Hanging by a thread on the ‘wrecking-out’ scaffold, a young workman faces mortality

By Charles J. Tillotson

Editor’s note: Uncle Chuck here recalls one of the more harrowing experiences of his young life, when he was building grain elevators for Tillotson Construction Company. It occurred on what is called a wrecking scaffold–or to be more precise, during the scramble off one heading into the void.

From left, Tim Tillotson, Chuck Tillotson, and La Rose Tillotson Hunt, posing in June 2012 in Victorville, California.

From left, Tim Tillotson, Chuck Tillotson, and La Rose Tillotson Hunt, posing in June 2012 in Victorville, California.

When the slip-form process reached the intended height of construction, all wood form-work and other equipment and devices were removed from the structure via an external hoist.

The final portion of the demolition process, the removal of the wood forms, involved the most difficult and dangerous part of the operation, that being the “wrecking out” of the wood forms and decking material that is, by design, trapped inside each of the grain tanks.

All of this wooden material must be removed, and it must be done from the inside.

This is accomplished by utilizing a temporary platform, or wrecking-out scaffold, suspended within each tank.

Elevator design preconceived the need for a ‘wrecking-out’ platform

In preparation for the building of a temporary platform, cutout sleeves and manhole forms are strategically placed to allow cable and scaffold planking to be inserted into the tanks after the concrete roof deck has been poured. The cutouts, usually four round holes per tank, are each large enough in diameter for insertion of a cable with a preconstructed loop end.

Via the manhole, planks are slid through to a workman who is suspended on a rope with a bosun’s chair, allowing him to have a hands-free position.

He takes the planking being passed down to him and extends the two major beam planks through the hanging cable loops.

After the beam planks are in place, scaffold planking is installed perpendicular to the beams in such a way as to create a solid plank platform.

The final scaffold then becomes a square platform suspended in a round tank.

The void on each side of the scaffold is used for lowering or throwing the wood material into the tank’s dark abyss. After all the overhead wrecking has been accomplished, another team gains access to the tank’s bottom via a manhole in the side of the tank at or near ground level.

The noon whistle as harbinger of doom

This description of building the wrecking-out scaffold sets the stage on another personal experience with the perils of constructing grain elevators.

It took place when I was assigned duty on the wrecking-out scaffold. The morning of labor with two other workmen had passed without incident, and when the town’s noon whistle blew, we three stopped for lunch.

The beginning of Tillotson Construction's job in Flagler, Colo.

The beginning of Tillotson Construction’s job in Flagler, Colo.

Typically, rather than have the wrecking crew go through the process of crawling or being lifted back up through the manholes and then go in reverse to gain access to the platform again, the workmen just brought their lunches down to the platform and ate them there.

As we sat on the planking in this semi-dark and dank grain tank, eating our lunches and telling war stories, I heard a plunking noise that sounded like someone had dropped a rock onto the scaffold. It seemed to come from the corner behind me. I didn’t pay much attention and soon rejoined the important conversation taking place.

About five minutes later, I noticed another similar sound and asked the other two workmen if they had heard it, too. Neither of them had. They went back to talking. But within minutes another “rock” hit the scaffold and simultaneously one corner tilted down.

A precarious situation soon becomes a mortal threat

We suddenly realized the nut fasteners of the cable clamps–which were U-shaped and bolted around the main cable drop and the end of the cable loop–had somehow unwound. (Two cable clamps were used per loop, each clamp having two fastener nuts turned sufficiently tight to form a bond on the loop.)

So only one nut remained on the cable clamp to hold the loop and that corner of the scaffold.

To save ourselves from this sinking ship, we quickly helped one another by doing a foot-up maneuver, with the first man out through the manhole above. Once he crawled to safety on the deck, he reached down for the next one and yanked him through.

I had been sitting the furthest away from the manhole, so I was the last man out.

Again, as with my previously described narrow escape (see the link below), God was watching after me.

Just as I punched through to safety on the roof, I heard the cable loop fail and the scaffolding crash into the tank’s deep dark recesses.

Why worker safety was a secondary consideration

In those days, there were many similar incidents that occurred during the construction process.

Contributing to the lack of safety precautions was the use of unskilled labor. Most of it came from the surrounding farm community, and these men had no background in construction.

Lives were lost, and assumptions were made that this would occur, as the ultimate goal was building grain storage as quickly as possible. Safeguarding life and limb took a secondary position to that effort.

2 comments on “Hanging by a thread on the ‘wrecking-out’ scaffold, a young workman faces mortality

  1. […] Hanging by a thread on the ‘wrecking-out’ scaffold, a young workman faces mortality (ourgrandfathersgrainelevators.com) […]

  2. […] Hanging by a thread on the ‘wrecking-out’ scaffold, a young workman faces mortality (ourgrandfathersgrainelevators.com) […]

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