Frozen in place

Inviting Disaster–Lessons from the Edge of Technology is a fascinating read that deconstructs catastrophic events and why they happen. Author James R. Chiles’ style as a storyteller is particularly engaging and compelling. The book is filled with fascinating anecdotal asides on technological disasters of all kinds. He recounts a horrific accident at the Hungarian Carbonic Acid Producing Company that is the stuff of science fiction movies:

The company was in the business of removing Co2 from natural gas and selling it. The liquid was stored in small cylinders as well as in four big storage tanks, cooled by ammonia refrigeration. The gas arrived at the plant with traces of water in it that had to be removed. On occasion this stray water caused gauges, fittings, level indicators, and even safety valves to freeze shut. But the plant kept running.

On December 31, 1968, the plant shut down with the indicators showing at least twenty tons of Co2 in each tank. The plant opened again late on the night of January 1. Running short of cylinders to store the liquid Co2, operators directed the flow into storage tank C, which was supposed to have plenty of capacity. About a half hour later, tank C exploded, and its fragments blew apart tank D.

The twin explosions killed four people nearby and ripped tank A from its foundation bolts, tearing a hole about a foot across. In escaping furiously through the new opening, the pressurized liquid Co2 acted like a rocket propellant. Tank A took off under the thrust, crashing through a wall into the plant laboratory, dumping out tons of liquid Co2 across the floor and instantly freezing five people where they stood. The deluge left the room at a temperature of -108F, starved of breathable air, and covered with a layer of dry ice.

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