They just told us there are power lines down everywhere. We're excited to go out there and get people back in power. —Colby Draper, lineman
SALT LAKE CITY — Huey Cole took a deep breath as he looked past two luggage trailers loaded with tool belts, harnesses and other equipment to his travel companions decked in flame-retardant shirts and insulated boots.
On the other side of the country, millions of people are in the dark, and Cole and other Utah electrical workers are eager to help.
The 18-person team from Rocky Mountain Power left Utah Thursday to join a group of electrical workers from utility companies across the West, uniting under the single mission of getting families impacted by superstorm Sandy back in their homes.
The men were in good spirits as they waited for the charter plane Thursday morning, but looks of concern occasionally crossed their faces. A daunting task was ahead of them, and it wasn't clear what they'd find once their boots hit the ground.
There were 52 workers on the flight to Newark, N.J. Rocky Mountain Power's crew is made up of 16 linemen — 15 from Utah and one from Idaho. A two-person management team will oversee the logistics of the repairs, keep the group in touch with its Salt Lake base and coordinate the workers.
Cole is a journeyman lineman from Spanish Fork and 15-year veteran with the power company. As he watched news of the storm unfolding earlier this week, he said he knew damage to the East Coast's power grids would be extensive, requiring extra manpower to repair.
The group will be tasked with locating safety risks along the line, raising new power poles and stringing new wires, starting at the center of the outage and working their way out, Cole said. The project is expected to last two or three weeks, depending on the severity of the damage.
As of Thursday, a reported 4.6 million people on the East Coast were still without power. New Jersey houses 1.76 million of those, down from an initial 2.7 million who were left without electricity when Sandy hit.
Cole said his biggest concern is moving necessary materials where they're needed. The storm has left a wake of fuel shortages, traffic snarls, closed roads, downed trees and flooding that will have to be dealt with.
No one in the group is sure where they will be working, what accommodations will be like or how much cleanup is necessary. The call for volunteers came Tuesday, giving Cole and the other linemen one day to prepare.
Rocky Mountain Power spokeswoman Maria O'Mara said the group will be sent in four-person teams to the areas where they are most needed. The linemen will be paid for their work, but all of them volunteered for the assignment, she said.
Rocky Mountain Power has an existing relationship with affected utility groups through the Edison Electric Institute, which led to matching Utah workers with the needs in New Jersey, O'Mara said.
Colby Draper, another lineman on the team, said the group will be working 16-hour shifts followed by eight-hour rest periods. This will be Draper's first experience working in a hurricane-damaged area.
"They just told us there are power lines down everywhere," he said. "We're excited to go out there and get people back in power."
Draper helped restore power to fire-ravaged communities in the state this summer, thanks to the assistance of outside crews. He volunteered for the New Jersey trip as a way to pay back the favor.
"It's important to give other electrical linemen crews out there a break," Draper said. "It is a brotherhood, and when someone is in need, we all come together."
Cole said he hopes to be home in time for Thanksgiving with his family, but he's committed to the task at hand. The decision to go to New Jersey was easy, he said.
"It's just what we do as linemen," Cole said. "We help each other out. We help other utilities, and it's kind of rewarding to have people come up and say, 'Thanks for turning my power on.'"
Cole said he has responded to storms and fires around the state and in the West. Without power, he worries about people who are now without heat and light in their homes, fuel from gas stations and access to banks.
As Cole left, his teenage daughter expressed admiration for her father's service.
"She said she was proud of me for going to help these people," Cole said. "They're in need."
Cole's wife, Andrea, said she has the same message for her husband as he leaves each day to work with the high-voltage lines, and Thursday was no exception: Be safe.
"It's pretty scary work for them to head out, but they're all equipped to do the job," she said. "That's what they do."
The Coles will try to stay in touch by cellphone, so long as there is service and a place to charge them. With the linemen's heavy workload, Andrea Cole doesn't expect her husband will have many opportunities to call.
"There are a lot of people out of power, and there is a lot of work back there," she said. "They'll just stay as long as they're needed."