Remembering Roger Lane

Roger Lane passed away last week. I knew him as the impossibly level-headed and fair-minded mourning father of Jodie Lane. Although we had common cause in the months immediately following her death, we didn’t talk much. He was concerned with his and his family’s healing, and I was preoccupied with the reform efforts. We didn’t even meet in person until the ceremony where East 11th Street was renamed Jodie Lane Place. By chance, we reconnected about a year ago in Austin, and I think we were both surprised to meet as friends. I am so grateful that I had a chance to meet him this way, so long after the events that brought us together.

He was a kind man. His eyes sparkled with it. He was an engineer, too: methodical and exacting. He was very proud of that. He also had a keen sense of justice. He’s of the rare sort of people who could hold all of these traits at once, and he relied on them as he wrestled with his daughter’s death. As part of his settlement with ConEd, he’d negotiated access to ConEdison’s safety data, and he spent much of his time in retirement pouring over it. He was using that methodical, exacting, analytical mind to find trends, holes, and anomalies. He wanted to hold ConEd to account, even years after his daughter’s death. He didn’t want another father to suffer the way he did.

Roger was a remarkable man, and we are all diminished by his passing. My thoughts are with his family now.

Jodie’s death brought Roger and I together, so I’m taking this opportunity to post what I remember from that terrible event.

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Jodie Shonah Lane was a 30 year old doctoral candidate at the Teacher’s College at Columbia University in 2004. She lived with her boyfriend, Alex Wilbourne, on East 11th Street in the East Village of Manhattan. Together, they owned two dogs. She would soon receive her degree and the two would be married. Alex often said, “I wanted to marry Dr. Jodie Lane.”

On January 16, 2004, at about 4 P.M., Jodie walked the dogs down East 11th Street, in front of Veniero’s, a landmark Italian bakery one block from their apartment. Just across the street is the Asher Levy elementary school. The dogs wandered off the curb, as dogs do, and into a pool of salty slush — it had snowed the night before.

The two dogs immediately, surprisingly, attacked each other. Ms. Lane stepped off the sidewalk to pull the dogs apart. She slipped, and tumbled into the slush. She never got up again.

Bystanders rushed out to see the commotion. Nobody was sure what to do with the now-unconscious woman lying in the street. The police were called, and responded promptly — the precinct is only two avenues away. One of the two responding officers tried to take Jodie’s carotid pulse, and was knocked unconscious. The remaining officer called for backup, and established a cordon around the scene. The injured officer recovered fairly quickly. At this point, Jodie was still alive.

The bystanders became impatient. Jodie was lying in the street, frothing at the mouth. She was clearly still in danger, and the officers on the scene were not doing anything. The crowd decided that Jodie was being electrocuted, and shopkeepers produced rubber gloves and mop handles to move her out of danger. The police, in accordance with policy, threatened to arrest anyone who passed the cordon. The crowd screamed and pleaded with the officers, who stood firm. Twenty-five minutes later, the ambulance arrived, but not before the life had drained from Jodie’s body.

Jodie’s dogs, and then Jodie herself, had been electrocuted by the service box underneath them. A “service box” is a specific term, in this context. It’s a rectangular pit that houses the last of the electrical infrastructure before the cables that lead to a property. This service box contained the wiring for three adjacent five-story buildings. From the street, it looks like a grid of cement or concrete blocks, usually about three abreast, each with a steel rim, embedded in the asphalt of the street.

Two years before this incident, the service box was enlarged to accommodate the additional cables and equipment it needed to hold. Most of these service boxes are overfull, as they were first laid 60 to 80 years ago, long before air conditioning and microwave ovens. One year after the enlargement, one of the buildings served by this service box lost power. The problem was somewhere between the service box and the meters in the basement of the building. State regulations dictate that Con Edison has four hours to restore service before they’re slapped with all manner of fines. Because of this time pressure, Con Ed’s policy is to restore service as quickly as possible. In this case, that means running a shunt, or a temporary cable, from the service box, over the sidewalk, and through the steel doors which lead to the meters in the basement. You may have seen these shunts before, they are covered by wood or plastic yellow “speed bumps” on the sidewalk to prevent a trip hazard. Power was eventually restored and Con Edison had to dismantle the shunt. That means unhooking the cable in the basement, and severing the cable in the service box. This is where the trouble starts.

