Lives on the line

Teens Survive Encounter with Power Line by Heeding Timely Advice

Posted on Jan 01 2010 in Features, For Youth


The day after Valentines 2009 was a gray, cold Sunday across northern Indiana. Four teenage friends from the Royal Center area were hanging out that afternoon at one of their homes.

Toward dusk, the four, Lee Whittaker, Ashley Taylor, David Wooldridge and Joshua Kline, accepted an invitation to dinner from David’s mom. They climbed into Kline’s 1995 Ford Bronco — Josh behind the wheel, Lee riding shotgun and David and Ashley in the back — for a short drive to her house.

Teens survive encounter with power line by heeding timely advice

Royal Center high school juniors, from left, David Wooldridge, Lee Whittaker and Ashley Taylor, gathered beneath a White County REMC power line last month recalling how at that very spot last February the Ford Bronco they were riding in (right) hit a utility pole bringing the pole and power lines down. The three heeded a power line safety program from school five days earlier and stayed in the vehicle until lineworkers came and made the line safe to get out. Their story inspired a new electrical safety campaign launching this month. Accident photo by Katie Duffey, Monticello Herald Journal

As they sped south on White County Road 1300 East, the Bronco topped a slight hill near the intersection with County Road 900 North. The Bronco began fishtailing.

The SUV went off the right side of the road, grazed an embankment, a fence, some bushes and a tree before the tires reconnected with the road. Josh fought for control, but the Bronco fishtailed again and then went off the left side.

From his front seat view, Lee braced himself for what he saw was going to happen next. Dead ahead was one of the utility poles that lined the east side of the road. “I thought we were going to hit it and come to an immediate stop,” Lee recalled last month. “But we went right through it.”

The impact snapped the pole just above the ground, knocking off a transformer. The Bronco then became airborne and landed on the passenger side. In an instant, the ride jolted to an end.

But all had not stopped.

Flung backward, the broken pole re-planted itself. Its splintered end tore into a gravel driveway nearby. The top of the pole, still weighted with wires and hardware, then slung back, falling in the direction from which it came, falling toward the Bronco.

“As we rolled over,” Lee said, “the pole came down on the hood, and wires came down across Josh’s window.… There was this big boom. And then a big puff of white smoke and two seconds of arcing.”

“It was sparking all over the place,” David added.

Knocked from its insulated perch atop the pole, 7,200 volts of electricity carried by the wire momentarily exploded into fireworks.

Though the line then went silent, electricity potentially still could have been coursing around the vehicle looking for the quickest path to ground. Anything the bare fallen wire touched could have been energized — the car, the pole, the ground itself.

One step, or rather misstep, by any of the teens in the Bronco or by would-be rescuers could have created or closed that path.

At that moment, this one-car accident with non-life threatening injuries could still have become a tragedy with multiple fatalities.

Avoiding ‘the path to ground’

Flashback five days earlier. Lee, Ashley and David stepped onto the bleachers at their school, Pioneer High in Royal Center, and took seats for a Tuesday convocation. The topic: electrical safety.

On the gymnasium floor was a 20-foot-long table-top set-up with real power lines stretched between four shortened utility poles. Attached to the poles were insulators, three transformers and other electrical equipment. A fake squirrel and bird were perched near the lines as well.

showing students

Kyle Finley shows the dangers of metallic balloons around power lines to the seventh grade participants at Indiana’s Touchstone Energy Camp a couple of years ago. Finley, an electrical safety expert from eastern Illinois, takes his “Live Line Demo” all around the Midwest. His program is credited with keeping four Royal Center area teens safe. A farmer as well, Finley is a member of Indiana’s Warren County REMC through his family’s farm operations.

When electrical safety expert Kyle Finley began speaking, the high school and middle school students started listening. Using 7,200 volts of electricity in his “Live Line Demo” and an equal amount of high-voltage enthusiasm in his voice, Finley emphatically imparted all aspects of electrical safety to the students.

“I’m high energy and in their face trying to get them to pay attention to what I’m telling them,” Finley said. “When people don’t know what to do, it costs lives.”

