Copper thief gets business end of 69,000 volts

Yesterday, I had lunch with a friend of mine who lives in my neighborhood, and he started off the conversation by saying, “The reason you didn’t have power overnight — ”

“I did have power,” I replied.

“No, you didn’t,” he insisted.  “Power was out at my house.”

“It wasn’t at mine.  We’re on a different grid,” and I explained that it bisects at a street between our houses.  And that’s a good thing, too, because I wouldn’t have been able to get any work accomplished if we shared the grid that went down in the wee hours of yesterday morning, thanks to a copper thief that didn’t realize that disconnecting a live, high-power line that connects 7,100 homes might be a wee bit dangerous, especially with snow all over the ground:

An attempted copper theft at an Eagan substation early Wednesday knocked out power for thousands of residents and sent a would-be thief to Regions Hospital.

Eagan police said the 33-year-old suspect from St. Paul suffered severe burns but was in stable condition Wednesday and is expected to survive.

Two other St. Paul residents found near the substation, a 28-year-old woman and a 31-year-old man, were arrested on suspicion of felony criminal damage to property. They were booked at the Eagan Police Department and released.

Joe Miller, a spokesman for Dakota Electric, said the injured suspect scaled a chain-link fence, cut through the barbed wire at the top and then climbed on top of a transformer, where he was injured when he came into contact with a 69,000-volt transmission line.

Witnesses reported seeing a flash of light and hearing a boom at the substation before the power went out at about 12:35 a.m. About 7,100 Dakota Electric customers in western and southwestern Eagan were without power until 3 a.m.

This is a bigger problem than people might imagine.  I used to work in the security industry, focusing mainly on retail, and during the last recession, we had a sharp increase in copper theft from empty buildings.  Retailers and landlords would have to maintain full security systems and monitoring of empty spaces to keep people from breaking into the walls and stripping the copper out, which would then cost a fortune to rewire when the space was needed later.

However, those thieves usually at least attempted to kill the power at the breaker before laying their hands on the copper, and those lines carried at worst 440 volts.  I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of one stupid enough to start dismantling a high-voltage feed to steal the copper.  The fact that he’s alive counts as some sort of Christmas miracle (for him, anyway), and maybe will provide some impetus to go straight.  Either that, or perhaps to learn a little more about electricity before trying this again.