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N.Y. Utility Looks for ‘Stray Voltages’ After Woman’s Death

Times Staff Writer

The tragedy took place during a daily routine familiar to millions -- walking the family dog.

Jodie S. Lane, 30, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Columbia University Teachers College, never returned from exercising her pets. She was electrocuted after one of her two dogs stepped on the metal cover of a utility box on a street in Manhattan’s East Village, and current surged through her.

After an investigation, the utility company Consolidated Edison announced last week that it had found the cause: a partially exposed wire inside the box that had been improperly insulated. The wire had been wrapped a year earlier with the wrong kind of tape, which had worn away, resulting in the box becoming electrically charged.

“We will learn from this tragedy. We have taken this inquiry very seriously,” the utility said. “Testing for stray voltages will be an ongoing program.”

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Con Edison declined to say whether anyone had been disciplined.

Civil engineers said the tragedy underscored the vulnerability, particularly during winter, of an extraordinarily complex portion of New York hidden from public view -- the immense tangle of electrical wires, fiber-optic cables, gas and sewer lines, steam pipes, water mains, tunnels and other systems buried beneath sidewalks and streets.

In Manhattan, Con Edison maintains 90,000 miles of underground cables. As a result of Lane’s death, it has begun to test 250,000 subterranean structures.

The same day Con Edison announced the cause of Lane’s electrocution, an electrician hired by the New York Post discovered an electrified manhole cover on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. A Con Edison crew summoned to the scene found that the insulation on a wire was corroded, apparently by salt.

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D. Joy Faber, a spokeswoman for the utility, said the crew confirmed the voltage at the location and made repairs. She said the utility planned to inspect all its underground structures in the city within a month, weather permitting.

Some of New York’s infrastructure dates back well over a hundred years. Day in and day out, the underground systems are pounded by the vibration of trucks and cars which can cause wires and pipes to break -- snow, ice and cold often magnify the problems.

On another freezing day soon after Lane’s death on Jan. 16, not far away, a 12-inch water pipe that dated to about 1870 broke, flooding basements and forcing residents in 10 buildings to flee. And, on a single day recently, New York repair crews faced the prospect of trying to fix more than 700 hydrants knocked out of commission by the cold.

Though less common than its toll on pipes, the bitter weather can also damage electrical components. The runoff from salt used to melt ice on streets and sidewalks can leak into manholes and metal grates, causing short circuits in the equipment below. The result can be explosions in manholes and fires.

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Neighborhood residents who tried to aid Lane at 11th Street near 1st Avenue were helpless as she lay sprawled on the metal plate. Police, fearing additional electrocutions, kept people away until paramedics using a plastic backboard managed to move her. Attempts to revive Lane at the scene failed, and she was pronounced dead at nearby Beth Israel Medical Center. Her dogs -- a husky mix and a chow mix, were injured but survived.

An autopsy by the city medical examiner confirmed that Lane was electrocuted.

Since the death, the city has received calls from a few pet owners about live wires, and utility crews have been quickly dispatched.

In at least one case in which dogs were behaving erratically, a short circuit was found underground, though there were no injuries to the pets or their owners.

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Some veterinarians said the problem of animals suffering from electric shocks is not unusual.

In January 1999, a horse pulling a carriage was electrocuted after it walked on a charged manhole in Midtown Manhattan. The cause was eventually traced to a power line with eroded insulation.

“There are more incidents than we are aware of,” said Paul H. Schwartz, a veterinarian at the Center for Veterinary Care on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “Dogs have come in that have had burns on their feet, that had severe damage to their limbs. A dog had such a severe electrical shock that its spinal cord degenerated, and the dog died from the effects of the shock.

“It always seems to happen when there is a lot of snow and a lot of salt,” Schwartz said. “Some dogs are electrocuted just crossing the street.”

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