Human error and a system failure contributed to the delay in responding to a downed power line that electrocuted a Shawnee man in a Kansas City, Kan., park three years ago, court documents show.
Previously undisclosed details in depositions and utility company records help explain why a downed power line was left unattended for 11 hours arcing and sparking on the wet grass beside the tennis courts in Rosedale Park.
Nick Moeder’s death provoked outrage at the time because, despite being alerted to the hazard at least twice, the city’s Board of Public Utilities did not set up barricades or send a crew out to turn off the power. Not until after Moeder lay dead on the ground beside the live wire did the linemen arrive.
“This incident should have and could have been taken care of right away,” Moeder’s mother, Wanda Christensen, said Friday, “and if it was, I would still have my Nick.”
This week, a judge dismissed the last of two lawsuits arising from the tragedy after the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., agreed to settle the case.
Stuart Rangel was with Moeder, 27, when the latter came in contact with the live wire. Rangel and his attorneys received $300,000 compensation last week for the burns and emotional distress Rangel suffered that night while trying to save his friend.
Last summer, the Unified Government paid $1.65 million to settle the wrongful-death claim lodged by Moeder’s family.
The Unified Government and its Board of Public Utilities say they have taken steps since the incident to ensure that something similar doesn’t happen again. But because neither case went to trial, no public testimony was given or evidence presented to flesh out the details of what happened that night that might put those changes in context.
Early on, the utility said only that the accident occurred on a very busy Saturday night and Sunday morning. Crews scrambled to repair numerous power outages after an intense summer storm and simply didn’t get around to fixing the line in Rosedale Park in time.
“We had 30 downed lines and outages all over the city, so we were getting to them as soon as we could,” utility spokesman David Mehlhaff said a month after Moeder’s death. “We had people working around the clock for 36 hours.”
However, court documents obtained by The Star show that human error also played a role in Moeder’s death.
On that June weekend in 2013, Rosedale Park, 4100 Mission Road, was hosting a disc golf tournament. Players were on the course Saturday afternoon when a quick-moving storm raged through the area about 3:45.
When it was over, an uninsulated primary wire had fallen to the ground.
“We’ve got a power — power lines down in the park, and it’s causing sparks and fire,” a tournament official told the 911 dispatcher.
According to a transcript of the call, the dispatcher asked whether anything was burning. Told no, she said she’d “let them know” and called the utility.
“Hey, do you have the call of the power line down at Rosedale Park?” she asked.
No, the “trouble clerk” at the utility said.
“Yeah,” the dispatcher said. “They said it’s by the tennis court.”
The clerk repeated the message.
“OK?”the dispatcher asked.
“Thank you,” the utility clerk said, and they ended the call.
The dispatcher didn’t mention the sparks and fire, and the clerk didn’t ask for elaboration.
In his deposition, the clerk said he jotted down the information on a piece of paper, got busy and then forgot about it for nearly seven hours.
He didn’t remember to write up a service request until 10:56 p.m., records show, which was after disc golf tournament officials called back and left a message saying the line was still down and unattended.
But no crew was immediately sent out to check on the line because the service request was not given top priority. The downed wire at the park was ranked 2 on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being the top.
Asked why, the clerk testified that No. 1 was reserved for feeder lines that provide power to entire neighborhoods, and the power line in Rosedale Park did not serve a large area.
“Feeders are the highest priority when they are standing open,” he said,
That policy would soon change.
Rangel and Moeder hadn’t been part of the disc golf tournament. But on their way home early Sunday, they decided to stop by to play a few holes unaware that there was any danger.
At 3:22 a.m., the 911 dispatch center got a call from a cabbie who was driving past the park and who handed the phone to Rangel.
“Rosedale Park, now, now, Rosedale Park!” Rangel pleaded, according to the call transcript. “He got electrocuted, he got electrocuted by a downed wire. ... Come here immediately, right now!”
The dispatcher notified the police and then called the utility. Fielding that call was the same dispatcher who took the original one the previous afternoon.
“We’re on our way,” he said, and asked for more detail, “’cause I’m sure there’s going to be a little bit of backlash for that.”
Moeder’s brother, Matt, said the series of events amounts to gross negligence, as the lawsuits contended, at the very least.
“His death could have been completely avoided if they had adopted modern operating procedures,” he said. “They should be able to turn the power off remotely.”
Actually, that could have been done, but it would have meant knocking out power to a far larger area than just the park. That’s normally only done after a troubleshooter is sent out to assess the situation.
As a result of Nick Moeder’s death, both the emergency dispatch center and the utility have changed their procedures.
Dispatchers now notify both the utility and law enforcement about downed wires when they get a call on 911. That way police can secure the area while waiting for someone from the utility to determine whether the wire poses a danger. A spokesman for the Unified Government said the policy was adopted in November 2013, five months after Moeder’s death.
Previously, only the utility was notified when a downed wire call came in.
Mehlhaff confirmed that the utility has changed its procedures, beefed up training and is working closely with other agencies.
“We did a number of things,” he said, “We met with the Fire Department a number of times and have periodic meetings informally with police and fire.”
Software in the voice recognition system that monitors the utility’s phone messages has also been updated. It is quicker to flag calls about downed lines to the trouble clerks, he said.
Often, Mehlhaff said, it’s a telephone or cable line that’s fallen, rather than an electrical line. But the utility still goes out to check every one.
The utility is also focusing more on tree trimming around lines that are more prone to failure, and the trouble clerks are getting better training, Mehlhaff said.
Now when a 911 dispatcher calls the utility to report a downed line, the trouble clerks are supposed to grill them for information rather than take the information without asking questions.
That’s an important change, Mehlhaff said. During his deposition, the clerk working the night of Moeder’s death said his training was limited, he didn’t know much about electricity and described his role this way: “I just write down what they tell me.”
Moeder’s mother and brother said they are encouraged that changes are being made.
Their lawsuit was never about money, they said.
“My hope with the litigation was to hold BPU/WYCO accountable,” Christensen wrote in an email. “I also wanted them to make changes so this never happened again.”
She said she wanted to spare other mothers the grief she still feels so deeply every day.
“I wish I could just send him a text and see what he’s doing today or receive just a simple text back saying, ‘I’m OK Mom — I love you!’ — like we used to do,” she said.
Of course, that’s never going to happen.
“My life has changed forever,” she said, “and I will never be the same.”