Wearing a bright orange hard hat and electrical lineworker gloves, and wielding a lineworker’s hot stick, Finley manipulated the hardware and clamps. He created bright glowing arcs and loud zaps and pops from the heads of his fake feathered and furry props as each encountered the lines as real animals sometimes do. He talked about electrical safety around the home. He showed what power lines do to flesh by pressing two skewered hot dogs on a stick against them.

And, he talked about what to do if a car the students are in ever hits a utility pole.

Finley is a former electric co-op lineman from eastern Illinois. He takes his demo on the road some 10 months of the year, giving around 300 safety programs across 12 states. He’s taught electrical safety to students at schools; to first responders like police, firefighters and EMTs; to crowds at state fairs and farm shows; to construction and industry workers. He’s a regular presenter at the annual Indiana Touchstone Energy Camp for seventh graders each June.

White County REMC brings him to seven school systems in its service area on a rotating three-year circuit. The electrical education outreach is specifically aimed at teenagers.

Several years earlier, a couple of minor traffic accidents involving area teens and utility poles turned to tragedies when the young drivers were killed making contact with the downed lines while walking away. In the aftermath, White County REMC committed itself to expanding its electrical safety communications.

Before, programs were aimed mostly at grade school kids to keep them from climbing trees or flying kites near power lines.

“We recognized it was not grade school kids getting hurt… it was the kids in the early years of their driving age,” said Randy Price, president and CEO of White County REMC. “That’s when we started bringing Kyle in and started hitting the high schools with convocations.”

“You have to remember,” Finley said, repeating what he emphasizes in his programs, “that you can’t smell, hear or see electricity, but the power in that line is tremendous and can be deadly. The safest place after a crash is inside the vehicle. Call the utility to disconnect power to the line.”

Finley noted that if you hit a pole and are still alive, you obviously are not in the path of the electrical current or you would already be dead. “Electricity travels at 186,000 miles per second. If you’re the path to ground, it’s lights out.”

So, he said, stay alive. Stay put. Call for help. Warn others to stay away. “If you’re not the path to ground, don’t create the path to ground.”

The rotating schedule Finley follows for White County REMC should let teens hear his message before they get their driver’s license and then soon before graduating. Pioneer High School may have been late on his first-round of visits, but it proved to be the most timely.

Lee recalled last month being fascinated by Finley’s program. “I thought it was pretty cool because I’ve always liked electricity. I’m terrified of electricity, but I think it’s cool stuff,” he said, then noted, “I didn’t think I’d ever need to use the information he was giving us.”

“… Or that soon, at least,” added Ashley.

Life or death decision

Back at the accident, the four teenagers sat stunned, bruised and battered. Josh dangled from his seat belt, hand bleeding from the explosion of his airbag. Lee’s knee ached from hitting the door knob. David and Ashley had been tossed around the back. Ashley’s neck began throbbing.

“We couldn’t believe it,” Lee said. “We were all shocked and surprised.”

Ashley said she initially wanted to get out. But then Lee remembered the convocation.
“I yelled to everyone to stay in,” Lee said. “I got on the phone with 911. And we could hear David’s mom and sister running up to the truck …”

The wreck landed just a house away from their destination. David’s mom and 14-year-old sister heard the crash. Recalling Finley’s words, the three passengers yelled for them to stay back.

“They got really close,” David said. He thought, “Oh my God, I’m going to lose my mom and sister.”

The teenagers said the two then backed away.

In the following minutes, the four grew anxious inside the Bronco. Daylight faded. The windows fogged. They could hear the sirens approaching. Police, firefighters and ambulances arrived. So did their parents. But until the REMC line crew could arrive to safely remove the lines, the rescue workers kept all at a safe distance.

While they waited, all the teens could hear from inside the vehicle were the muffled voices outside. They could see only lights moving around. “David was trying to crack some jokes to calm everybody down,” Lee said.

“It didn’t really work at all,” added Ashley. “I was bawling my eyes out.”

Their parents, too, described the wait as “gut-wrenching.”

