Construction accident topples power poles, traps truck drivers near downtown

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Three construction workers were trapped in separate vehicles for about two hours Monday after the operator of a backhoe knocked down high-tension power lines at a construction site on the north side of Denny Way at Pontius Avenue North in Seattle.

Four power poles and five transformers toppled over, said Seattle Fire Department spokesman Kyle Moore.

One pole landed on the cab of a dump truck, he said, and a second fell onto a row of cars parked on John Street, one block north of Denny Way in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood, he said.

Other workers on the ground ran for their lives, according to Deborah Mills Thackrey, 59, who watched the accident from the second floor of the Mirabella retirement community on Denny Way.

"It was like somebody kicked the ant hill," said Thackrey, who was here from New York to visit her mother-in-law.

Live power lines, each carrying 26,000 volts, draped over the backhoe, a second dump truck and portions of city streets. No one was injured, but road closures in the area lasted until about 3:30 p.m.

Seattle City Light employees accessed an underground vault to shut off the power before the three men - who all work for a private contractor employed by the Seattle utility - could safely exit their vehicles at 1:39 p.m., Moore said. He said the men most likely would have been electrocuted had they attempted to get out of their vehicles before the power was cut.

Once the workers were freed, Moore said the scene was turned over to Seattle City Light and the Seattle Department of Transportation. The backhoe operator was also to be interviewed by Seattle police, he said. The power surge caused numerous automatic fire alarms to go off in surrounding buildings, and some businesses experienced power interruptions.

Scott Thomsen, a spokesman for Seattle City Light, said "it's a complicated set of damage that's in place there," though a damage estimate hadn't been determined.

After the backhoe snagged overhead power lines, it continued to move forward, snapping the four power poles.

Those poles need to be jackhammered out of the concrete and replaced before cross arms and new transformers can be installed. Restringing the poles with electrical wires will be the last part of the fix, Thomsen said.

The trapped construction workers are employed by Glacier Environmental Services and were doing site-preparation work for City Light's future Denny substation, Thomsen said.

The substation is expected to be energized in late 2016, though the final build-out won't be completed until 2020, he said. City Light owns parcels on both the west and east sides of Pontius Avenue.

Although it was initially thought Denny Way would be closed for up to 12 hours, all but one westbound lane reopened at 3:30 p.m. as crews continued to mop up oil that leaked from one of the downed transformers, Thomsen said.

John Street reopened Monday evening, while Pontius Avenue between John and Denny remained closed. Power was knocked out to nine power customers in the immediate vicinity of the backhoe mishap, and eight still didn't have power back as of 8:30 p.m.

Officials from the state Department of Labor and Industries were at the scene Monday and will be conducting their own investigation, Thomsen said.

"It's a fairly small area ... but there's an awful lot of damage in that one-block stretch," he said.


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