|THE DEATH OF A LINEMAN
Sunday, March 12, 2000
A windstorm had been ripping power lines for a day and Brent Churchill had barely slept in two nights when he passed his parents' house, toot-tooting his horn as he always did. From the window, his father saw him. His boy was on his way again to bring back electricity for someone.
"He must be pooped," Glendon Churchill said. His wife, daughter and grandson kept putting ornaments on the Christmas tree and said nothing. Long hours were normal for Brent. They didn't see him for weeks after the ice storm two years ago, just the laundry he'd leave off in garbage bags.
Half an hour later the phone rang. Then his father was driving down the road. Past the blinking lights. Past the person who tried to hold him back.
"No you ain't," he said. "That's my boy." He found his son hanging from the top of the pole by his straps while a minister stood nearby.
"For God sakes get him down," Churchill said. Maybe he was still alive. But there was just a minister and a power company meter reader and they didn't know how to climb 30 feet up a pole.
Then Churchill was on his way home to tell his family. Back in his driveway, he wept so hard he nearly fell out of the car.
Brent's mother, Donna, screamed loud enough for her 6-year-old grandson to wonder at how she could make such a sound.
She kept screaming, "I don't believe it. I can't feel it. It's not happening. It's not him." Never would she have imagined this. Her son drove past the house on the way to his death?
He had just fallen in love, planned a June wedding. He was going to live behind her in his log cabin in the woods and have children.
Again her husband made the five-minute drive along the wooded curves of Route 43 to the pole by Clearwater Lake.
"Brent," he said, calling up, "talk to me."
His son's body was still. No answer came. A rescue worker had already checked for a pulse and there was none. The electricity was off.
"Please take him down," Churchill pleaded.
Lineman Tim Cummings had arrived and decided to get his gear and climb. But he was stopped. He heard someone say there was no rush.
The fire chief and a Central Maine Power Co. supervisor who were standing by decided it would be safest to use a ladder truck to take Churchill down. And so Glendon Churchill begged and waited, as his son hung by his straps for nearly an hour.
For some reason, Brent Churchill had grabbed a 7,200 volt line at about 12:15 that afternoon.
"It only adds to our sadness," the company said in a statement, "to learn that, for reasons we'll never know, he apparently overlooked some vital safety steps . . ."
But government findings indicate the company overlooked a few things too. Churchill's mother would describe it more harshly: She believes the company worked her son to death.
Churchill worked for 28 hours straight, according to an investigation by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. In his last 55½ hours of work, it concluded, he had about five hours of broken sleep.
Twice he went to bed and twice the CMP communication center sent him back to his truck. In addition, CMP received an OSHA $7,000 fine for violating federal rules by letting Churchill repair the high-voltage lines without help from another lineman that day. In teams, lineworkers can watch out for each other and keep each other safe. They prepare for rescues every year by practicing cardiopulmonary resuscitation and carrying a 225-pound dummy from a pole top.
A lineman rescued by his partner after touching an electrified line works for CMP still.
In acknowledgement of its failings, last month the company reached an agreement with the union to make safety changes that might have saved Churchill's life had they been in place sooner. The changes included: hiring 20 more linemen, appointing nine safety coordinators, employing a lineworker to supervise field work, sending linemen out in pairs to work on high-voltage lines and requiring seven-hour rests after 17 hours of work. In emergencies, the seven-hour break will come after a 24-hour shift so that workers can bring as much power back on as possible.
Couldn't avoid long hours
Co-worker Jerry Phillips had heard Churchill complain about this job. He felt peer pressure to keep working even if he was tired. He didn't like the idea of saying he'd had enough, because that would mean someone else who wasn't on duty would have to come in and maybe that person would be mad at him for giving in.
"You shouldn't let things like that bother you," said Phillips, who himself has refused duty work more than once because he was tired.
During those on-call weeks, Churchill's fiancé, Kathy Bohlman, would wait on the couch for him to come home late at night and he would tell her he hated this duty man business as much as she did.
She dreaded the long hours and so did other girlfriends and wives. Linemen and their families tell stories of how when a storm comes, work can go on for 36, 37, 40 hours in a row. That's how it was for everybody all the time. There have been men who have driven trucks so tired that they got back to the service center and couldn't remember who was at the wheel. They talked, slurring words as if drunk. Going 34 hours without sleep could make a man put his head in his hands and weep, thinking work would never end.
Churchill was known for resisting the long hours. His family said he made $20,000 in overtime last year, even though he turned down extra work, got caller I.D. to screen company calls and was the lowest overtime earner at the Farmington service center.
