Learn the life-altering experiences of lineworkers in the co-op family
“The good Lord saved me ... I’m probably the luckiest person in the world. You don’t go through what I went through and live,” Heath Martin, Northfork Electric Cooperative, says. Photo by James Pratt
They all remember the date it happened and can spout it out with no delay. “Aug. 11, 2001. That’s the day, that’s like my anniversary, I’ll never forget it,” Heath Martin says.
“It was June 25 of 2002. It was 10:41 in the morning,” Russell McCorkle says.
“It was July 23 of 2002; early afternoon, about 1:30, 2 o’clock,” Tim Jenlink says.
The details of what happened on those dates, however, don’t come out as quickly. It’s the day these co-op lineworkers came close to tasting death, a day in which their lives were on the line. Thankfully, these men are here to speak about their safety miracles.
Martin, McCorkle and Jenlink share their life-altering stories of how important it is to follow safety rules in the electric utility industry.
A life-saving fall
Martin and his co-worker Chad Crompton, of Northfork Electric Cooperative, pulled up to a member’s house about 5 miles east of Sayre, Oklahoma, on Aug. 11, 2001. The member was making coffee using the battery of his vehicle. He had been without power all night.
A Friday evening thunderstorm had blown through western Oklahoma leaving multiple outages and little sleep for Martin and Crompton.
“I had made plans to go fishing with some buddies that morning,” Martin says. “So I was kind of in a hurry.”
Martin scaled the 35-foot electrical pole and with one arm wrapped around the pole, he reached up to move a wire out of his way. In that instant, 7,200 volts thundered through the back of his right hand, across his body and out his left forearm. He plummeted 30 feet onto the red shale rock below and landed on the back of his head and right shoulder. His eyes were rolled back and he wasn’t breathing. Crompton couldn’t get a cell signal, so he ran to the member’s house to make a mayday call. The fall left Martin with a punctured lung.
“I don’t remember electricity going through me or falling, but I remember quite a bit afterward,” Martin says. “Lots of pain.”
Martin was breathing when Crompton returned to his side and was taken by ambulance to the Elk City hospital, then OU Medical Center. The doctors worried he would lose both of his hands, but he ended up having skin grafts, surgeries and physical therapy. Doctors credit the fall for saving his life, because the crash may have revived his heart.
“If I would’ve followed safety rules, I would’ve known that line was energized and would never have climbed the pole in the first place,” Martin says.
Martin also didn’t ground the line down, wear his gloves or safety his harness to the pole.
Kenny Guffey, director of safety and loss control for the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives, says the goal is to get linemen down from the pole and start CPR in under 4 minutes. He says all linemen are trained in first aid, CPR and pole top rescue.
Martin credits Crompton with saving his life.
“He was with me when the accident happened and he did his job, like we were trained,” Martin says. “He did everything he was supposed to do.”
One choice changed many lives
June 25, 2002, began as “just a regular day” for McCorkle, who at the time was working as a journeyman lineman for Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative based in Vinita, Oklahoma.
McCorkle was at Shangri-La Resort in Delaware County to correct an error made by a contractor the day before.
“We were going to identify which cable was which, so we could put them back together properly and, with no personal protective equipment on, I stuck a volt meter in an energized elbow and it blew up in my hand,” McCorkle says.
The explosion knocked him back about 15 feet and he was engulfed in a very rapid blast that burnt all the hair off his face.
Russell McCorkle, East Central Oklahoma Electric Co-op | Photo by James Pratt
“They put me in the ambulance; strapped me to a gurney; taped my head and my arms down. They didn’t want me to move because electricity can break bones at that point,” McCorkle says.
He was taken by life flight to the burn unit at Hillcrest Medical Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He says it felt like an elephant was sitting on his chest.
“I had no internal burns and the best they could figure is because I was sweating that the electricity traveled on the outside of my body instead of the inside,” McCorkle says. “I was able to return to work pretty quickly with no lasting effects.”
According to Guffey, when electricity goes through the body it can, “literally boil your blood in a matter of seconds. Thermal heat from a fire burns from the outside. Electricity burns from the inside like a microwave. It can be brutal.”
McCorkle admits he should have worn flame resistant clothing, rubber gloves and sleeves, and should have grounded the line.
