4 Die As A Rescuer Comes In Contact With High-Voltage Power Line

"Code 10, Code 10, we need five, we need at least five squads now; we have people down."

The frantic radio transmission from Marion County, OH, Sheriff's Deputy B.J. Gruber was the first indication that something terribly wrong had occurred at the scene of what should have been a routine transport.

Shortly after 10 P.M. on June 5, 1997, the New Bloomington Volunteer Fire Department along with a medic ambulance from Rural Metro/EMS were dispatched to a cell-phone report of a motor vehicle accident on a country road with wires reported down.

Sources: Marion County Sheriff's Department and The Marion Star/Dave Breeding

As fire, law enforcement and EMS personnel arrived, they surveyed the scene that lay before them. A pickup truck driven by a 28-year-old man had traveled off the right side of the road, severing a high-voltage power pole and coming to rest against approximately 100 feet farther down the road. The semi-conscious driver was lying in the ditch beside his truck, which was partially filled with water from recent flooding. Further complicating the scene were power lines three lines carrying a combined total of 21,600 volts were dangling precariously only four feet off of the ground and almost directly over the patient.

Della Rice, a nurse living across the road, heard the crash and was the first to arrive. Fearing the driver would regain consciousness and inadvertently hit the power lines, she crawled under the lines and began helping the man. With a flashlight she could see that he had head injuries.

Additional rescuers arrived. Nearly all of them recall hearing shouts of warning about the downed power lines. Robert Good, the first paramedic on the scene with Rural Metro and a friend of Rice, was clearly aware of the danger and advised the nurse to "just watch those lines."

Good returned to his ambulance for more equipment, bringing the medic gear, oxygen and a plastic backboard to the victim. Concerned for the safety of his partner, Shannon Kisner, Good ordered her to remain on the road and off the grass. Then, Good carefully crawled under the still-energized power lines, joining at least four other rescuers in an attempt to extricate the now-combative patient. Eventually, nine people were in or close to the water-filled ditch trying to treat the motorist and secure him to the backboard.

As fire and EMS personnel tried to figure which was the safest way back out to the road, another power line from the severed pole was found. Fearing that line also was energized, the rescuers decided to go under the dangling lines instead of stepping over them or walking what was thought to be an unreasonable distance through the water-filled ditch and unsafe footing.

Rice later told investigators that as the rescuers slid the backboard under the power lines and up the embankment, the restrained patient became even more combative. "There must have been six of us in the water trying to restrain him," she said.

Stooped over and with some rescuers crawling on hands and knees, the patient was slowly inched up the embankment. As he cleared the power lines along with Rice and New Bloomington Fire Lieutenant James Johnson, Good again shouted for everyone to watch out for the power lines and pushed Rice forward toward the roadway and out of harm's way.

Photo by Dwight Wells
Four crosses initially marked the location of the accident that claimed the lives of three rescuers and a motorist.

At that moment, Gruber (carrying a flashlight and oxygen bottle) saw the shoulder of Scioto Valley Firefighter Brian Roshon, who was assisting with the backboard, come in contact with one of the power lines carrying 7,200 volts of electricity. How this happened is unclear Rushon either brushed against the wire or, as some said, the wire fell on him. Everyone in contact with the backboard or close to it received the electrical shock.

Gruber later told investigators, "Just as I saw him come up, I saw sparks fly and I instinctively dropped the bottle and backed up." Jeff Beck, another EMS responder at the scene, stated, "I stepped back and then saw a big spark. Everyone stood up and froze until the arcing stopped. Then they just fell down."

In the moments that followed, Rice, Beck, Kisner and others at the scene retrieved the fallen rescuers and began performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). "It was a nightmare, a complete tragedy," Rice said. "Everybody's life changed in a split second. We just went from one to another, giving CPR."

Gruber, who was directly behind the critically injured Roshon and blocked in by power lines on three sides, sat with the disoriented and injured New Bloomington Fire Chief Scott Eckard to keep him from stumbling into the power lines and causing a secondary electrocution a position they kept until the electricity was shut off by the power company personnel.

Gruber's frantic call for help brought additional medic, fire and helicopter responses from four departments but it was too late for four of the would-be rescuers. Killed were Good, 30, who also was a lieutenant with the Battle Run Fire District; Johnson, 63; New Bloomington Firefighter Charles Rudd, 21 of the New Bloomington Fire Department; and the motorist. Injured were: Eckard, 35; Gruber, 22; Rice, 38; Roshon, 25; and New Bloomington Firefighters Jeffery McCormack, 23, and Michael Price, 20.

Photo by Dwight Wells
After investigators determined that the motorist was intoxicated at the time of the accident, his cross was moved away from those of the rescuers and placed farther down the road.

Investigations by the Ohio State Highway Patrol and the Marion County Sheriff's Department determined that the driver of the truck had a blood alcohol level that was more than twice the legal limit. "This entire incident was caused by the actions of a drunken driver hitting a utility pole," Marion County Sheriff John Butterworth said. "If he had been sober, they would have been with us today."

Official investigations also found:

  • The electrocution was accidental.
  • No caregiver at the scene acted in a manner that was negligent, arbitrary or unnecessary. To the contrary, the emergency care given appeared to be in a manner consistent with proper rescue procedures and emergency medical care.
  • In the case of the reported efforts by Good and Rice, the intervention between them may have saved Rice's life. The use of a non-conductive backboard indicates that Good tried to minimize the danger.

In the days that followed the tragedy, hundreds of firefighters, law enforcement and EMS personnel, and friends from around Ohio made their way to the small communities of Prospect, New Bloomington and LaRue to help bid goodbye to fathers, sons, brothers, husbands, friends and volunteers who were willing to sacrifice their lives to save another.

Dwight Wells is a 20-year career firefighter and paramedic with the Marion Township, OH, Fire Department and past chief of the Battle Run Fire District.