Two small scars by Churchill's lip and cheek were reminders of the job's hazards. He'd been hit in the face by a spray of electric fire last summer. His glasses had been blackened and his nose and lips swelled.
The week he died, Bohlman had decided she didn't want her fear to weigh too heavily on his mind. She'd made an effort to look happier when he was on his way out and he noticed and thanked her for it.
In the afternoon on Friday, Dec. 10, Bohlman left work thinking of her 30th birthday on Monday. She had asked Churchill to take the day off. He'd still have to start going out on duty-man jobs at 3:30 p.m., but she thought that until then he could at least sleep.
She told a co-worker that turning 30 would mark the beginning of her life. Churchill had a good heart, a good mind and she was lucky.
She'd been trying to persuade him that at 30 he wasn't as old as he thought he was. It wasn't too late to go back to school and study to be a history teacher if he wanted to. They could manage on her income as an insurance specialist for Social Security.
He admitted that he didn't want to be a lineman all his life. He was a big, strong man -- 6 foot 3, 230 pounds. Even so, climbing poles and freeing lines by chainsawing trees in half was hard on his body.
Churchill had safety concerns
"If we don't change the way things are done around here, someone is going to get killed," was something, he told his fiancé, he had voiced at work."
The company was keeping track of everybody, timing how long workers spent running a line to a customer's house or planting a pole in the ground.
Churchill had told Bohlman he didn't like the new pressure that he was feeling to work fast. While there were others who felt as he did, some were unbothered by the pressure.
The company later said its goal wasn't to make people work faster, but to manage work better and improve efficiency by 25 percent. CMP officials said they didn't want to compromise safety, but did want to control costs and keep rates down for customers.
Churchill would be the second man to die since CMP's safety department was changed five years ago following the layoff of 37 lineworkers.
After that, there were fewer people to send out to work on energized pole-top lines and there was no longer a person who went from region to region doing spot checks and explaining accidents and near misses so linemen would know what to avoid.
Without a roving safetyman, linemen met, talked about safety among themselves and looked over write-ups from company e-mail and newsletters. Employees know their jobs better than people from the central office, reasoned the company.
However, if a co-worker did something unsafe, there was no fear that the "safety police" would show up and notice. Linemen were supposed to say something to their co-workers or report it to a supervisor.
Churchill told Bohlman this made no sense to him: Linemen know their lives depend on each other, so why risk alienating someone in their own district?
"This isn't safety," he told Bohlman when he came home one night. "It's just a big joke."
But he didn't have a job to replace this one yet. Besides, it made him feel good when he could help people by turning their power back on.
The money was nice too. He was single. He didn't need more than his regular $40,000 salary. He built a house. He bought snowmobiles for his parents and kept two of his own. He had an ATV, a motorcycle and his red truck was new, right off the dealer's lot.
At 5:25 p.m., he called Bohlman from his house in Industry to say he was about to make the 25-minute trip to her house in Jay.
At 6 he called again as she was making lasagna. He was coming to pick her up and take her with him to a new call he'd been given in Jay.
It turned out not to be much of an emergency. Something so small that a lineman shouldn't have gone at all: Someone had called to say their electricity bill was high, so the com center dispatched Churchill.
Instead of leaving when he heard the homeowners had a problem with their bill -- a problem better suited for the business office -- Churchill stayed.
It was raining. Bohlman waited in the car and Churchill checked their wires, their meter and went inside to talk.
By 8:30 p.m. the couple were at a restaurant eating french fries and sandwiches and talking about spending money on the wedding instead of a family-sized SUV that was going on sale that weekend.
Before bed, he held her face in his hands and told her he'd love her always. It was 10:30.
At 1:11 a.m. he woke to a com center call to go out and fix a broken pole in the windstorm that cut power to more than 11,000 CMP customers.
He was back at Bohlman's by 5 trying to sleep. The phone rang again at 7:45 a.m. and Bohlman, who'd been up, went in the bedroom and saw that he was already awake. It seemed to her he hadn't slept much and she told him she wanted to let him rest, but it was the company calling.
She saw Churchill for the last time that morning in Wilton at 11:30 when he passed her, pulled over in the company truck and got out to talk. She was on her way to go shopping with her son and she stayed in the car and told him she really wanted to see him.
Maybe, he said, his job would be quick and easy and he could swing over and see her before she left for a Santa train ride in Unity with their mothers, her son and his sister and nephew.
She said she loved him and asked him to be careful. As she turned to drive away, he blew kisses through the window.
An unsettling feeling
"I can't calm down," she said.
