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City Utility Boxes are a Powerful Danger

Electrocution: Two dogs have been killed in about a year in Charles Village.

By Jill Rosen
Sun Staff

December 17, 2004

It took about five seconds for Roy to die.

One minute, Jennifer Bowman was walking him along St. Paul Street in Charles Village, waiting somewhat patiently for him to do his business so they could get in out of the Friday-night rain. The next, Roy let out a piercing, chilling yelp and jumped.

By the time Bowman realized the sound was her dog screaming, he had fallen over onto the sidewalk. When she reached out to him and felt an electric tingle, she knew. Roy had just been electrocuted. And then she screamed.

Roy - a Belgian Malinois, a variety of Belgian shepherd - died almost instantly a month ago on a busy city street after stepping on an electrified metal utility box cover. This was the second time in about a year that a dog has died this way in the area - the 3400 block of St. Paul, steps from Union Memorial Hospital, Johns Hopkins University dorms, and a strip of restaurants, shops and pubs.

Barry Meyer, who manages Johns Hopkins facilities, was walking his dog on St. Paul that evening and ran to help Bowman after hearing her cry out. As he watched her drop to the ground and try to give Roy cardiopulmonary resuscitation, he called Baltimore Gas and Electric, the police, everyone he could think of.

"It's only by the grace of God this woman's dog stepped on the plate and not her," Meyer said. "It's tragic enough it happened to her dog."

Earlier this year in New York City, a 30-year-old architect got a fatal electric shock when she stepped on a utility box containing improperly insulated wires. In August 2003, a tourist from Kentucky was killed on the Las Vegas strip after she stepped on a utility box plate during a rainstorm. Dogs have been electrocuted this way in Boston.

In Baltimore, BGE supplies the electricity. But Baltimore officials say the city is responsible for maintaining most of the utility boxes, which house underground wires that power light poles and other electricity hubs.

Nevertheless, city officials could provide no details this week about what malfunctioned at the box Roy stepped on, how the city repaired it or whether crews have been back since to make sure it is functioning safely.

Kathy Chopper, a spokeswoman for Baltimore's Department of Transportation, the agency that handles utility maintenance, said yesterday that the city responded to the Nov. 12 incident but that she could not find a report on it.

Chopper also said the city has no preventative maintenance program for checking utility boxes, of which there are "thousands upon thousands."

Unlike with more visible problems like light-pole outages, she said, there's no way city crews, or residents, can know whether a utility box is electrified.

"I wouldn't touch them," she said.

After Manhattan architect Jodie S. Lane was electrocuted in January while walking her two dogs in the East Village, Lane's family and a new organization of safety advocates, the Jodie Lane Project, fought to have the utility company there overhaul its safety policies.

In a settlement announced a month ago, Consolidated Edison agreed to pay Lane's family more than $6.2 million. The utility also vowed to better handle stray voltage problems and appointed a panel of electrical experts to monitor those efforts.

Gunnar Hellekson, director of the Jodie Lane Project, said that before Lane's death, New York dog walkers knew about sidewalk hot spots because their dogs avoided them. "None of us," he said, "knew exactly why."

Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, whose district includes Charles Village, said the city, like New York, must have safety standards and suggested that Baltimore look to see what Con Ed did after Lane's death to close the holes in its system.

"That dog might have been our canary, warning us of a major problem," Clarke said. "If a dog is electrocuted, it certainly could be a child."

While Roy lay dead on the sidewalk next to the utility box last month, people from nearby apartments who came out to help Bowman told her that for the past week, they'd seen dogs jumping in that exact spot.

People also told her they'd heard of other dogs being electrocuted a bit farther down St. Paul. Johns Hopkins University security officer Anthony Ingagliu, who responded to Bowman's emergency call, heard of a man who "pressed against a pole [in that same area] and was thrown, literally, into the street."

Deborah DuVall watched a dog die last year in the 3100 block of St. Paul.

DuVall was working that rainy night at Images gift shop on that block. "I heard this awful howl. I can't describe it," she said. Walking outside to check, she saw a Labrador mix lying on the street, its leash tied to a pole near a metal utility plate.

As the animal helplessly relieved itself on the street, DuVall, who has dogs of her own, knew it was dying. Reaching out to comfort it, she got a small shock. "I said, 'Tell the vet this dog has been electrocuted,'" she says. "It's lucky we all didn't get it."

The dog died right outside Arnold Greenberg's shop, Eddie's liquor store. "Of course we were concerned," he said. "Suppose it would have been a human being?"

Meyer, the Johns Hopkins facilities manager who witnessed Roy's death, acknowledges that Baltimore, like New York and Boston, is an older city with aging infrastructure but says the city must maintain the electric conduits and not just swoop in after an injury occurs. Electrical lines should also get maintenance priority over water lines, he says.

"People don't get killed or harmed when you have a water main break," he said. "I really think they need to be more diligent in checking out their infrastructure and not just putting people in the city at risk."

Equally outraged, Bowman can't believe Roy's death didn't prompt the city to investigate its utility boxes. "It's ridiculous it has not come to anyone's attention," she said.

Bowman, 32, who works at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, picked the 6-month-old Roy from the other dogs at the Montgomery County pound two years ago. She needed a companion and knew from the moment she saw his pointy ears and happy gait that Roy was the one. Despite his kennel cough and mange, she took him home.

She took Roy to advanced obedience classes and signed him up to learn hand signals. Instead of giving him canned chow, she boiled him chicken and mixed it with yogurt. When Bowman talks of things she did with Roy, she says "we."

As in, the night last month when Roy died, "We'd just watched a movie and we were going to return it."

With Supersize Me returned to Video Americain on St. Paul, Bowman and Roy crossed to the east side of the street to head home. Minutes later, Roy lay dead on the sidewalk.

Though it's been a month, Bowman can't get rid of his food dishes, his little bed, his toys. And she really can't bear to hear it when people tell her, as they often do, that perhaps Roy died to prevent this from happening to her.

"I haven't given that any thought," she said, trying to fight back sobs. "I just miss my dog."

Copyright (c) 2004, The Baltimore Sun

Link to the article:,0,2998566.story

Mike Holt's Comment: I wonder how many lives it will take before someone does a complete investigation into why electrical wiring on public property is not required to comply with the NEC. I am sure the metal utility box cover is not bonded to an effective ground-fault current path.

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