Human error was factor in volunteer firefighter shock, officials say

Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldFebruary 13, 2014 

Benton Public Utility District officials said human error was a factor in an accident that hospitalized a Benton County volunteer firefighter shocked by a power line this week.

Two PUD employees didn't realize a downed power line was still attached to a power pole when they cleared firefighters to put out a Finley wildfire, said Chad Bartram, PUD general manager.

The fallen 7,200-volt power line hung about four feet above the ground but sparked a wood pile fire shortly before 8 a.m. Wednesday on Game Farm Road, officials said.

Moments after PUD workers told fire crews it was safe to fight the blaze, Ty N. Schoenwald, 22, was shocked and knocked unconscious.

Firefighters had to use CPR and a defibrillator to revive him. He was taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle as a precaution and released Thursday.

"The two linemen believed the power line had broken and ended at the top of the pole and therefore didn't present a hazard to the firefighters on the ground," Bartram said during a news conference Thursday. "In actuality, the line was still attached and lying on the ground energized."

Schoenwald was shocked when he sprayed water from a small pressurized can on the fire, said Grant Baynes, chief of Benton Fire District 1. Witnesses reported seeing a flash and Schoenwald hit the ground.

"He felt a little bit of a tingle, then the full engagement of the electric current through the spray, his hand, his chest and the can," Baynes said. "He had the presence of mind to drop the can, throw himself backwards and roll away from the energy source."

Baynes said the other three firefighters worked quickly to open Schoenwald's shirt and use the defibrillator to revive him. They were able to get him alert and conscious by the time an ambulance arrived.

Schoenwald was taken to Trios Health in Kennewick before doctors decided to fly him to Seattle for further examination, fire officials said. He had a cut on his face and burns to his hands.

Schoenwald underwent tests Wednesday and was released Thursday after meeting with a neurologist.

Baynes said the quick thinking of the three other firefighters saved Schoenwald's life.

"The whole crew was shaken up. It's a tough, tough thing to go through," he said. "You go from being on a little fire to, 'bam' it being one of the most critical actions you take as a firefighter."

Schoenwald, a student at Washington State University, has been with the district since 2012 and recently joined its resident program, officials said. His father, Tim, is a captain who has been with the district for 22 years.

Fire officials are hopeful Schoenwald will return to duty soon.

The PUD has launched its own investigation of the incident, Bartram said. They expect that could take up to two weeks. The two employees involved are allowed to work while the investigation is ongoing.

PUD officials said the two workers feel horrible about what happened.

"Obviously something went wrong, that is clear," Bartram said. "We just need to be confident of what exactly those things were."

Baynes said he hopes to train more with PUD employees and wants to get the two employees and Schoenwald together.

"Those guys need some consoling, too," Baynes said. "They feel worse than anybody."

-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556;; Twitter: @Ty_richardson

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