By 6 p.m. a "bird dog" worker was assigned to Churchill. The assistant usually installed and read electric meters, but during a storm his job was to drive ahead and find poles and wires that needed fixing.
The Farmington service center had an odd number of linemen, so they couldn't all work in pairs. This outage was major and every man was needed. The two men worked through the night.
At 5 a.m. Sunday they stopped for breakfast. They still had work to do. By 6 they were getting updated orders at the CMP office in Farmington. At 6:30 Churchill was calling Bohlman.
He hadn't been to bed in 23 hours. The first thing he said was, "Baby, my ass is dragging."
"Please come home," she said back. He couldn't, he said. He was duty man.
He told her she'd been on his mind; she asked him to be careful.
At 7:15, lineman Steve Laney from Skowhegan, called in and offered to work. The supervisor at the other end of the line told him, no, they didn't need him.
The company had left a message at Laney's house the night before, but he'd been out for his birthday. During storm emergencies, workers from one district are called in to help out in another, but when Laney called in, problems were winding down, the company later explained. The windstorm was over and that supervisor was thinking only of Skowhegan, which is a satellite office of Farmington.
At 10 a.m. when a line clerk radioed to ask how he was feeling, Churchill said he was OK, company investigators would later find. CMP left it up to lineworkers to decide whether they could keep working or not. Men had filed grievances with the union for being forced to go home.
Yet, Churchill thought he had to keep going. He had told his family that he heard what a supervisor said one day when another lineman announced he was done. "You can go home," the boss had said, "but when you come back, you might be looking for another job."
The best three moments
He had surprised her by keeping the first card she gave him, in his truck, reading it before work and then again before he went to bed. She'd written that his gentleness made her melt and that she'd never leave him.
She figured that while he slept Monday, she would write another card and give it to him when he woke up.
Church got out at 11:30 and Bohlman fought an urge to drive to Churchill's house in Industry. But she knew he would come to her house when he was done. Going to Wal-Mart to shop made more sense.
It was a minute after noon when Bohlman bought a salad at the lunch counter and began to eat alone while her mother and son looked for Christmas trees.
One or two bites and the sick heavy feeling she'd been having all weekend got worse. She pushed the salad container away.
Lasagna was waiting in the refrigerator for later. She made it the way Churchill loved, with three kinds of cheese and a sweet sauce.
He would often sit in the kitchen and watch her work. He admired her perfectionist way of spreading mayonnaise back and forth on piece of bread so it was even, like frosting on a cake.
He would tease, "Girl, why haven't you married me yet?" He would repeat what the three best moments of his life would be: When they married, when she gave birth to their first child and when they were old. He said he would sit with her on a wooden swing and he would get off, kneel down, hold her hand and ask her if he'd been a good man to her.
"If you said 'yes,'" he told her, "that would be the third happiest moment in my life."
A line was broken by a fallen birch, the power was reported to be out at the houses, but the fuse rod was in its place at the top of a pole on Route 43. The foot-long tube pointed up from its hinge, a signal that power was probably running down the wires.
Churchill arrived at the downed line and sent his assistant to check the fuse instead of doing it himself. Churchill put a sledgehammer in the back of his assistant's truck and, the man later told investigators, Churchill asked him to pound on the fuse pole on Route 43.
If the fuse was blown, the rod would likely fall when the pole was struck and that would mean the power was off. Both men were tired, the assistant would later tell police, but he felt fine enough to be working. It had been 18 hours since the man started and 28 since Churchill left his fiancé.
The assistant drove away, pounded on the pole and, he would tell company investigators, returned and let Churchill know that the fuse didn't fall.
The man said he heard Churchill reply "OK." Churchill, who was hard of hearing in one ear, then went to the downed wires and put his climbing hooks and belt on.
Sometime after noon, the meter man told investigators, he stood and watched from about six feet away from the pole as Churchill belted himself in at the top, near the electrified line, and made adjustments to set his hooks and get comfortable.
The assistant figured Churchill knew the line was live, he would later tell police, because he was experienced. Churchill then reached toward the wire with his right hand, the assistant told company investigators. A ball of fire went at him. Churchill fell and hung limp, tied to the pole by his straps.
The meterman ran to the truck and radioed for help. It was about 12:15.
Loved by a town
He had been known as a star football player in high school, getting chosen to play tackle for the state all-star team, going to the playoffs with Mt. Blue.
Her brother had a way of befriending everyone from the "high muckety-muck to the low muckety-muck." From the banker's son to the person on welfare.
