Electric utility workers toe line for the rest of us
Cleveland Electric Illuminating Co. lineman Larry Duerk planted his thick rubber boots amid ruin on Monday and felt a megavolt surge of adrenaline.
All around him, strands of snapped power line snaked on Riverview Road and lay splayed like black licorice across the debris-strewn front lawns of homeowners. One by one, the residents approached him with a mix of worry and hope and asked variations of the same question: When will we have power again?
"This is what it's all about," said Duerk, of Brunswick. "This is what gets the adrenaline flowing."
All across Northeast Ohio, hundreds of power-company workers dug in Monday and started undoing the damage of a storm for the history books. The meteorologists who missed this forecast called it "the remnants" of Hurricane Ike, as if to minimize the storm's stature. There was nothing minimal about it, said Mark Durbin, a spokesman for CEI parent firm FirstEnergy Corp.
"This is probably one of the biggest natural situations we've had," Durbin said.
Across Ohio, the storm knocked out power to nearly 2 million electric-utility customers, including more than 350,000 in Greater Cleveland. It could be days before all those lights are lit again.
Amid this darkness, the importance of the line-repair crews shines brightly.
Most days, the job is steady, good-paying and generally filled with the unremarkable humdrum of stringing lines for new subdivisions or maintaining lines to old neighborhoods. And then there's training, and still more training -- weeks of it every year, as line workers ranging from beginners to experts prepare for disasters.
"All of the stuff you learn in the classroom and on the job day to day kicks in here," Duerk said. "This is where it all comes together."
Here on Riverview Road in Brecksville, things came apart Sunday evening.
"It sounded like a train going through those woods," resident Dave Kucinic said, pointing to the forest just beyond the road's western shoulder.
That train left wreckage at the top of a steep hill south of Fitzwater Road. There, a mighty ash tree and a smaller elm lay across the road in a leafy, splintered tangle that still looked violent hours after the wind drove them down.
The trees, neighbors said, snapped with a bomblike crack, then slammed into tightly strung 13,000-volt power lines. That stretched the half-inch-thick strands of braided aluminum so hard that a 10-inch-thick utility pole anchoring them exploded into jagged chunks and creosote-stained shards. Wires snapped, recoiled whip-like under the tension and lay crackling in the drizzle. Then another tree blew across the service line spanning Shirley Bedinghaus' front yard, tearing her electric meter, 3-inch conduit and the siding to which it was attached, from the side of her house.
Duerk has worked several blackouts in his three years with CEI. Typically, he said, some affected customers "don't understand the magnitude of it" -- how the systems are affected by things far away, and how many precautions the workers must take to ensure their safety and the customers'.
"This is an extremely dangerous job," said Duerk, a young father with a worried wife. "Linemen don't have erasers on their pencils. You make one mistake, and it could be your last one."
Not far away, line leader Al Mysliwczyk, foreman Charlie Bella and two crews of men arrived at 6:30 a.m. to restore a 33,000-volt line that fed some 4,000 homes and 15 large industrial customers. After it, they would go to the next one, hitting and running through a 16-hour shift. Only eight hours after it ends, they will be back out for another 16 hours.
"It's a big hassle," Bella said. "It's a lot of running around, a lot of long hours."
Bella and Mysliwczyk have been doing the job for 40 years each, they said -- long enough to remember some blackout doozies.
"There was the winter storm of 1977," Bella submitted, referring to the deadly, record-cold span that climaxed with a Jan. 28 storm and 60-mph winds and a wind-chill factor of 50 below zero.
"That, or July 4, 1969," countered Mysliwczyk, remembering a tornado-spawning storm that swept off the lake, killed 41 and left the power grid in a wreck.
Their younger subordinates won't touch an orange cone, much less a live line, without the veterans' OK. That makes everyone feel safer. And those who are safe don't feel much like heroes.
Mysliwczyk chuckled at the suggestion he is heroic. But, he added, he is thankful each time he avoids the ever-present danger.
"When I go to bed," he said as he dragged on a cigarette, "I say a prayer."