The Tale of the Greaseball

This is a story I have found fascinating for years, as related to me by my late uncle. I figured I’d post it here to share the strangeness and maybe some of the vaguely guesswork science.

Back in the 1990s, he worked with a security company, probably Wackenhut at the time, and had a pretty sweet post where he worked overnight in what’s now called the Southeast Financial Center in downtown Miami. This center consists of at least two buildings, one being a 15 story annex that’s mostly a parking garage but also houses some shops and stuff, and the other is a very tall office tower that was, for decades, a distinctive part of the Miami skyline. Nowadays it kinda fades into the other buildings, but it used to be the tallest.

Over the years, it had a few different names, the most amusing of which was when it was the First Union tower and was thus possible to be abbreviated to “FU Tower”.

Well, one day, it said FU.

On one of the floors of the annex, there was a big fancy beauty salon, and a cafe. The salon, which was one of these “if you have to ask, you can’t afford their services” kinds, was having chronic issues with their sinks backing up for a while, sometimes leading to the whole salon floor getting flooded with inches of soapy water. The building’s engineers had been investigating the problem for a while but were faced with one of the more maddening issues that likes to slap engineers in the face:

* It’s not working, we’re investigating—-
* Oops, now it’s working, and we don’t know why.

Sometimes they’d arrive to find the water on the floor, and absolutely no signs of the drains being clogged.

They had a large wet vac that my uncle called Big Bertha that they’d haul in there and make quick work of the soapy water on the marble floor, and that’d be that, right? Well, then it’d come back in a week, and everyone was getting pissed off.

This building annex was a strange piece of architecture.

I believe the area he told me about with the beauty salon and cafe were up on what’d actually be the second or third level of the building (depending on how far undeground things went). They were definitely above street level; approaching this building from the street involved going up large stone stairs or ramps. As I recall, it looked like as soon as you went into the parking garage, the first thing was a big ramp up, as there was a basement level below it. I’d also heard that this basement level extended out under the courtyard, but not in the “it’s all hollow under there” sense – more like it had a series of little rabbit warrens under it populated with small chambers that contained chilled water circulation pumps and other frobnications. It was not uncommon for the air conditioning contractors to spend half their time on site just trying to figure out how to get to what they were trying to work on!

He did often have to go down into that space to turn chillers off. For whatever reason, the HVAC automation was capable of turning circulation pumps and chillers ON as required, but was not capable of turning them off. It’d basically signal a warning on a computer screen that it needed the chiller shut off. The procedure for shutting it down was to physically walk up to the chiller and press a stop button, which would begin its pump down and shutdown cycle, accompanied by gigantic, shuddering, disturbing noises.

I’d never gone into the garage annex there though I’d always wanted to, based on some of the weird things he told me about it. It was a very strange piece of architecture, one of those that looked like it was designed by a committee that was at constant war with someone forcing feature creep into it. For instance, he told me one day about deciding on one of his rounds to go through an emergency exit door in one corner of the garage. This door at something like the 11th level led into the beginning of what felt like over a mile of turbulently twisty concrete hallway that connected to NOTHING ELSE with multiple stairwells, most going down, but some going BACK  UP, as though this hallway had been laced over and under various other parts of the building on the way out. At intervals there’d be air vents through which he heard sounds that didn’t match with the sound of anything he was familiar with in the building…. strange howling sounds of air rushing down very long ducts? Finally, after he’d been walking for about 25 minutes, it made one final dip and set of stairs UP, and came to a concealed door that ejected him next to the main entrance of the office tower itself. When I say it connected to nothing else, that is to say there were no doors in or out of the exit hallway. It was just a long strange labyrinth.

Usually where I’ve seen that in the process of casual urban exploration, it’s the result of a space that was remodeled and repurposed needing a fire exit out the back. The fire codes said you needed an exit, they didn’t say it had to be a quick and direct one???

