As the electrical current pulsated through his hands, contracting every muscle in his body, Joe Folgo breathed his last—or so he thought. A young but experienced lineman for Florida Power and Light (FPL) in Fort Lauderdale, Joe had taken two dangerous short cuts: one that almost cost him his life and another that probably saved it.
It was 10 a.m. on a bright, sunny Saturday in October of 1984. Joe had volunteered to come in on his day off—getting overtime pay—to do a routine pole transfer in a warehouse district in Pompano. He was part of a 3-man crew, consisting of a foreman and another lineman, who had been tasked to do the transfer. A new pole had been set in the ground near the old one. Three wires that carried 7,620 volts of electricity and fed a transformer bank would have to be moved. The transformer could be de-energized, but the high voltage lines would have to be transferred live/energized. In addition, a small service wire, consisting of two wires called a duplex, went across the street, carrying 400 watts to a security light activated by a photocell. The duplex would have to be transferred twice, once on one side of the street and again on the other side, where another new light pole had been placed near the old one. The duplex would later prove to be the snake in the grass, or in this case, the snake in the sky.
Both poles were near the street, accessible by truck, so neither lineman had to climb them. They would use the bucket, which could be controlled from the ground or from the bucket. When transferring high-voltage wires in the bucket, a lineman was required to wear special high-voltage rubber gloves and clip his harness belt to the boom for safety. Joe volunteered to go up in the bucket and move the wires and transformer. The other men would assist from the ground. He set up his tools, clipped himself in and put on his rubber gloves.
Two hours later, after successfully moving the transformer and live wires to the new pole, the only thing that remained to be done was to transfer the service wire and light to the new pole across the street. Joe lowered the bucket.
“Why don’t you take a break, Joe?” Bob, his foreman suggested. “I’ll finish the job. You’ve been up there all morning.”
“No,” Joe replied, “I’ll stay in the bucket. I’ve got all my tools out. Just drive me across the street.”
So Bob got in the truck and relocated it about 100 feet.
The wire coming from the source of electricity to the security light was live and activated the photocell, which detected daylight or lack of daylight. Joe transferred the wire by cutting it, moving it to the new pole and taping it temporarily. He also drilled holes in the new pole and moved the light. When he was moving the light, he took off his rubber gloves. Now all he needed to do was to reattach the wires from the light to the live wires coming across the street, which he had moved and taped.
Recounting his story, Joe said, “The duplex going to the security light consisted of a neutral or ground wire and a live wire. Every lineman knows the neutral is always the first to be hooked up and the last to be detached. That’s the rule. For some reason, I didn’t follow it that morning.”
In an effort to save time, Joe neglected to put his rubber gloves back on. He also neglected to clip himself back to the boom. So, without rubber gloves and without being clipped in, Joe started with the “hot” wire first. He successfully reattached the live wire to the light and taped it.
Now the ground wire from the light needed to be attached to the ground wire from the source. This created an “open neutral” condition, meaning the circuit was not complete. Joe grabbed the neutral/ground from the light with his right hand and the neutral/ground from the source with his left hand, thus completing the circuit and energizing the photocell through him. Immediately, low voltage (120 volts) high current electricity shot through his body, locking his hands to the wires like a magnet. Through convulsions and shrieks, Joe yelled for help to the men below. The ground crew leaped to the lower controls to try to move the bucket away from the wires. Seconds seemed like eternity. Joe knew that if he couldn’t get his hands off the wires, he would pass out or die. His only hope was to jump from the bucket.
With his hands frozen to the wires, paralyzed, Joe could only use his legs and feet. Because he wasn’t clipped to the boom, he was free to walk up the inside of the bucket, which he did, kicking himself backwards and doing a back flip out of the bucket. Without knowing where he would land, he confessed quietly to himself, “I’m dying,” closed his eyes and fell 30 feet to the ground.
He landed on his left side, but immediately tried to get up and run away from the truck. He was in a panic and beginning to go into shock. His crew had to hold him down by his arms and legs to keep him from getting away.
Earlier, as soon as the crew had realized he was being electrocuted, they radioed a local Emergency Medical Team (EMT). Within 10-15 minutes, the paramedics arrived. They checked Joe’s vital signs and prepared him for transport by covering him in a blanket that looked like aluminum foil. During the whole incident, Joe never lost consciousness. They put him on a stretcher and took him to nearby Humana Hospital where doctors conducted a series of tests and checked for internal damages. They concluded that Joe had no internal injuries or broken bones, just multiple compression fractures in his rib cage, back, left arm and elbow. All in all, he was lucky to be alive.
“My family was notified of the incident. They rushed to the hospital along with my supervisor, co-workers and friends,” Joe recalls. “Even though my injuries were not life-threatening, I couldn’t walk and had to stay in the hospital for 6 weeks. I can remember the serious and concerned looks on the faces of my family and friends when they got to the hospital and saw me.”
FPL conducted a full investigation in order to discover how the incident happened and how future incidents like it could be prevented.
“I took a few short cuts,” Joe says, “which I shouldn’t have done. But someone gave me the wherewithal to climb up the inside of the bucket and kick myself free. If I had been clipped in, I might not have been able to do it.”
“Today, I don’t take short cuts. I’m lucky to be alive and feel like I’ve been given a second chance. I guess you could say God got my attention that day. He’s still got it today. I’ll never forget it.”