ZAPPED by 12,000 Volts

by Neal Dickey, PLS

I was working on a surveying crew for the State of California earlier this year, and the job started out as typically as they come. Before it was over, however, I was in a hospital, lucky to be alive after accidentally connecting with a 12,000-volt power line.

We were working on the Prunedale Improvement Project on Highway 101. I was instructed to set up a back sight over a control point behind a guardrail. The control point was covered with overgrown brush, and I had to cut a lot of limbs around it so the tripod and prism could be set up with a clear sightline for the instrument man.

Dirty and wet from working in the bushes after a lingering drizzle from an earlier storm, I joined two of my crew members to review and wait for the weather to clear so we could go to work. 

Once the drizzle stopped, we methodically set up and prepared our next move. Not being in a hurry so as to remain safe, Tim Hughes, the instrument man (we call him the gunner), set up our Trimble S6 with TCU unit attached on the northbound side of Highway 101. I was instructed to walk on the south side of the highway to Echo Valley Road because we were going to stake out a location for a power pole. Party chief Chris Bateman stayed on the northbound side with the gunner because he was in a high-traffic area and working near the road shoulder.

We change responsibilities from day to day, and that day I was acting as rodman. I grabbed the short staff and my usual tools and I headed over to where I thought the pole was generally going to be.

Tim took a shot on me and gave me corrections. I moved the distance he indicated, but I realized it was in heavy brush and trees and he wasn’t going to be able to see me. Normally we would set a work point closer to the area to be staked if it was difficult to reach, but because it was only one point, plus the majority of our work for the day was on the side of the highway where the gunner was, we simply used a tall staff (Hixon rod) that could be extended many sections to be seen over trees and brush.

I paced off the distance the gunner indicated from the previous rod reading. Then I picked a general area to get another reading from and ran the rod up until he could see me over the tree canopy. I extended the rod to its entire length. Tim took another shot on me and told me to move again, refining the location of the pole. I planned to run the rod up a third time to get a reading because it was still a little overcast and dark under the canopy.

My main concern was that I was surrounded by poison oak, so I reached for the gloves I usually keep in my survey vest pocket so that, if I slipped and fell, at least I wouldn’t get poison oak all over my hands (my arms were covered). I couldn’t find the gloves and realized I had left them back at the truck, so I told myself to be careful not to fall. That should have been the least of my worries. 

I moved the base of the rod the distance correction that the gunner gave me and looked up to find a hole in the branch canopy where I could elevate the rod and still make it plumb for an accurate measurement. I recall seeing a wire. Thinking it was a telephone wire, I figured it wasn’t going to zap me but I’d avoid it anyway. I ran the rod up to its full extension, as I knew from previous shots that the gunner wouldn’t see me unless I did so. I looked down to the level bubble to plumb up the rod, when the whole world lit up.

I felt like I was floating and vibrating at the same time. I had to get away. Either I was thrown or I threw myself downhill away from the rod. I remember hitting the ground rolling, and I was still being shocked.

I heard yelling and realized it was my own voice. I couldn’t understand why I was still being shocked when I wasn’t touching the rod, but now I know that the ground was wet and so were my clothes.

I tried talking into the radio. I wasn’t sure it was even working after taking such an electrical hit. I told the other crew members to tell my family I loved them because I knew I wasn’t going to survive. I felt the burns on my arms and legs. My heart was racing and my chest and back hurt. I told them to call 911. I’m not sure what they heard as they were already heading to me, telling me to stay down.

Tim ran across multiple lanes of highway to get to me. Chris called 911, then got in his truck to get to me and provide a barrier as I rolled farther down to the roadway on Echo Valley Road.

“How did I get blood on my hand?” I asked.

He saw my arm and shoulder as well as my burned and bloody clothes and said, “Oh Neal, your shoulder …just lie still.” He took off his jacket and covered me.

I remember telling him how stupid I felt for touching the power line, but I didn’t even see it—I was caught off guard. I told him not to let anyone touch that rod as it was still up on the hill leaning up in the tree and wires. My words were coming out in stutters. 

A girl arrived who held my hand and said her dad worked with electricity and had been shocked before. I couldn’t comprehend how someone could survive one—let alone several—episodes.

Tim kept telling me to calm down and relax, so I tried to focus on my breathing. Soon the ambulance arrived, and they started cutting my clothes off, looking for more injured areas. They loaded me in the ambulance and said a helicopter was coming. That’s when the EMT started an IV.

When they tried to load me into the helicopter, I felt a lot of vibration and flashing lights (which I had just left back at the accident site) and wanted to get away from there. I tried to crawl off the gurney, so they strapped me down and waited.

One of the crew got right in my face and smiled and just talked to me. She kept asking me my name and phone number and if I knew what day and year it was. I answered all the questions and then some. I closed my eyes and tried to control my breathing, praying it soon would be over. We bounced around in the helicopter as the nurse kept trying to find a vein for another IV.

When we landed at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Burn Center, we were greeted by swarms of people. More questions. I asked if someone had called my wife. She and my supervisor were on their way.

At the hospital they strapped me to a heart monitor and said that was the most important thing, other than treating the third degree burns on my arm and leg. My toes and feet had burn spots as well as what they called “contact points” because they didn’t know which were entry and which were exit points. My upper arm was covered in what looked like bullet holes with burns around them. Strangely, the only marks on my hands were on my palms where I had held the rod. They looked like star constellations in small blisters.

Medical teams descended on me. Cardiology, neurology, burns, plastic surgery, and God knows what other specialists came and went. At some point they decided I was stable enough to move out of the trauma area and into a room.

But first I went to the burn washroom with its large stainless steel tanks. They put me in a tank that had padding at the bottom. My wife assisted the nurses in washing me. I suddenly felt many years younger and more vulnerable. The head nurse talked to me like I was her grandchild, using calming tones and working slowly. I felt fortunate to have her overseeing the process.

In fact, everyone I met there and in the Valley Med trauma center seemed nice and calming. Oddly enough, the doctor assigned to me was named Dr. Watt.

I was later told the voltage of the line I hit was typical for a supply line for a neighborhood—12kv line or 12,000 volts. I don’t know how many of those volts passed through me, but I feel fortunate to be alive. Even my electrical engineer friend scratched his head and said he was puzzled. Now I’m on to recovery.

Neal Dickey, PLS, is a surveyor for the California Department of Transportation, previously owning and running a photogrammetry company for seven years. He is president of the local chapter (Monterey Bay) of the California Land Surveyors Association.


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