Redcar furnace relit - how Teesside's steel industry came back from the dead

PUBLISHED: 23:06 28 August 2012 | UPDATED: 21:48 20 February 2013

Drilling the tap hole on the Redcar Blast Furnace

Drilling the tap hole on the Redcar Blast Furnace

Two years after the furnace was shut down, steelmaking is back in Redcar, as Helen Johnson reports

Back in 2010 iron smelting iron ceased at Redcar, threatening to bring a permanent end to Teessides most iconic industry. Two years on, the phoenix has risen from the ashes and the plant throbs with life again.
Dave Johnson was in charge on the night the fires were extinguished.

Afterwards, I sat in the car watching the dying breaths of the furnace, he said. The next day, I walked through the casting floor. Its normally full of life you see the molten liquids dance, you feel the heat, you smell the sulphur. But it was silent, cold, and desolate.

Dave thought the plant was shut for good, and went to work abroad. But others hoped to find a buyer to revive the plant, and in 2011 Sahaviriya Steel Industries, of Thailand, bought the plant.

The company had rolling mills in Thailand, but couldnt make slabs the first step to building a car or a fridge. Now they can, but its one thing to buy a steel factory, and another to get it working.

Cornelius Louwrens, the companys director of operations, said: We looked around the world for someone else doing what we were doing, and couldnt find anyone whod restarted a whole site. It would normally take years to plan such a task, but we did it in just over a year.

To achieve this, experienced men were called back. Dave was one of them, and he is now in charge of the Blast Furnace. He joined what was then British Steel in the 1970s when the new furnace at Redcar was the biggest in Europe.

Rob Johnston, the Secondary Steelmaking Manager, also returned. He said: I was delighted to get the call to help set up again. Its like being part of a big family.

Rob joined a team training newcomers before the furnace was re-lit. There was a lot to learn, as there are many steps to producing slabs. Molten iron from the blast furnace is poured into a vessel, where more ingredients are added to turn it into steel. Sparks fly its like bonfire night every day, Rob said.

Since Dave and Rob joined British Steel, the plant has changed owners several times, but the staff remained and many are now of retirement age. SSI needed to act to pass their skills to the next generation.

About half of us are new, Rob added. So weve supported them with experienced people intermingled on all the shift teams.

When the new guys have completed their training in a few months the mentors will depart and hand over to the new regime.

And Dave said: Weve been lucky some of the skilled men were retired and didnt have to work. But its in their souls and I dont how wed have managed without them. Its also lovely to provide new employment to the young and theyve brought a new enthusiasm.

One of the young recruits is Chris Trillo, who works in the Blast Furnace Control Room. He said: Its an eye-opening experience and very exciting. Its quite technical, making sure we produce the right iron to the quality thats wanted. When the furnace is tapped, liquid iron runs out, and sparks come all over the place. Its brilliant to see the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

I really love it, its different every day and I like the history the older lads tell you how it was and how happy they are that its come back. Theres something special about it.

Geoff Waterfield embodied the passion to continue Teessides heritage. He campaigned to get the furnace going again, but sadly died unexpectedly before he could see his dream realised. He was chairman of the multi-union Group, and his successor, Paul Warren, said: Others were working towards it too but Geoff had such belief that he helped keep others hopes alive. When the day came, Geoffs son Wills was chosen to light the flame. It was like a fairy tale, Paul added.

And now the plant is back in operation, Cornelius believes it has a bright future. We have put steelmaking back into Teesside and its very exciting, he said. This place has huge potential. Its not about the physical assets you can find the same plants all over the world. Its about what we, the people, do with them. Our future is in our hands.

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