- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

Live wires. Running power generators. Speeding cars.

Those are just some of the dangers utility crews are facing as they work to restore electricity to tens of thousands of customers in the D.C. metropolitan area affected by last week’s Hurricane Isabel.

“Anything you do out here, you only get one chance at doing it,” said Wayne Kmiecik, a lineman for Detroit Edison Local 17, one of the many out-of-town crews dispatched here last week. “You have to be safe the first time.”

The thousands of utility workers, or linemen, were reminded of the dangers over the past six days when two linemen in Maryland and one in North Carolina were killed while trying to repair downed power lines in neighborhoods.

Officials at all three local power companies said yesterday there have been no serious incidents involving their linemen.

Pepco officials said so far one worker suffered a cut on his leg as he tried to repair a downed power line. “We have not experienced any deaths or serious injuries in regards to Isabel and we hope to keep it that way,” said Dorothy Terry, a Pepco spokeswoman.

Richard Zuercher, a spokesman for Dominion Virginia Power, said everyone takes safety very seriously. “We do not take any chances, either,” he said.

The biggest danger for workers is encountering a live power line, which could cause instant death. Then, there are poles and ladders to climb to get to electric connections on multistory homes and buildings.

Workers wear plenty of safety gear, from fire-retardant shirts and pants, steel-toed boots and hard hats, to rubber shoulder covers and rubber gloves with utility gloves on top.

But linemen say anytime a fellow lineman dies, it reminds them of the dangers of their business.

Harold T. Anderson, 48, of Salter Path, N.C., worked as a crew leader for Carteret-Craven Electric Cooperative and was fatally shocked Sept. 18 while conducting repairs to a substation in North Carolina.

Aaron Presley, 45, of Flora, Miss., worked for Entergy Mississippi and died Saturday in Pikesville, Md., working on repairs with Baltimore Gas & Electric.

Dominic S. Bryan, 19, of Savannah, Ga., was a lineman for Pike Electrical Contractor. Mr. Bryan was fatally shocked Saturday as he cleared branches from a live downed wire for BGE in Bowie.

Yesterday, Jay Shope, a lineman with Detroit Edison, said the biggest danger working on downed lines comes from “backfeeding,” which can occur when a generator is running in a home.

Mr. Shope, 35, of Brownstown, Mich., said sometimes people who aren’t experienced with generators don’t disconnect their house from power feeds. Since electricity flows both ways, power seeps back into lines the crews might be working on.

“It’s not a lot of power, but it could kill a lineman,” Mr. Shope said as he worked with Mr. Kmiecik on Normanstone Drive and Fulton Street NW yesterday. They are two of 16 linemen from Detroit who have been working 16-hour days since Isabel hit the region Sept. 18.

Crew members said they test downed power lines before making repairs to make sure there is no power flow. Then they ground the lines they’re working on, in case someone turns on a generator while they are making repairs.

But some of the risks have nothing to do with electricity.

Crews said repairing power lines in the District was pretty much the same as in Detroit, but there were some things they were surprised by — such as speeding cars.

“Working on the electricity is a major concern, but it’s the traffic flow. You have people whizzing by, even though you have cones and signs up,” Mr. Kmiecik said. Minutes later, a speeding silver Honda Accord came around the corner and slammed on its brakes when it came across Mr. Kmiecik’s crew.

So far no members of the Detroit team have been injured, although one of their trucks was involved in a minor traffic accident and a bee stung a lineman in the mouth as he ate a sandwich.

In Virginia, Dominion Virginia Power linemen Aaron Hudson, 30, and Bruce Heckman, 40, have been bothered by the flies and other bugs.

“The worst thing has been the chiggers,” said Mr. Hudson, a lineman who had cut two fingers of his right hand on broken glass at a downed power line.

“And the gnats and mosquitoes,” interjected Mr. Heckman, who has worked long hours before repairing previous natural disasters during his 16 years with Dominion.

“But thank goodness we have a safety meeting every morning before we go out,” Mr. Heckman said.

The two were on Fifth Street near George Mason Drive in Arlington restoring power to individual houses or small groups of houses. They had just confirmed that power had been restored to four homes at Eighth and Lincoln streets near George Mason Drive.

“We’re beginning to run out of materials,” Mr. Heckman said, pointing out that 390 power poles were broken in North Carolina. He said Dominion has restored about 75 percent of power in Virginia and North Carolina and more than 80 percent in Northern Virginia.

All of the large communities had electricity restored within six days after Isabel.

Both men were looking forward to normal workdays, and to good, long hours of sleep.

“My wife is doing a great job of holding down the fort,” said Mr. Hudson, whose wife is pregnant. They already have two sons.

Mr. and Mrs. Heckman and their daughter live two doors away from the Hudsons in Spotsylvania County. Debra Heckman is proud of her husband.

“I sympathize with all who remain without power and will for some time,” Mrs. Heckman said. “But I do think if we look at the numbers, the process, the sacrifices of all the people out there working on this massive restoration, we should be thankful for the extremely dangerous work that is being done.”

Shayla Bennett contributed to this report.

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