One of the things he noticed in this garage was that it had several helical ramp structures inside it which contained a hollow utility duct up the middle. One of them was part of a smoke evacuation system, which you can see clearly on aerial photography of the building. There are five enormous exhaust vents visible up on top, and the entire upper levels of both the annex and the office towers are hollow and have ventilation louvers that look like false windows. I seem to remember him describing two of those vents having massive variable speed fans in them that sucked car exhaust out of the garage, but would spin up to a fearsome, screaming speed if the fire alarm system triggered. One of them pulled air out via vents that led back into one of the helixes, the other came out of a different system that had vents outside the stairwell doors to pull away smoke. The stairwells were pressurized with clean air from below by something in the mystery zone under the courtyard.

The other helix served a far different purpose: The building’s electrical service and main switchgear were located inside it. It had a ventilation duct up into the hollow upper level space, where hot air from the room would be ejected along with hot wet air from the evaporative cooling towers.

So…. Remember the salon with its backed up drains? Well, nobody realized this previously, but the drain line also ran down the helix with the switchgear in it. Forming inside the drain line was a rock hard amber plug of grease from the cafe, and every night when they cleaned and sanitized the kitchen, the hot soapy water was slowly getting past, with the overflow escaping into the beauty salon. That is, until the pipe finally just gave up.

One Friday night he was in the building’s control room on the 15th floor of the office tower when everything pretty much lit up at once then immediately went dark. The fire alarms made one brief honk and died, the HVAC systems completely powered down, elevator controls blanked out and the elevators stalled (luckily, this being like 1 AM, nobody was using them!), and the phone was dead. He walked down many, many stairs to the lobby, and as he did he noticed no air flowing into the stairwell. At the first level, thick stinging smoke gushed out of the vent that was supposed to blow clean air into the stairwell. Upon exiting through the lobby doors, he saw smoke roaring out of the garage entrance as the fire department rolled up. The giant fans on the roof were not running, and the fire department deployed portable smoke evacuation fans to clear things up.

Once the smoke was cleared, a giant piece of sheet metal that looked like it’d been worked over with oxyacetylene torches on one side was found at the bottom of the helix. He looked at it and identified it as having been an access panel that was partway up the helix and had been used to install a transformer or something that was too big to fit through the normal maintenance access doors into that space.

The building engineers had Florida Power & Light de-energize things, then took one look inside the helix and walked quickly out. What they found looked like the remains of a fiery tornado from hell had spun around inside the space a few times and vaporized everything before overpressurizing the big concrete tube it was all installed in, blowing out the access panel and blowing up the vent duct at the top like a balloon, and cracking the concrete all around. The basement was also now full of smoke and steam that’d been blown downwards when the whole thing went WHOOMP and buckled a thick steel floor panel, shot it into the basement, and sliced it through several gutters full of high voltage cables like a hot knife through butter. Amazingly, the one thing that survived was the remains of the drain pipe, with the plugged horizontal section of it found wedged in the remains of a breaker panel. A high water line was visible about a foot up the wall, where the water had come right up into some 14KV Pringle switches, and once you pop, you just can’t stop—-

What followed was a Herculean effort to get the place back in operation… the switchgear had to be bypassed using a temporary setup installed in a cargo container, structural engineers had to come in and figure out how to repair the helix that had been poured and fabricated in place since the concrete center was beat to hell, and thousands of gallons of water had to be pumped out of the remains of the switchgear room and the basement. Amazingly, they were all back up and running by Monday morning, but the foul metallic smelling smoke with hints of turdwater and dish soap had permeated the entire complex via the basement space.

Hurricane Andrew came along about a month later, and after it caused a near miss with almost flooding the switchgear AGAIN with salt water, a portion of the garage several levels up was walled off and the electrical cables and switchgear were relocated up there.

At the time they had some special arrangement to make sure this never showed up on the news, however, he actually did make news accidentally a year or so later – someone was riding by in a limousine outside when the limo’s A/C compressor popped and died hard under the hood, causing a great eruption of smoke and fire. He walked up and assisted everyone inside the limo off to safety, and the paparazzi caught pictures! It was published in the National Enquirer with some wacked out eyebait* headline like “heroic security guard saves (whoever it was) from car explosion”.

* I guess “clickbait” before clickbait was a thing? I dunno. I’m just an engineer, ok?

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