Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Cracking the safe at Tower Records Mercer in Seattle

Here's another fun one.

Years ago I worked at Tower Video in Tacoma, about 1985.

I transferred up to the Video store in Seattle about 1986, which is another story in itself. Once I got to Seattle, it took a while to again get keys, to be a supervisor. Aside from being a floor supervisor, dealing with all the tough issues the employees can't handle or when someone says, I want to see the Manager, or whatever the employees just didn't want to deal with, it includes counting out your employees when they are through with their cash register shift. First you have the next employee count out a new till from the safe, then you swap them out on the register and take the employee getting off a register shift to the "count out room" where the safe is.

The safe at the Seattle Store had twin dials. The one above is similar, but the dial was smaller and black, lower, and there were two dials. The Tacoma safe only had one dial. I found this out the first time I had to swap register shifts as a supervisor in Seattle. So I get the person going on the next register shift, we enter the locked count out room and I go to the safe. Actually, being a smallish room, I closed the door, took one step back and to the left and knelt down. The safe was about a three foot cube of tempered dark gray steel and located on the linoleum over the concrete floor.

So I'm down on my knee and I notice for the first time that there are two, not one dial. Not realizing there could possibly be an issue if I spun the wrong one first, I spin the dial on the right side of the safe first. 50/50 chance at being correct. I chose the right one, maybe, because I'm right handed? But, I couldn't get it to open. So, I try the left dial. No joy, no open.

I step out of the room and find the first other supervisor walking by for some assistance. I can't remember who it was now, but as they tried to open the safe, I think I asked them why they were using the left dial.

They said  it was because you really didn't want to use the other dial. Starting to feel a bit concerned, I asked why? He replied that it was not a good idea because we didn't have a combination for that dial. No one uses that dial. To use that dial is to permanently lock the safe forever. So, whatever you do, don't use that dial.

So I said, "Really. You have to be kidding."

He said, "Why?" Then he said, "You didn't spin that dial, did you?"

Of course I said, "Well, yeah, how would I know?"

Then he said, "Didn't anyone tell you not to do that... under any circumstances?"

I said, "Well, no. No one did, and don't you think that was kind of important for someone to tell me about that?"

He said something then that I'll just skip over, and then he went out and got the Manager who wasn't, shall we say, very happy about it.

The Manager said, "Didn't you see the note?"

I said, "No. There wasn't one." As we had gathered a small supervisor crowd by that point, someone said, "That fell off a while back."

Then he said, "Well, didn't you notice it was taped so the dial couldn't move?"

I said, "What? I didn't see any tape." So, I looked more closely at it and noticed that yes indeed, there was some yellowed scotch tape on it.

I said, "And you thought that Scotch tape would stop it from spinning? Duct tape maybe, but...." At that point I thought about something else. Which was that I was once a Parachute Rigger in the Air Force and I probably had stronger hands than most from years of packing parachutes. But I left that unsaid.

The Manager checked out the limp yellowed old Scotch tape hanging from the safe near the dial and said, "Yeah, good point."

In the end he was very understanding and nice about it and told me that I wasn't in trouble, and that it wasn't my fault. But he was going to have to call a locksmith ASAP to crack the safe open. We had not only the Video store registers to deal with but also the Record store and the Classical Record store which was a separated area and a store unto itself.

He also said that I would have to be the one who had to sit there the entire time with the Locksmith, as someone from the company would have to sit with an outsider because of all the money in the safe.

And so, I did. I had seen so many safes cracked in movies and on TV that I was fascinated at actually getting to watch someone professionally crack a safe. For real. No special effects, or nonsense.

The Locksmith arrived after about a half an hour and we ushered him into the room. He looked the safe over and discussed it with the Manager. It was made clear we needed it opened quickly and so he got to work.

I sat down to watch and ask questions whenever I could. First he said you had to use a special drill bit that  cost a lot.

Then he said, "And it's easy to break one of these expensive bits doing this." He explained that the safe has a layer of hard steel, then of soft steel, then hard steel again. The theory was that the drilling will break the bit if you don't understand the structure of the safe, which he did, and even that didn't keep you from breaking a drill bit. He said the key was to drill through the hard part of steel, but be ready for when it pushes through to the soft layer because that will grab the bit and hang on to it while the drill keeps trying to drill and the torque is too much and it will snap the brittle but very hard steel of the drill bit.

Once you pierced the hard layer, you then have to immediately feel it break through, and stop, almost anticipating when you will break through. Which it seems, is almost impossible to do. He said that means that he will most likely break the first bit, and that usually he does on these safes, but not always, and he was hopeful that he could avoid breaking a another drill bit.

He drilled on the hard layer. Once in a while he would stop, anticipating breaking through, but it never did. Finally however, it did break through, but he wasn't prepared for it and the drill bit did indeed snap clean in half. I felt bad, for him, and for me, because I after all, I hadn't been forewarned about this safe but it still was all because of me.

He searched his toolbox for a second drill bit and got worried because he couldn't find one. If he didn't have one on him, he would have to go find one in town, either at his shop, or somewhere else. Any delay meant that more and more two hour register shifts would be messed up and the Manager wanted to resolve it ASAP.

Luckily, he found another bit, but only one more. So he swapped them out and began to continue drilling. About then the Manager unlocked the door to the small room we were in and asked how it was coming along. The Locksmith told him he was about half way there. The Manager smiled a bit of a grimace and left us to our devices.

Eventually the Locksmith got through the soft steel and then he started on another layer of hard steel. Finally, he punched all the way through. He then got out some smaller tools and started poking around inside the hole. He connected with whatever component he needed to manipulate after what seemed like forever, and slid the bolt open, finally accessing the interior of the safe. All together, it took him just over two hours.

I opened the door and asked someone to tell the Manager it was open now. A few minutes later he opened the door and you could see the relief. He spoke with the Locksmith and at one point, I asked if he couldn't completely disable the second dial so this doesn't happen again. The Manager agreed that yes, they hadn't had it disabled previously because they were trying to save money but it was obvious that was a mistake. The Locksmith agreed that if you wanted to save money and have it disabled, now is surely the time to do it.

And so, he did.

Second dial disabled, the Locksmith cleaned up, got the Manager's signature and left. I counted out the till with the next employee and we swapped out the employee who was still on the register, much to her relief. Then I counted that employee out until the register tape and the cash added up to exactly the same figures.

We always started the till with $100 in cash and change. At the end, we should see the profits/sales add up to the same amount of extra cash as was in the till. If there was too little, the employee was either stealing from the till, or wasn't very good at counting out money. Either way, they could be taken off register shifts and that could lead to their leaving the company. Strangely enough, finding there was too much money in the till seemed to point to employee theft more than too little money in the till, which was usually a clerical error by the employee.

Usually, if an employee had discrepancies, it wouldn't last long between their being-talked to and their being re-educated on the till, as well as closely observing them for a while. As I remember it, the till in question counted out perfectly, even with the extended length of that shift.

I can't say I miss working that kind of a job. It had it's moments though. There were always colorful characters on both sides of the counter, interspersed of course, with plenty of hours of absolutely nothing interesting. Sometimes things got interesting like a rock band lead singer jumping up and down on the counter, of a guy with a sword over his shoulder walking around, but that one day, will always be rather memorable for me. I thought it was pretty cool to get to watch a real professional safe cracking job, no Hollywood F/X, just cold, hard reality.

And by the way, I still have that broken drill bit.

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