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Jackhammer Heartbeat

Out there a bad moon’s a’rising: a look into three high-pressure occupations – emergency medical services, private security contracting, and off-shore oil-rigging. ‘Asbestos feet, it’s called. You’re always stamping out fires. Stress: that’s part of me.’

Original publication: SL, 1998.

jackhammer heartbeat

Adrenalised in the gunpowder heat, Keith K* wiped the sweat off his moustache and offered me a cigarette. Hanging around paramedics – Jesus, it’s like smoking in a pub. I took his smoke, killing mine on the parkade outside Groote Schuur’s Trauma Unit, where we’d berthed after a 25-minute chase from the Cape Flats’ ganglands, our cargo a shirtless man dying of a stabbed heart. Keith laughingly sized me up and put his trembling pen to paper to write up – and self-therapeutically write off – his first Priority One call on a 12-hour shift that would see 30 Cape Metro ambulance crews responding to about 350 calls and covering one million km2 of Saturday-night catastrophe. Even while we smoked, ambulance bays filled alongside us. ‘Town’s hotting up!’ shouted a guard, and from our elevation on Table Mountain’s foothills the lights below blazed like a gasworks.

‘Welcome to the real world,’ Keith chuckled. ‘There are so many things out there middle-class people never see in their lives. In E.M.S. [emergency medical services] we take it for granted.’ Out there a bad moon’s a’rising on some motorist’s life-journey, a domestic or socio-political grievance is coming to the boil. Something suppressed is climbing unforeseen to the surface. And when it erupts, Keith and his internationally revered colleagues plunge in to stabilise casualties and ferry them to hospital: they penetrate regions of violence civilians put out of mind. ‘The hospital’s our turf – what’s pressurising is when you go into the patient’s environment.’

An hour earlier we were out there, at death’s door: the back-door of a council house in the underclass neighbourhood of Sarepta, Kuilsriver. One moment we were cruising arterial roads, the next we were feeling our way into Escape From New York, chugging past grassless verges, unpainted Vibracrete and dogs running loose. Up ahead, kids beckoned us, and we turned down an S-bend lined with residents in sleeping-shorts silently pointing the way.

A Metro response-vehicle was already on scene. Keith and partner Koaglien M.* pushed through the crowd at the back-door. And there he lay, writhing on the blood-smeared kitchen linoleum, groaning thickly, as if sinking below water, Jou poes, jou poes, liewe Here help my. He’d taken a stab left of his sternum, and the smell of blood – humid, saline – closed over your head at the doorway. I stepped back from the onlookers, bumping my whiteness against a guy with a hooded sweatshirt; I noticed a machete held against his leg.

Minutes later we were eating up freeway under us, barrelling into oceanic darkness. Tygerberg’s trauma unit was full; Groote Schuur, 50 km away, was the only option. Paramedics speak of ‘the golden hour’ they have between response and arrival at hospital: our patient had far less than that. We were moving on the seabed; the siren screamed our apartness; the radio crackled like war-footage; Keith’s face was –  stricken.

At the hospital doctors and students take over, while Koaglien assists. Keith and I smoke and laugh – until Koaglien grinningly summons me to the ward to witness our patient lying pants-down and undergoing a thoracotomy: ‘They’re cutting open his chest wall,’ Keith whispers in the amiable mêlée, ‘to move his lungs and look at the heart … There’s no guarantee he’ll live, but he’s gotta chance he never had out there.’

Out there: it determines the job’s pace, making it an unpredictable waiting-game. ‘There’s no ‘typical day’,’ says Michael M.*, medic on a private ambulance service. ‘You could kick off with granny-calls, hospital-transfers, then just sit around. Or you could have resuss [resuscitation] after resuss, whether it be gunshot-head, heart-attack or M.V.A. [car accident].’ As senior co-worker Andy F.* explains, ‘Nothing might be happening, but you know an M.V.A. could hit you between the eyes the next moment.’ Novices soon take the steeply erratic rhythm in their stride, but it takes its toll over the long shifts. ‘You’re fucked,’ says Mike.

In this waiting-game, E.M.S. personnel are crisis-managers at the ready to bring order where chaos has erupted. But when the call comes (assuming it’s not a midnight alarm for crotch-rot or bad breath), they regularly encounter ground-conditions that impede their duties. ‘It’s not so much our work itself that’s stressful,’ says veteran Mark S.*, ‘as the circumstances around it.’ With the work you’re in control, and screaming amputees are just another day at the office. But at an M.V.A., say, you’re also contending with scores of obstructing ‘rubber-necks’ and tow-truck hustlers in situations without second chances; at an assault scene you’re never sure if the action’s cooled off, and Mark has been shoved off his ambulance by gangsters who’ve butchered his stretchered patient amid the hoses, gas-bottles and flatlining heart-monitors while he listened outside.

