If neighbors had called Utah Power and Light the first time they saw children playing inside the fence surrounding a high-voltage transformer, a tragic accident might have been averted Friday, a top Salt Lake County fire official said.
Derrick Cole, 8, remained in critical condition Saturday at the University of Utah Burn Center after receiving third-degree burns over 50 percent of his body when he fell from a transformer tower on the UP&L Meadowbrook substation Friday.Witnesses said the boy, who was playing with two friends, climbed a large tree hanging over the fence surrounding the substation and scaled the transformer tower. He slipped and fell, and came into contact with a live wire carrying 12,740 volts. The resulting jolt set the boy on fire.
Witnesses to the accident told officials they had seen children climb the tree and get into the substation compound in the past - but they never reported it to UP&L, Salt Lake County Fire Lt. Dennis Steadman said Saturday.
Had they called, UP&L "would have been out there in a heartbeat to knock that access down," Steadman said.
Steadman acknowledged that putting up fencing and pulling up trees that provide access to danger won't necessarily keep children safe. In August, 12-year-old Eli Garner of Granite Park died after touching his forehead to a live wire on a smooth, 27-foot UP&L utility pole he had climbed to retrieve some darts.
It is difficult to make substations and power poles childproof, Steadman said. But the tree that hangs over the Meadowbrook substation at 1175 Atherton Ave. (1075 West) gives any child easy - and attractive - access to extreme danger.
UP&L spokesman Dave Mead said on Saturday that he couldn't confirm whether the utility company had been made aware that the tree was hanging over the fence and providing easy access to the substation. The tree may not even be on UP&L property, he said.
However, "if we are made aware of a problem involving safety, we will take the necessary steps to respond to such a problem," Mead said, reaffirming earlier reports that the tree will be removed.
Firefighters who responded to Friday's emergency said Cole is alive because of the quick and heroic action of Richard Martin, a 29-year-old University of Utah premedical student who rescued the boy.
Martin, who lives in an apartment near the substation at 1175 Atherton, recalled Saturday that when he saw a flash of light outside his apartment window at about 5:30 p.m., he immediately dialed 911. But when his wife told him Derrick was on fire, he handed her the telephone and ran outside.
"I sprang off my car and climbed over the barbed wire," he said. "I could hear someone yelling at the boy to roll off. But I could see he was inches away from more lines. I yelled, `No!' " Martin said.
Derrick was struggling but was able to tell Martin his name. "I had to hold him down," Martin said. "If he had raised himself 6 inches, he would have touched more wires."
Those wires carried 46,000 volts, Steadman said. But Martin neither knew nor cared about such details when he was helping Derrick.
"I didn't know the voltage. I could see wires, and I didn't want to touch one. But I didn't give it much thought," he said. "Immediately after, I was calmer than I was two hours later."
Martin didn't sleep Friday night. "Not a bit," he said. "You see a little boy moving around, on fire, that's a terrible thing. I can't remember how I got over the barbed wire."