Once you’ve severed the cable in the service box, you have to secure it. You don’t want an exposed, live wire hanging loose. There are two ways of securing this cable end. The traditional way is to wrap the cable end in consecutive layers of insulation and rubber tape, which eventually form a watertight seal. The newer, preferred, method is to use a PVC heat-shrink cap, which is melted to the cable with a propane torch. For reasons that nobody really understands, this particular cable was instead secured by a single layer of rubber tape.

Over the next year, the service box was subjected, like all service boxes, to very harsh conditions. When it snows or rains, the service box fills with water, road salt, sediment, harsh chemicals, and everything else you would expect to find on a New York City street. At the same time, the cables are heating up and cooling down as their load increases and decreases and seasons change from winter to spring.

At some point between January of 2003 and January of 2004, the tape securing the cable end worked itself loose. A live, exposed electrical wire now sat in an extremely conductive slush of salt water, which sat in what is essentially a giant steel bucket. On top of that now-energized bucket sits the steel rims of the concrete blocks which compose the bucket’s lid. Over all that is another salty slush from the snow the day before. This is now a very, very dangerous place to be, as the voltage in the cable now has a clear conductive path to the street.

When Jodie’s dogs touched the top of the service box, they were shocked by 57 volts of electricity, the equivalent of four or five car batteries. This is what started the dogs fighting — each thought that the other had attacked, when in reality they’d been electrocuted through their uninsulated paws. Fifty-seven volts sounds like a lot of energy, but students of electricity will rightly say that voltage doesn’t determine the danger, and that instead amperage is the important number. Unfortunately, Con Edison did not test for this after the accident — in fact, they only tested for voltage after the service box had been cleared of mud and saltwater. In any case, there was enough energy in the ground to injure the two dogs and render two humans unconscious.

A History of Failure

At first blush, the person responsible for this tragedy is the worker who violated company policy by using a single layer of tape to secure the cable. His supervisor is next in line, as he should have discovered the improperly wrapped cable. If Con Edison had an otherwise sterling safety record, the issue would have stopped there: it was a tragic mistake by these two workers, or a freak accident that nobody could foresee. Unfortunately, Con Edison’s safety record was not sterling. It was deeply troubling. Over the next few days, New York’s hysterical tabloids would make “stray voltage” a byword for Con Edison’s neglectful maintenance record.

In 1999, sensationally, one of Central Park’s famous carriage horses was killed when it stepped on an energized grate. In 2001, Con Edison settled a lawsuit with Phillip Vanaria, a schoolteacher in Greenwich Village. Mr. Vanaria was knocked unconscious and now has permanent brain damage after picking up the receiver of a public telephone that was energized by stray voltage from a manhole twenty feet away. In July of 2002, the East River power plant, just ten blocks from the site of Ms. Lane’s death, exploded in a ball of fire, and 52,000 people were left without power. In 2003, a young woman received third-degree burns over 80% of her body when an underground transformer exploded and shot flames through the sidewalk grating in Midtown Manhattan.

Shortly after Ms. Lane’s death, Con Edison voluntarily inspected all 250,000 publicly-accessible pieces of the electrical system. After two weeks, they had discovered over 400 energized service boxes, manhole covers and street lamps. The vast majority of these cases were located in the East Village, where Ms. Lane died and where Con Edison was consolidating their power generation operations. The neighborhood was blighted by crime and drugs for 20 years until its recent gentrification, so it surprised nobody that Con Edison had neglected this part of the city. One community group hired an electrician to open a manhole in front of their headquarters, and found nothing but bare wires, dating from 1920. The insulation had completely disintegrated. Presumably, these situations could be found in hundreds of other locations all over the city.

Even after the company’s ad hoc inspections, stray voltage was still being reported. In one case, two dogs were shocked by a steel basement door on the sidewalk, which had been energized by stray voltage on a nearby service box. That box had been inspected by Con Edison just three days earlier. It later came to light that Con Edison’s inspections were being conducted in part by untrained employees, including receptionists and filing clerks.

And then, there was the manhole problem. Manholes are very heavy, some as much as 300 pounds. Most form an airtight seal when they’re laid in place. If any gas accumulates underground – from a steam leak or electrical fire, for instance – that gas will eventually force its way aboveground. Sometimes, enough pressure builds up that the manhole is shot into the air, like a cannonball. This photo is from an incident in Chicago in 1937, when a manhole shot into the air, broke through the skylight of a nearby building, fell through an elevator shaft, killing the elevator operator and injuring two others.