Salvaging someone from near-death is ‘an indescribable rush, you feel like a god,’ he reflects, but ‘you can only try your best, and if you’ve done that, you can live with your conscience when things go wrong.’ Like a god you’re compassionate yet detached, buffered from horror by familiar contact, professional practicality, clinical euphemism, and even exhaustion. The pain is, after all, someone else’s – forgotten once the patient’s in hospital. It only happens to other people, you think: even when it’s in front of you, it’s still out there, where bad things happen.

But you of all people can’t delude yourself that way. For you, out there has already moved in here. You know you’re always in the thick of things and there’s no safe escape. ‘Forget that kak about seeing people die,’ says Kenny F*. ‘That situation doesn’t stress me. It’s the knowledge that goes with it, the realisation. In this job, consciousness of your mortality is the single most stressing factor.’ You know shit happens, and shit will find you: always.


Crushing the phone into its cradle for the umpteenth time, Nicholas* gives me a where-the-hell-was-I look. With the suit, straight shoulder-length hair, and a face incipiently jowled despite his 26-years of age, he looks like the Travolta of Pulp Fiction. ‘Oh, yeah. These cocksuckers,’ he says, and waves at his wall-dominating map of Cape Town with an ironic flourish. ‘In Jo’burg they’re facing too much shit, so now they’re coming to take over here. Statistically, in seven years we’re gonna be more populated than Jo’burg, and with that poverty, crime’s gonna come.’

I glance at the map’s gridwork, its polygons of red. Nicholas’s gesture is theatrical, befitting one who trained as an actor before returning to the family business as capo. But the gesture’s pertinent: as Operations Director of a company ensuring security for over 100 banks, cash-loan depots and bureaux de change, never mind numerous theft-plagued industrial sites, this battle-map represents the network of high-risk targets – the join-the-dots line of uneasy border-posts – he protects from insurgents out there. Whether monitoring security-breaches from the nerve-centre of the control-room, or clocking up thousands of kilometres on the road with his cell-phone, Filofax and pistol (carried ‘one-up’, i.e., with a round ready in the chamber), Cape Town is his office.

‘Asbestos feet, it’s called,’ Nicholas says: ‘You’re always stamping out fires. Stress: that’s part of me. We’re having a good natter, but this fuckin’ phone could go off any moment – Wynberg’s been hit, say, or there’s a bomb-scare. Then we jack up a spliff and cool off – no, Christ, seriously, you drop everything and rush to site. You get used to it, but your palms still get sweaty, your hairs still stand on end. It’s the unknown you’re facing. As you and I sit here talking robbery, they are sitting somewhere planning it: rats. A rat’ll sit the whole day scheming how to fuck you over. Today alone we’ve had 10 suspects.’

Suspects? ‘A suspect’s anyone who makes the guard uneasy: a guy who’s watching the bank, who looks away when you look at him. Years ago he was easy to spot; nowadays he’s wearing a suit and driving a Beamer. Me? I can’t do paperwork – but I can spot things others miss.’

Security work necessitates a professional state-of-mind that’s more than alertness. It’s an almost paranoiacally-sharpened watchfulness and scepticism, premised on the idea that the civilian world – the shopping-centre, the Friday-morning main-road – is teeming with double-agents from out there. As Otto*, a self-employed security-boss, explains, ‘If you take the job seriously, that’s when the pressure builds. When you know what the threat is, you start to sweat.’ An SADF border-veteran, Otto spent three years in an armed-response firm (‘on call, you never know what you’re going into; my nerves are shot’) before opening shop to Bishops Court clients requiring residential guards. Otto freelances as a bodyguard for ‘a certain religious group who’re under major threat’, as well as for ‘shady elements involved in illegal substances’. ‘Ultimately a bodyguard’s there to take the bullet for the client. It sounds gung-ho, but when I go to work my wife [whom he met on call] doesn’t know if I’m coming back. It doesn’t matter how tight your security-net is …’

Otto is both director and one of the operatives, but Nicholas has to rely on a regiment of sentries to be his ‘ears and eyes’. ‘Gone are the days of the old chap sitting at a fire. They’re trained to read the ground-situation for me,’ he maintains. ‘Observing and being observed: that’s a bank-guard’s job.’

