conceivably had just ceased to exist. What seemed like a second or two later, I suddenly noticed a burning sensation on the back of the tips of my fingers; where I had been holding on to the trim ring. This was the first indication I had, that I might still be alive.
My vision suddenly returned and I could see a large smoke ring still traveling away from me and Lee. Lee was asking me if he was on fire. I had somehow managed to keep my sense of humor and said “who cares, I burned my damn fingers”!
Because of our failure to notice the cut-out in the trim-ring, Lee and I had inadvertently put the metal frame across all three phases of the 1200 Amp circuit breaker. This caused an instantaneous fault. Although most lay people are un-aware of this; circuit breakers have two current ratings. The first; as in the case of the 1200 Amp breaker; indicates the point at which the breaker will trip. The second rating is the instantaneous current rating. This is a much higher rating which states how much current can pass through the breaker during a violent short circuit, without causing it to fail to open safely. The instantaneous rating for a 1200 Amp breaker is around 200,000 Amps.
The fault we had caused shook the entire building and knocked down emergency power to most of the manufacturing suites. In a matter of seconds, additional electricians and management staff filled the room. I was somewhat in a state of mental shock, and my boss asked me if the power was off. I said it was; to which he replied “then how come the generator is running”. I hadn’t even noticed that the large diesel generator just outside of the electrical room had started, and was now feeding the panel through a different breaker.
As an electrician who took great pride in my work, and always promoted safety, I was completely embarrassed. I had not only knocked down power to the manufacturing facility, I also totally destroyed the 1200 Amp breaker, and an additional 1200 Amp breaker in the main switchboard that fed the panel. I expected the facility manager to lay into me for being so stupid, but he was actually greatly relieved that despite the horrendous explosion, Lee and I were both relatively unharmed.
Both Lee and I had been extremely fortunate to not be in the direct path of the explosion. Because Lee had been trying to allow me room to work, he was slightly off to the side, and the force of the blast went by his legs. The heat from the explosion had been hot enough to melt the steel from the trim-ring and the copper where it contacted the wire. Because Lee was still somewhat in my way, I had remained at arm’s length from the explosion. The blast had left a large blackened area in the panel, and on the trim-ring. A clear outline of my fingers was visible, where I had been holding the trim-ring. Although my hand had been blackened, and there were a few little bubbly blisters on the back of my fingers, I had been very lucky to escape more serious injury.
Although I’m not actually sure what I saw that day, I like to tell people I saw God. The bright-white light I experienced was amazing and beyond something I could describe. The light had even eclipsed the explosion. Although people heard the blast for a considerable distance, I never heard a sound.
The strangest part of the experience was that it seemed to tear a hole in time. The explosion had occurred in a fraction of a second, and I know I was not out for any length of time, because I was still able to witness the smoke ring travelling away from me. But while I was inside of the light, I distinctly remember having a few seconds of time to think about what had happened. I have never been able to reconcile the seemingly different passages of time inside and outside of the light.
It took me a while to mentally recover from the accident. We usually don’t give much thought to our everyday thought/action facilities. We simply think about taking an action, and then take the action; which usually ends up producing the result we expected. I had thought about getting the trim-ring around the breaker, but the resultant explosion was far from the result I had expected from that action. I now began wondering what other seemingly simple thought/actions might also have unexpected results. For several weeks after the accident, I found myself taking extended amounts of time thinking about actions before actually taking them.
I also found myself replaying the moments leading up to the accident, and running 1000 “if only” scenarios through my head. I could have easily blamed Lee for his rush to put the trim-ring on; but we often worked as a team, and it was my job to look out for him. Even if it was his mistake, it was my job to prevent him from making it. I’ve never blamed Lee for what happened that day, but it took me quite a while to stop blaming myself.
I eventually recovered mentally and went back to confidently performing my job as an electrician; but even to this day, I have never forgotten my moment in the light.
My Moment in the Light