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Bombs, tides and torsos – true tales from an ex-IT support man Episode 17

Back at Canary Wharf, I struck up a friendship with the guy who was the communications consultant for the company – a freelancer who was extremely knowledgeable in everything comms. He and I just hit it off and we
were often working together at the Wharf. The move of the admin offices from Wardour Street to Docklands was a major project. We were given a building shell (4 Harbour Exchange Square – known as 4HX) on 1st of January 1989, with a deadline of fitting it out one of the floors within three months. The more observant among you would note that the date on which we were expected to go live was 1st of April – inauspicious, or what?

So, we knuckled down to the task – the plan had already been drawn up at the admin office and we were just supervising and implementing the plan. This included moving an enormous uninterruptible power supply (UPS), effectively a huge array of batteries needed in case there was a power cut, so that we could shut everything down properly rathe than just allow the computers to crash uncontrolled. To do this, we had to get the UPS down the stairs, and it was then that it was discovered that the plan hadn’t included this action. Good start. Fortunately, we were at the beginning of the project, so a plan was cobbled together to move the beast down to ground level a few weeks later. I wonder how many palms were greased to get the owners of the building to allow us to remove several large windows so we could get a crane to remove the UPS from the building and onto a low-loader. 

To do this, Wardour Street had to be shut off at very short notice. More greased palms, I suspect. It went ALMOST flawlessly, though, apart from one of the securing straps snapping just as the UPS was about three inches from the low-loader trailer and it dropped onto the trailer with an enormous crash. However, it survived and was transported down to 4HX for installation. We had already arranged for the power and lighting to be installed so it could be installed and tested.

One of the tasks we needed to execute was installing the comms systems. We arranged for Colt, BT and a couple of other suppliers to work in concert to lay the cables outside 4HX and into the building sub-level ready for us to connect the phone and computer equipment. This task was competed with three weeks to spare before go-live date, and we were very pleased to find that everything worked first time. We were ready for the boss-man to come down and view the work, so about two weeks before the 1st of April, we invited him down to the building to check it out. When he arrived, he wanted to switch everything on, so we all went down to the sub-level and, with a theatrical flourish, he threw the switch.

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. You get the picture.

The comms guy and I were mortified – it was all working a few hours beforehand. It was then that we were told that the Docklands Light Railway company, which was being built just a few feet away from the front of 4HX, had been sheet piling overnight and had sliced up our comms cables into neat, 2 foot segments. After changing my underwear, we made a few phone calls to the comms suppliers and, several more greased palms later, we convinced them to work around the clock to remedy the situation. We never did get any apology from the DLR team, though. To ensure that the work was completed, the company put up me and the comms guy in the London Tower Hotel, so we were able to be close-by and we crashed there a few hours a day in shifts. I overslept one shift, zoomed down the Highway to the Wharf and got a speeding ticket from one of the GATSO cameras along the route – I indented for the ticket to be paid on the premise that I only was in the area because I had to work on 4HX. Apparently, my palm wasn’t one they wanted to grease…I had to cough up myself.

We were also responsible for preparing the site for the contractor companies, who were being housed on multilevel barges moored to the dock, while their parcels/buildings were adjacent to their barges.  This meant that we needed to kit out and cable up the barges with connection to the internet and to the phone lines.

To do this, we had to connect the barges to the PABX cabinet at the east end of the wharf which housed all the communications equipment to the outside world.  The cabinet was not much more than a large plastic shed bolted to the dock. We contracted a company to cable the coaxial cables from the cabinet to the constructor barges and, having specified the configuration, we left them to it. Lots of activity in prepping for the first barge, which was effectively a 2-storey portacabin on a hull, floating alongside the dock. Measurements were taken, cable lengths cut, and the cables cleated to the wall of the dock and then connected to the barge so the equipment could be connected.

The process for this one barge took about ten hours of hard graft but was completed per the agreed scheduleand we were happy with work done, so we all went home for the night. Except that we had forgotten one key detail…

The comms manager received a call from the Wharf security team during the night saying an “incident” had occurred and he was needed on-site. I arrived several hours later to find him beavering away in the comms cabinet and looking very flustered. With him were several British Telecom and Colt engineers, all elbows deep in cables and wiring. It was then that I noticed that the comms cabinet was about twelve feet nearer to the front of the constructor barge than it had been the previous day.

The “incident” precipitating the overnight call was that because the Thames is a tidal river, and that the cabling had been done at high tide, when the tide went out, the barge dropped from its position down below the level of the dock. This then meant the cables that had been cleated to the dock wall were ripped off the wall and, consequently, all the cables that were already connected to the comms cabinet were pulled downwards, causing the comms cabinet to be ripped off its moorings and dragging it down the dock, knocking out all the phone and other communications lines. Suffice to say, subsequent installation plans included when the tides were and allowing slack in the cabling to accommodate the rise and fall in the water level. How we laughed…

Before the Canary Wharf development, one of the buildings housed the Spitting Image studios. When the demolition of the building started, it was discovered that the building was riddled with asbestos. Clearing this material is a very painstaking and extremely noisy business. Some of the readers may remember the Marchioness Thames pleasure boat disaster where two boats collided in August 1989 and around 50 people tragically lost their lives. This happened at about the same time that the asbestos was being stripped from the building.

This particular day, I was on one of the 2-storey constructor barges next to the building when all of a sudden everything went deathly quiet. I mean REALLY quiet which, for a construction site, is an almost unknown occurrence. A few seconds later, the barge started listing to port (I sound like an old sea dog), and the equipment started sliding off the desks, the angle of list being so great so, for a few seconds I was involved in trying to catch the screens as they fell off the desks. After it stabilised, I went upstairs to find most people had moved to the railing around the top storey of the barge and were leaning over and pointing at the body floating, face down in the river. Someone called the police and, shortly thereafter, a river police launch arrived. They set up a screen around the body, which was suspected to be one of the unaccounted-for Marchioness victims. A few minutes later, there was a loud peal of laughter, and the screen was taken down, to reveal one of the officers holding up the top half of (then) Prince Charles. Apparently, some wag in Spitting Image had thrown out a Prince Charles puppet torso and it had chosen that moment to surface.

On another occasion, I was spending time on the same barge – they did the best coffee – and was idly looking out of the window, watching a couple of labourers doing some wok on the north dock, the other side of the water from the barge. One was in a digger, with a scoop one side and a mechanical pick the other side, while the chap not driving the digger was acting as a spotter. Bear in mind that these labourers worked on piece work, so the sooner they completed the task at hand, the sooner they could move on to the next one and earn more. This meant that if they found something that got in their way when they were digging up the ground, perhaps a water main or other utility, they would go through it rather than around it as otherwise they would have to slow down.

I heard the spotter shout to his partner to stop digging and swing the mechanical pick around. I then observed the driver use the pick a few times, hitting something that sounded metallic. The spotter then shouted again, and the digger scoop was again employed. After a short struggle, the scoop was raised, and it became obvious that an unexploded bomb from WWII had been dug up. I’ve never seen anyone in wellies run as fast as those two labourers did, that day. I told everyone around me that it would be an idea to pack up and go home as I reckoned (correctly, it transpired) that the police would shut down the Isle of Dogs to explode the ordnance in a controlled manner. I drove home. I was about 7 miles away when I heard the muffled explosion. It was a 1000-lb unexploded bomb that had been dropped during the Blitz in 1940/41, I later discovered.

Next episode – shenanigans in the canteen and the one-hundred-foot crane disappearance.