SPRINGFIELD — In the early morning mist, Columbia lineman Billy Lewis climbs up the back end of a Water and Light Department truck and steps inside the bucket. His breath contrasts against the clear blue sky as he rises toward the power line. Layers of clothing — leggings, jeans, coveralls and a flame-retardant hooded jacket — protect him against the cold. Only his face is exposed to the elements.
The bucket ascends; Lewis grabs his knife with faded yellow gloves and reaches for the power line. Five residents of the neighborhood, which has been without power for more than 13 days, emerge from their homes to watch Lewis restore their electricity. He scrapes the bad parts off the line, cleans the ends and splices them together with a copper sleeve. In five minutes, he has ended the neighbors’ two-week ordeal.
“This is first time I’ve seen angels wear hard hats,” resident Kerr Reden said.
Reden and his wife lost their power during the first night of a four-day ice storm that ravaged Springfield from Jan. 11 through 14, and they remained without electricity until Lewis worked his magic on Jan. 25. Ice up to 2-inches thick caused tree limbs to fall and uprooted entire trees. During the peak of the power outage, close to 75,000 utility customers were without power.
Lewis was among a crew of eight Columbia linemen who were dispatched by the Water and Light Department to help bring the Springfield power outages to an end. The crew consisted of supervisor Pat Carl, line foreman Bruce Perkins, linemen Steve Casteel and Lewis and apprentices Tommy Jones, Chip Duren and Josh Langhammer. Thousands of linemen and tree trimmers from around the country flooded the city to help in the wake of the disaster.
During their time in Springfield, the Columbia crew often came across houses with “no power” signs in the yards. Everywhere they went, residents would come out of their houses and eagerly watch them work. Neighbors called neighbors to pass the word that the power was coming back. Passing drivers honked their horns and shouted “thank you.” The crew members, however, remained humble, offering occasional waves, diligently going about their duties.
“This crew is great,” said Danny Vestal, a Springfield utility worker. He was assigned to be the Columbia crew’s “bird dog,” helping them navigate the city and find faulty lines. “They do whatever it takes, very helpful and willing.”
Jones said Vestal was a big help. “He is called a ‘bird dog,’ because it is kind of like hunting, where he points you to the birds, except he pointed us to the lines.”
The Columbia crew arrived in Springfield on Jan. 22. While only small patches of snow remained from the storm at the time, about 12,000 customers were still without power. Fallen tree branches were stacked in piles on house lawns and in back alleys, destined for a 40-acre pile that a member of the Missouri Public Alliance estimated would rise 13 feet high. Crew members had to be careful to avoid having thawing, fragile limbs fall on them.
“We’ve seen trees that have fallen on cars. Trees that have fallen on garages,” Carl said.
Reden said the extended outage forced his family back in time. “We used kerosene lamps and flashlights and candles for light. ... We done all right.”
Another resident, Linsey Busby, said Wal-Mart sold out of candles on the first night of the storm. Some residents relied on generators to get through the outage. It was difficult to prepare meals.
“We’ve eaten out every day since the storm hit,” Busby said. “It’s getting expensive.”
Busby was grateful for the Columbia crew that gave her power again.
“Have you ever tried to put makeup on by candlelight?” Busby said. “It’s awful.”
For the first few days of its assignment, the Columbia crew worked mostly on primary lines, changing out poles and replacing wires. Once the poles were fixed, entire neighborhoods were given power for the first time in close to two weeks.
“It was nice to go home knowing you gave a neighborhood of 80 houses power,” Langhammer said.
By Jan. 25, 13 days after the storm, 6,000 homes were still without power. The Columbia crew shifted its focus to connecting individual house lines, most of which were in the older part of Springfield. Trees in this section caused more damage because of their massive size and old age.
The crew worked a total of six days, often putting in 16-hour days.
Over the years, the men have grown used to the long days, and they know how to keep energized.
Duren drinks Diet Mountain Dew all day long.
Castel relies on orange juice and milk. He’s “not a coffee man,” he said. “It’d have to be doctored up for it to be any good. By then it’d just be sugar and milk.”
Stone said he doesn’t even need an alarm clock. “I’ve been doing this for so long. I’m just used to it.”
The crew spent a lot of time together during the trip, since its workdays began around 6:30 a.m. and ended close to 10:30 p.m.. The camaraderie among the crew was unique, with lots of joking: Lewis, Duren and Langhammer were dubbed “The Three Stooges,” and there was even an occasional snowball fight.
“It can get monotonous,” Pat said, “so you got to make it fun.”
Late one day, the crew got a good laugh when a dog sprinted out of a house and spooked Langhammer as he approached. Moments later, Duren spooked him again by grabbing the back of his jeans like a dog, causing Langhammer to jump into the air.
Carl has worked with Stone and Perkins for most of his 22½ years with the department.
“(Carl and I) were here a year apart, but we came up the ranks together,” Perkins said. “We’ve been good friends the whole time.”
The camaraderie carries over outside work as well. Carl, Stone, Perkins and other utility men have gone on several motorcycles trips together. Last spring, Duren and Langhammer formed a team with other Water and Light workers to compete in the International Lineman Rodeo in Kansas City.
“We placed 50th out of 180 teams,“ Langhammer said. “It was more about the fun than competing.”
Given the long workdays, time away from family and the risk of electrocution, one wonders why anyone would want to be a lineman. Not everyone can do the job, Carl said.
“You need to have a passion for this, and everyone here does,” he said.
Before their trip to Springfield, the young guys were looking forward to it.
“It was more like a vacation for me,” Duren said after his return to Columbia on Saturday. “I loved it.”