American Book of Golden Deeds - James Baldwin

The Boiler Cleaners

In the engine room of a great machine shop in Indiana, William Phelps and another man are cleaning a boiler.

It is night. The machinery is at a standstill. Engineers and firemen have gone home. Besides Phelps and his companion there is not another man in the room.

The boiler which they are cleaning has not been in use for some days. The water has been drawn from it. It is waiting for repairs. But beneath its companions in the adjoining room the fires are still glowing red, and the steam sizzles shrilly from beneath their safety valves.

The two men are inside of the boiler. To get there they have been obliged to creep through a small, round opening on the upper side. This opening is barely large enough to admit the body of a slender man. Through it passes all the air which the cleaners can have while working at this unpleasant task. Beneath it hangs a dimly burning lantern which gives them all the light they are thought to need.

They are busy with their scrubbing brushes and scrapers, removing the lime with which the interior of the boiler has become coated. They are accustomed to the work, and they do not mind the dimness of the light, the heaviness of the air, the cramping discomfort of the place. As for danger, what danger could there be inside of an empty boiler?

Suddenly there is a strange, hissing sound at the farther end of the boiler. Then a cloud of hot steam begins to fill the space around them.

"What's that?" cries William Phelps, starting quickly up.

Through some sort of accident a valve has been opened in one of the large pipes which connect this boiler with another in the adjoining room. The scalding vapor is pouring through in a steady stream.

William Phelps is nearest to the opening which is the only means of escape. He may save himself if he will act quickly. But, no; he steps aside and cries: "Out with you, Jim! You first!"

Jim's body entirely fills the opening. He wriggles slowly through, almost paralyzed with fear and the pain of the scalding steam. He shouts the alarm. Watchmen in the near-by rooms hear him, and come with helping hands to lift him out.

But where is William Phelps? The boiler is filled with steam. He has only enough strength remaining to push his head through the opening. Then he loses all consciousness.

The men seize hold of his shoulders and pull him out. From his neck to the soles of his feet he is as thoroughly scalded as though he had been dipped in boiling water.

They lay him on the floor. They apply restoratives. They send for a surgeon.

In a little while he opens his eyes.

"Jim," he gasps, "I'm glad you got out safe. It was your right to go first: you have a wife and child. And I—I'm only Bill Phelps."

Jim turns away, weeping.

The next moment the surgeon arrives. "Too late," he says, as he looks at the silent form before him. "No man can live after such a bath as that."