Of course, that’s colorful, but freakish. More ordinary was the complete destruction of a parked NYPD van in the Bronx. It had been destroyed when a manhole exploded underneath it. One month after Ms. Lane’s death, a manhole exploded in front of City Councilwoman Margarita Lopez’ apartment. A few weeks later, around noon in Times Square, seven manhole covers shot into the air, one right after the other. A young woman fell off her skateboard, again in the East Village, and landed on a manhole cover which was so hot that she was permanently tattooed.

The public (with help from the tabloids) had become very aware of the danger under their feet.

Each of these events are cataloged by the Fire Department as “manhole incidents.” These range from smoldering fires, carbon monoxide poisoning from the accumulated gas, to outright explosions. Con Edison’s history was not encouraging, as the number of incidents was increasing noticeably each year and had doubled since 1999. The real scandal, though, was that this pattern correlated with a decrease in maintenance spending by the company, to the tune of 20% a year.

Once that spending was analyzed, it became apparent that the grand total spent by Con Edison in 2003 to maintain New York’s electrical system was $387,287, down $50,000 from the year before. That works out to just over a dollar for every service box, manhole, and street lamp in the city.

But with these imminent and manifest hazards in a city of 9 million people, where were the victims? The final, and most damning, evidence was revealed during the first New York City Council hearing on this matter. Con Edison had, over the past ten years, settled eleven civil suits brought by people who had been seriously injured or maimed by the company’s neglectful maintenance. These eleven “secret suits” were settled in private, and the incidents were never reported to the Public Service Commission. Clearly, something had to be done. But who was responsible?

Con Edison, of course, is the massive energy monopoly that runs electric, gas and steam for most of New York City. There are also the first responders. There’s the union, the UAW Local 1-2, representing the workers who failed to properly secure the cable end. It’s worth noting that this event occurred just as the Local 1-2 was entering into contract negotiations with Con Edison. On the public side, there was our organization, the Jodie Lane Project. In concert with the Public Utility Law Project, a state-funded advocacy group, and Manhattan Community Board 3, we held a rally in front of the Con Edison headquarters and conducted a research and public outreach campaign. The City Council latched onto the issue immediately, as election season was coming up. They dragged in the Department of Transportation, who had some oversight over street lamps, which were subject to stray voltage. The New York State Public Service Commission was involved, of course, since they were the primary regulatory body. The New York State Assembly also piled on, since the Energy Committee had bad blood with Con Edison and the Public Service Commission since a deregulation fight a few years earlier. There were many players, and all of them had a vested interest in the outcome of the fight that followed Ms. Lane’s death.

Consequences

After the ad hoc inspections conducted in February of 2004, Con Edison announced a voluntary schedule of inspections for its publicly-accessible infrastructure. The public and lawmakers were wary, though, of trusting Con Edison to follow through. After a brief lobbying effort, the New York City Council acted first. Though hampered by jurisdictional problems, they were able to mandate an inspection and reporting regime for companies that provided power in New York City. It provided an unambiguous schedule for visual inspection of Con Edison’s equipment, supplemented by follow-up inspections by the city’s Department of Transportation.

The New York State Assembly attempted to pass two pieces of legislation. The first, sponsored by a bipartisan group of Assemblymen and Senators, was a mandatory inspection bill very similar to the City Council law. The second prohibited “gag” clauses in settlements in which the public’s safety was at risk. The inspection bill failed, largely because its chief sponsor in the State Senate was indicted on unrelated bribery charges. The second bill was rejected outright.

Public safety advocates then turned a wary eye to the Public Service Commission, which was empowered to sue Con Edison for up to $37 million in penalties. Advocates hoped that the PSC would make an example of Con Edison, but the Commission is composed of the Governor’s political appointees. Governor Pataki, as it happens, is very close friends with Kevin Burke, the President and CEO of Consolidated Edison. It was unlikely that the Public Service Commission would produce any new regulations, and certainly would not take Con Ed to court.

It was a pleasant surprise, then, when the PSC announced an entirely new safety regime for electrical transmission companies in New York State. The guidelines were very similar to those in the City Council and State Assembly legislation, though allowed companies to suggest their own inspection schedules for each class of equipment. The PSC even formally adopted the National Electric Safety Code as a standard for minimum compliance.

How Much is Enough?

Evaluating the validity of these reforms is difficult, because they serve three distinct purposes. First, the new regulations and legislation are meant to improve public safety without crippling commerce. Second, they are meant to calm public fears about perceived dangers. Finally, they are punitive. Those responsible for the errors should, after all, bear the weight of the consequences.

