The Last Man at the Helm

There are only a few people in the Tees Valley who’ve seen more of Blast Furnaces than Damian Havelock.

Damian started work in the iron and steel industry aged 18, in 1985, and continued until the Redcar Blast Furnace shut down in 2015.

Born in Normanby, and schooled at St Peter’s Catholic College, South Bank, his career was forged in fire as a Day Labourer on the Bessemer Blast Furnaces at Cleveland Iron. He was there for eight years before moving to the Continuous Casting Plant until iron and steelmaking was mothballed in 2010.

He was then employed at Redcar Power Station for two years as an Energy Distribution Controller.

When hope returned in 2012, he went to the Blast Furnace as Production Manager, and remained on the plant until it closed three years later.

The hope surrounding this restart is a memory he holds fondly.

“Nobody envisaged this happening when the plant was first mothballed,” said Damian.

“This restart allowed many new and young people to come into the industry. To watch them develop, to see the expressions on their faces when they first saw glimpses of the processes – the massive amounts of molten material, machinery of enormous size and capacity, and noises that I am sure frightened most at first, the smells of sulphur, gas, slag and many other products. That was memorable and satisfying.”

While a sad moment, Damian said the final blowdown of the Redcar Blast Furnace in 2015 was the ultimate achievement of his career.

The type of operation Damian led seven years ago was normally planned for months in advance because of its complexity, danger, and the resources needed. The small team at RBF was given just 36 hours’ notice to start it.

But, despite the huge challenge, they managed to pull it off – taking the blast furnace down to Tuyere level safely.

Damian added: “The most disappointing time for me in the industry was when I realised that the people who had joined us only three years previously would not get the opportunity to have an extended career within such an exciting and satisfying workplace – with people who genuinely cared for both each other and the future of steelmaking on Teesside.”

Damian, 56, is now a key figure in the regeneration of the former steelworks at Teesworks. He has led the way at the South Tees Site Company in its decommissioning efforts and work to make and keep the steelworks site safe.

Looking back at his move to the Blast Furnace, he explained it was “enormous” compared to those he’d first worked on – with a lot more automation.

Damian said: “The output was the greatest thing – it was completely different to what I was used to.

“It was more specialised from the technological side and the technical department we had at the blast furnace, with Peter Warren and the team, were fantastic. Because of the difficulties SSI were going through, we were having to work with low quality ores, low quality coals and, at times, it was difficult to get raw materials to the furnace because of the lack of them.

“Into all that mix, they brought in the PCI plant, which was commissioned in 2013.

“It’s difficult to operate a PCI when you have those other difficulties of low-grade ores and difficulties in receiving them. That’s where the technical team and Pete Warren came in and did a great job.

“A few weeks before we actually blew the furnace down, we were making the second cheapest iron in Europe.”

Tragedy finally came in 2015.

He admitted the closure was a real punch to the gut.

Damian added: “They spent a lot of money on the blast furnace – relining it and putting a new computerised system in which dealt with the processes.

“Unfortunately, they didn’t spend that kind of money on the plants which supplied the blast furnace, and also to our customer – the steel plant. We were forever at their beck and call because we weren’t receiving coke and we weren’t receiving ores.

“When we were, they were poor quality. We were producing the amount of iron that was needed – but they were having issues at the steel plant, so then we had to reduce output to match the steel plant.

“If the investment had been made in all other plants, as it was on the blast furnace, then I think we would have been in a different situation.”

Uncertainly was abound as 2015 wore on and Damian said he knew there were financial storm clouds circling.

Damian added: “We were struggling to get raw materials because of the financial situation – we knew we were in difficulty for some time before.

“Each month, we seemed to carry on and carry on – then all of a sudden, even though we knew the situation we were in, it came as a bit of a shock.”

Sadness, and what might have been, were the pervading memories for Damian.

He added: “I look around the UK – and we’ve got two integrated steel plants in the UK. I believe Teesside was left behind investment-wise from the 1990s.

“If the investment had been made in Teesside as it was at the others, I believe Teesside could still be the leading integrated steel plant in the UK.”

The way the Blast Furnace was closed down – and the CPO process which followed – meant efforts to keep the site safe were made tougher.

“I don’t think people appreciate it, even people who used to work here,” added Damian.

“Looking from the outside in, they perhaps don’t appreciate the work which has gone in over the last seven years.”

When it came to friends and colleagues, Damian has ties to all the plants he worked on – and still has friends from 1985.

He strongly believed those tough working environments brought people even closer.

He added: “I started as a young man – and it was an eyeopener when you first stand on the cast house of a blast furnace and you see molten material running under your feet with gas, slag and sulphur everywhere.

“Even though you’re young, you slowly come to realise just how hazardous it was. I think that brings people together. Everybody knows their back is being watched by everybody else and you’re watching everybody else’s back.

“That needs to happen because of the nature of the plant and the operation you’re working on.

“That’s what makes people be so close at work. The camaraderie has been fantastic across all the plants I’ve worked on.”

The Redcar Blast Furnace site and nearby land is now earmarked for the bp-led Net Zero Teesside project.

The £1.5billion scheme – being delivered by a collection of industrial, power and hydrogen businesses – will be the UK’s first fully integrated gas-fired power and carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) project. NZT Power’s combined cycle gas turbine electricity station will produce enough electricity to power up to 1.3million homes per year.

The scheme aims to be up and running within the next five years and could create 5,500 direct jobs and add £450million to the economy each year.

While the demolition will close a chapter of steelmaking on Teesside, Damian had hope for the future.

He said: “The industries which are coming are cleaner – I think carbon capture and storage is a fantastic thing. I don’t want to hark back too much, but CCUS was going to come to this site when we were still making iron and steel.

“That would have been a fantastic thing if we could have linked in with CCUS and have become the first net zero steelmaker. It’s not going to happen, but I’m looking forward Net Zero Teesside.

“We’ve got SeAH Wind which is another one at South Bank Wharf – again it’s a cleaner environment for people to work in.”

While it was dirty and dangerous at times, Damian believes those on the new sites are missing out a touch.

“Anyone who hasn’t experienced working in this industry has missed out,” he said.

“I sincerely believe that. But I suppose it will be better for their health.”

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