In city, utility boxes are powerful danger

Electrocution: Two dogs have been killed in about a year in Charles Village.

December 17, 2004|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF

It took about five seconds for Roy to die.

One minute, Jennifer Bowman was walking him along St. Paul Street in Charles Village, waiting somewhat patiently for him to do his business so they could get in out of the Friday-night rain. The next, Roy let out a piercing, chilling yelp and jumped.

By the time Bowman realized the sound was her dog screaming, he had fallen over onto the sidewalk. When she reached out to him and felt an electric tingle, she knew. Roy had just been electrocuted. And then she screamed.

Roy - a Belgian Malinois, a variety of Belgian shepherd - died almost instantly a month ago on a busy city street after stepping on an electrified metal utility box cover. This was the second time in about a year that a dog has died this way in the area - the 3400 block of St. Paul, steps from Union Memorial Hospital, Johns Hopkins University dorms, and a strip of restaurants, shops and pubs.

Barry Meyer, who manages Johns Hopkins facilities, was walking his dog on St. Paul that evening and ran to help Bowman after hearing her cry out. As he watched her drop to the ground and try to give Roy cardiopulmonary resuscitation, he called Baltimore Gas and Electric, the police, everyone he could think of.

"It's only by the grace of God this woman's dog stepped on the plate and not her," Meyer said. "It's tragic enough it happened to her dog."

Earlier this year in New York City, a 30-year-old architect got a fatal electric shock when she stepped on a utility box containing improperly insulated wires. In August 2003, a tourist from Kentucky was killed on the Las Vegas strip after she stepped on a utility box plate during a rainstorm. Dogs have been electrocuted this way in Boston.

In Baltimore, BGE supplies the electricity. But Baltimore officials say the city is responsible for maintaining most of the utility boxes, which house underground wires that power light poles and other electricity hubs.

Nevertheless, city officials could provide no details this week about what malfunctioned at the box Roy stepped on, how the city repaired it or whether crews have been back since to make sure it is functioning safely.

Kathy Chopper, a spokeswoman for Baltimore's Department of Transportation, the agency that handles utility maintenance, said yesterday that the city responded to the Nov. 12 incident but that she could not find a report on it.

Chopper also said the city has no preventative maintenance program for checking utility boxes, of which there are "thousands upon thousands."

Unlike with more visible problems like light-pole outages, she said, there's no way city crews, or residents, can know whether a utility box is electrified.

"I wouldn't touch them," she said.

After Manhattan architect Jodie S. Lane was electrocuted in January while walking her two dogs in the East Village, Lane's family and a new organization of safety advocates, the Jodie Lane Project, fought to have the utility company there overhaul its safety policies.

In a settlement announced a month ago, Consolidated Edison agreed to pay Lane's family more than $6.2 million. The utility also vowed to better handle stray voltage problems and appointed a panel of electrical experts to monitor those efforts.

Gunnar Hellekson, director of the Jodie Lane Project, said that before Lane's death, New York dog walkers knew about sidewalk hot spots because their dogs avoided them. "None of us," he said, "knew exactly why."

Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose district includes Charles Village, said the city, like New York, must have safety standards and suggested that Baltimore look to see what Con Ed did after Lane's death to close the holes in its system.

"That dog might have been our canary, warning us of a major problem," Clarke said. "If a dog is electrocuted, it certainly could be a child."

While Roy lay dead on the sidewalk next to the utility box last month, people from nearby apartments who came out to help Bowman told her that for the past week, they'd seen dogs jumping in that exact spot.

People also told her they'd heard of other dogs being electrocuted a bit farther down St. Paul. Johns Hopkins University security officer Anthony Ingagliu, who responded to Bowman's emergency call, heard of a man who "pressed against a pole [in that same area] and was thrown, literally, into the street."

Deborah DuVall watched a dog die last year in the 3100 block of St. Paul.

DuVall was working that rainy night at Images gift shop on that block. "I heard this awful howl. I can't describe it," she said. Walking outside to check, she saw a Labrador mix lying on the street, its leash tied to a pole near a metal utility plate.

As the animal helplessly relieved itself on the street, DuVall, who has dogs of her own, knew it was dying. Reaching out to comfort it, she got a small shock. "I said, `Tell the vet this dog has been electrocuted,'" she says. "It's lucky we all didn't get it."

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