Gas Attack

A Business Continuity / Disaster Recovery Exercise? Nope. It was real, but a great scenario nevertheless.

It was around 07:00 on a Monday morning. I had just started my shift in a large computer installation and was in the middle of the handover from the previous nights shift. It was at this time, same time, every week, the the fire alarms were tested. This involved inserting a key into the fire alarm control panel and manually sounding the alarms. Doing it this way meant that the local fire service wasn’t alerted so the they didn’t respond to a non-event.

Anyway, as I intimated, I had just arrived at the Data Centre and was in the middle of the shift handover process. For me, this particular week was an exciting week as it was my first week back on shift having been on a secondment for the past 6+ months working days [the worse part of the secondment] and so I was naturally keen to get back into the reactive operational environment I so much preferred.

As we were going through the events of the previous night and a review of the coming days schedule and without warning, there was a loud hissing sound and I mean LOUD, followed by escaping clouds of what I would describe as dry ice cloud type nature. In a flash we all realised this was not dry ice, neither was it supposed to be happening. We also realised that perhaps, just possibly, we really didn’t want to be around as this ‘dry ice cloud’ was in fact Halon Gas [designed to extinguish fires]. At this point, everybody ran for the nearest fire exit to get out of the building. Now, I don’t know why, but I headed for the fire escape I had become used to during my recent secondment, which was at the far end of the wing  we were in, which housed the data prep department (in the 70s and 80s, all data was entered into the computers on a batch job basis. This data was keyed in by an army of data prep operators). This meant I had to run, through clouds of Halon, naturally holding my breath, as fast I could. As you can probably guess, the clouds of Halon impair visibility ‘big time’ and so because of this, combined with me holding my breath and running, in my mind, like Linford Christie, I failed to notice that the route I had chosen did not go in the logical straight line to the door (as it used to) but it now took a dog leg around a five foot stationary cupboard.

You’ve probably guessed the next bit!

I ran, at full speed, straight into the cupboard, the top of which reached just above my eyes. The outcome was inevitable. Pain, intense pain and a lot, and I mean a lot, of blood. But I knew, I couldn’t stop: I had to carry on and get out of the room before the gas became too much and cut my oxygen supply off.

It’s worth pointing out at this time, that yes, I do know that Halon isn’t quite as bad as CO2 and that the gas probably won’t suffocate you, though if you have a bad heart, it certainly wont do you any good. But, when you’re in a room being filled with gas and you can’t see a blooming this, your natural instinct is to get the heck of it. So I did.

How I did it, I really don’t know, but somehow, holding my hands to my face 1) to stop the blood (a useless gesture) and 2) to stop the gas getting at me (another useless gesture), I reached the double doors that led to the stairwell and subsequent safety. I pushed open the doors and literally threw myself down two flights of stairs, through another set of doors and out into the open air. I was greeted by my colleagues who had become concerned when they realised that I hadn’t followed them out of the fire escape they used. At the same time however, they also became concerned at the amount of blood that was now gushing from where my nose was (I’ve still got it, but it didn’t look like it at the time). I don’t remember a lot after this but I do remember somebody rushing into the ladies toilets and coming out with something absorbent to hold over  my nose. By now, the outside was covered in blood: it must have looked like a war zone.

At this point the decision was taken that I needed to go to the hospital [a fair assessment I would say] but rather than wait for an ambulance I would driven their, face appropriately dressed with something alien to most blokes. On reaching A&E I was quickly taken in for examination. Here, I remember very little. I do know that wanted to understand what sort of gas it was; they also wanted to know who else may have been affected by it. I’m guessing this was early days of Halon Gas as at the tome, nobody at the hospital had heard of it so they had to phone whoever they phone when they need to know such information.

AFter satisfying themselves that the gas was not a product that would counteract with anaesthetic, I was quickly taken down (or along, or up) tot he theatre where those lovely sleepy time drugs were administered. As I counted backwards from 10, I remember somebody putting their hand round my throat as I drifted off into la la land.

Now, before you think I imagined the hands around my throat bit, the reason they do this is because anybody with Hiatus Hernia (which I have) is prone to reflux when anaesthetic  is administered. In such situations, the reflux can be taken back down into the lungs, which isn’t good I can assure you. The hands around the throat are to prevent the reflux coming up.

I awoke some while later having had my nose stitched back to where it should be and the bridge between my eyes also sown back together. Apparently I also had a fracture to the frontal bone just above my eyes: I also had a bot of a headache but, other than that, I was fine.

Meanwhile, back at the Data Centre (now out of bounds due to the presence of gas), people were starting to arriving to start what they thought was going to be just another day at the office. People were all milling about whispering to each other, steering clear of all the blood, and telling each other what they had heard had happened. There was however one poor person who was standing around who didn’t have a clue what was going on. Nobody could face telling here. This poor person was Terri, my wife: nobody had informed her. Eventually, somebody had the decency to inform her that the blood all around her was from her husband  who was now in hospital and probably heading into theatre. Nice. Naturally, Terri, accompanied by one of my colleagues came straight to the hospital.

Contractors were brought in to clean the blood while the fire service and the gas installers checked the building to ensure it was safe occupy. I don’t know when, I was after all out of it by now, but I’m guessing it was around around lunchtime, all staff were allowed into the building. As everybody filed back in, the girls from Data Prep then saw the bloodies imprint of my hand on their exit door and demanded that it be cleaned. Don’t know why it hadn’t been cleaned already but in the confusion I guess it had just been missed.

Everybody settled back into work, although the events of the day were clearly the topic of many conversations. At the same time, the gas installers were busy refilling the Halon Gas Cylinders. As they were doing this, somehow, the engineers must have triggered the pre-gas drop alarm. The Data Prep supervisor turned to tell everybody to leave as quick as possible. All she saw was an empty room and swinging exit doors.

So, why didn’t the alarm go off before the gas dropped earlier in the morning? I hear you ask. Well, as it turned out, the poor maintenance guy who tested the alarms that morning put the key, as he every week, into the test lock to sound the alarms. Unfortunately, next to the test lock was the drop lock. The same key operated both. He put the key in the wrong lock and initiated a drop. This was a facility to enable a manual drop of gas in case of fire. Once you trigger this, it cannot be aborted. It was all or nothing. We got it all; every last drop.

Back at the hospital, people were dropping in to see how I was. Colleagues 50, 60 miles away had heard of the incident and came down to see me. I was genuinely touched by the level of care and consideration shown by all. I even received a telephone call from the CTO who was in the USA at the time, to ask how I was and to tell me to take as long as I need and to make sure that I was fully recovered before thinking of coming back to work (this was genuine concern over my well being).

Then came the Union. They thought it was Christmas and convinced me that I should claim for what had happened. My initial reaction was not to, after all, it was a genuine accident but then I thought well actually, yes I will. Mainly because they had failed / neglected to inform my wife what had happened. And so the claim went ahead while I languished at home for 6-weeks through a long hot summer while many people would come round just to view me and my horrible injuries (I so which I had photos).

Eventually, after what seemed an eternity, we settled out of court. It was’t a vast sum, but it was the principle more than anything else. With my money, I bought a nice shiny new road bike with titanium frame and new integrated gears and so the interest in cycling was once again reborn.

That’s pretty much it really. You’ll notice that the only name used was that of Terri, my wife. All other names were deliberately omitted to protect from embarrassing or offending anybody. Those that did help me in the aftermath and demonstrated clear friendship and concern will always be remembered and my thanks go to all of you.

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