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Sysadmin flees asbestos scare with disk drive, blank pay cheques, angry builders in pursuit

And he needed rather obscure controllers to get anything working again

By Simon Sharwood, 21 Oct 2016

On-Call Welcome again to On-Call, our Friday frolic through readers' memories of jobs gone bad.

This week, meet “John” who once worked for a construction company that printed its payroll checks every Thursday afternoon.

“If the cheques were not ready early on Friday morning, the superintendents were more than willing to give the burly construction workers detailed instructions about the location of my office,” John says, adding that said workers had sufficient tools to force entry.

This scenario meant that on the Thursday morning when the payroll computer needed a minor fix, things were a little tense. And got even tenser when “all power went off instantly I heard an explosion.”

“Fire alarms were going off and everyone was heading to the stairs to stumble down the dozen or so stories of stairs.”

John is quite pleased with himself for having the presence of mind to grab the hard drive, the ESDI controller and weekly backup tape before he joined the queue of people going down the office's stairs to safety.

The payroll lady was also clever: she grabbed a pile of blank cheques.

Everyone made it outside to safety, but when time came to head back to the office all were told that would not be possible. An asbestos remediation job that was being done on a lower floor “had a slight problem.”

That problem was a leak of asbestos-contaminated water, right next to the elevator. John says said elevator “rode in a shaft that contained the building main electrical buss. Which did not react well to the water shorting it out.”

John therefore found himself on the street, clutching a disk drive, a backup tape and a stack of blank cheques that large angry men expected they could cash the next day, but no way to print the cheques.

John considered his options. “Recovering from the tape had a good chance of futility,” he decided, as “  Back then even with the exact same model drives a tape created with one drive could not always be read by another. Plus the weekly backup wouldn't have the last two days' work anyway.”

He figured the best solution was to find a PC that he could use … if he could find one with an Extended Industry Standard Architecture (EISA) bus. Even if he could find one, there was no guarantee every Enhanced Small Disk Interface (ESDI) drive would work with it.

So John started trying to find not just a PC shop, but one that would let him test all the components he was schlepping about.

Those efforts bore fruit. John was able to build the required rig, and the payroll lady who turned out to be very pleasant company accompanied him for what John described as “working at my house until late drinking beer. I mean printing the checks.”

John says the next day he and the payroll lady were “hailed as heroes by the workers.”

But the company owner was less impressed and huffed something along the lines of “"Whatever. This is what I pay you to do." John rates that as better than “fleeing a stinking maddened horde of construction crews.”

Have you dodged toxic substances to do a job? Or evaded an angry, pitchfork-wielding mob? If so, write and let me know so you can pop up in a future edition of On-Call. ®

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