As for being observed, guards offer the deterrence of mere nuisance-value. ‘Hiring a hundred fucking Terminators isn’t viable,’ and guards are mostly unarmed, save for batons. This lack of tangible self-protection is a labour-relations refrain with guards. ‘We’re the first they’re gonna knock off to get in the bank,’ says Ebrehiem*, feeling safer at his mall coffee-table than at the Cape Flats delivery-yard where he was shot at, as if on after-thought, by gunmen fleeing a robbery a block down. ‘But they hit anywhere, anytime, and you’re standing there man-alone like a puppet waiting to be stabbed in the back.’

As for guards being management’s ground-sensors, Nicholas feels their A.W.O.L. from site with the same edginess you and I’d have knowing we’d forgotten the keys in our unlocked car on the wrong side of town, and he waves again, this time to a whiteboard listing the day’s election-queue of absentees and absconders. ‘Weirdos, unemployables, interbreeders – we’ve got the lot, china.’ His street-map identifies targets; the whiteboard shows holes in the dyke that must be plugged, and pressure’s rising.

‘In one week the Western Cape had four cash-in-transit robberies. All personnel were shot dead. That’s over and above our attempted robbery. It’s like this: the brains – your ex-Koevoet guys – are hitting cash-in-transit, your mobile targets; guys doing banks are just fuckin’ cash-in-transit wannabes.’ An example of the latter’s style: an hour after seven redistributionists (some in suits, others in peak-caps) had converged on Nicholas’s guard and the staff-key holder during the critical opening-procedure, the next candidates were already in line, and the bank logged a suspicious call. How ‘suspicious’? ‘The caller wanted to know where the safe was, how many officers were usually on duty, etc. … Go figure.’

Consequently, one week after the robbery-attempt (foiled because the second safe-key holder arrive late), I find myself in Khayelitsha on early-morning stake-out with Nicholas, shopping-complex on one side of the road, shanty-town on the other (‘Two white guys in a bakkie with an aerial: to them, we’re the pigs, china’). Nothing happens. ‘Fortunately no one was killed last week. But the robbers could’ve said, ‘Fuck you’ – BANG! The robber can’t work or fit into society. Something’s snapped and he doesn’t give a shit who he kills. Violence is his society.’ Nicholas leans over the steering-wheel. His long hair hangs like a cowl.


What is a sea oil rig? There are two types: exploration-rigs, leased to conglomerates to sink wells, and production-platforms that feed off these satellite-wells. Exploration-rigs come in three classes: old-fashioned jack-ups standing on the ocean-bed; semi-submersibles, floating on pontoons that are empty when in tow and filled for stability when on site; and super-sophisticated dynamically-positioned rigs, which eschew the semi-sub’s kilometres of high-tonnage anchor-chain, relying on computerised ballast-thrusters to tread water off the Continental Shelf. These probe depths and geological time-strata that are better conceptualised in terms of space-travel than any earthly frame-of-reference. Expenses are also astronomical, approaching film-star salary-levels, as are the profits. The industry’s a ‘boomtown’, says 30-year-old chief mechanic Rory Tyler*. ‘A good oil-field is a licence to print money.’

So what’s an oil rig? ‘A big drill,’ Rory says: ‘The complications come getting down there and getting the oil out safely.’ Seen in cross-section, a rig has four sections: legs about 50 metres in height; a body providing the main deck; a head, or drill-floor, where fingers and hands are lost during assemblage of the sectioned drill-piping; and last, a 150-metre antenna, or derrick – a winch from which the massive drill-bit is then lowered through the drill-floor into the ocean and, on reaching the seabed, through up to 10 km or more of earth-crust, to strike oil

There are other definitions of an oil rig. ‘A small city – only there’re no pubs and women,’ says Carson Doyle*, mechanic on an Angolan rig. This city has the area of a rugby-field, and feels as if it’s compressed steeper than its width: ‘as if it’s gonna fall on top of you,’ says Rory. Spaces are cramped with machinery, crane-loads swing overhead while you slog through deck-mire. The noise is total and unrelenting, and every machinic or deep-sea knock vibrates into you. In the engine-rooms you can’t hear yourself shout; in your cabin crew-men are coming and going down.