Their father drove a school bus and Terri Churchill would marvel at how her brother didn't let class barriers separate him from others as she sometimes did. He was the person at parties people would gather around.
For fun, he would kiss the men he cared about right smack on the lips. The two high school classmates who were football captains with him came to the funeral home to put their old jerseys in the casket with him.
The next day police led a convoy of 70 CMP trucks past his log cabin in Industry for a memorial service the company organized.
At the Henderson Memorial Baptist Church in Farmington, people filled the pews and the Sunday-school rooms off to the side. Many in the crowd cried softly.
By the altar, leaning against easels, were giant pictures of Churchill; in one he was laughing, in the other he wore a company uniform.
Glendon Churchill was in a front pew while his wife sat on a folding chair in the back near the door, so she could leave when her sobs overtook her, as she knew they would.
Terri Churchill stayed home because she was too angry. She was mad that her brother was dead, mad that he stayed up on the pole for almost an hour and mad that her father had to wait beneath her brother's body.
"I wish I could take that image away from my father," she said.
After the Thursday service, two linemen and three managers resumed the work they'd started on their investigation into why the accident happened.
Churchill's lack of rubber gloves and his neglect to check the fuse, test the wire and ground the line were named "root" causes.
These were the things that were clear, the managers said. How much sleep a person got and how that affected a person, those factors were harder to measure, harder to know.
Tiredness affected everything and it was clearly another reason, the two linemen argued. But they were outnumbered.
Dale Blethen and Dave Ellis put their coats on and threatened to walk out two or three times as they tried to make their perceptions prevail. They wanted the fact that Churchill was teamed with an unqualified worker listed as a root cause; they wanted work pressure considered.
"If you don't want to take this seriously then we're out of here," Ellis said he told the others before they managed to compromise. Fatigue and the unqualified assistant were eventually given the lesser ranking of "major contributing factors."
Inconsistent safety enforcement and work pressure were also part of that list at the report's end; Ellis said he even had to fight to include the word "major."
The company would later signal the importance of these factors by focusing on them in its effort to ensure that such an accident never happened again.
"They still don't admit that some is their fault," said Glendon Churchill. "I just can't stomach that."
They consulted lawyers from as far away as Kansas City, but there wasn't any way around the state's workers compensation laws that protect businesses by forbidding lawsuits.
They now want the company's new linemen safety rules made into state law so that they can't be removed as contracts are renegotiated in years to come.
Their state representative, Walter Gooley, a Farmington Republican, offered to review linemen safety laws in other states and sponsor a bill in the fall.
The company has said it's sorry the accident happened and that it mourns the Churchills' loss. It also has kept President Sara Burns' promise to make safety changes to prevent another death. "I think there's responsibility on all parties' part," said company spokesman Mark Ishkanian.
But the family continues to want something else -- a more personal admission that CMP policies contributed to their son's death.
Why, they had earlier asked President Burns, didn't someone relieve their son? No other workers answered company calls, they remember her saying.
And it was true, the company said, the holidays were near and people were out Christmas shopping.
And what about the government rule the company broke by sending Churchill out with a meter reader instead of a lineman? The rule is confusing, the parents say Burns told them.
If 10 people read the rule, they'd come to 10 different conclusions, they heard her say. In fact, the company did send a letter objecting to the OSHA citation, along with a check for the $7,000 fine.
The line wouldn't have been dangerous if Churchill had followed the company's safety rules, it said. But OSHA believed that when a lineman prepares to work on an electrified, high-voltage line, he should have another lineman with him to watch out for dangerous missteps.
Even so, the OSHA penalty is not much of a punishment, Glendon Churchill said. "Seven thousand dollars don't mean anything to CMP."
A lasting image
"We'd like to know the reason why the man didn't go up," said Glendon Churchill. It was just one more frustration when the man returned Churchill's phone calls and said that he'd been advised not to talk. CMP has said it wants to spare the man from any more upset.
But Churchill hasn't been satisfied by the company's explanation for the man's actions -- that he wanted to avoid hurting anyone else because there may have been some electricity running through the lines, from a generator perhaps.
The memory of that afternoon two months ago when Churchill stood by the pole pleading still makes him cry.
"You don't know what it feels like," he said, as tears ran down his nose like drops of water. "I begged."
He's all right so long as he doesn't think about it, but it's impossible not to when he drives along Route 43. Eight times a day he takes the road, going back and forth to work in his car, and back and forth in the school bus.
He can't help but look. There's nothing to block his view. Each time he glances toward Clearwater Lake, he sees his son hanging, bent backward from the waist.