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The Human Stories Behind Safety Regulations (Utah History)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 17, 2013

This is one of my old columns for the Salt Lake Tribune.

In 1950, Telluride Power Co. expanded its capacity to deliver electricity to central Utah by stringing a fourth wire on its poles along Highway 89. By May 1 the project had reached Junction, the county seat of Piute County, and unofficial word went out among the community that their power might be disrupted the next day.

On the morning of Tuesday, May 2, the power company’s crew met at the Marysvale home of foreman George Brox, from which they carpooled down to Junction and took up positions south of town. Brox cautioned them to remain on the ground until he signaled that he had turned off the power at the Junction substation.

   Including Brox, the crew consisted of 12 men. Among them were Brox’s son Earl. Married and the father of three, the younger Brox had celebrated his 32nd birthday the day before. He was an experienced electrician, having supervised Telluride’s work in the area during World War II. The senior Brox, who worked in California during the war, returned to Marysvale in the spring of 1945 so that Earl could enlist in the army. Earl served with the Army of Occupation in Japan, then returned to resume his work with Telluride.

Another member of the crew was 29-year-old Dwain Howes, married and the father of two. He had been a basketball star in high school before attending Snow College in Ephraim. His partner that day was Kelvin Gurr of Richfield. Austin Yingst, president of the Marysvale Lions Club, and other men from nearby communities filled out the crew.

George Brox entered the Junction substation, switched off the power to the 5,000-volt lines, and removed two fuses as a safety precaution. Seeing his all-clear signal, his crew climbed their poles and began work on the overhead wires.

When the power went off, the pasteurization equipment of a Junction farmer stopped working. The farmer called a part-time Telluride employee to report the outage. That employee, who had not heard of the scheduled work, hastened to the substation to do what he had been hired to do: replace burned out fuses and reset the station’s power switches in the event of outages.

He found the power switch in the “off” position and noted that two fuses were missing. There was no printed sign or other notice of an intentional disruption of the power system. It took only a few moments to repair the equipment and send power surging through the line again.

Curt Lund of Marysvale had just descended from a pole when the power returned. He stood by helplessly as Howes was electrocuted and Gurr badly burned in the sparks flying overhead. George Brox ran desperately back to the substation, calling for the power to be turned off.

But it was already too late, of course. The shock threw Austin Yingst to the ground, breaking his ribs. Earl Brox, like Dwain Howes, was electrocuted. Once the power was off, the crew brought their bodies to the ground, and the Circleville Fire Department attempted unsuccessfully for more than an hour to revive the two men.

Accidents like this one should not happen again. Occupational health and safety regulations demand warning signs, accompanied by physical barriers to lock out those who somehow miss the warnings. Similarly, laws protecting workmen and consumers govern the marking of fire exits, the height of fences around private swimming pools, the sanitation of barbershops, the tagging of mattresses, and the number of hours truckers and pilots can work without rest periods.

Our generation resists government-mandated precautions, jeering at “the nanny state” and claiming that excessive regulation interferes with profit and intrudes on personal responsibility. Maybe such laws can go too far. Maybe, though, if we knew the stories behind the regulations, if we understood the human cost of hard-won experience, we would proceed with caution in our calls for dismantling such laws.



2 Comments »

  1. This is sad. My grandfather’s uncle Ivan died due to those old technologies as well, a decade before the story you relate here.

    He was one of twins, a handsome man resembling John Wayne in looks and build. He had stayed home to help support the family while his brother served a mission, and had just started college, but was called back to town to do some emergency work.

    His mother noted, “on Monday went out on the line to do some repair work, but his spurs slipped in a rotten pole, and he threw out his hands, and caught the live wires…He lived until Saturday and died [where he had been taken, four hours away] in the Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix.” His twin Evan returned home from his mission the day before the funeral.

    Comment by Amy T — December 17, 2013 @ 10:17 am

  2. Many, but not all, safety procedures and regulations are written in blood.

    Comment by Ganymede — December 18, 2013 @ 11:45 am

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