These men and women serve their communities without applause or even much notice …and without bagpipes.
David had been working most of the night during the biggest storm of the year. Around midnight David’s boom truck crew was called to restore service to a rural home. A falling tree had knocked loose the service drop. All that remained intact was the bare neutral. David was in the bucket, stringing new phase wires to the pole top transformer.
It was rainy, windy and dark, hard to see anything even with the work lights. No one knows exactly what happened. But the forensic evidence indicated that the hydraulic coupling on the boom slid along the neutral and somehow scraped off enough insulation from one of the phase wires to create a high current arc, melting the coupling and igniting the high pressure stream of hydraulic fluid. Harnessed in the bucket, the young man was caught squarely in the blast of a flame thrower and his clothes flashed into cinders.
Burned over 80 percent of his body, with his hard hat melted onto his head, he somehow got to the ground where his crew used fire extinguishers on his near naked body. Three days later he died.
No bagpipers showed up at his funeral. No television cameras, no official speeches. His young widow and three children, along with neighbors, grieved his loss in the little country church in the town where he had lived all of his life. He was just a lineman with the local electric utility.
I was called in as an expert witness to determine how the accident happened. My job required seeing everything, including the burned pole, truck and the autopsy photos. Ironically, the hardest of all was seeing pictures of his young family.
So, I made my calculations, took my photos, wrote a report, collected my check and flew home. Eventually I was called back and deposed by an attorney who looked and sounded a lot like Matlock. Thankfully I didn’t have to return to go to court and over the years I’ve tried to forget the tragedy.
But every so often some event comes along to remind me of the young man David. The most recent being the horrific storm damage and widespread outages in the Southeast U.S.
Utility line work is in the top 10 of the most dangerous jobs in America. Around 30 to 50 workers in every 100, 000 are killed on the job every year. Many others suffer non-fatal loss of limbs from electrical burns and mechanical trauma. That’s more than twice the fatality rate of police officers and firemen.
So, when the television news cameras pan across the destruction, take a moment to remember the utility workers who are putting things together again and making life livable. And remember their families.
And if you’re a utility engineer who gets some rough kidding from the folks in the field (as I have), well, just smile. They’ve earned the privilege.
Paul Mauldin earned BSEE and MSEE degrees from the University of California-Berkeley and is a registered professional engineer. He has worked in the energy industry for more than 25 years.