Only a portion of the boiler's exterior was visible from the enclosed area where the men were standing; the entire height of the boiler was equal to fifteen floors of a normal building.
But all around them were the sight and sound and smell and taste of coal.
A fine gravel of black dust was underfoot. Already Nim was conscious of a grittiness between his teeth and in his nostrils.
"We clean up as often as we can," Superintendent Folger volunteered. "But coal is dirty."
Thurston added loudly, with a smile, "Messier than oil or hydro. You sure you want this filthy stuff in California?"
Nim nodded affirmatively, not choosing to pit his voice against the surrounding roar of blowers and conveyers. Then, changing his mind, he shouted back, "We'll join the black gang. Don't have any choice."
He was already glad be had come. It was important to acquire a feeling about coal, coal as it would relate to Tunipah, for his testimony next week.
King Coal! Nim had read somewhere recently that "Old King Coal is striding back toward his throne." It had to be that way, he thought; there was no alternative. In the last few decades America had turned its back on coal, which once brought cheap energy, along with growth and prosperity, when the United States was young. Other forms of power notably oil and gas-had supplanted coal because they were cleaner, easier to handle, readily obtainable and, for a while, cheaper. But not anymore!
Despite coal's disadvantages-and nothing would wish those away the vast black deposits underground could still be America's salvation, its last and most important natural wealth, its ultimate ace in the hole.
He became aware of Thurston motioning, suggesting they move on.
For another hour they explored Cherokee's noisy, coal-dusty intricacy. A lengthy stop was at the enormous electrostatic dust collectors required under environmental laws-whose purpose was to remove burned fly ash which otherwise would belch from smokestacks as a pollutant.
And cathedral-like generator halls with their familiar, deafening roar-whine were reminders that whatever the base fuel, electricity in Brob-dingnagian quantities was what this place was all about.
The trio-Nim, Thurston, Folger-emerged at length from the plant interior into the open-on a high walkway near the building's peak, two hundred feet above the ground. The walkway, linked to a maze of others beneath it by steep steel stairways, was actually a metal grating with everything below immediately visible. Plant workers moving on lower walkways appeared like flies. At first Nim looked down at his feet and through the grating nervously; after a few minutes he adjusted. The purpose of open gratings, young Folger explained, was for winter weather-to allow ice and snow to fall through.
Even here the all-pervading noise was still around them. Clouds of water vapor, emerging from the plant's cooling towers and changing direction in the wind, blew around and across the walkway. One moment Nim would find himself in a cloud, seemingly isolated, with visibility limited to a foot or two ahead. Then the water vapor would swirl away, leaving a view of the suburbs of Dewer spread below, with downtown high-rise buildings in the distance. Though the day was sunny, the wind up here was cold and biting and Nim shivered. There was a sense of loneliness, he thought, of isolation and of danger.
“There's the promised land," Thurston said. "If you have your way, it's what you'll see at Tunipah." He was pointing to an area, directly ahead, of about fifteen acres. Covering it completely was a gigantic coal pile.
" You're looking at four months' supply for the plant, not far from a million tons," Folger informed them.
"And underneath it all is what used to be a lovely meadow," Thurston added. "Now it's an ugly eyesore; no one can dispute that. But we need it. There's the rub."
While they watched, a diesel locomotive on a rail spur jockeyed a long train of freight cars delivering still more coal. Each car, without uncoupling, moved into a rotary dumper which then inverted, letting the coal fall out onto heavy grates. Beneath were conveyors which carried the coal toward the power plant.
"Never stops," Thurston said. "Never."
There would be strong objections, Nim already knew, to transferring this scene to the unspoiled wilderness of Tunipah. In a simplistic way he shared the objectors' point of view. But be told himself: Electric power to be generated at Tunipah was essential; therefore the intrusion must be tolerated.
They moved from the high viewing point, descended one of the outside metal stairways to a slightly lower level, and paused again. Now they were more sheltered and the force of the wind had lessened. But the surrounding noise was greater.
"Something else you'll find when you work with coal," the plant superintendent was saying, "is that you'll have more personnel accidents than you will with oil or gas or, for that matter, nuclear energy. We've got a good accident prevention program here. Just the same .
Nim wasn't listening.
Incredibly, with only the kind of coincidence which real life-not fiction-can produce, an accident was happening while he watched.
Some fifty feet ahead of Nim, and behind the backs of the other two who were facing him, a coal conveyor belt was in operation. The belt, a combination of pliant rubber and steel running over cylindrical rollers, carried coal to crushers which reduced it to small pieces. Later still it would be pulverized to a fine powder, ready for instant burning. Now, a portion of the conveyor belt, because of some large coal lumps, was blocked and overflowing. The belt continued moving. New coal was pouring over the side as it arrived. Above the moving belt, a solitary workman, perched precariously on an overhead grating, was probing with a steel rod, attempting to clear the blockage.
Later, Nim would learn the procedure was prohibited. Safety regulations required that the conveyor belt be shut down before a blockage was cleared. But plant workers, conscious of the need to maintain coal flow, sometimes ignored the regulation.
Within one or two seconds, while Nim watched, the workman slipped, checked himself by grabbing the edge of the grating, slipped again, and fell onto the belt below. Nim saw the man's mouth open as he cried out, but the sound was lost. He had fallen heavily; clearly, he was hurt. The belt was already carrying him higher, nearer the point where the coal crushing machinery, housed in a box-like structure, would cut him to pieces. No one else was in sight. No one, other than Nim, had seen the accident happen.
All he had time for was to leap forward, run, and shout as he went, "Stop the belt!"
As Nim dived between them, Thurston and Folger, not knowing what was happening, spun around. They took in the scene quickly, reacted fast, and raced after Nim. But by the time they moved he was well ahead.
the conveyor belt, at its nearest point to the walkway, was several feet higher and sloping upward. Getting onto it was awkward. Nim took a chance and leaped. As he landed clumsily on the moving belt, on hands and feet, a sharp edge of coal cut his left hand. He ignored the hurt and scrambled forward, upward, over loose, shifting coal, nearer to the workman who was lying dazed and was stirring feebly on a higher portion of the belt. By now the man was less than three feet from the deadly machinery ahead and moving closer.
What followed was a sequence of events so swift that its elements were inseparable.
Nim reached the workman and grabbed him, trying to pull him back. He succeeded briefly, then heard cloth rip and felt resistance. Somewhere, somehow, the man's clothing was caught in the moving belt. Nim tugged again, to no effect. The clanking machinery was barely a foot away. Nim struggled desperately, knowing it was the last chance. Nothing happened.
The workman's right arm, which was ahead of his body, entered the machinery and bone crushed horribly. Blood spurted as the conveyor belt moved on.
Then, with unbelieving horror, Nim realized his own clothing was caught. It was too late even to save himself.
At that moment the belt stopped.
After the briefest of pauses the conveyor reversed, brought Nim slowly back to the point where he had launched himself onto it, then stopped again.
Below the conveyor Folger had gone directly to a control box, bit a red "stop" button hard, then backed the conveyor down.
Now bands reached out, helping Nim return to the walkway. There were shouts and the sound of running feet as more help arrived. Newcomers lifted down the semi-conscious workman, who was moaning and bleeding badly. Somewhere below an alarm bell began ringing. Superintendent Folger, kneeling beside the injured workman, whipped off his leather belt and applied it as a tourniquet. Thurston Jones had opened a metal box and was telephoning, giving orders. Nim heard him say, "Get an ambulance and a doctor-fast!"