A Constant Busy Signal For Crews Exhausted Us West Workers Still Repairing Phone Lines Hit By Storm
From high on a telephone pole, Dan Peck looked wistfully into windows below as families crowded around Thanksgiving meals or a football game on TV.
Life was returning to normal for thousands of people who’d spent more than a week in the dark after the region’s nastiest ice storm in memory.
But for Peck and other US West telephone repair workers, the battle had barely begun.
Sleeping bags became standard equipment for telephone trucks. Meals were doughnuts and coffee from sympathetic passers-by. Some workers didn’t see their homes for three days.
Now, as even the power crews have returned to fairly normal schedules, telephone workers are still scrambling. They’re fixing problems they couldn’t reach without getting dangerously close to downed electrical lines.
While many people turn their focus to Christmas shopping and holiday parties, Peck and other telephone repair workers are getting their first day off this weekend.
“You basically go until you can’t,” Peck said recently, shivering as he waded through snow to return telephone service to a Spokane business. “Last night, I only worked 13 hours.”
US West officials estimate about 10,000 customers lost telephone service during the Nov. 19 storm that knocked the area to its knees.
They blame it on downed lines, water-soaked lines and lines torched by snapping electrical wires.
Power outages also kept cautious telephone repair workers out of some areas and caused switching terminals that serve thousands of homes to crash.
“Most days, it’s just been one catastrophe to the next,” said Peck, bundled in four shirts and a jacket.
As of Friday, at least 1,850 Spokane County homes still reported telephone problems and 38 extra repair workers were helping the usual 75, said spokesman Harry Grandstrom.
More were being recruited from surrounding states.
The pace won’t return to normal for US West workers for months, as crews replace temporary fixes with permanent repairs, Grandstrom said.
“There are split, cracked, broken poles we know are not safe,” he said. “We’re going to have those replaced.”
Gary Clemenson, 54, was answering telephones at a US West garage Nov. 19 when he first realized the company was in serious trouble. He had an office phone to his right ear, a cellular telephone to his left, and his pager was sounding.
Clemenson soon learned his own home lost power, but couldn’t leave to check on it. He had his first shower three days later. Today is his first day off.
“I think we were running on coffee and adrenaline,” he said. “We were trying to do the best we could under the worst possible conditions.”
One day, repair workers used chain saws to rescue a technician whose truck was stuck among several fallen trees on an icy road north of Spokane.
They hauled out shovels to crack thick ice from downed lines before repairing them.
“You got a real workout,” said Dawn Carlson, 39. “I was really sore after that first weekend.”
Others hauled generators to crashed switching terminals on rural roads, then lived out of trucks for days at a time, huddling under sleeping bags for catnaps.
Bill Reynolds, a network technician, logged 107 hours in the first week alone.
“It just tore me up not to get any sleep,” he said. “When you sleep 15 minutes here, 15 minutes there, it doesn’t add up.”
One thing in particular still bothers him: He hasn’t had time to buy that special Christmas gift for his wife.
Customers, for the most part, have been patient and understanding, workers said.
There are exceptions, like the man who berated a telephone technician for refusing to repair a cable TV system.
But usually, repair crews are treated like royalty by desperate customers, who reward them with coffee, doughnuts, lattes and cookies.
On Thanksgiving, a well-meaning man even offered Peck a beer.
“It’s like a magnet,” said George Barfield, as he repaired a line near the West Plains. “You drive up to a neighborhood and six or seven of them rush up to your truck.”
Now the crews watch weather reports closely and long for a reprieve for the holidays.
“I’m a real Christmas person, and I’m not really in the Christmas spirit yet,” said Carlson.
“I really haven’t had a chance to let it sink in.”
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