3 Boy Scouts dead from lack of vertical power line clearance

A day on the lake turns deadly when a catamaran mast hits a power line. It’s a tragic reminder that vertical power line clearance must always be maintained to avoid electrocution

Vertical power line clearance

In my 35-plus years of being an attorney who focuses his legal practice on electrocution and shock injury-related personal injury cases, I’ve come across the face of tragedy time and again. These personal experiences are what led me to start this website and legal and consumer safety blog, so I can share my knowledge and work to prevent people from being electrocuted, after a lifetime of lawsuits and dealing with the personal tragedies and loss that comes afterwards.

The hardest part for me has always been the willful neglect that so many of these electrocution cases spring from. Too often, far too often, a power company or electric utility chose not to follow the standard of care and failed to take proper steps to prevent victims’ deaths. Too many gamble that the odds of a person being close enough to be electrocuted and killed are low enough that they can risk ignoring needed maintenance and mandatory safety inspections or infrastructure investment, so they can instead put money into more promising areas.

Some of these personal stories of mine include power line workers who perished on the job because of aging infrastructure, leaving wives and children without a husband and a father. Or people who were electrocuted while out walking, because a hidden, downed power line several yards away was close enough to send rings of voltage their way.

But the ones that are always the most heartbreaking for me as an attorney have always involved the deaths of children. A recent news story out of Texas is a good example of the types of tragedies I have encountered far too often. But within this story from Texas about 3 boys being horrifically electrocuted is also a message of how preventable and unnecessary these deaths were. It is a story that hopefully we can learn valuable lessons from.

‘Absolute chaos’ because of a low vertical power line clearance

On Aug. 5, 2017, during a Boy Scout excursion at Lake O’ The Pines in East Texas, two Eagle Scouts, 16 and 18, were mentoring an 11-year-old Boy Scout who was learning to sail a catamaran. As the boat made its way under a transmission power line strung across the water, its 30-foot mast made contact with the line.

The Eagle Scouts were electrocuted. The Boy Scout was found unconscious and died two days later from his injuries.

Officials at the scene found the catamaran ablaze, with the sails up about 300 yards north of the power lines. Texas Game Warden Quint Balkcom described the site as:

“Absolute chaos. This is a terrible event, it absolutely is.”

Vertical power line clearance is mandated under federal guidelines

How could this have happened?

I am not a lawyer involved in this lawsuit, but my analysis based upon what I’ve been able to read is that the utility that supplies power to the lake — and was reported to be investigating a low-hanging line at the lake following the accident — violated the National Electric Safety Code.

NESC Rule 232 covers the “vertical clearances of wires, conductors, cables, and equipment above ground, roadway, rail, or water surfaces.” It sets out clearances that range from 15½ to 18½ feet, depending on the kind of cable it is; if it falls under communications, such as phone or cable TV, it’s in the lower range, while electric lines are on the higher side.

But the subrule, NESC 232-1, gets more specific on lakes, ponds, rivers and streams that are suitable for sailboating. If the lake is less than 20 acres, the vertical power line clearance raises to between 17½ to 20½ feet. If it’s more than 2,000 acres, the clearance is between 37½ and 40½ feet.

At 18,680 acres, Lake O’ The Pines’ surface area is nine times higher than the NESC’s minimum for this lake class.

According to NESC 232-1, the line should have been at least 38½ feet above the lake, given it’s an electric line and not a communications line. While some power line sag is allowable, it must not hang too low so as to endanger anyone.

Unfortunately, in this instance, it did: the catamaran’s 30-foot mast was able to make contact with the power line, meaning the utility was negligent.

A sad lesson on vertical power line clearance

As someone said at a vigil in Hallsville, Texas, the scouts’ families, their communities and the Boy Scouts of America are mourning “great young men, men of integrity.”

We expect our utility companies to have integrity as well. Utility companies must follow a high standard of care, with each state having specific stipulations on that standard.

If this is true, then the utility company here failed to make the necessary safety inspections to prevent a foreseeable event — in this case it was that the power line would come in contact with a boat mast, and then failed to make the needed adjustments to either raise the vertical power line clearance over the lake, or find an alternative way to bridge power from one side of the lake to the other.

My thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the three victims.

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