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When Lightning Strikes

By George Kuchma

The luckiest tree man I know

When I heard the thunderclap of electricity arc in a split second I knew what had happened. I looked up to see Dave collapse into the bucket with a choked moan. When his breath returned he softly groaned “get me down.”

The Crew:

Dave- 64 yr old Navy Vet. Multiple physical challenges have left him collecting disability and scraping by financially, He lives in the apartment below me and we have become good friends in the 4 months I’ve known him.

Old Bill- 72 yr old tree cutter his whole life. Related to Dave through marriage. Once Bill ran a large tree company, mismanaged his books and ended up bankrupt. Now, he receives no social security (never paid in) and struggles to survive by cutting trees. His ailing wife has multiple health issues that are expensive to care for.

Writer- 60 yr old unemployed carpenter. Receiving temporary assistance and food stamps. Asked to help for extra income, against his better judgment, he joins the “crew”.

The Job:

The weekend before we had taken down a 100′ spruce and diseased crab apple tree on the neighbors front lawn, both were close to public power lines. An electric high lift was rented for the job, the tall spruce was topped and felled with exactitude; impressing the neighbors. The next-door neighbor contracted with Bill to remove the 100’ spruce on her property. A retired electrician who lived across the street had over the past few years called National Grid to inform them that the prime wire (7640 volts) was dangerously close to the spruce and had been arcing into it.

So it came to pass; early Sunday afternoon we three arrived. The lift was already staged on site. It was 20′ shorter than what we needed but was the only weekend rental available.

Our debris trailer was loaded with topsoil and needed to be emptied. I set about shoveling dirt into the pickup bed and was thus occupied when the accident happened. Dave had maneuvered the lift into place near the base of the spruce. Bill was laying out his plan to top the tree. His plan was to pull the treetop over the power lines and into the street below. Dave maneuvered the lift basket up with heavy rope and chainsaw aboard.

When I heard the thunderclap of electricity arc in a split second I knew what had happened. I looked up to see Dave collapse into the bucket with a choked moan. When his breath returned he softly groaned “get me down.”

I threw down the shovel and sprinted to the control panel on lift. Bill was already there but did not know how the controls worked. I studied the complex instructions for a second and Dave yelled down “the rabbit button” It takes the pressing of two buttons to gain movement over the boom and basket. Pressing the rabbit button lit up the other control buttons, each assigned to an arrow indicating the direction of movement. I made double sure the button I pressed would not send Dave and the metal basket into the live wires.

As calmly as I could, to myself and aloud I said “breathe Dave, just breath.” Finally, the basket slowly withdrew from the wires and began a gentle descent down to us. From 8 feet away I could smell burnt hair and flesh. Charred as forgotten steak on a grill he did smell. His eyes glossed over in pain, chest struggling to rise and fall with shallow breath. The burn on his arm was visible and the holes in the knee of his jeans smoldered.

Later Dave told me: I had the rope over the wire for Bill to pull away from the tree. My right hand had a hold of a large branch when the rope slack pulled the wire into the tree. The electrified tree sent it’s current in search of ground. The voltage entered Dave’s upper left arm, passed through him, and exited through both his knees which were in contact with the aluminum rail of the basket.

The “rescue squad”

Between us, Bill and I walked Dave to his SUV and got him into the passenger seat. As we did, I could see the ambulance lights coming up the hill over Bill’s shoulder. By the time Bill had driven up around the cul-de-sac two ambulances, two town police cars and an unmarked were blocking the path to the emergency room.

Dave refused medical attention and Bill several times said he was driving Dave to the ER. While Dave sat in what must have been agony, the EMTs pestered him to accept their attention. After 20 minutes Dave relented, was placed on a gurney and into an ambulance. For another 15 minutes the ambulance sat while the EMTs did their thing. He would have been at the ER 45 minutes earlier if not for the forced detention of the “rescue squad’. After triage and the local ER. Dave was taken to Upstate Medical Center Syracuse for 3 days of intensive care.

I find it ironic that undertrained inexperienced Ambulance personal feel obligated to impose their will on an injured citizen. They earn a comfortable salary and risk paper cuts while the working poor literally risks life and limb struggling to survive. It would seem Ambulance companies are more interested in billable hours than human suffering.

Myself and a neighbor friend wash, waxed, and vacuumed Dave’s SUV and on the day he returned home we placed an upholster armchair that sported his favorite cowboy hat next to his truck with a “Welcome Home” sign tacked to the back. In my 60 years’ experience of accidents and incidents, that day is burned into my memory as the closest near-death situation I have ever been party to. Dave has recuperated and we remain fast friends to this day.

A postscript to this story: National Grid did come and top off that tree. An investigator from OSHA took pictures of the charred tree trunk at the spot where the primary wire had been arching for years.


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