Columbia linemen return home after Hurricane Sandy relief

Friday, November 23, 2012 | 3:58 p.m. CST; updated 10:34 a.m. CDT, Monday, April 1, 2013
Columbia lineman Kevin Thornton reads a project blueprint in his truck Friday afternoon. Thornton and 12 other Columbia linemen traveled to the East Coast in late October for 16 days to help restore power after Hurricane Sandy hit.

COLUMBIA — Kevin Thornton did not make it to his family reunion this year. He wasn't home to hear the news that a fourth grandchild was on the way. 

Thornton was busy at the time. He was working 16 hours a day in Rockaway, N.J., restoring power to thousands of homes pounded by Hurricane Sandy.

He and other Columbia linemen missed a lot while they were gone. One man, a daughter's first date. Another, a son's first football game. 

"You give up quite a bit," Thornton said. 

Thornton, 49, is a foreman for Columbia Water and Light, and he was the senior supervisor of the teams sent in late October to help restore power and rebuild lines in the wake of the superstorm.

Thornton and 12 other men from Columbia volunteered for the job, giving up their ordinary lives. 

Restoring power

Columbia linemen were sent to Springfield, Ohio, on Oct. 29, under the initial impression they would be going to West Virginia. But, First Energy, the utility with oversight for the linemen while they were away, decided to send the crew to Cleveland instead. 

Cleveland had sent 200 line workers to help repair utilities in New York and New Jersey, and was depending on relief workers to restore power to the nearly 181,000 First Energy customers in northeast Ohio hit by Sandy's long reach, according to local media reports. 

The day for Thornton's crew began with a "show-up," the rallying point where workers heard daily instructions from "bird dogs," the First Energy representatives who managed the schedule.

The crews worked dawn to dusk, getting hot breakfast and dinner at the show-up before and after the day's work. With 16-hour workdays for 16 days straight, Thornton estimates the men got about six hours of sleep a night. They were given packed lunches to eat on site; he said the lunches were pretty good. 

The task of restoring power in Cleveland was sporadic, he said. The linemen worked their way through damaged areas block by block.

The men from Columbia specialized in easement work in Cleveland and later in Rockaway, Thornton explained. Easement work involves climbing power lines on private property and repairing them on the pole.

Columbia Water and Light frequently works like this, Thornton said, while other utilities tend to rely on lift cabs to raise workers to dangerous heights.

After six days in Cleveland, Thornton and his men headed to Rockaway, closer to the coast. They were the first crew to begin restoring power to the area after local line workers spent the week clearing the debris. 

When the Columbia crew arrived in Rockaway, 90 percent of First Energy customers in the area — at least 450,000 people — were without power. Working street by street, the linemen gradually got the power running again. 

The day after reaching Rockaway, they faced another challenge from nature: On Nov. 7, a northeastern blizzard dropped snow onto the wounded East Coast. 

"You go out there expecting to restore power from a hurricane and end up getting hit by a Nor'easter," Thornton said with a small laugh. 

By the time they left Rockaway on Nov. 13, every home that was safe to occupy had its power back, he said. 

Power is one of those things people take for granted until it's gone, a smiling Thornton said. Then everybody appreciates what line workers do. 

He said he enjoys the work, and linemen he has met around the nation in situations like these feel the same. 

"When you get those lights on, and you hear the blocks around you start hootin' and hollering because their lights came on, it's an adrenaline rush, every time," he said. 

Thornton is a tall man, around 6 feet 5 inches, with an easy manner. He comes off as a man who doesn't complain about much, one who enjoys his family, friends and colleagues.

He was born and raised in Columbia, and has been working for Columbia Water and Light for 23 years. He and his wife have seven children and three grandchildren, with a fourth on the way. 

"Big family, big Catholic family," he said.

When linemen leave to help in emergency relief, they will stay as long as they are needed.

"You have to tell your family, 'I don't know when I'm coming back,'" Thornton said.

He did arrive home into time to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family Thursday in Columbia.

Hurricane Sandy marked the fifth time he has volunteered to work in a crisis situation. The last time the mutual-aid agreement sent him into action was in 2008, after Hurricane Ike caused massive power outages in Houston. 

"It's voluntary," Thornton said. "They won't make you go, but everyone wants to."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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