Twilight time for Du Pont

(Originally published in the Brentwood News, December 24, 1998)


By Glenn Gehlke

The parking lot at 6000 Bridgehead Road is all but lifeless these days. Soon contractors will begin descending like vultures to begin the process of devouring Du Pont's Antioch Plant, which quietly closed its doors at the end of November after 42 years as far East County's neighbor and sometimes nemesis.

Gone for many is the fear of chemical leaks that were an ever present hazard in Du Pont's mission of producing refrigerants and other products. But for others, like employees Elmer Bell and Diana Hernandez, the plant's closure means something more -- the loss of a job, the end of a way of life.

On a crisp November morning the air is just beginning to warm as a lazy autumn sun climbs slowly over the Delta. Silent wisps of steam escape from hidden valves, roll off the refining racks and billow up from cracks beneath the plant's board-covered walkways. It is an unsettling calm, punctuated by a workerıs occasional activity and the low, steady drone of machinery as it grinds out its final days.

Amid the maze of equipment, outbuildings and a stable of tank cars, the plantıs 47-year-old Alco S-4 switch engine, No. 1518, idles on a spur track as Bell and Hernandez climb aboard for one of their last assignments. Coupling on to a pair of loaded tankers, they slowly head out toward the yard trailing more than 150 tons of rail cars and Freon behind them. Hernandez pulls on the throttle and with a lively chug-chug engine 1518 is soon lumbering along at an uneventful 5 mph. The squealing of the tankers' steel wheels against the rusted rails drowns out the calm like an obnoxious grade schooler mercilessly dragging his fingernails across a chalk board.

As they approach a crossing Hernandez gives a couple of routine tugs on the whistle cord and the switcher blurts out a mournful monotone warning for plant traffic that these days is nowhere to be found. The chime echoes across fields of grapes and eucalyptus trees, filtering softly into nearby neighborhoods, schoolyards and shopping malls, a familiar weekday morning greeting from a longtime friend. One. Two. Three crossings. Each more deserted than the previous one as the rows of white piping and metal shop buildings give way to a landscape of earthen berms, drifts of sand, wayward paint pigment and recently demolished warehouses.

Hernandez slows to a crawl as they reach the old scale house and Bell, clad in his white jumpsuit, hard hat and goggles, hops down from the footplate as he has done thousands of times before, using hand signals to motion his partner to a stop with the first car precisely positioned for weighing. The latent motion of 130,000 pounds of liquid chemicals sloshing around gently rocks the lead car back and forth. As the movement subsides, Bell rings the electronic register on the scale and records the weight on a ledger inside the tiny shack. With a great smoky sigh, the little locomotive eases forward and Bell repeats the process for the second car.

Just two cars today. A far cry from DuPont's glory years when 1518's crew might move upwards of 20 loads a day between the 543-acre Antioch compound and the mile-long switch yard outside its gates. That was back when as many as 500 employees churned out hundreds of thousands of gallons of lead additives for gasoline, pigments used in household and industrial paint products, and refrigerants used in automobile air conditioning systems. Now there are barely 50 workers, caretakers of a dying industrial dynasty whittled away by environmental regulations and a shifting local economy. A few months from now, when a skeleton crew performs its last work in the Freon department, this plant will shut its gates forever.

***

It is a bittersweet time for Bell and Hernandez, who for the past year have been teamed up performing the daily ritual of shepherding cars about the plant. Bell is the veteran, a 25-year DuPont employee who worked his way into the switchman's job full time about five years ago after several years of pulling vacation and sick relief for the former crew. Hernandez came on board last year, a contract worker hired by Power Fluid and Metals of Redwood City, the company DuPont enlisted to run its railroad operations.

"She was green when I first met her," Bell says of Hernandez. "She learned quickly. I've been breaking people in for 10 years. You get a guy trained and then he goes off and finds a new job. But you can't blame people for moving on and trying to improve themselves."

As a woman, Hernandez is still a bit of an oddity in a world that until only recently was the exclusive domain of men. While it is becoming more common to see women in the cab on Amtrak passenger trains and a few large freight railroads, such instances are still rare. But Hernandez takes the statistic in stride and often jokes about the razzing she received when she first took the job.

"The guys would all say, 'Why would a woman want to do this job?' and I'd ask them why don't you do it? They'd say, 'No way would I want to do that.'"

"I've always had an affinity for trains," she says, recalling how her father rode them years ago looking for work. "My daddy was always racing them. I got to play with them as a kid. My two girls can't believe what I do. We'll be out driving and we'll pass a train and they'll say, 'You ride on that big old thing?'"

Weighing in at a mere 113 tons, 1518 may not be as big as its modern-day freight-hauling brethren, but it does have a distinct edge in longevity. Built in 1951 by the American Locomotive Company, affectionately known as Alco, the switcher once performed its duties in the yards of the Santa Fe railway. It was sold to Du Pont in 1976 and to this day wears the familiar yellow and blue of its previous owner, somewhat disguised by the oval-shaped red and white DuPont logo affixed to the sides of its cab. A corporate slogan — "Better Things for Better Living" — now graces the spot above the hood that was once emblazoned with the Santa Fe moniker. As an industrial switcher it has been a faithful and reliable workhorse, carefully maintained by DuPont's in-house maintenance staff. Bell speaks proudly of the locomotive's track record, recalling few times when it has been idled by mechanical failure. Traces of corrosion are visible around the metal base of the cab door, a result of aging that its current owners once considered mending but never got around to, Bell says.