“And all those I chose not to do,” he says. “It’s something I had done so many times; it was the hundredth time that I finally got caught. I was so used to my job and so comfortable with the things we had done in the past that I thought I could get this done and it would be OK.”
McCorkle also shares an emotional story about his friend, Chris Genail who was killed Oct. 20, 2003.
“He had done the thing he did a thousand times, and he took his rubber gloves off and made contact with a power line and he had no chance,” McCorkle says. “It burnt him from the inside out and he was deceased on the scene.”
Telling the story is heart wrenching for McCorkle, who had to pause at the first mention of Genail.
“The biggest thing is, Chris and I both made our own choices. It wasn’t somebody else’s fault, and it changed a lot of lives. When I would leave, it changed the way my wife and kids would look at me; is he coming home?” McCorkle says, his voice fading. “So, it changes folks and it’s making decisions like that, is not just you, it’s a whole lot of folks ... take the time, don’t hurry, don’t take shortcuts and go home.”
Today McCorkle is the safety coordinator at East Central Oklahoma Electric Cooperative in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. His advice is to, “follow every rule it says to follow and make sure to do some extra. It’s not an unsafe job; it’s people who choose to do unsafe things.”
McCorkle kept the volt meter and the elbow from his accident and carries a picture of Genail with him at all times.
Alive with no complaints
Jenlink was almost done changing a bad transformer when his hand made contact with the primary line.
A charge raced through his body and blasted out where the spikes of his boots were lodged into the pole. One of his crew members climbed the pole to bring him down.
“It was a very busy pole and the only place he could get up was on the opposite side from where I was,” Jenlink, of Alfalfa Electric Cooperative in Cherokee, Oklahoma, says. “I actually had to tie the rope around myself so he could let me down.”
Tim Jenlink, Alfalfa Electric Co-op
His crew members loaded him up and met the ambulance halfway to the hospital in Enid. He stayed there for about five days, then checked in with the doctor in Enid every few days before being transferred to INTEGRIS Burn Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Jenlink had to have debridements to cut the dead tissue out, hyperbaric treatments, skin grafts, and part of a dead bone had to be ground in order for it to start growing.
“I’m very fortunate that I still have everything. So many other people who experience this are not as lucky as I am,” Jenlink says, pausing to catch his breath. “There’s so many that end up losing limbs and their lives. I’m extremely lucky ... I won’t complain, I never will complain about it.”
Jenlink also had a spinal cord stimulator implanted to help with pain management. He went back to work on the line crew for another five years and is now a staking engineer. This is the first time Jenlink is sharing his story.
“I thought maybe it would keep somebody from making the same mistake or going through what I’ve gone through,” Jenlink says. “To make people realize how dangerous it is, how it affects more than just that person. It affects your family tremendously, everybody you work with. It’s a life-changing experience and I hope nobody ever has to go through it.”
“I greatly admire him for being able to go up that pole again and go back to his job,” says Tim’s wife, Debbie.
Guffey says linemen take their job seriously and when people are out of power, they sometimes get so focused on trying to get the power back on, they put themselves in harm’s way.
Neither Martin, McCorkle nor Jenlink ever thought twice about returning to work. They all expressed how much they enjoy their profession.
“A lot of people say line work is dangerous. It has a lot of hazards, but it’s only as dangerous as you allow it to be,” Guffey says. “In most cases, when a lineman gets injured, it’s because he took a shortcut, missed something he shouldn’t have missed, didn’t use a piece of equipment he should have used. Very rarely is it a freak accident.”
The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and Caterpillar Safety Services created the Speak Up! Listen Up! program to foster a positive safety culture. Newer employees are encouraged to speak up if they see or think something is wrong, and veteran employees are taught to listen to each concern raised.
“In this business we’ve got a lot of hazards. The more hazards you have, the more likely it is that maybe one person could miss something. So it kind of takes a village, if you will, to watch each other’s backs,” Guffey says. “The training never stops for a lineman. In today’s world, we’re getting a lot of technology, so even for a guy who has been out there doing it for 20-plus years, there are still things he can learn.”
Martin, who is now the safety director at Northfork Electric Cooperative, says, “The good Lord saved me ... I’m probably the luckiest person in the world. You don’t go through what I went through and live.”
After the accident, Martin made himself a personal letter and one of the things he wrote was, “Make sure you follow the safety rules even when nobody’s watching you.”