David Bingham and Kimberly Arms were reporters and photographers for a medium-sized market station, WOI, in Des Moines, Iowa. In their roles they were called on to perform microwave truck transmission work as well as that required to report a story.
Most people in broadcasting would consider the mix of the two roles demanding. Others commented that at the very least, the dual roles would be distracting.
David and Kimberly were sent to perform a location live shot, sometimes labeled as "live for the sake of live," at a church where there had been recent burglaries. David, according to published accounts, had minimal training on live truck operation from the station's chief photographer, and was only officially guided, according to legal documents, by a station policy in which were the written instructions, "Always avoid power lines and overhead obstructions" when operating the ENG truck.
A vehicle could conceivably sit forever in contact with a lower voltage power line with its tires providing enough insulation to prevent grounding. But as soon as something with the ability to ground came along, like humans and animals with a predominantly moisture-based composition, then as much electrical potential as possible could follow that path to ground and produce severe burns. Photo at right: The lettering on the doorjamb of a live truck is a reminder to mast operators to "look up and live."
Kimberly was given about the same level and type of instruction. She had also expressed apprehension about operating the truck, and was unsure of many aspects of its operation. Typical of most ENG operators, she never received a copy of the vehicle operations manual by her station, a move which might have given her more information. The reason that the amount of training she received is somewhat vague is that there never was any documentation of her instructions, course materials, trainer, or training regimen, as federal regulations require. Also, there was no comprehensive testing which an instructor could evaluate to find out what Kimberly really knew or understood from any training her station says she had.
From reports and interviews, it appeared as if David was raising the mast of the live truck after parking it under a 13,000-volt wire on the same side of the street as the telephone poles. A 60,000 volt wire was on the next higher tier of power wires. The two operators, David and Kimberly, apparently looked up, were terribly distracted and too busy, or just forgot.
When the mast made contact with the lower power line, David, who was standing on the ground, probably in contact with the mast-raise lever, and, undoubtedly, other parts of the vehicle, grounded the charge from the overhead wires which flowed through the mast and van and then through his body.
A minor moment of additional demand on the lines usually doesn't matter much, or create enough of a problem for protection circuit breakers to kick in. David was severely burned, with arc burns visible on his right forearm. His hand was heavily blistered. Typical of many victims of an electrical shock, he was thrown clear of the path of electrical conduction.
Kimberly was aware of what happened. She did what emotion, not good judgment or training, would have dictated. She ran to David's aid. At some point, she was either a victim of what power companies call "step and touch," a phenomenon by which grounded voltage causes concentric circles of uneven voltage in the earth around the area of the electrical contact, or she made actual contact with the van. If Kimberly stepped between two concentric rings of differing voltage on the ground, her legs might have stopped working as voltage surged up her legs and surprised her nervous system, perhaps taking her off balance. At that point her rescue momentum could have kept her moving towards the truck. If she made actual contact, she, like David, would have grounded the 13,000 volts. A small amount of hair left on the center catch of the van's side doors and burn marks on the curb left a macabre clue of the horror experienced in the incident.
Whatever way it happened, Kimberly and David's lives changed irreversibly in those few moments. Another person at the scene, a young man named Stephen Myers, responded to the horror he witnessed -- two human beings on the ground, visibly suffering and on fire. He did what he thought was best, as Kimberly did. Stephen ran over to the scene, took an article of clothing and placed it on the burning flesh of David and Kimberly to snuff out the fires. I've watched the videotape of this incident and Stephen's account many times, once with three experienced safety professionals from an electric company. Nobody knows why Stephen Myers was not injured because his contact with David and Kimberly should have been cause for injury.
Later we'll touch more on the role Stephen might have played.
Another person came upon the scene after hearing calls for help on police scanners in her news car. Sarah Strom, a photographer for another station, drove up and immediately knew what was happening. She knew there was an accident, saw the van with its mast up in the wires, and knew what to do. Sarah immediately left her vehicle and screamed for people to stay clear of the van and get away. Sarah attended the 1996 NPPA Television NewsVideo Workshop in Norman, Okla., and heard a presentation by this author on ENG safety. Her minimal exposure to safety information allowed her to understand the danger. The small addition to her technical vocabulary was sufficient for her to react in a way which saved her life and perhaps those of others.
Sarah's actions were in direct contrast to Kimberly's, or to any other typically untrained person. If Kimberly had known to stay away, this incident would have been recognized as another of the industry's close calls, in which a person was severely injured but not killed. It was the seriousness of Kimberly's injuries which made this incident so spectacular. Historically in many accident situations, injuries sustained by the second person are worse than those to the first. Perhaps it is emotion or distraction which fogs objective thought processes and allows for actions which, when reviewed in a calmer atmosphere, are deemed incorrect.
Another person who had been exposed to the NPPA NewsVideo Workshop's ENG safety presentation knew how important the issue is. "I saw your presentation at the NPPA NewsVideo Workshop in March 1996," he told me last year. "With all you've done to train field crews about ENG masts and power lines, I thought you would like to know about an accident that happened yesterday in Des Moines. The unbelievable happened here. It has shaken everyone."
Then he told me about Kimberly and David, who had been at WOI for about three months when the accident happened. They were a part of the station's new "one-man band" staffing. The station is known for having a bare-bones management style. I expect that most of the photographers will be replaced by reporter/photographers.
Another letter came from Brian Weiss, a producer at WOI-TV. He wrote, "I thought I'd seen it all when our tape operator suffered a seizure right in the middle of the newscast a couple of months ago. But that was nothing compared to what happened to me last week. Last Wednesday night, I'm sitting around waiting for the newscast to start. It was 5:30 and I had just printed scripts. The first call on scanners was for an "unknown problem" at 47th and Franklin. 'That's odd,' I told my anchor. '47th and Franklin is where Kim and Dave are doing their live shot from." I ran over to the radio. Nothing. I ran to the control room to see if a signal was established. Nothing. It was as I was walking out that I heard it on the scanner. Electrocution. Their mast touched a live power line. Two of my closest and dearest friends at the station were lying on the ground--13,200 volts of electricity running through their bodies. From that moment, my life has been a living hell.
Brian continued, "I pass along this story because it is something that shouldn't have happened. Something that I wish will never happen to anyone or their co-workers again. Sometimes you forget how dangerous this job can be. Well here's a reminder·Thousands of live shots take place everyday. They've become routine. So how many take the time to think about what they're doing? How many rush to get things on first? Is a story worth your life? How about the agony you're going to put your family, friends and co-workers through? I'm probably as guilty as the next person, but sometimes you need to step back and use that thing attached to your shoulders."
Using your head means learning the characteristics of equipment you are dealing with, including learning the dangers. That's why laws exist regarding training. Somebody has been there before, and after their incident, or with great foresight, laws were created to try and save the next person.
The medics who responded to the call of the WOI accident knew what was ahead. Medics are trained for electrical mishaps as they are for other burn victims. Electrical injuries are usually just that -- burns, unless the force of the voltage also knocked the victim into another catastrophic circumstance.
Upon arrival the medics found Dave Bingham burned, in shock but responsive. They lifted him to a stretcher. There was time to perform an assessment of his condition as the medics are trained to do. He was stabilized, packed up, and brought to an ambulance for transport to the hospital.
Kim was in grave condition, unconscious and unresponsive. The medics said it appeared as if her head had been part of the contact path for the 13,000 volts, the worst condition for any electrical injury. They lifted her limp body and simply carried her to an ambulance. Any additional injury from not isolating her body on a board or stretcher was secondary, her life, or what life was left, was in question. The full extent of her injuries would not be known for some time. It was more than a month before she regained consciousness.