There’s no privacy, Carson maintains: ‘You can’t even jerk off in your bunk because there’re three otherous snoring their fucking heads off.’ The city, Rory reports, is a Babel of ‘red-neck Texans, expats, and government-quota locals’; misunderstandings cause frustration and, sometimes, fatality. As a new-comer, you’ll be alienated until you’ve proven your reliability in this mutually-interdependent community, and although the population’s around 100, it’s easy to suffer cabin-fever when these cagey Scorpios are in your face round the clock for your month-long shift.

It’s an industrial city. Every day’s the same: ‘All that’s different is the food,’ says Carson. If you haven’t been woken already, you rise at 5.30 a.m. for your 12-hour shift, extended when the need invariably arises, be it for three hours or three sleepless days. The work, arduous and repetitive, demands unremitting alertness for your own and others’ sake. ‘If you fuck up, a hundred lives are endangered,’ Carson remarks. ‘That’s also the last time you’ll work on a rig,’ scotching your prospects of meeting payments on your dollar-boosted home-lifestyle, and aggravating the domestic problems you’re powerless to resolve at sea.

Especially at executive-level, your financial fortunes are tied to the rig’s. The time-money equation rules. Down-time means exorbitant losses, and the enraged Company Man sends ripples of fury down the pecking-order. For Carson in the engine-room, the heat couldn’t be heavier: the engines run at 48°C, never mind the superhot temperatures 5 degrees south of the equator.

‘A rig,’ claims Albert Retief*, Rory’s relief chief mechanic, ‘is a floating bomb.’ At the heart of this jackhammer boomtown, carrying Helifuel, acetylene and 400 tons of diesel, are engines powering the rig with electricity. Engine-failure causes blackouts. The rig flatlines. This ‘creepy silence’, Rory contends, ‘is the start of a chain reaction, a rising graph, of horrible things that could happen. Problems appear everywhere. The worst’s the obscene gas-pressure down-hole.’

As the drill bores into rock, it hits gas-pockets either shoe-box sized or extending for kilometres. This gas is compacted under gigantic rock-formation and hydrostatic pressures, and if uncontrolled, gushes up the pipe to the drill-floor with annihilating force. If mechanical violence doesn’t kill you, toxicity and fire will: you’ll smell hydrogen sulphide only once, while other hydrocarbon gases – ‘the stuff you use on stoves’ – need one spark to detonate. Sensors and safety-features contain the threat, but it’s a commonplace anxiety. Gas-warnings are piped on the P.A., and cutting-torches extinguished.

During blackouts, mud-pumps are compromised. These lubricate the drill-pipe and buffer rising gas. If pumps fail, the Blow-Out Preventer (B.O.P.) on the well-head shears the pipe with hydraulic rams. If the B.O.P. malfunctions, the drill-string’s guillotined, and the pressure-release turns the sea into combustible froth. ‘The longer the blackout, the worse it gets,’ Rory says: ‘After half-an-hour you run into serious shit.’ And with this apocalyptic supernova hot on your heels, you seize a now life-determining machine and run into – what? D.I.Y. problems: an unbudgeable nut, one misplaced tool. ‘You’ve got to get into a hatch, and you’re like, ‘WHERE’S THE FUCKING SPANNER? I’ll DIE if I don’t find THE FUCKING SPANNER!’

Nevertheless, the oil-industry analyses ‘emergency incidents’ to design increasingly fail-safe controls that anticipate threats out there. Like its crew, the rig casts danger out of mind by narrowing its focus on practical details. Like the rig, Rory trusts scientific routine, suspending worries about the edifice’s fragility: colossal, yet a pinhead-sized space-colony on a strange planet. ‘Eventually the sea’s just that blue thing out there.’ But when the engine – the heart – fails, so do the systems of good faith you trust.

‘That’s when fear gripped me, when the heart started thumping,’ Albert says: when, off the Continental Shelf and halfway through a towing-operation from Gabon to Cape Town, he raced on deck after a night repairing jinxed pump-engines to witness the towering city sagging over thanks to irreparably-flooding pontoon-tanks. ‘Your sense of security goes; you’re an ant on a match-stick.’ The small crew struggled for three hours to save the heaving rig. Finally they scaled down a ladder to a surf-swept bracing to await the tow’s life-craft. ‘The engine was blowing steam; hundreds of tons of metal were creaking and ploughing across the deck. Ten minutes after we left it went right over. All three footings were showing in the haze over the sea: we just huddled and cried.

‘But I survived. I’m not scared anymore. I’m aggressive in my spirit out there.’


* Names have been changed.


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