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Mishaps Put Line Technicians in Right Place to Save lIves

Terry Lowe remembers it as a night when “everything that could go wrong did go wrong.”

But this series of mishaps set up Lowe and his colleagues to save two lives.

Lowe is a first class lineman at Sam Houston Electric Cooperative in Livingston, Texas, and in 13 years on the job, he’s seen a lot. A March 28 storm wasn’t the worst of it, but repair work throughout that night would try anyone’s patience.

The troubles began when they pulled up to a location Lowe had been to several times.

“I remembered it being wet,” Lowe said. “The blackland there, when it gets wet it’s extremely slick.”

It lived up to expectations.

“It wasn’t even a big hill, just a short hill, but it was so slick we couldn’t make it up,” Lowe recalled. Colleague Mike Fassler tried to ease the truck back, but it slid off the edge of the road.

Co-workers came by to help get them back on solid ground, but that took upwards of 90 minutes.

They finally made it to the repair site, where Lowe said they encountered the next problem: “a humongous pine tree” lying across a line.

Cutting the tree would have sent the lines further into a creek. So some of the linemen went back for their climbing gear. Once things were made safe, they started working on the lines. That’s when the night’s third problem became evident.

“We got down there and realized the wire was a different size than what we had,” Lowe said. Someone had to go get the correct size.

When the work was finally complete, there was another fault that had to be investigated. It turned out vines had fallen onto the line as well, but, like everything else that night, it took time to find the vines and then clear them.

What seemed like wasted time would soon turn out to be a good thing.

Lowe and colleague Chad Farrar arranged to meet up with Fassler and Kelton Cowart. “But when they started coming out that road, Chad and I noticed they weren’t slowing down to stop for us. They went past us,” Lowe said. “So we got in behind them.”

Fassler and Cowart barreled up the driveway of Donnie Calvin, chief technology officer at Sam Houston Electric. Several of Calvin’s relatives have homes up that driveway, and Fassler and Cowart headed straight to a house on fire. They’d seen the smoke and the fire’s glow.

“Mike grabbed a fire extinguisher and started spraying it,” Lowe said. “We started ripping the skirting off the porch.”

A water hose was hanging on the side of the porch. “The fire had melted a lot of the hose,” Lowe said, so Fassler used his knife to cut off a useable portion.

All the while, Cowart banged frantically on the door, desperate to wake anyone inside, but never got a response. Calvin arrived minutes later; the crew discovered it was the home of his sister, Linda Turner.

“She’s a cancer patient, and she and her husband were in the home at the time. They didn’t hear anything,” said Keith Stapleton, chief communications officer at Sam Houston Electric.

As the couple slept, the co-op crew extinguished the fire. No one was hurt. The cause of the fire is unknown.

Looking back, it occurred to Lowe how seemingly little things can make a world of difference.

“If any one event wouldn’t have happened, the guys wouldn’t have seen the fire,” he said. “Other events that happened just put us there at the right time.”

Lowe believes that had the crew not been there, “I feel like they would have burned up in the house.”

Stapleton noted something Lowe had told him earlier.

“Terry made the comment—and I have to agree with him—that sometimes events work so that you just feel like God put you there for a reason,” Stapleton said.

The co-op plans to recognize the four with the Touchstone Energy® Power and Hope Award. Turner acknowledged their heroism in a letter to the co-op.

“They quickly jumped into action and put out the fire, no doubt saving my life and my husband’s life. We are VERY sound sleepers and didn’t wake up until after your crews had left the scene! Some of my family members who live close by informed us of the heroism your crews displayed,” Turner wrote.

“If they hadn’t gone above and beyond the call of duty, I might not be writing this letter. Thank you VERY much to your men! We are SO proud to be Sam Houston Electric Cooperative members, where community service is regularly displayed!”

Firefighting was just one part of a busy night. The heroes still had work to do, and they got back to it once the fire was out. They continued working until 8 a.m., had a short break, and went back to work. They finally called it a day around 2 p.m.

“They just take care of business,” Stapleton said. “They had a lot more work to do, and they went out and did it.”

Not that he’s surprised, mind you.

"Prior to Hurricane Rita, linemen in this area weren’t generally considered first responders. That changed very, very quickly during the process of restoring power,” Stapleton said. “Now, in emergency preparations around here, the electric co-op is considered first responders.”

“I think this illustrates why—beyond just restoring power—they are first responders.”

By Michael W. Kahn, Ect.coop; Photos by Sam Houston EC