July 2, 2010 in City

Laid-off pipe fitter uses time to try to help BP

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Jay Chitwood is a laid-off pipe fitter from Georgia.

He came to Spokane because he was under the impression there were jobs here.

“I heard there was more work in the Northwest,” says Chitwood. “But I didn’t go far enough west, I believe.”

This is a somewhat rueful joke. After being laid off in February and failing to find more work in Georgia, Chitwood sold his RV and other possessions, piled his belongings into – and onto – his 30-year-old, $500 Mercedes, and drove west, only to find that the recession had touched down here, too. He says he was heading for Seattle, but wound up in Spokane, broke and out of gas. Someone gave him a place to live while he looks for work, and so he’s here.

What followed is by now a familiar tale: He put out a lot of resumes. He didn’t get any calls back. Two months on unemployment – something the 44-year-old had never done before – turned into five.

So, with some time on his hands and a background in mechanical things, he made the obvious move.

He decided to help BP stop the gusher.

Like tens of thousands of Americans, Chitwood wanted to help and believed, however incredibly, that he could. From Kevin Costner to actual scientists and inventors to people like Chitwood, with more confidence than expertise, tens of thousands of Americans have sent their ideas for stopping the leak or cleaning up the spill to BP.

Most of those people get a polite, formulaic “No, thanks” from the company – less than 1 percent get more careful consideration, according to Discovery.com.

Chitwood did not make that 1 percent. Not the first time he sent them an idea. Not the second time, or the third.

Which may not be surprising, on the face of it. Chitwood, a high school graduate, is not an engineer.

He does not have any experience with deep-water oil drilling. The schematics he e-mailed to BP were hand-drawn in marker. Two of his plans involved essentially corking the gusher.

If only BP – with all its expertise and confidence – looked any better, 74 days in. I mean, even if Jay Chitwood’s ideas are silly, remember that we’re comparing them to dumping a bunch of thick sludge down the pipe.

And then dumping a bunch of rubber golf balls down there with it. BP’s more technically complex ideas haven’t fared any better.

It’s clearly a difficult problem. But I think I could have come up with the golf-ball thing, and I don’t know the difference between a flange and a valve.

The folks at BP did not return my calls seeking comment, and that’s probably for the best. There is vitally important spinning to be done right now, as this grotesque disaster drags on and on and the company’s spectacular failures deepen. It’s understandable that there’s no time to handle these small potatoes.

Chitwood’s period of unemployment here has run roughly parallel with the spill. He arrived about a week after the oil-rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, listening to the news on the radio on his four-day journey. A clean-cut guy from Kentucky, he’s worked in a lot of different jobs in a lot of different places – pipe fitter, truck driver, equipment operator, fabricator. Besides the financial stress of unemployment, he says he doesn’t like the downtime.

“I’d rather try to help somebody while I’m off,” he said.

He feels certain that his idea – his final pitch involved essentially screwing a slightly smaller pipe into the gushing pipe to direct the oil upward – would work.

He says he’s worked with all kinds of industrial systems, fabricated metal parts and equipment, invented parts for manufacturing, driven truck, built boom trucks and repaired massive fuel tanks.

“When you’re a simple man, you have a simple mind, and you can see how things work in your head,” he said. “(BP officials) just don’t think our ideas are important. They tell us they are, but I don’t believe they are. But I know this one would work.”

But wouldn’t BP grab a good idea like a drowning man clutching a lifeline? Isn’t Chitwood just underestimating the difficulties of fixing a problem so deep in the ocean?

“No,” he said.

What makes him so sure?

“Because I’m a pipe fitter,” he said.

You have to give him marks for confidence. And for trying to make himself useful. What Chitwood has done to find a job – leaving one devastated area to find greener pastures – has been a typical strategy in other hard times. This time, though, it’s bad almost everywhere. Georgia’s unemployment rate is about 10 percent. Washington’s is 9 percent. Nationally, it’s about 9 percent.

But then, this week, Chitwood found out that things are tough but not impossible. He’s found a place where he can live rent-free in exchange for feeding horses. And he thinks he’s found a line on a job with a fencing company. Maybe.

He says he’s done as Don Quixote, tilting at oil spills. He might not be able to fix that gusher, but maybe he can fix something else.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 450-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.


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