I write to draw attention to those men taken too much for granted., working underground, in risky and filthy conditions. I include a short story based upon one occasion when I really thought I might drown.
Under Ground Going up pipes, down manholes, through tunnels, into dark dank corners, beneath the sea, beneath roads and ground, deep or shallow, in compressed air or in sludge and sewage, is the lot of the inspection engineer, and those who worked there. I was paranoid of being faced by a cat-sized mother rat protecting her brood, but there was no alternative. Once I had to find out for myself whether an old pipe was still viable after ten years. Holes were opened to air the pipe, a trolley made so I could push my way up it. Off I set, tied to a safety line, in total darkness illuminated by a hand-torch, anticipating the red eyes of Mama Rat like the headlights of a car. There was no rat, I hadn’t really expected there would be, it didn’t make sense, there was no food. A Bricklayer I worked with was badly burned by steam in a sewer when the steam exhaust, from a reciprocating steam engine, was leaked by mistake into the sewer.
The Short Story. I, a bricklayer, have been instructed to examine the main drainage culvert beneath our sleeping city. All afternoon men have been erecting a temporary sluice gate, a stank, to hold back the waters of the whole city which will be collecting as I work. We work at night when the flows are generally low. The heavy timbers are in place, I put on my thigh boots and walk over to the others standing at the gaping manhole in the bright circle of the arc lights. A man steps aside to allow a late traveller to pass quietly by. The black round curves of the car reflecting the gentle activity, before being swallowed up in the mist. Natt steps forward with the lifeline, harness and lamp, and tells me that the sewer has been tested for gas, methane, the killer. Previously a man had passed out at the bottom of a manhole and his colleague, going down to rescue him had died with him. We were now being extra careful. The tightness of the harness gives me confidence, a warm comforting arm around my waist. With my hammer, chisel and lamp I descend the old, dirty and rusty, wrought-iron ladder to the bottom of the shaft. I know the tarry smell of sewers but I have never become accustomed to the loneliness and severance from those above. I stand on the concrete shelf and shine my torch at the almost still grey waters at my feet. A bubble of gas rises to the surface in the light of my lamp to form a grey sinister bulging eye in the viscous liquid and, after surveying sightlessly the round red brick tube garlanded at every projection with the bunting of refuse, bursts silently. I wade through the sticky silt towards the sluice that is holding in check tons of water, slowly rising, behind the timbers, like the shadow of evil. It must not rain!
I have been here some time. I’m tired through the effort of lifting my legs in the sludge of years. I stop and listen to the steady trickle of water through the joints in the temporary barrage. Has the noise increased? No! There are two noises. It must be a small pipe discharging as well. I stop and watch the level of water against the culvert wall with the bricks acting as a gauge, it is not rising. On I go again, tapping to see if the joints are sound, the steel beams are still strong, and trying to guess how long it will all last. Lifting each heavy leg from the clinging slime, easing my bent and aching back, surveying as I go, all the time keeping an ear attuned to the trickling water. I think I hear a creak. My pulse is beating. I must control my imagination. Is the gushing louder?. Before I can reassess the sound, a thunder clap reverberates along the tunnel like a charge along the barrel of a gun and as I stand dumbfounded, for a brief second I hear the torrential rushing of the angry waters freed from their imprisonment. The timbers have cracked. The sluice can no longer hold all the water in check. I turn and drop my tools in frantic flight. I tug the rope, all signals forgotten and feel the tension taken from above. I cannot run, I can barely walk. I can but flounder.. In my haste I splash but I care little if I mouth the water which is rising round my knees. I must take off my boots, but how? Is there time? Now in my haste I have fallen, my torch is lost. Dragged by the rope through the stinking blackness I lose my breath. I struggle once more but now the rushing waters carry me on as the rope never could and tiredness and exhaustion have seeped my will to fight. All is going black. Thank God!