Avoidable Accidents in Annapolis

November 07, 1991

Playing as boys do, Terrence Tolbert made the mistake of crawling into an electrical transformer box in an Annapolis housing project to retrieve a stick. It cost him his right arm and severe burns. The Annapolis Housing Authority has agreed to a $200,000 settlement, but says it isn't to blame because vandals broke the lock on the box. Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. says it has nothing to do with equipment owned by the agency. Caught in this abdication of responsibility is an eight-year-old child trying to adjust to life with an artificial limb.

Deciding ultimate liability is a job for the courts -- there's still a $25 million action pending against BG&E. What's so galling about this tragedy is that it should never have happened. The authority settled a similar incident involving three youngsters and the same transformer in 1980. As part of that agreement, it was supposed to make sure the deadly boxes were kept out of the reach of children.

Yet housing authority chief Harold Greene suggests the settlement shouldn't be viewed as an admission of responsibility. If the housing agency isn't responsible, who is? Vandalism is no excuse. There was no mechanism for keeping tabs on the 42 transformer boxes in the authority's 10 public housing communities. There is no staff of electricians or engineers familiar with the specialized business of electrical power. BG&E claims it wasn't responsible for maintaining the boxes.

Whatever the case, this was an accident waiting to happen. What's really needed is some form of oversight -- perhaps from county government or the Maryland Public Service Commission -- relating to the periodic maintenance and inspection of electrical transformers outside the purview of monopoly power providers. Someone has to be accountable. The real tragedy of what happened to Terrence Tolbert was that it could have easily been avoided. Steps must be taken to ensure that children at play are not exposed to such risks.

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