***

As the two-car train rolls away from the scales it glides through the east track of the plant's wye and quickly arrives at one of the two gates that separate DuPont from the world beyond. Bell drops down once more to open the gate and then train and crew soon find themselves in the middle of the classification yard facing east. The east yard, all but abandoned now, just weeks earlier held a dozen cars. But with the plant's impending closure the east and west yards have been consolidated, leaving behind row upon row of empty tracks.

With Bell hanging off the rear car and communicating with the cab by radio, Hernandez puts the Alco in reverse and eases the cars through a series of switches, stopping long enough for Bell to throw each one as he lines the route to the cars' destination, a holding track in the west yard.

Sometimes they trade off and Hernandez will perform the brakeman's chores while Bell runs the locomotive, but today it is Hernandez who grasps the rope that is attached to the uncoupling rod on the lead car, awaiting Bell's verbal signal to release the cars into the holding track.

"Kick and cut," crackles Bell's voice from the radio. A plume of grayish-black smoke belches from the exhaust stack as Hernandez revs the 1,000-horsepower engine and yanks the cord. She stops short and the tankers break away, gliding through the switches and rolling gently into another clutch of cars. They couple together with a soft bump. Hernandez beams.

"You have to use just enough power, but not too much because you can derail the cars if you're not careful," she says.

***

Derailments, fortunately, have been rare. Still, Hernandez won't soon forget the day 1518 jumped the rails and had to be coaxed back on track using large wooden planks. "That was scary," she says. "The whole time I was down there praying that it wouldn't roll over on us."

Life on the little railway has offered other challenges through the years. In the spring and summer months frequent winds would whip off the Delta and blow sand into switches, fouling moving parts that required frequent cleaning. In winter the rails would become wet and slippery, making it more difficult to spot a loaded tank car.

"People don't understand you can't just stop when you're carrying heavy cars," Hernandez says, recalling times when trespassers have tempted fate by crossing the tracks in front of the switcher while it was operating in the yard. But in the plant's four decades there has never been a serious injury or fatality related to the switcher. Bell attributes that to DuPont's commitment to safety.

"The main thing is safety -- don't get hurt and don't hurt anybody doing the job. There are rules to follow and if you abide by them chances are you won't get hurt."

That philosophy is also imparted to visitors of the sprawling compound who are briefed on the meaning of certain emergency siren tones and required to don a hard hat and safety goggles the moment they enter the main gate. Bell and Hernandez wear similar gear while working around the plant, in addition to thick leather gloves and steel-toed shoes when handling their caustic cargos. Signs posted at nearly every turn remind employees to think safety first, and an illuminated marquee outside the main gate checks off the days since the last serious injury accident -- nearly three years.

But such records receive little fanfare in the plant's twilight days as employees and their families prepare for the future while sorting out the details of the present. On a Wednesday morning in mid-September, the plant's workers got the news they had known for a long time was coming -- that the official shutdown date of Nov. 30 had been chosen. Some have since been offered jobs at DuPont's other manufacturing plants on the East Coast and in the South. Others will take early retirements or receive assistance with job retraining. Many of the displaced have been with the company for 20 years or more.

"All the companies are doing the same thing nowadays, closing the plants, laying people off," laments Bell, who retired from Du Pont in 1995 but returned there on an interim basis. "Every time you pick up the paper they're losing jobs."

He and his coworkers are mostly resigned to the closure, but he doesn't understand the logic behind shutting the Antioch plant, which is the only one of its kind on the West Coast. Western customers who in the past have received their shipments from this facility will now have to take them from Texas, Tennessee or Delaware, Bell says.

***

Their work done for the day, Bell and Hernandez trundle the little Alco back through the gate to tie up in its customary spot near the loading rack. They are not quite sure what will become of 1518 now that the plant has closed, although they know the locomotive has been sold. Bell speculates it will end up with a railroad historical society, but no official plans have been announced.

The future is less uncertain for 1518's crew. Although this job is drying up, Hernandez hopes her budding railroad career will continue to flourish with Amtrak. She has aspirations of becoming an engineer and has taken steps toward a job there as an assistant conductor, a traditional launching pad to the job of her dreams.

Bell is content with retirement, although he muses briefly about a second career. "I could probably get a job with BART," he says. But he thinks better of it when reminded of operating on tight timetables and catering to the frantic schedules of harried commuters. "I like this job a lot better. Once you learn the job it's easy, but it's not an easy job. Once you learn it, it comes easy. ... At least it does for me."

It's 10:30 and now there's time for a break before moving on to other chores. Hernandez and Bell secure the locomotive and stroll back toward the maintenance department. Barely four hours of work around the yard is about all this dying plant can muster now. Tomorrow there may be other loads. Probably fewer than today. And soon the familiar sounds of engine 1518 and the rest of the machinery here will be replaced by those of cutting torches and wrecking balls as demolition crews begin carving up another icon of the Delta's industrial heritage.


(Photos accompanying this story can be found in the gallery section.)


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