On the first point, improving public safety, these reforms are only satisfactory. For instance, there are not enough visual inspection requirements which would force the company to regularly open every manhole and service box to look for problems. But the utility of these inspections must be weighed against the cost of conducting them. Con Edison estimates that 12 miles of New York City roadways would be closed every day if they had to conduct a visual inspection of all their equipment. The inspection rules are not as specific or rigorous as most advocates would like, but are widely regarded as a fair compromise.

In any case, the legislation has certainly calmed, or at least exhausted, the public’s fears. Traffic on the Jodie Lane Project website eventually fell to a trickle, and reports of stray voltage are very infrequent. An electrocuted dog will no longer get its photo on the cover of the New York Post or the Daily News. Despite this, Roger Lane’s website, http://strayvoltagenyc.org/, still monitors the issue.

The Blame Game

So we can turn our attention to the punitive elements of the reforms. Before we can decide if the punishments were effective, we must first determine who failed to act properly, and why.

The worker was at fault, because he didn’t follow procedure. The supervisor was at fault, as well, because he or she should have corrected the worker’s error. But let’s say that this will happen from time to time, either because of human error or the natural decay of the system over decades and that we should have safeguards in place. In this case, a dangerous situation went undetected for a year, so Con Ed’s policies and procedures were at fault, too. And yet, even if these three layers or protection failed, the Lane family’s tragedy could still have been avoided if the NYPD has responded properly. So the NYPD shares responsibility with Con Edison and the workers.

Incredibly, no safety regulations were violated in Ms. Lane’s accident. The New York State Public Service Commission is responsible for setting standards and enforcing regulations for every utility company in New York. In this case, the PSC had neglected to set any safety standards at all. New York was one of only three states that had not adopted the National Electric Safety Code. Instead, the PSC relied on each company to use their best judgment.

If the PSC had set an explicit standard for electrical safety, they would still not have the staff or funding to perform any audits of a company’s compliance. Instead, they rely solely on each company’s filings to prove that regulations are being followed. In other words, the fox guards the hen house, and the PSC is responsible for allowing that to happen. This extends beyond safety issues — the PSC has no facility or procedure for confirming information of any kind coming from the companies. As one Assemblyman put it, the PSC is “one giant filing cabinet,” that collects information but lacks the means to do anything useful with it.

Even if the PSC were to establish a violation, it has only one enforcement option: take the company to court and sue for damages. This process is so unwieldy that in the 100 year history of the Commission, it has never taken a company to court. So we can also blame the New York State Legislature, which created an utterly toothless regulatory body.

Neither Con Edison or the Local 1-2 have disclosed what, if any, punishment was meted out to the worker and his supervisor. Con Edison had already created its additional inspection burden voluntarily, so the new regulations cannot be interpreted as punitive. However, they must pay out on the settlement they reached with the Lane family, which totals about $7 million. This is the largest settlement in the state’s history, but by no means a grievous blow for an $11 billion company. The PSC, ironically, improved its standing by promulgating the additional regulations. The New York State Legislature did nothing to respond to the danger, either by passing safety legislation or reforming the structure of the Public Service Commission. On the whole, those responsible for Ms. Lane’s death suffered few, if any, consequences. For the purposes of punishment, then, this year’s worth of scrutiny and reform was a failure.

On the other hand, Jodie Lane’s death brought a great deal of attention to the safety of New York’s electrical system. Until her death, a horse being electrocuted or a woman being burned alive were treated as freak accidents, an unusual but expected risk of living in New York City. After a year of hearings and public attention, it is now understood in both city government and in Albany that these are not acceptable risks, and that something can be done about them. That is Jodie Lane’s legacy. That legacy was secured in 2006, when East 11th Street was named “Jodie Lane Place.”

2 Comments

  1. Dear Lane Family,

    I am a New Yorker and a fellow Columbia Alum from the Graduate School of Social Work. I remember the terrible tragedy of Jodie’s heroic death as she tried to save her dogs. Even after 30 years in the City, I never realized the extent of the stray voltage problem. Thanks to Mr. Lane, I have access to the data he published and I am very grateful for his loving kindness to thousands of New Yorkers he did not personally know.

    Please accept my condolence for his sad passing. He really was a hero too, turning unimaginable pain and suffering into a life saving remembrance of Jodie. I am very grateful for his work every time I walk my tiny dog outside when it rains or snows and I shall remember them both all my life.

    Tonight they are both in my prayers as the snow falls.

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