The line crew arrived from Monticello, some 20 miles away, about 30 minutes after being called. The time waiting, Lee said, crawled by like hours.

‘Glad they stayed in the vehicle’

White County REMC journeyman lineman Brian Crisp spent that Sunday afternoon at home. His weekend on call was winding down quietly. Then around 6:30, the co-op’s call service phoned. A car was into power lines on the far northeastern edge of the county. Crisp feared the worst.

“You always think that when you get a car wreck,” Crisp said. As linemen go over the methodical check list they need to follow in their minds, there’s always the troubling thought en route that they’ll find a person at the scene who made contact, if not before, then after the call came in. “You hustle to get there as quick as you can,” he said.

Crisp immediately called for help and reached apprentice lineman Matt Kent. The two met at the REMC’s office in Monticello and headed northeast together in their line truck.

About two miles before they reached the accident, they passed the stretch of power lines that feed the single phase line where the accident occurred. “We went by where the line was fed first to make sure the breaker was open,” Crisp said.

Breakers are pieces of safety equipment attached atop certain poles. If they detect an electrical short or fault on their section of line, they automatically open the circuit, cutting the flow of power to that section.

The handle on the breaker was down, meaning it had tripped — probably during the arcing when the pole landed on the Bronco. “The line was dead,” Crisp said. “But, you don’t know.”

To underscore that uncertainty, even though the breaker was visibly open, the two REMC workers took all precautions when they arrived on the scene. They donned their full protective gear before first attaching grounding clamps to the lines — which officially render them safe — and then removing the lines from the Bronco.

They take these precautions because there’s always a chance the line could still be energized. The breaker could have malfunctioned, or there could be some voltage back feeding onto the line.

“Once we got it secured,” said Crisp, “we just got out of the way.”

The emergency crews then went into action, popping the front windshield to free the four teenagers. Ashley was put on a back board, then a stretcher, and taken to the hospital in Logansport where she spent several hours. The other three were cared for at the scene.

As it turned out, Ashley suffered the worst of the injuries: a sprained spinal cord which still causes her pain and may be a permanent injury.

Looking back, the REMC line crew was impressed with the actions of the teenagers. “I’m just glad they stayed in the vehicle,” Crisp said. “They did what Kyle Finley taught them.”

Lineman Neil Beiswanger and apprentice Brandon Foutch joined Crisp and Kent at the site later that night to install a new pole. They’ve been to accidents where fallen lines were still energized, and people stepped out not knowing how close they just came to death. “It’s a sickening feeling when they get out,” said Foutch. “It’s just a gut feeling you get that they’re lucky to be alive.”

“You can tell them till you’re blue in the face,” Beiswanger said. “The first instinct is to get out. I don’t know if people have the presence of mind after they’ve been in a wreck like that.”

Price said that staying in the vehicle after an accident needs to become imbedded in everyone’s subconscious, just as putting on seat belts before putting the car in gear has for most folks.

‘Happy ending’

To that end, Lee and Ashley agreed to take part in a new electrical safety campaign that kicks off this month. Safe Electricity’s 2010 Teach Learn Care TLC campaign strives to increase awareness about the dangers when power lines are brought down in car accidents.

Safe Electricity is a public awareness program of the Energy Education Council, dedicated to promoting electrical safety and energy efficiency. Members include hundreds of electric utilities — including Indiana’s electric co-ops — energy-related organizations, educators and others.

The organization heard about the accident through Finley. Lee’s mother, Rachael, called Finley first thing the morning after the accident to thank him for what he did, and does. All four teens later called him, too. “That information saved my life and my friends’ lives,” Lee said.

“When people are involved in a car accident, electricity is usually the last thing on anyone’s mind,” Safe Electricity Executive Director Molly Hall said. “We’re often more concerned about whether anyone was injured, or how badly the vehicle is damaged. We often forget that by exiting the vehicle, we’re risking bodily exposure to thousands of volts of electricity from downed power lines.

“In this case,” she added, “we had a happy ending because knowledge saved their lives.”

Richard G. Biever is senior editor of Electric Consumer.

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